On the Monday following the Friday the Supreme Court handed down its decision removing legal restrictions against same-sex marriage, Earl Nupsius Benjamin and Michael Robinson exercised their newly-sanctioned right, and on June 29, 2015 became the Benjamin-Robinsons, the first such couple to marry in Louisiana. During the process of getting the license and completing the nuptials, the pair had become the face of the new reality that swept gender restrictions on marriage from Louisiana and twelve other states that had resisted change. They appeared in local and regional news coverage from Friday through Monday, and were interviewed on CNN’s New Day Sunday morning. They were unable to get the license in Orleans Parish Friday, probably due more to bureaucratic bumbling than theocratic finagling or other conscious opposition. On Monday they were advised that licenses would begin being issued that day in neighboring Jefferson Parish, and the beginning of the end of their fourteen-year struggle for fairness was at hand.
This interview was completed in two sessions, the first part was done in person, and the second by telephone.
MB How did the time pass from Friday until Monday—was it more like an eternity or an eye-blink?
Michael For me, yeah it do go quickly, but that is only because there was so much going on. There were people calling and emailing and texting and congratulating. We were on the phone with people and we were talking with The Forum for Equality because we knew they were doing things behind the scenes as far as working with lawyers, strategizing. They asked how far we would be willing to drive to get this marriage license, and we were like wher-ev-er. So we knew they were getting things in place and it kept us excited and anxious—they seemed to be convinced we could get this straightened out before this week was over. So that gave us a lot of hope, so yeah, it didn’t seem like time was going by at a snails pace.
Earl I also had a paper that was due so I contacted my professor to let him know that “hey, there was not going to be any way I was going to turn this in today.” He gave me an extension until Monday so with all this going on and that paper needing to be completed, it went by fast.
Michael And by Sunday morning, we were on CNN. We got up at 5 that morning because we had to be at the studio at 6:30 for a live broadcast on New Day. Once we left there, we started getting texts and requests for interviews.
MB How did you plan to deal with this time, whether you might have to wait days or weeks before you got a license?
Earl We were just going to deal with it, go with the flow. Probably take the opportunity to do more interviews, to push their hand, to proceed with what needed to be done to get the license.
Michael But we did have one strategy: I work in the building where the license is issued, where Vital Records is. It was going to be easy for me stop down on my way to work every day—Hey, you got my license today?—-We were going to tag team them all day long…..that was Monday morning, and we would take turns, asking, checking.
MB What kind of assistance did the Forum for Equality give you?
Earl They did everything, except legal counseling. They had reached out to us the week before and told us this was about to take place, and asked if we wanted to be a part of it, what the strategy would be the day the decision came down. So we got a lot of guidance from them—when to move, who to have conversations with, sometimes even what to say. They were really key in giving us those fundamentals and basic talking points around the issue.
Michael The other thing FFE did was to set up the Judge Paula Brown to marry us. There was some background work that had to be set up for that to take place. We knew that once we go the license, there could be a problem getting a judge to marry us, and getting married was our intention. So that detail about getting a judge that would perform it was important. We would really like to thank Sarah Jane, Chris, and both Johns, and I know there were many others who worked tirelessly. Jackie, all of them. The did the heavy lifting.
Earl We have marriage rights now, but we still have some ways to go on other issues. LGBT individuals can still be fired from their job and discriminated against in housing . So when marriage rights are complete, this battle must go on with the other issues that need to be talked about.
MB We know that race and sex orientation aren’t choices but religion is. As a member of NOSHA, Earl, it could be assumed you are an atheist or at least agnostic on matters of religion. When or how did you decide that atheism was a choice or a viewpoint that seemed to make more sense for you?
Earl It was a long process. I think I became an agnostic in 2004. I was raised a Southern Baptist, and I started to come to terms with there was no…I couldn’t find any validation in the Bible anymore; where it related to me, validated my existence, particularly being a gay man. So I just began to study a lot, and over the period of a couple of years, I came to the understanding I was really an atheist, and the only reason I was an agonistic was because I was try to cling to, or make sense of what I had been taught as a child, and give it purpose and meaning in my life. But as I began to think about my experiences —I never saw any hocus-pocus stuff— when I became emotional in church i began to see it for what it was: just emotions attached to an experience. But when started to think about what slaves went through—and I thought there was no relief—that was 400 years of pain. When you think about it, 400 years of pain, and all that time I’m hearing people say God works in mysterious ways, God may not come when you want but he’s always on time. That did’t fit anymore, it didn’t make sense anymore, and I was not going to tarnish what my ancestors went through with a BS religious belief. At that time about in 2007, I came to the understanding that just was not for me, and it just fell away….just like that, it fell off. I can’t do this anymore and I need to remember these individuals and remember the pain they went through and use that information to live the best life I can live.
MB How do you two deal with the diversity in religious belief and non-belief, in view of the fact that you, Michael, are Christian?
Michael Thats a good question. Sometimes we have discussions, sometimes heated debates, about our different belief systems —we’ve even debated about what he believes is even a belief at all; down to the nitty-gritty of describing the words of how we interpret this whole thing. Its been a journey for both of us. I don’t have any issues with him being atheist. I respect him for living by his convictions . The only thing I wanted for Earl, or anybody, was just to have peace within themselves. As long as he has that, it doesn’t matter if he is a believer or not. I describe myself as a Christian, and that is the easiest description, but probably not the most accurate. Earl would probably describe me as an agnostic I still describe myself as as Christian because I was led to enlightenment through the teachings of Jesus Christ. But some principles that Christians live by I don’t always agree with those . It allows us to have good conversations that would not be possible if I adhered to the strict letter of the law. I am more open minded. I don’t allow placing blame and judgement.
MB So if you don’t go by the strict interpretation of the Bible, you don’t accept what it claims are what marriage is supposed to be?
Michael It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s just that some use the texts to express bigotry and make judgements against others. I have reconciled in my heart what God tells me about …its a very personal thing…I can validate from scripture that God loves me as I am ….but I still have to be responsible, as a Christian, as a gay Christian, I can’t go having sex with everybody, I have to respect my body as a temple. To me there are two different things: religion and faith. And religion is man-made. Greatly flawed. We try to live perfectly and it is not obtainable, so people want to classify and put you in groups. We have corrupted what should be: the spirit of love.
MB Earl, growing up black and gay in post-Jim Crow Louisiana in what is nearly the geographical center of the Bible Belt must have had its challenges, to say the least. Were there times when you doubted yourself, or even disliked what you were?
Earl Growing up black and GAY starting with my pre-teen days I was very uncomfortable. When I was 12 I was coming to terms that I was gay. I remember one day I went home and went into the bathroom and cried out to God as I looked in the mirror and told myself to say I was gay and I couldn’t say it; but then finally did and became overwhelmed with emotion. From the age of 10 to 19 I was very unsure of myself. Even though I presented a facade of confidence and most people believed I had it together, there were a lot of times I was really unsure about myself. My religion, racism, and being gay played a tremendous part of that discomfort . I had many experiences that made me feel like I was a second class citizen. I know this is post-Jim Crow, however growing up in the 1980s and 1990s—I grew up in Grambling but went to school in Ruston—Ruston is about 50-50 black and white, but whites really ran the town. You felt it and you knew it. For example, one day I went to school with a lot of change in my pocket. Some money came up missing. The teacher accused me, saying “You did it! You did it!” Another time I remember talking about Miss Louisiana with some white friends and I remember them saying there will “never be a black Miss Louisiana, never.” I remember that to this day. I know those kids got that from their parents. Another time I got into a verbal altercation with another student and he called me a n****…and I had never been called that before…we didn’t even use the word in our house. The teacher just shrugged it off and told me to “get over it”. Just the institutional and structural racism that existed inside the educational system, you could feel it. And later in high school, people start picking up that you are gay, and that just added to it. I remember a teacher, out of the blue she just came up to me and started apologizing. I asked what she was apologizing for, and she said it was for treating me in a certain way…it wasn’t until later that I processed what she had done; and what she had done was treating me differently for being gay rather than black. She was a drama teacher and you would think would do better with dealing with this type of students but she really didn’t. So I could really see that both my race and sexual orientation had shaped how I was perceived as not fully acceptable to others. Evaluating that perception also gave me a clearer picture of the god that really isn’t there for me. You hear often within the African-American experience of how spiritual we are, and when you look at the amount of praying that we do, our devotion and faith, but for that, we still have this huge amount of poverty and inequality. And for me that was a huge disconnect. And so for me at around 30 I started to take a look at that and see that hmm, this is a mythology. Its a mythology and it doesn’t work for me and I no longer want to be a part of it. And it fell away.
MB The politicians courting the Religious Right seem to be coming up with all of these rules about how this state, and Mississippi and Texas are going to “interpret” this ruling and set their own conditions for its implementation. For example, Louisiana Governor Jindal says that any clerk of court that has a deeply-held religious belief against same sex marriage will not be forced to issue a license. What’s up with all these politicians?
Michael We’re listening to the idiotic, discriminatory and reprehensible comments that Donald Trump makes. They are always targeting another group so they play the different communities against one another— when these groups could be stronger together instead of in opposition . We have been taught that we need to be separate, for whatever reason, and that diversity is more than just cultural, and something that has some deeper moral value. I think we all should start embracing what makes us different, whether we are white or black, gay or straight, or atheist or Christian.
Earl And to the point, it is one thing to agree with this, but we are at the point where the majority group, the white, need to take ownership of the fact that, in being white, there is a certain amount of privilege that you have, and in order for things to get better they need to have conversations about this privilege. Your privilege comes at a cost to people that look like me, sound like me. I’m not trying to take anything from you, I just want the same opportunities, the right to work hard as well. A lot of politicians telling you we are just trying to take what is yours. No, we just want a fair playing field. No one has ever wanted to have those conversations. It’s not about blame, it’s just what happened and how we resolve it. The politicians are taking advantage of many people that are poor and don’t have much education and make them feel better by giving them a voice or some code language that says “I am with you! We are one, and that’s the other people, they are trying to take what you have.” No, someone is pulling the sheets over your eyes. At the end of the day, they don’t really care about the poor white anymore that the black.
Michael It’s kind of like that conversation about the Confederate flag. I don’t think it needs to be destroyed or anything, but that it just needs to go into a museum so that we can remember our history. Give a historical reference for why it was important at that time—that it still means heritage to some people — it’s offensive to enough people that it’s only fair that we move away from things that are divisive and find things that bring us together. Adding to what Earl said, it’s also the privilege that comes with being heterosexual, and I think that is the next conversation that needs to happen. I’ve been reading the comments online since this started and I’m hearing a lot of heterosexual bias. Straights don’t understand that some of their comments are offensive when they are trying to be cool—it’s kind of like the white person that says I have a lot of black friends. And they say things like—Well, why do you have to call it “marriage?” In other words you want it to be separate, but equal? They don’t even realize they are repeating the same things that we have learned don’t work. I think they need to acknowledge that there is a privilege that comes with being heterosexual. A privilege that keeps them from having to think about the things we are forced to think about that we shouldn’t need to. But because these conversations are happening, I think it is starting to create a better country.
The interview was completed several days later, with Earl.
MB We talked about privilege-white privilege, heterosexual privilege. Would comment on the privilege owned by Christians in this country?
Earl In the United States, Christians have a tremendous amount of privilege. I believe about 70% the population in the US is Christian and 80% of Congress is Christian, the people that represent us. You can see they have a significant amount of power, as a result of that power they get to affect policy and laws, they get to set the tone for how they think culture should look or is shaped.
MB Privilege, of a sort, of the non-religious has also recently been brought into the discussion.This month’s Humanist from the AHA is has several articles inspired by a panel group session the association convened at its annual convention. The panel group was on the subject of humanists and the black community, in particular, #BlackLivesMatter. Do you as a humanist, and looking at it from both sides, think that humanists may also be complacent and rest on privilege that keep them from real-time involvement or just the simple act reaching out to our black neighbors?
Earl Yes, I know as humanists we are a microcosm of society, and sometimes overlook minorities and fail to reach out to other groups. We think we are doing a good job of it, but we really aren’t. I’m glad they took that issue up in the magazine, because now I know my humanist brothers and sisters are thinking about the ramifications of their actions involving all human life, not just focused on learning science but also thinking about those social justice issues that effect all of us.
MB To quote Monica Miller, in her article “Outlaw Humanism” from the magazine, advises that “Humanists….must get beyond our obsession with deconstructing belief in a god…What does a humanism look like that gets beyond its position on ‘gods,’ ‘belief,’ ’theism,’ and ‘religion’ in order to address the mess, social evil, and death that humans have created?’
Earl Yes…I know for a fact that there are many African-Americans in New Orleans, in Louisiana that do not subscribe to religion, but yet they participate in those routines because they have no other place to socialized or network. So if a humanist organization would re-direct its efforts from trying to deconstruct religion and focus on the social justice issues within their community, they would increase their numbers tremendously, particularly in the African-American community. The thing the church has over us is the fellowshipping —I think Jerry DeWitt has a very good idea about that: I think that is more attractive to those people who want to leave religion but don’t want to leave those cultural elements like that fellowship they find in the church. Sometimes we want to get so intellectual, but not everyone is like that—it might even turn people off sometime because they are not at that level or just don’t get it. Some don’t even like to talk about things like morality on a deeper level, which I think is very interesting, but not everybody wants to hear about that. They just want to hear about day-to-day life, how does it affect me. For example, Michael thinks all we do is try to convert people, or ridicule people, Being a scientist though, he does like discussions about science.
MB Being a humanist, I have hope. I’m an atheist but I still have hope for the human race. Sometimes you wonder, and it takes a lot of effort to keep the hope alive. And when you see things like this happening—expansion of marriage rights and the validation of the Affordable Care Act—last week was a great week.
Earl When we were in Jefferson Parish waiting to get the license, I saw people caring about us, iI didn’t go in thinking people were going to congratulate us, but there were black people, white people, Asian people, and old people—they all congratulated us. They said encouraging things. Human beings, when you remove culture, are innately good. People are basically good, but when you bring in things like tribalism the issues come. It’s when things like xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and poverty come to the forefront and people don’t see you or me as the human that we are.
If I don’t leave you with anything else, I think there is something in us, it may be a survival mechanism, that says we are stronger together and it isn’t until issues of lack of resources, tribalism, and homophobia come to the table that our attitudes and beliefs start to help us see each other differently—that we are all stars—and I mean that literally and figuratively. We come from the stars and I’m just a living, walking, breathing star.
MB We are all just stardust, and it’s just a matter of how it is arranged.