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Race and Beyond: The Essence of Marriage

SOURCE: Craig Paulson Photography

Aisha Mills, left, and Danielle Moodie-Mills, right, recently became the first black lesbian couple featured in Essence.com.

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Over the course of any given month, countless couples get married in an infinite number of communities across the vastness of our nation. So many, in fact, that hardly anyone pauses long enough to notice the endless procession of smiling faces published daily in wedding announcement sections.

But if it’s your wedding, well, that’s another matter altogether. You want to the world to take notice. You want to believe the earth stops spinning long enough for your friends, family, and strangers alike to pay homage to that split second when a photographer captures your loving moment.

So imagine the overwhelming elation that newlyweds Aisha and Danielle Moodie-Mills felt when an editor from Essence.com called to say he wanted to publish their wedding pictures on the web site’s Bridal Bliss page. That’s how Aisha and Danielle became the first lesbian couple featured in the online version of the popular magazine that’s targeted to black women.

“We were just ecstatic,” said Aisha. “We couldn’t believe they wanted us.”

For Danielle, it was as if a childhood dream had come full circle. “I grew up reading Essence magazine,” she told me. “I read it to find role models of professional black women and now for them to pick us for this story, it’s just especially sweet.”

When you actually stop and really ponder it, this shouldn’t be such a big deal. Any one marriage is an event only to those involved. But for lesbians and gays, an out-of-the-shadows recognition of their union is huge.

For Aisha and Danielle, marriage is only a part of their union. They are joined in social activism as co-founders of the FIRE (Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality) Fund, a policy program at the Center for American Progress that explores the intersection of racial justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

During Aisha and Danielle’s seven-year courtship, they often wondered whether they would ever get legally married or whether others would honor and respect their willingness to commit to a shared life. When they finally picked a date and as they planned a wedding celebration, they were frustrated by their failure to find other lesbian couples—let alone black ones—among the many brides-to-be in glossy wedding magazines. “It was as if our love did not exist,” they wrote in an article about their decision to allow Essence.com to publish their photographs.

“We are humbled by the outpouring of support,” they wrote, noting that more than 4,500 readers “liked” the feature and that nearly 95 percent of the 500 comments were positive and affirming of them. “We expected the story to garner a lot of attention, but we never imagined that it would receive such an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response.”

It’s easy to understand why Aisha and Danielle were surprised. Given the taboo and silence surrounding homosexuality within the black community, their breakthrough is a monumental step forward toward acceptance within their own community. “Just imagine how disheartening it is to never see an affirming reflection of yourself,” Danielle told me. “How challenging it must be to construct a healthy self-esteem without role models. This is the invisible reality that LGBT people face each day.”

The avalanche of negative stereotypes and media depictions is no small part of the recent spate of headline-grabbing suicides among gay and suspected gay teenagers. For the most part, black gay teens haven’t received the same attention as the highly reported case of Tyler Clementi, the white Rutgers University student who jumped last month off the George Washington Bridge in New York after his roommate allegedly posted a video on the Internet of him having sex with another man.

But as news reports lamented the run of at least five gay teen suicides in a three-week span, little attention was paid to the deaths of Aiyisha Hassa, a 19-year-old former Howard University student, or Raymond Chase, 19, who hanged himself last month at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI. Their names aren’t as well-known and their cases remain virtually unremarked upon within black communities. Why? Most black ministers, educators, politicians, and others with close ties to black communities fully embrace a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude concerning homosexuality. But the silence is killing our kids.

That brings us back to Aisha and Danielle, who are laboring, living, and loving out loud to draw racial awareness to LGBT communities. And, as they do so, they prove to all of us that there’s nothing unique about gays and lesbians who choose to share their lives together—except the example of how love makes the ordinary special.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here