In the United States, African-Americans who were owned as slaves were denied the basic human right to marry the person they loved. However, to preserve their culture and families, they created new rituals to celebrate their love and acknowledge their commitment to each other.
“Jumping the broom” was one such custom. Using available resources, in this case a broom, couples would jump over a broom handle after reciting their marriage vows. This allowed communities to celebrate a couple’s love and devotion to each other while recognizing their own interpretation of marriage. Today, many African-Americans incorporate this tradition into their weddings as a way to honor and remember their ancestors’ struggle to achieve equality. I wanted to examine this tradition and its impact on the current fight for marriage equality in a documentary, entitled, “JUMPING THE BROOM: THE NEW COVENANT,” which focuses on African-American gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships.
Even after slavery was abolished, there were still segments of the African-American community barred from marrying the person of their choice. The Supreme Court struck down the ban on interracial marriages in 1967 but marriage discrimination against the LGBT community is still in place. Although same-sex couples can be married in Massachusetts, and domestic partnership rights are available to same-sex couples in several states, including California, when it comes to fully and legally celebrating our commitment to our same-sex partners, we do not have marriage equality.
We are getting closer to achieving marriage equality; indeed, we’ve come closer to this goal than many dreamed would be possible. Two years ago this month, 4,000 same-sex couples in San Francisco were issued licenses to marry, and then were wed. In the wake of those weddings, later voided by a court ruling, I set out to document how gay and lesbian African-American couples view their commitment to each other and what significance, if any, Jumping the Broom had to them.
Identifying gay and lesbian African-American couples who were willing to be filmed and talk about their relationships was more challenging than I expected. I found African Americans – heterosexual as well as gay and lesbian— to be less willing than non-African Americans to share their experiences about sexuality. Some African-Americans fear being misinterpreted or misrepresented; others simply choose to be private about their feelings around sexuality.
Even after I identified couples to interview for my film, in two instances, couples got cold feet about their decision to publicly acknowledge their relationships. In one case, my crew and I spent an entire weekend with a couple at their home, documenting their relationship, and then they later asked to withdraw from the project. They cited how disclosure about their relationship would impact their careers. Another couple threatened to pull out of the film, citing similar concerns, but it was too late in production for them to do so.
Four couples —two male couples, and two female couples, whose partnerships span from three years to 30 years— are profiled in the documentary. These couples talk about their love for each other, the challenges of being African-American and gay or lesbian, the role of religion in their lives and politics. The stories they share are heartfelt, provocative and speak to the essence of what it means to be gay or lesbian and in a committed relationship with another person of the same gender and living in Black America in the 21st century.
I believe that marriage will be recognized in this country to include full rights for all same-gender loving people. As our ancestors fought for personal rights and freedoms to live in an equal society, I know one day this basic civil right to marry will be realized as a lawful union between any two people.
Debra A. Wilson is an award-winning filmmaker based in the Bay area. “Jumpin’ the Broom” is airing this month on Showtime Showcase and Showtime Too (visit www.sho.com for broadcast times). The film also will be screened at 7:55 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 14 at the Magic Johnson Theatre in Los Angeles, as part of the Pan African Film Festival. Ms. Wilson will participate in panel of filmmakers at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12 at the PAFF Bistro, 3971 Santa Rosalia Drive, Los Angeles.