Elbridge James can admit that advocating for gay rights wasn't an effort he embraced overnight.
"It's a process that took more than 20 years," says James, who is straight and the director of the newly formed Maryland Black Family Alliance (MBFA).
That process began when a former gay co-worker died of AIDS-related complications, he says, adding that he had subconsciously avoided that man while working with him at the University of Maryland more than two decades ago.
"I felt so bad about it that I said this thing about not talking to gay men, it's got to stop," says the Rockville resident. "I just made a conscious decision. It was a gradual shift in my position about humanity."
Several years later, in 1995, the Million Man March on Washington turned James' regret into action and equal-rights advocacy.
"As a young professional who enjoyed life,...the Million Man March said we have to give back to our community."
And while James, who is married and has three sons, has given back to the African-American community since the early '80s by working with various organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others, his latest advocacy project, the Maryland Black Family Alliance (MBFA), is his first that solely focuses on equality for GLBT African Americans.
He launched the MBFA in June, after retiring from the University of Maryland, where he worked for 33 years, part of that time as a human-resource specialist. According to James, MBFA had 16 members before it met last Thursday, Oct. 25, at Morgan State University, a historically African-American college in Baltimore, where it held a press conference to declare its existence, and has since added more than 10 members.
"For years it has been said that the African-American community is homophobic and does not support or acknowledge the existence of lesbians and gay males...in our community," James explains. "We're here to show that, yes, we understand our lesbian sisters and gay brothers who have families in our community. We know that these families are stable, and they're doing the right thing. We're here to say that we believe that their civil rights are being violated and not protected."
Of those civil rights being violated, James says there are nearly 400, stemming from laws in Maryland that prohibit same-gender couples from acquiring civil marriage recognition in the state.
"We're not talking about gay marriage," he says. "We're talking about all the protections that marriage gives you," including inheritance rights, tax benefits, protection of children under both parents and others touching on financial and health-related regulations.
Several state officials have voiced support of for the new alliance, including State Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George's County), State Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George's County) and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).
In the weeks to come, the MBFA will continue working with Equality Maryland and the National Black Justice Coalition, both GLBT-advocacy groups, in planning legislation that will "move the argument for equality forward," James says. An open forum in Prince George's County is slated for some time in November.
James says understanding that sexual orientation is not a choice is a crucial step in accepting GLBT people.
"Conservative churches and the conservative public and politicians say, 'Oh they choose this.' But they don't choose to be gay. African-Americans have not been able to get past that all the way because it's not discussed.
"We come from different walks of life.... But we have our civil rights, and our lesbian sisters and gay brothers who are in relationships should have the same thing."
For more information visit www.marylandbfa.org.