Winning the Right to Say: “I Do!” An Interview with Earl and Michael Benjamin-Robinson

ON THE MONDAY following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (that removed legal restrictions against same-sex marriage), Earl Benjamin and Michael Robinson exercised their newly sanctioned right, and became the first same-sex couple to marry in Louisiana. During the process of getting the license and completing the nuptials, the pair became a part of the new reality that did away with gender restrictions on marriage in Louisiana and twelve other states that had resisted change. They appeared in local and regional news coverage and were interviewed on CNN. This interview was completed in two sessions, the first part in person and the second by telephone.

The Humanist: You were unable to get a marriage license in Orleans Parish on the Friday the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage (probably due more to bureaucratic bumbling than theocratic finagling or other conscious opposition). The following Monday you were advised that licenses would begin to be issued that day in neighboring Jefferson Parish, and the conclusion of your fourteen-year struggle for equality was at hand. How did the time pass from Friday until Monday—was it more like an eternity or an eye-blink?

Michael Benjamin-Robinson: For me it went quickly, but that’s only because there was so much going on. People were calling and emailing and texting and congratulating. We were on the phone with the Forum for Equality because we knew they were doing things behind the scenes as far as working with lawyers, strategizing, etc. They asked how far we’d be willing to drive to get a marriage license and we were like, wherever. So we knew they were getting things in place and it kept us excited and anxious.

Earl Benjamin-Robinson: I also had a paper that was due, and I contacted my professor, who 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 five o’clock 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.

The Humanist: 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: We did have one strategy: I work in the building where licenses are issued at Vital Records. It was going to be easy for me to stop down on my way to work every day and ask, “Hey, you got my license today?” We were going to tag team them all day long.

The Humanist: 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 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 arrange for 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 got the license, there could be a problem getting a judge to marry us, and getting married was our intention. So that detail was important. We would really like to thank Sarah Jane, Chris, and both Johns, Jackie… I know there were many others who worked tirelessly.

Earl: We have marriage rights now, but we still have a 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.

The Humanist: We know that ethnicity and sexual orientation aren’t choices but religion is. As a member of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association (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 the fact that I couldn’t find any validation in the Bible anymore—for my existence, particularly, being a gay man. So I began to study a lot, and after a couple of years I came to the understanding that I was really an atheist, and that I had been clinging to, or trying to make sense of, what I had been taught as a child in an attempt to give my life purpose and meaning. But as I began to think about experiences when I became emotional in church—I never saw any hocus-pocus stuff—I began to see it for what it was: just emotions attached to an experience.

Then I started to think about what slaves went through—all that pain—and I’m hearing people say God works in mysterious ways, and that God may not come when you want but he’s always on time—it didn’t make sense anymore, and I was not going to tarnish what my ancestors went through with a BS religious belief. I came to the understanding that 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.

The Humanist: How do you two deal with the diversity in religious belief and nonbelief, in view of the fact that you, Michael, are a Christian?

Michael: That’s a good question. We have discussions, sometimes heated debates, about our different belief systems. I don’t have any issues with him being atheist. I respect him for living by his convictions. The only thing I want for Earl, or anybody, is to have peace within themselves. As long as he has that, it doesn’t matter if he is a believer or not.

Earl would probably describe me as an agnostic. I still describe myself as Christian because I was led to enlightenment through the teachings of Jesus. But I don’t always agree with principles that Christians live by. It allows us to have good conversations that would not be possible if I adhered to the strict letter of the law. I’m more open-minded. I don’t allow placing blame or judgment.

The Humanist: So if you don’t go by the strict interpretation of the Bible, do you reject what it claims a 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 judgments against others. I have reconciled in my heart what God tells me. It’s 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, religion and faith are two different things. Religion is human-made. Greatly flawed. We try to live perfectly but it’s not obtainable, so people want to classify and put you in groups. We have corrupted what should be the spirit of love.

The Humanist: 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 the way you were?

Earl: Growing up black and gay, I was very uncomfortable. When I was twelve and coming to terms with being gay, I remember one day I went home and went into the bathroom and cried out to God as I looked in the mirror. I told myself to say I was gay and I couldn’t say it. I finally did and became overwhelmed with emotion. From age ten to nineteen 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 in that discomfort.

I grew up in Grambling, Louisiana, in the 1980s and ’90s but went to school in nearby Ruston. Ruston is about fifty-fifty 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. Someone else’s money came up missing. The teacher accused me of stealing it, 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 would never be a black Miss Louisiana. 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 the n-word. I had never been called that before. The teacher just shrugged it off and told me to “get over it.” Just the institutional and structural racism that existed, you could feel it. And later in high school people started picking up that I was gay, and that just added to it. I remember a teacher who came up to me out of the blue, and started apologizing. I asked what she was apologizing for, and she said it was for treating me differently. It wasn’t until later that I processed that she had treated me differently for being gay rather than black. She was a drama teacher, who you would think would be better at dealing with this but she really wasn’t.

So I could really see that both my race and sexual orientation had shaped how I perceived myself and how I was not fully accepted by others. Later on, evaluating that perspective also gave me a clearer picture of the god that really wasn’t there. It’s often said that African Americans are very religious and spiritual, and certainly many are. But considering the amount of praying we do, our devotion and faith, while we still have this huge amount of poverty and inequality—for me that was a huge disconnect.

The Humanist: The politicians courting the religious right seem to be coming up with all of these rules about how Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas are going to “interpret” the marriage ruling and set their own conditions for its implementation. For example, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says that any clerk of the court who 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 the likes of Donald Trump make. They are always targeting another group and they play the different communities against one another— when these groups could be stronger together. 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 human, whether we are white or black, gay or straight, atheist or Christian.

Earl: We are at the point where the majority, whites, 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 we need to have conversations about this privilege. Your privilege comes at a cost to many people who look like me. We’re not trying to take anything from you, we just want the same opportunities. A lot of politicians will tell you we’re just trying to take what’s yours. No, we just want a fair playing field.

These are difficult conversations. However, it’s not about blame, it’s about what’s happened and how we can resolve it. Many politicians are taking advantage of many people who are poor and don’t have much education. They make them feel better by giving them a voice—using code language that says, “I am with you! We are one, and those other people are trying to take what you have.” At the end of the day, people are just being used.

Michael: It’s kind of like the conversation about the Confederate flag. I don’t think it needs to be destroyed, but it 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. But let’s move away from things that are divisive and find things that bring us together.

Adding to what Earl said, there’s also the privilege that comes with being heterosexual, and I think that is the next conversation that needs to happen. I’m hearing a lot of heterosexual bias online. 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 who 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. But these conversations are happening, and I think it is starting to create a better country.

The Humanist: We’ve talked about white privilege and heterosexual privilege. Would you comment on the privilege Christians enjoy in this country?

Earl: I believe about 70 percent of the U.S. population is Christian and 80 percent of Congress is Christian. You can see that they have a significant amount of power, and as a result of that power they get to effect policy and laws, and set the tone for how they think culture should look or how it is shaped.

The Humanist: Privilege of a sort—of the nonreligious—has also recently been brought into the discussion. The July/August Humanist magazine ran several articles inspired by a panel session the American Humanist Association convened at its annual convention. The subject was 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 keeps them from real-time involvement in racial justice, or simply reaching out to their black neighbors?

Earl: Yes, humanists sometimes overlook minorities and fail to reach out to them. We think we’re 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 injustices that are a part of many human beings’ day-to-day lives, not just focused on learning science but also thinking about those social justice issues that affect all of us.

The Humanist: In her article “Outlaw Humanism,” Monica Miller says humanists “must get beyond our obsession with deconstructing belief in a god,” and asks, “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: I know for a fact that there are many African Americans in New Orleans, and elsewhere in Louisiana, who don’t subscribe to religion, yet they participate in those routines because they have no other place to socialize or network. So, if a humanist organization would redirect some of its efforts to deconstruct religion and also focus on social justice issues within their community, they would increase their numbers tremendously, particularly in the African-American community. (Jerry DeWitt, the former Pentecostal preacher who left his religion and profession five years ago, is one of example of someone who successfully started a community fellowship for nonbelievers in Louisiana.)

The thing the church has over us is the fellowship. Sometimes we get so intellectual, but not everyone is like that—it might even turn people off. Some don’t even like to talk about things like morality on a deeper level, which I think is very interesting and important, but not everybody wants to hear about that. They just want to hear about day-to-day life and how things affect them. For example, Michael thinks all we do is try to convert people, or ridicule people. He does like our discussions about science, though.

The Humanist: Being a humanist, I have hope. I’m an atheist but I still have hope for the human race. And it takes a lot of effort to keep the hope alive. And when you see things happening like the expansion of marriage rights and the validation of the Affordable Care Act, it feels pretty good.

Earl: Throughout this endeavor, I saw people caring about us. I didn’t go in thinking people were going to congratulate us, but there were black people, white people, Asian people, and old people—all congratulating us. They said encouraging things. Human beings, when you remove negative elements of our cultures, have the greatest potential to be good. But when you add factors like tribalism, the issues come; when things like xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and poverty come to the forefront and people don’t see each other as human beings.

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 like lack of resources, tribalism, and homophobia come to the table that we develop and create attitudes and beliefs that lead us to see each other differently—forgetting that we are all stars, literally and figuratively. We come from the stars and we are living, walking, breathing stars.

Michael Benjamin-Robinson is a licensed master social worker with experience in the areas of social services and public health program coordination/management. He is currently completing hours to become a licensed clinical social worker. 

Earl Benjamin-Robinson is a community health worker and a Doctorate of Health Science (DHSc) student at Nova Southeastern University College of Health Care Sciences. They are the co-founders of and principal consultants at The Bach Group, whose mission is to improve behavioral and community health programming and projects.