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    Frederick Douglass, the Freedom to Marry, and LGBT Equality


    Early on in our work for marriage equality, we had the occasion to reread the autobiography and other selected writings of renowned abolitionist and civil rights champion Frederick Douglass. Through the years, we have found great inspiration in the intelligence, strength and bravery Douglass displayed to overcome unspeakable indignities and free himself from slavery, and in his eloquent and impassioned advocacy, not just for African American equality, but for universal human rights and especially gender equality.

    Douglass’s description of the manner in which, as a young boy, he and other slave children were fed remains indelibly etched in our minds. In Douglass’s words: “Our food was coarse corn meal boiled…It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush…”

    After surviving countless whippings, beatings, and other degradations, one of the first things Douglass did upon escape from slavery in 1838 was to exercise his new found freedom to marry (a freedom denied slaves). Just eleven days after Douglass gained freedom, he married Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met and fallen in love with in Baltimore the year before. Regarding his first day of freedom Douglass wrote: “I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life…[G]ladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.”

    Douglass and Murray remained married for 44 years until her death in 1882. Two years later, Douglass broke another marriage equality barrier when he married the white feminist Helen Pitts. Douglass understood himself to be mixed race as the child of his slave mother and a white slave owner, although no written records document his birth. Many disapproved of his second marriage, and indeed marriage for interracial couples would not become legal nationwide for over 80 years after Douglass and Pitts married.

    In his writings, Douglass spared nothing when he vividly described the brutality of slavery and condemned of the version of Christianity slaveholders and their supporters practiced. An African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister himself, Douglass stated in 1845: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt…and hypocritical Christianity [found in slave states]…I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus…He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence…The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families…leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.”

    Douglass was also an ardent supporter and outspoken advocate for gender equality. At the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention in the United States, Douglass argued passionately (and successfully) for a resolution in favor of women’s suffrage. Douglass stated: “In [the] denial of the right (of women) to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” Douglass recognized the enormous obstacles women faced in advocating for equality, noting that he believed the public was more open to animal rights than the rights of women, and that advocates for gender equality faced “the fury of bigotry and the folly of prejudice.”

    Shortly after the Seneca Falls convention, Douglass expounded on his views: “[I]n respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go far ther, and express [the] conviction that all political rights that it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for