I was at a friend’s engagement party when they first caught my eye. I enjoyed watching them because it was clear that they absolutely adored each other and relished each other’s company. They laughed and talked to each other and held hands and kissed like teenagers. But they were not teenagers. Newlyweds Leia and Irene Burks married last year, nearly two years after they first met through Match.com. Both women, who work in law enforcement (Irene for Prince George’s County, Maryland and Leia for the federal government), were interviewed in the documentary, The New Black. The film, which premiered on PBS’ Independent Lens on Sunday, June 15, explores the fight for marriage equality in African-American churches and communities all across the country. Below we talk with the Burks, who reside in Bowie, Md., about the film and how they became a family:
Black Lesbian Love Lab (BL3): Why did you two agree to participate in the documentary?
Irene: We agreed to do the documentary because it was an extension of my work as an activist for marriage equality. A few years ago, I don’t remember where or who, someone asked if I would be interested in sharing my story of being a military veteran and a police officer, a servant to my country and my county, and how marriage inequities made me feel. Next thing I know, I am speaking before Maryland [lawmakers], attending briefings at the White House and working on a national project with the Department of Justice for the sake of equality in general. Leia and I are well respected at work, admired by our friends and supported by our families—something that many LGBT folks don’t have, particularly black LGBT folks. We are able to be public and open and by this point, news media had contacted us asking us to show the “gay family” side of [the freedom to marry question] on the [Maryland] ballot, and we have kids who were thrilled at the thought of being in a movie.
BL3: Have you seen the documentary? What do you think about it?
Irene: We have seen the documentary (see trailer below) and it airs this Sunday at 10 p.m. on PBS so we will see it again! We think filmmaker, Yoruba Richen, did a fantastic job showing both sides of this black and gay topic. There was no bias or leaning more towards one way or the other but the viewer certainly can see at the end who/what was defeated and rightfully so.
BL3: The film addresses the black church’s resistance to marriage equality. How has religion played a role in the way you see your sexuality? Are you both religious?
Irene: Leia and I have talked about religion and share much the same views of believing in a higher entity. Neither of us questioned our sexuality because of religion and it was never an issue of concern for either of us. We don’t attend church, but Leia has mentioned going to an affirming church but I’m still on the fence about that being a recovering Catholic.