Myth of the Black-gay divide

Sherry Wolf, author of the forthcoming Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of Gay Liberation, looks at the debate about why Proposition 8 passed in California.

Thousands of people protested the passage of Prop 8 on the steps of the capitol building in Sacramento (Kelly Huston)Thousands of people protested the passage of Prop 8 on the steps of the capitol building in Sacramento (Kelly Huston)

IN THE wake of Barack Obama's historic victory, a false and reactionary narrative has emerged that blames Black voters for the gay marriage ban that passed by a 52 to 48 percent margin in California.

While Florida and Arizona also passed same-sex marriage bans, the vote for Prop 8 in the politically progressive state of California is widely attributed to the enormous surge of Black voters, 70 percent of whom approved the ban reversing the state's May 2008 Supreme Court decision allowing lesbians and gays to marry. The exit polls showed that 53 percent of Latinos voted for the ban, as well as around 49 percent of white voters.

The state's Black population is 6.2 percent, and it accounted for 10 percent of the overall vote. In other words, blaming African Americans for the referendum's passage ignores 90 percent of the vote.

It also ignores recent history. To judge from social research, had there been an unapologetically pro-civil rights campaign, there was the prospect of a different outcome.

The most comprehensive study of Black attitudes toward homosexuality, which combines 31 national surveys from 1973 to 2000, came to a fascinating conclusion. Georgia State University researchers found that "Blacks appear to be more likely than whites both to see homosexuality as wrong and to favor gay-rights laws."

African Americans' religiosity leads many to believe that homosexuality is a sin, while their own experience of oppression leads them to oppose discrimination. This was borne out in the 2004 elections, where, in the six states with substantial Black populations that had same-sex marriage bans on their ballots, Blacks were slightly less likely than whites to vote for them.

Nationally, 58 percent now oppose gay marriage bans, a dramatic shift from just a few years ago. If an explicit case in favor of gay marriage were made by activists, a multiracial majority could be won over in coming years.

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THE EXIT poll statistics from California don't explain the more important story of why so many of California's Black, Brown and white citizens--who voted overwhelmingly for the first African American president by a 56 to 37 percent margin--also supported striking down civil rights for lesbians and gays.

The most critical reason was the ineffective strategy used by pro-gay marriage forces that adhered closely to the Democratic Party--and Barack Obama's--equivocal position on the issue.

While formally opposing Prop 8, both Obama and his running mate Joe Biden were vocal throughout the campaign about their personal discomfort with and opposition to same-sex marriage.

Despite the unprecedented and astonishing sums of money raised to fight the referendum--the pro-equality side took in $43.6 million, compared with $29.8 million for the anti-gay marriage forces--the No on 8 side lost.

The statewide No on 8 Coalition didn't use the money for a grassroots organizing campaign. It didn't put out a call for activists to hit the phones, knock on doors and hold rallies and actions to publicly denounce the bigotry of the measure--though in a few cases, activists took the initiative to do so on their own.

Adhering to the false notion that the Democrats lost the 2004 presidential election due to the assertiveness of gay marriage activists, the heads of the No on 8 campaign avoided even using words like "gay" or "bigoted." Instead, one TV ad opposing the measure featured a straight white couple, and only obliquely referenced gays at all when the camera panned over a bookshelf with a photo of two women and their children.

In the final days before the election, No on 8 ran an ad with a voiceover by Black actor Samuel L. Jackson denouncing past civil rights abuses like Japanese internment and anti-miscegenation laws, with a slideshow of gay and lesbian couples on the screen.

Some members of the California Teachers Association, to their credit, turned over the final week of pre-election phone banking to No on Prop 8 calls. Kathryn Lybarger, who married her partner a few weeks before the election, describes this and other efforts as "tragically last-minute stuff."

Blogger Rick Jacobs rightly challenged the campaign's tepid approach: "[C]an there be outrage when a movement becomes a corporation? When the largest LGBT organizations look like, are staffed by former executives of, and are funded by huge corporations and huge donors, where is the movement?"

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BY COMPARISON, the anti-gay Yes on 8 campaign was aggressive, vocal and visible. They cynically used Obama's own words and image in TV ads to persuade Democratic voters to oppose gay marriage by voting for the ban.

Largely financed by right-wing institutions like the Mormon Church and the Blackwater mercenary security company, Yes on 8 sent anti-gay marriage activists to Black and white churches to drum up support. Their so-called robocalls, automatic telephone calls with mechanized messages, played Joe Biden's words from the vice presidential debate agreeing on opposition to gay marriage with vacuous bigot Sarah Palin.

Another element was exposed in a Los Angeles Times op-ed article titled "No-on-8's white bias," by Black lesbian Jasmyne A. Cannick. Cannick said she knocked on doors in working-class and poor Black neighborhoods of LA to register voters without ever raising the gay marriage issue.

"[T]he right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both Black gays and Black straights," Cannick wrote. "Does someone who is homeless or suffering from HIV but has no health care, or newly out of prison and unemployed, really benefit from the right to marry someone of the same sex?"

The answer is: Yes, indirectly, they do.

Thus, for example, the fight for HIV drugs and funding that erupted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when white gay men were the dominant group dying of AIDS, could have averted the catastrophe of AIDS in the Black community today if a multiracial, gay and straight alliance had formed from both sides of the racial divide.

As African American civil rights leader Julian Bond put it, "Our inability to talk about sex, and more specifically homosexuality, is the single greatest barrier to the prevention of HIV transmission in our community."

An injury to one truly is an injury to all. As a group that has endured the injustices of separate but equal amounting to second-class status, Blacks can certainly comprehend the stakes in this fight for equality--especially Black gays and lesbians who would directly benefit.

Besides, pitting one group of oppressed against another can only aid those in positions of wealth and power who benefit from divide-and-conquer tactics. For this reason, many prominent African American leaders, from Coretta Scott King to Al Sharpton, have taken an unequivocal stand in defense of gay marriage.

It is true that some Black churches and leaders are homophobic, and they should be challenged. But the enormous wealth of the white-dominated Catholic and Mormon churches, in stark contrast to the poverty of most Black churches, renders their culpability that much worse.

In challenging white LGBT people who justify not working alongside African Americans due to their supposed higher rates of homophobia, Black lesbian Barbara Smith argues:

Institutionalized homophobia in this society is definitely a white monopoly. And when we do see examples of homophobia in people-of-color contexts, what that should motivate people to do is to increase the level of solidarity with gay men and lesbians of color so that we can challenge homophobia wherever it appears.

The massive outpouring of protesters on the streets of California's cities since the ban shows the potential to organize a repeal of Prop 8 in coming months. But they will need to devise a strategy independent of the Democrats' equivocation and corporate-funded organizations wary of rocking the boat. LGBT activists in this budding movement should go directly to Black and Latino allies and develop a multiracial and collaborative challenge to the bigotry of anti-gay marriage forces of every race.

Included in the strategy should be a demand on the new Obama administration and Democratic-controlled Congress to carry forward with their party platform that opposes the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act. It's time to repeal that law and end federally sanctioned bigotry against gay marriage.

Thanks to Kathryn Lybarger in Berkeley for providing local insight on the Prop 8 campaign.