Soul Searching, Post-Prop 8: Do Blacks Hate Us?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 7, 2008

The voter approval of California's anti-gay-family ballot initiative Proposition 8, which rescinded the right to marry from the grasp of gays and lesbians, was not entirely unexpected.

Still, the result hit America's GLBT community with stunning emotional force. For the first time, a ballot initiative had been used not as a roadblock to gaining rights, but as a means to revoking existing rights.

Opposition to (and support for) continued marriage equality in California cut across demographics of all sorts: voters of all ages, races, religious persuasions, and party affiliations voted both for and against the anti-gay amendment.

According to a Nov. 5 item at the Advocate online, the Latino vote was split, with 51 percent of men in favor of the marriage ban and 54 percent of women voting against it, while other demographic divisions also came into play: older voters (65 and up) were for the ban by 57 percent, while younger Californians shunned the measure, with 66 percent voting no.

Voters with a higher level of education resisted the rollback of marriage rights, with 54 percent of college graduates and 64 percent of voters with advanced degrees voting no, while those who had not completed college, or who had stopped their education after high school, voted for the measure--53 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

But what caught the imagination of the public was one statistic out of many: that an overriding majority--70 percent--of African-Americans voted for the anti-gay measure.

To the some in the GLBT community, that stung: it felt like a repudiation, from a segment of America that sought to understand it most readily, of the gay and lesbian push for equal rights.

Making the sting worse was the contrasting jubilation felt by whites and blacks alike that America had lived up to one of its core values--equality--by electing an African-American, while simultaneously it felt as though that very same core value of equality was tossed aside when it came to gay and lesbian families.

For some gays and lesbians, especially those who recall hearing a few prominent African-Americans inveigh against comparisons between gay equality and the civil rights movement, the head-scratching question became: why do blacks hate us so much?

It's a question made more complex by findings by health professionals from earlier this year that young gay men of color are one of leading demographic groups in terms of new HIV infections--and they are surpassed only by African-American women.

Some have speculated that a refusal in the black community to discuss homosexuality within its ranks is helping drive the higher incidence of new HIV infections in that community, with black men who identify as straight going to other men for sex on the "down low," before returning to wives and girlfriends--all too often neglecting to practice safer sex.

But as the media speculated on whether an influx of black voters turning up at the polls to usher Barack Obama into the White House might also have tipped the balance and spelled defeat for gay and lesbian families, some pundits lashed back, either by denying the validity of the GLBT equality movement (or, for that matter, any communal identity for gays and lesbians), or by seeing suggestions that blacks as a whole are anti-gay as simplistic and insulting.

In a Nov. 6 article that appeared at the National Post, Jonathan Kay took the former argument, declaring that, "we anti-gay marriagists would argue that is unfair, for the rejection of gay marriage has nothing to do with rejecting gays as individuals," and calling into question the very idea that gays and lesbians face discrimination.

Wrote Kay, "[G]ays... haven't had any rights taken from them, can have legal sex together, live together, buy homes wherever they want, socialize wherever and with whomever they choose, and flip back through their family albums for any number of generations without finding a single slave."

Added Kay, "In the collective black memory, 'discrimination' meant a white man could prevent a black man from marrying altogether, or sell a black man's wife and children."

Kay excoriated the idea "that African-Americans and gays are roughly equal as identity groups," scoffing at the idea that "a history of suffering in one group should translate into empathy with another group's desire for a political entitlement that has been fabricated from whole ideological cloth."

Kay went on to challenge the very notion of the GLBT community, suggesting that since homosexuality, unlike race, ethnicity, or religion, is not passed down as a trait or characteristic to succeeding generations, gays and lesbians do not constitute a true "identity group" with "collective memories."

Speaking of such "collective memories" possessed by America's blacks, Kay wrote that, "The sufferings they endured are directly related to who they are historically, to characteristics and events they cannot change, to their skin color and bloodlines, to the deeds of their ancestors."

Contrasting blacks with gays, Kay asked, "Where is their commonality with individuals disconnected from the great chain of human history, whose 'identity' isn't a culture, an ethnicity, a race or a civilization--just a mere sexual preference that rules out both a collective past and a collective future, the sine qua non of a true identity group."

Added Key, "The two groups have zero in common on the 'rights' scene, and in my understanding the irresistible liberal impulse to link them on that basis is an irritant to African-Americans."

An African-American writer answered to the suggestion that blacks had turned their backs on a group of fellow-sufferers in the Huffington Post when Raymond Leon Roker's article was published Nov. 7.

Roker approached from the opposite end of the political spectrum as Key, though his indignation was just as acute.

Wrote Roker, "Excuse me? I voted against Proposition 8. I'm among the 30 percent of black Californians that did so."

Added Roker, "And as much as I can condemn the homophobia and intolerance that drove a portion of the 70 percent of blacks that voted in favor of Proposition 8's ban on gay marriage, it's an outrage to lay its passage at their feet."

Roker continued, "I've read several editorials already about how the ungrateful blacks betrayed gays right after America gave them their first president," adding, "this type of condescending, divide and conquer isn't going to help at all. And it's a gross oversimplification of what happened."

Roker pointed to the stats showing how other racial groups voted, including 49 percent of Asians supporting the ban, and the nearly 50 percent of whites who voted to rescind gay and lesbian marriage rights.

Wrote Roker, "Last I checked blacks held little sway over all of those groups."

Continued Roker, "So who did? For starters, the churches, religious leaders and advocacy groups in support of 8 were a very formidable force.

"Surveys showed religion played a major role in voter's decisions."

And Roker laid some of the blame at the doorstep of the GLBT side, too, though unlike Kay it was not in terms of the disproven notion that homosexuality is a choice, or the argument that gays have no claim to community and commonality.

Rather, Roker took a hard look at the political realities of campaigning. "Even No on 8 supporters have admitted that their camp was too complacent, arrogant and far to unorganized," he wrote.

Roker got into specifics, writing, "Perhaps gay rights activists needed to better explain how a No vote wouldn't force churches to perform gay marriage ceremonies.

"And how a No vote wouldn't affect schools or teach children about gay marriage.

"Maybe deeper outreach in the black and brown communities could have changed some minds," Roker continued.

"What about fostering a stronger dialogue beyond the good side of town and in the neighborhoods where some of the unfortunate prejudice takes root?" Roker asked.

As for America's first African-American president and his influence on the issue, Roker noted, "No on 8 also needed a better defense against Obama's own stance on gay marriage.

"He is on record as wanting to allow the states to decide, even though he still supported full rights for same sex couples under civil unions," Roker pointed out, continuing, "those nuances could have been much better explained to those who might be excused to follow suit with Obama's somewhat loose position."

Added Loker, "The anti-Prop 8 forces couldn't just rest on the hope that entrenched and arcane beliefs would be washed away without both a robust defense and offense.

Loker also looked to the future, sounding a hopeful note on marriage equality but also warning against making the issue of Proposition 8's success into a racial one.

"There are very valid arguments against the presumptuous collapsing of Obama's win and the results of the Prop 8 vote, but we can table that for now," Roker asserted.

"Regardless of your position, making scapegoats of blacks as a bunch of thankless homophobes is hardly playing the best hand."

Loker's point that religion played a significant factor in the outcome of the Proposition 8 vote was supported by other media reports.

The Sacramento Bee reported in a Nov. 7 article on the effect of black voters on the result of the vote on the rights of gay and lesbian families that those African-American voters who cast their vote against marriage equality tended to do so out of religious conviction.

The article also noted that this year's election saw blacks constitute 10 percent of the voter turnout, as compared to only 6 percent in the last election.

The article quoted the president of the non-partisan Citizen Voice, Gary Dietrich, as saying, "The Obama people were thrilled to turn out high percentages of African Americans, but [Proposition 8] literally wouldn't have passed without those voters."

Addressing the failure of arguments made by the pro-marriage campaign, which sought to remind black voters of the injustice of laws banning interracial marriage, Dietrich said, "You listen to the African American pastors, they do not buy that argument.

"They do not believe at all that there is a correlation between civil rights vis-?-vis blacks and rights for gays."

With some observers asking whether it was proper--or, under the provisions of the IRS code, legal--for churches to have pushed the amendment so forcefully and so directly, anti-marriage equality voters themselves told the press that their opposition to marriage equality arose not from civil rights considerations, but from religious belief.

The Sacramento Bee quoted 77-year-old Ida Francis, who voted for Barack Obama and also voted for Proposition 8.

Francis' own background includes a childhood in Arkansas during the Jim Crow era. If anyone understands, first hand, the importance of civil equality, it is Ms. Francis.

But marriage, said Francis, is something that goes beyond the realm of debates about civil rights.

"If there are people in our society who wish to live together as a man and man, well, that's their own personal opinion."

But, added Francis, "I don't believe God intended marriage to be between a man and a man, a woman and a woman."

Francis went on, "We're just trying to hold on to what people see in the Bible... The family, one man, one woman, children."

The distinction between the dictates of faith and the realm of the civic was echoed by Sacramento resident Cheryl Weston, whom the Sacramento Bee cited as saying that gays and lesbians enjoy legal protection from discriminatory practices already, and that marriage is a special case.

Said Weston, "Maybe if they don't use that word, marriage."

Weston pointed out that a faith-based need to preserve marriage as something special for heterosexual couples brought together the faithful from across denominational lines.

"Mormons, Catholics, Evangelicals, all of them.

"We all came together, and we had one common belief in this."

But Weston stopped short of saying never to marriage equality rights for same-sex families, the article reported.

"God says, 'Judge nothing before its time.'"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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