In 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians were entitled to full marriage under the state constitution. In November the infamous proposition 8 appeared on the general election ballot to amend the state constitution so as to void the effect of the court ruling. When the proposition passed it not only struck a blow against human rights but set off a storm of controversy that remains unabated to this day. One of the controversial issues was the votes of African American voters on the measure.
In recent days the State of Maryland has granted marriage equality by acts of the legislature and governor. There is already a movement under way to qualify a ballot measure for the general election in November 2012 to nullify the law. Major media outlets have grasped the drama of it and it is becoming a strain in the election year circus. The narrative that is being peddled is that African Americans are opposed to marriage equality thus setting up a confrontation between two constituent groups of Democratic voters.
The purpose of this diary is to look at lessons that should have been learned from the prop 8 experience and how they might be applied constructively in what is likely to be a rerun.
52% of all California voters voted in favor of prop 8. There was no disagreement that a majority of black voters voted in favor of it. The controversy was over the size of that majority. A CNN exit poll on election day put the number at 70%. A follow up poll done a few days after the election estimated it as being between 50-60% which would make it comparable to the Latino vote. The news coverage of this controversy was extensive. From this experience the notion that blacks are against gay and lesbian rights entered the lexicon of popular received “reality”.
Many of us who were attempting to sort through this focused on what had happened in the campaign leading up to the election. One thing that was readily apparent was that the anti-prop 8 campaign was seriously flawed, while the pro side was well funded and organized. One failure of the marriage equality forces was to conduct any form of outreach to the black community. There were people who proposed recruiting black lesbians and gays to serve as spokespersons. Their advice was generally ignored. On the other hand the pro side did extensive and clearly effective outreach in all minority communities.
That is a brief summary of the prop 8 experience. There is much detailed material on the subject in the Daily Kos archives and elsewhere. Let’s turn now to the present situation in Maryland.
It is always frustrating to attempt any kind of serious analysis of public opinion on controversial issues using the sources that are available to the public online. Most issues are not polled in a consistent manner over time. They only get focused on when they hit the media radar because of some political conflict. There are a number of factors which influence the opinions of people on controversial social issues. Among those are religion, education and age. Whether race should be considered a direct influence is a matter open to debate. From the data that I have seen, I don’t think that there is convincing evidence to consider it as such.
Black clergy who are opposed to marriage equality in Maryland are getting very generous coverage in the media. Here are two examples, one form the Washington Post and the other from MSNBC, both prominent outlets.
Over the past couple of years, as Thomas and dozens of other black clergymen in Prince George’s County have stood on the front line of the campaign against same-sex marriage, he has come to see the revolution at hand — in his view, a rebellion against religion and tradition — as an assault on the sustainability of the black family.
With Maryland poised to legalize gay marriage, some conservative opponents and religious leaders are counting on members of their congregations, especially in black churches, to upend the legislation at the polls this fall.Many African American church leaders oppose gay marriage in the liberal-leaning state that’s nearly one-third black, and President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is expected to drive many of their congregants to the polls. Opponents submitted draft language for a ballot referendum to overturn the measure just after it passed the Legislature last week. Gov. Martin O’Malley was expected to sign the bill into law Thursday.
So far the issue has not been presented directly at the ballot box in Maryland. From articles like this one could get the impression that the black population is a single monolithic bloc ready to march behind Bible waving preachers to defeat the threat to traditional religious views. However, let’s look at what data is available. The best thing I found was a poll conducted for the Washington Post in January. The article presenting the results leaves much to be desired, but it is what is available.Legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland
The general thrust is that the electorate is about evenly split on the issue. There are 8% of undecideds that could sing it to a position of support. Interestingly the Post chose to address the issue of race only in terms of Democrats. It shows white Democrats being in favor by 71% while African American Democrats are opposed by 53% with 6% undecided. It is likely that a majority of blacks are registered as Democrats, this this presentation seems to be more focused on drama that a full balanced view of opinion.
What this poll reflects to my view is the general impression I have gotten from data that is available. Something in excess of 40% of African Americans are supportive of lesbian and gay rights in general and of marriage equality in particular. Among those people is a group of black lesbians and gays, many of them raising families. This is not a monolithic bloc of opposition to lesbian and gay rights. The problem is that it is only the voices of black opposition that are being given media coverage.
I wish to urge the gay and lesbian rights organizations that will be working to preserve their hard won victory to look at the California experience and learn from our mistakes. One important difference between California and Maryland is that blacks are about 10% of the CA electorate, but over 30% in MD. They cannot be ignored and written off.
The history of gay advocacy has mostly been about white middle class male advocacy. The rest of the rich variety of people who make up the lgbt community are usually not very visible in the public face that is presented in the media. What we are lining up for here is a media war between white gays and religious blacks. If that is allowed to happen yet again, it will play directly into the hands of the well organized opposition to marriage equality. We must present a different face of the gay and lesbian families that we are trying to protect. We must force the media to change their narrative. The public need to see families of color who are struggling to put food on the table. There are straight people in the black community who are open to persuasion. They are most like to be persuaded by queers of color.