Healing the Rift
Like so many other gay Californians, I was devastated by the passage of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in November 2008. Part of my reaction was shock: Until late September, a clear majority of California voters were against Prop 8. I also felt a sense of betrayal, as early exit polls indicated that 70 percent of African American and more than half of all Latino and Asian American voters supported Prop 8. How, I wondered, could they side with conservative white Californians to write such a discriminatory measure into our state constitution?
In the weeks following the election, I learned that estimates of the African American vote in particular were unreliable. Research conducted by the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, for example, indicates that 51 percent of African Americans voted in favor of Prop 8 in Los Angeles. Dr. Fernando Guerra, the center’s director, says that given the significant number of African American Californians who live in Los Angeles (15 percent), Black voting precincts elsewhere in California needed to turn out a yes on 8 vote of over 80 percent to support early exit poll numbers. But, Dr. Guerra notes, none of the districts reported such extraordinary majorities. He therefore considers the 70 percent support indicated by early exit polling to be wildly off the mark. On Dec. 4, the Public Policy Institute of California issued a report that declined to estimate the African American vote on Prop 8, explaining that the sample size was too small to produce accurate results. Instead, they put the combined number of Latino, African American and Asian American voters who supported Prop 8 at 57 percent.
Still, no one disputes that a firm majority of African American voters declined to support gay rights, and that a difficult relationship exists between the African American community—specifically, poor and working class African Americans—and the LGBT community. A significant part of the problem in winning this group of African Americans over to the cause of LGBT rights is “a literal interpretation of the Bible,” according to Dr. Sylvia Rhue, Director of Religious Affairs for the National Coalition of Black Justice. Religious, church-going African Americans on the poorer side of the socioeconomic spectrum tend to believe that the Bible rejects homosexuality as sinful, and were more likely to treat the question of gay marriage as one of morality rather than civil rights.
Yet most of these voters did not act with the intent of inflicting pain on the LGBT community, Rhue says. A vicious smear campaign by Yes on 8, launched in October, wrongly convinced many voters that churches would be penalized for refusing to perform same-sex marriages, threatened that “homosexuality would be taught in schools,” and tilted the African American community in favor of Prop 8, she says.
This late swing on the part of minority voters calls into question the effectiveness of outreach efforts by the No on 8 campaign. Yes on 8 mobilized quickly to spread its message through targeted mailings and church outreach. These efforts were bankrolled largely by the Mormon Church, which has a history of institutionalized discrimination against African Americans that extends well into the 20th century. Why couldn’t No on 8, a civil rights struggle on behalf of a community that includes a significant number of LGBT people of color, manage to respond to the African American community with equal rapidity?
Part of the problem is that mainstream LGBT organizations neglected to reach out to African American voters, says Ron Buckmire, the Board President of the Barbara Jordan/Bayard Rustin Coalition, an African American LGBT rights organization in Los Angeles. The Jordan/Rustin Coalition, which has a staff of one, hired three additional workers to campaign in the African American community against Prop 8, with no money from groups such as Equality California, Buckmire says.
“They come from this mindset, ‘We know these other organizations exist, we’ll have them deal with it.’ We just didn’t have the capacity to do that,” Buckmire explains.
This segregation of LGBT African Americans existed well before Prop 8, according to the Rev. Deborah Johnson, minister of the Inner Light Ministry in Santa Cruz, Calif., and longtime LGBT rights and African American activist. “There is still that tendency to want to compartmentalize people of color leadership within the LGBT community. We are called upon specifically if there is some racial issue involved,” Johnson says.
By then, it is typically far too late to resolve existing issues, activists say. Coalition building must be an ongoing priority to secure support for LGBT people in minority communities. And coalitions must be sensitive to cultural differences that exist between communities, and address faith-based concerns about gay and lesbian life. This does not, Rhue points out, mean acquiescing to the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality. “We can go toe to toe with them on scripture,” Rhue says.
But coalition building does require the LGBT community to take a more active role in addressing issues that concern poorer populations and people of color. “A question I put out lately is what have you done lately for the civil rights movement? How are you engaged in poverty?” says Andrea Shorter, an African American and lesbian activist and executive director of And Marriage for All in San Francisco. The expectations of automatic kinship between the LGBT community and African Americans is simply wrong, Shorter says, explaining that alliances between minority groups must be built and solidified over time. “We have to be involved in other people’s issues,” Shorter says. “It’s important we don’t appear opportunistic.”
A silver lining to the passage of Prop 8 is the unprecedented opportunity to build coalitions, according to Johnson. The passage of a law approved by a simple majority to deprive a targeted minority of their rights is an unprecedented civil rights disaster. This gives LGBT advocates the chance to show other minority groups that their causes are interconnected, legally and ethically.
As Rhue points out, a number of African American advocacy groups, including the California NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus, already see LGBT issues as civil rights issues. For those who refuse to see the interconnectedness of all civil rights struggles, Rhue has some blunt words. “Black people don’t own the civil rights movement,” she says. “Straight Black people who have problems with this have to get over the [idea] that we own civil rights movements.”