The gay, lesbian & bisexual (GLB) community has rightfully been upset over President Obama’s most recent remarks about gay marriage, which he gave at a GLBT fundraiser in New York as that state inched closer to passing a bill legalizing same sex marriage (the bill passed last night as this article was prepared for publication). His position, it turns out, is not that far from Michele Bachmann and other several other Republicans, who also believe the issue is a states-rights issue. Obama’s categorically conservative argument hasn’t been very thoroughly discussed, I suspect because once again progressives are left confused as to why their side would act so much like their perception of the other side.
Because of this confusion, two things have slipped by that really deserve analysis and comment. On should have been obvious, since he mentioned it in the same speech: DOMA. Even if several states passed gay marriage laws, they would still be federally forbidden–a special (and thus unconstitutional) exclusion–by DOMA from being recognized in any state that hasn’t adopted gay marriage with language expressly recognizing gay marriages from other states, even if the state doesn’t have legislation expressly banning it. Federal action will be required at some point to remove DOMA from the books. That didn’t happen during two years when Democrats had full control of Washington, suggesting that it wasn’t a priority for Obama (or Democrats).
The other issue is trickier. It is a matter of race, and race is always a sticky issue to discuss. As most honest, ethical people are aware, being called a racist is one of the worst non-criminal epithets to lob at someone, and the term has been bandied about like so glitter since Obama’s campaign picked up steam after the South Carolina primary vote in 2008. I suspect this is the reason that few, if any, bloggers are discussing the issue of race and homophobia and how these factors might be related to Obama and his stance on gay marriage, and his reluctance on gay issues overall.
Discussions of race in this country have not evolved past the Civil Rights era for a number of reasons, primary among them the double edged sword of white guilt and black cultural paranoia. These phenomenon exist because a political party promoting an ideology–namely Democrats–have a vested interest in focusing discussions of race on the history of white people, i.e. slavery, Jim Crow, etc.
But what about black people? What about today? There are several areas where the majority of black citizens disagree with the Party they support in such large numbers, including religious influence in politics, abortion, and gay rights. In light of this, could Obama’s politicking on gay marriage be considered a dog whistle to the black community? Or, could it be that does he not support gay marriage because of his exposure to black culture (which came rather late in his life), especially his religious indoctrination during his almost 20 years attending Rev. Wright’s church? In short, does he not support gay rights publicly because he needs blacks, or because he is black? Aren’t these fair questions to ask if we want to get at what’s driving his policies?
To understand this issue properly, one must examine the fact that the demographic group least likely to support gay marriage is the black demographic. It is also the demographic experiencing the slowest growth in support of gay marriage. In 2009, just 28% of blacks supported gay marriage, compared with 39% of whites and 45% of Hispanics (the majority of whom are Catholic, it should be noted, a religion whose leaders and traditions are opposed to homosexuality). Just a year later, white support had grown by 5% to 44%, while black support moved a mere 2 percentage points, to 30%. Interestingly, according to that same poll, Midwesterners and Southerners (the groups most often held accountable by progressives for lack of progress on gay rights) are now evenly split over the issue of gay marriage, with the south having a slight edge:
Americans living in the Midwest are now evenly split over same-sex marriage; 44% favor and 44% oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Opinion has shifted substantially since 2008 and 2009 when only 36% in the Midwest favored this and 54% were opposed. Support also is up in the South but a majority (55%) continues to oppose allowing same-sex marriage. As was the case over the past two years, more in the Northeast favor than oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally (49% vs. 41%). Those living in the West are about evenly divided in their opinion (47% favor, 45% oppose).
Homophobia in the black community has been documented, but it does not get the discussion it deserves. Maybe it should when we are being governed by our first black president, and his actions on gay issues are both in conflict with the majority of his constituencies’ opinions, and the nation’s. After Proposition 8 passed in California the same night that Obama got elected, this issue did get some attention because 70% of black California voters voted for Proposition 8, which amended the CA constitution to effectively ban gay marriage by declaring marriage be defined as the matrimony of one man to one woman. Very soon after that discussion began it was shut down to howls of “racist,” especially from those who were neither black nor gay. The charge of racism was supported by an argument of numbers: Since black CA voters comprised about 10% of the electorate, they couldn’t be to blame, even though the margin fell well below 10% (the proposition passed 52% to 48%).
The math on this argument is fuzzy indeed, because if the black community in CA had split more evenly–as other ethnic groups did–the proposition would have been defeated. Black support for Prop 8 was the highest in the state by race, roughly 70%, surpassing white (45%) and Hispanic support (53%). One famous study came up with even fuzzier math by trying to control for church attendance, the implication being that it was only evangelical blacks who had supported Prop 8. This led to several unresolved question, which were neither asked nor answered.
For example, 82% of blacks nationally are church members, and the same amount say that religion is “very important” in their lives. These numbers are significantly higher than for whites nationally. Controlling for church attendance would then seem a bit disingenuous, since it would shift significant blame from black voters race to their religious views. But aren’t we told there a causal relationship between religion and a person’s beliefs about gay rights (and by extension, marriage)? And why are evangelicals and other Protestants still segregating by race in their religious institutions? What about Hispanics? Their demographic is almost as religiously inclined as blacks, yet they also split pretty evenly on Prop 8. And why didn’t progressives and gay activists react to black CA evangelical voters with the same venom they’d reserved for white evangelicals, or at the very least question their loyalty on the issue? Continue reading