A brief recap, for those who weren’t up on the details back in the fall of 2008: when the realization first came that, along with Obama’s election, Prop 8 was almost certainly passing in California, over-excited journalists reported that preliminary exit polls placed the responsibility for Prop 8 with black and African-American voters. A dozen theories were bandied about; the black community’s high rates of church attendance meant they were religious bigots, or that this was an expression of rampant homophobia.
In large part, the enthusiasm for speculating about these theories was so strong that it wasn’t mitigated by the news, weeks later, that the statistics were misleading; black and African-American people make up only ~14% of America’s total citizenship. While it is true that black voters are statistically more likely to be churchgoing, the facts were that with roughly 80% voter turnout in California, Prop 8 passed with 52.24% of the vote. Prop 8 was not “the fault” of black voters, even if we pretend that every black voter in California did vote for Prop 8 – because of course none of them are gay, or have gay family members. Prop 8 was almost entirely the result of the work of wealthy religiously affiliated organizations, especially Mormons – predominately white people.
Afterwards, when looking at the ways that the campaign could have been handled better, at mistakes that the No on 8 side may have made, the issue of race came up again – did the No on 8 campaign effectively court voters of color? Michael Robinson of GETEqual Now has said that “No on 8 organizers didn’t approach the black community until a mere 5 days before the vote.” Was there any real outreach done? Where does the issue of gay marriage actually stand with black voters? Almost four years later, the same questions are still being asked.
Of course, on a basic level, that’s because they don’t have cut-and-dried answers. Black voters (or people) aren’t a monolithic bloc; gay marriage stands in a variety of complicated places, and it depends on the individual’s opinions. Case in point: Cornel West, Princeton University Professor, and Tavis Smiley, “one of America’s biggest African-American radio personalities,” co-host a radio show, “Smiley & West.”
This week, Smiley publicly stated his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman; West was filmed along with friend and civil rights activist Carl Dix stating his support for marriage equality. (Skip to 2:00 to hear West speak.)
The idea that the struggles of gay people in our time and the civil rights movement have parallels is a compelling one – one that many organizers come back to again and again, leading to controversy around language like marriage equality being a ‘civil right.’ It’s true, from the levels of shared experiences of marginalization and the opportunity to take strength from others’ stories to the level of organizing and activist techniques. But the black community has long been treated as either unimportant or a hindrance, a stubborn and prejudiced demographic, by many mainstream gay organizations. The fight at the ballot for Prop 8 is over, but other struggles in states like New York and Minnesota aren’t. Will gay organizations make the same mistake again of focusing on a stereotypical white and middle-class demographic?
…looking at the HRC’s video campaign for New York marriage equality, you get the sense that gay organizations still do a poor job reaching out to people of color. Out of the HRC’s 35 celebrity endorsements (way to connect with the common man) a whopping four come from African-Americans (Whoopi Goldberg, Russell Simmons, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, and Bill T. Jones), two from Asian-Americans (Lucy Lui and David Chang) and one from a Hispanic (Daphne Rubin-Vega).
In the fight against Prop 8, Equality California didn’t use anything like the strategies of the civil rights movement, opting instead to pay for expensive political consultants (although their budget would never have been able to match that of the Mormon Church’s). Since then, EQCA has issued statements saying that it regrets that decision; in its future struggles for marriage in California, it will work by “community engagement initiative,” focusing on the needs and opinions of the community they serve. In April, Los Angels Gay and Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean said:
And I think one of our challenges as a community, given that issues of relevance to our community are different than anything else that goes on the ballot because of the emotion and the other things that are associated with them, we have got to find a completely different way than business as usual to do this work.
With new marriage battles looming on the horizon, the question remains: will abandoning “business as usual” mean seriously engaging communities of color on issues of marriage equality? New York State, where race demographics at the polls are more of a consideration than in less-diverse Minnesota, isn’t having a voter referendum. But the mainstream gay movement’s decision to engage with communities of color – and to engage especially with gay communities of color, who are so often forgotten and left out of the white-dominated political conversation – shouldn’t be based on a voter referendum. It should be based on Carl Dix’s words - “I come from this from a perspective that we need to emancipate all of humanity, and in going at it that way we need to see the linkages between all of the struggles against injustice, all of the struggles to uproot oppression.”