When Leaders Are Led To Lead

Terrance Heath

When I read about the recent polls indicating a huge shift among African-Americans towards supporting same-sex marriage — a Public Policy Polling survey showing that 57% of African Americans say they’re likely to support Maryland’s marriage equality law, and a Washington Post/ABC News poll showing that 59% of African Americans say they support marriage equality — I was skeptical. Surprised. Hopeful. But still skeptical. Several days later, I remain so — unable to settle into one reaction or another.

Don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled to hear the news; especially since it was accompanied by a poll suggesting that Maryland voters would vote “overwhelmingly” to uphold a law allowing same-sex marriage (passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley). It was even more heartening that a report on the poll said that the shift could be attributed “almost entirely” by a shift towards support for marriage equality among African American voters. That the NAACP announced its support for marriage equality just a few days earlier made for a pretty inspiring week.

As a black gay man, a husband, and father, I’m hopeful. As one who has experienced and written extensively over the years about the roots and intensity of homophobia in African-American communities, I’m heartened, but also skeptical.

Here’s the important bits from the report on the Maryland poll.

– The movement over the last two months can be explained almost entirely by a major shift in opinion about same-sex marriage among black voters. Previously 56% said they would vote against the new law with only 39% planning to uphold it. Those numbers have now almost completely flipped, with 55% of African Americans planning to vote for the law and only 36% now opposed.

-The big shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage among black voters in Maryland is reflective of what’s happening nationally right now.  A new ABC/Washington Post poll finds 59% of African Americans across the country supportive of same-sex marriage.  A PPP poll in the critical swing state of Pennsylvania last weekend found a shift of 19 points in favor of same-sex marriage among black voters.

While the media has been focused on what impact President Obama’s announcement will have on his own reelection prospects, the more important fallout may be the impact his position is having on public opinion about same-sex marriage itself.

Maryland voters were already prepared to support marriage equality at the polls this fall even before President Obama’s announcement. But now it appears that passage will come by a much stronger margin.

When President Obama announced his support for marriage equality, there was speculation that the president’s announcement would catalyze a shift in public support that would “move the needle” further towards support for marriage equality, alter the debate in the states, and cause African American voters to follow his lead. Immediately after the president’s announcement there was some evidence that Obama’s stance on same-sex marriage would not cost him African-American support or votes. And an early poll showed that 68% of African-Americans said Obama’s support for same-sex marriage “did not alter” their support for him. (Interestingly enough, 60% of independents said the same.)

All good news, right?

Right.

So here’s why I’m skeptical.

Historically Black Homophobia

As much as I’m encouraged by how much change President Obama seems to have catalyzed, I’m equally aware that there is much that a mere statement cannot change in a matter of days. Historically black homophobia is one of them, but not for the reasons one might think.

Let me make a few things clear from the start. African-Americans are not “more homophobic” than anyone else; certainly no more homophobic than society at large. African-Americans as a group are not monolithic. There is no monolithic “African-American community,” “African-American family,” or “African-American church” that is representative of all of us. We are as varied and diverse as any other group. Thus, I try not to speak in singular terms about any of the above, but tend to speak in terms of “some African-American communities,” etc.

That said, the reality of homophobia in some African-American communities and institutions is undeniable. The vehemence of that homophobia, where present, has been noted. The history and deep roots of that homophobia is what makes me skeptical about the sudden shift towards support for marriage equality.

Six years ago, I reviewed Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches, by Horace L. Griffin. At the time, I wrote that if I had the resources, I would send a copy of Griffin’s book to every African-American minister in the country. I’d still do so today, if I could. There may not be as much of a need as there, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. If nothing else, those who read it might come away with a little more understanding about the roots and the impact of homophobia in their churches and communities.

Griffin starts by drawing on his own experience to explain the role Black churches, families and communities as “safe havens” for African-Americans, and the contradiction that these “wonderful institutions of support, nurture and uplift” are at the same time “resistant and even closed in treating gay and heterosexual congregants equally or, in many cases offering simple compassion to the suffering of gay people.”

But Griffin’s explanation of how the development of a particular brand of Black Christianity, popular sexual myths about Black people, and the anxiety of a nascent Black middle class combined to produce a virulent strain of homophobia.

From there, Griffin delves into an overview of American religious history that actually parallels with the one in Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury, detailing how many African Americans who converted to Christianity during slavery joined conservative denominations that were also big on biblical literalism/inerrancy. (Those Black Christians found ways to ignore or dispense with some biblical passages used to justify slavery, but more about that in a bit.)

What’s most intriguing is Griffin’s suggestion that this particular brand of religion combined with the popular sexual myths about Blacks at that time — that Black men and women were insatiable sexual savages, prone to predation, seduction and violence — and the strict sexual morality of the Victorian era, to produce Black churches and communities that still respond vehemently and even violently to the very concept of homosexuality let alone actual homosexuals in Black churches, families and communities. In fact, is the most cogent explanation I’ve heard yet of a reality that still tends to mystify me.

Following slavery, the racist attitudes that defined black men as sex predators caused black men extreme hardship and death. By appealing to the age-old stereotype that black men harbor an insatiable desire for white women, black men existed as targets for to be blamed for raping white women. Indeed as Paula Giddings notes, it was black women themselves who were identified as culprits for their own rape due to the purported sexual appetite that blacks had for sex. … Given the majority culture’s racism and sexual attitudes, African Americans soon learned that their very survival depended on distancing themselves from “sexual perversions.” Much of black heterosexuals’ anti-homosexual sentiment exists as a means of countering the perception of black sexuality as perverse in order to survive and gain respectability and acceptance by the majority. Thus, it is understandable that African Americans would approach homosexuality with more dread and disdain than others, often denying a black homosexual presence to avoid being further maligned in a racist society.

I’m reminded of my freshman year of college, when I “came out” in a very public way — during a debate with a traveling evangelist, who spent a week haranguing students from the university’s free speech platform. The news reached my hallway in the freshmen dorm long before I made it back at the end of the day.

The Resident Assistant for my hall, who was African-American took me aside when he saw me, to tell me that the news was all over the hall, and to ask if I was OK. I assured him that I was, and his response echoed all that Griffin outlined.

After expressing relief that I was OK (and that I’d come out to my roommate months earlier, and he had “no problems with it”), my R.A. sighed and shook his head. “Man, it’s hard enough being black,” he said, “but to be black and gay? That’s rough.”

It has been rough, and it is rough. It’s why conservative organizations like the “National Organization for Marriage” have been able to exploit successfully homophobia among African-Americans, despite being tied to a movement bent on rolling back civil rights protections. That’s been the sad irony of the Black vote for longer than I care to recall.

That kind of history just isn’t wiped out by a single statement, even from the first African-American U.S. President.

When a Leader Leads

Yet, I’m hopeful. Here’s why.

Change is happening. America is evolving towards justice on marriage equality, and African-Americans are part of that evolution. Part of the reason is because, as Joan Walsh writes, that’s what happens when leaders actually lead.

Now, I’m not going to argue that Obama’s turnaround alone caused this sea change. The arc of the moral universe has been bending toward justice on gay rights for a long time, and as I wrote last week, the president gave it an additional tug. There have been advocates within the NAACP working to make this happen for a long time, and they deserve a lot of credit. African-American voter opinion had already been trending in this direction, even if black voters had been less receptive to gay marriage than other demographic groups. There is also an emotional and personal component to the president’s stance that makes his moral suasion hard to replicate on behalf of, say, the jobs bill or the public option. (And let’s also remember it’s white voters who are most hostile on some of those economic issues, thanks to the divide and conquer politics of the GOP over the last 40 years.)

Still, it’s hard not to conclude that Obama’s words made a significant difference in the political course of this debate. Ironically, it was once critics of Obama who mocked the power of words, and specifically the candidate’s own oratorical gifts. Obama shot back at them many times.

What happens when a leader of Obama’s stature leads on an issue like this is that it creates space for other leaders to lead, like Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ, in Chicago, IL, who used an address to his church to read a letter he sent to a fellow clergyman regarding the president’s support for marriage equality.

Of course, Moss isn’t alone. In the last decade, a number of African-American leaders have come out in favor of LGBT equality on issues ranging from employment discrimination to marriage equality. Shortly after President Obama’s statement, four influential African-American leaders signed an open letter of support for President Obama’s “evolution” towards supporting marriage equality.

What’s most interesting is that at least one of those four leaders was influence by personal experience. Seven years ago, Al Sharpton launched an initiative to counter homophobia among African Americans. For Sharpton, the issue was personal. Sharpton was mentored by Bayard Rustin, the activist and strategist credited with organizing the 1963 March on Washington, who was “silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.” This month, by the way, marks the centennial of Rustin’s birth.

That same year, Sharpton explained he was influenced by someone even closer to home: his sister. Sharpton revealed to The Advocate that his sister is a lesbian, and her experience inspired him to launch his initiative.

“My sister is gay. I understood the pain of having to lead a double life in the system [since] we grew up in church. She is gay, and she fought that perception in church while she embraced it in her private life.”

Of course, Sharpton’s 2005 initiative is one of many efforts to shift African-Americans towards support for marriage equality, and LGBT equality in general. In 2003, the National Black Justice Coalition announced a campaign to increase African-American support for marriage equality, and& counter conservative effort to exploit the issue as a wedge between African-Americans and Democrats. For years, the organization has sponsored events and published resources —& like Jumping the Broom: A Black Perspective on Same-Gender Marriage and LGBT Families of Color: Facts At A Glance — aimed at at informing and changing opinions among African-Americans on a wide rage of LGBT related issues. That work has been complemented by the work of state and local organizations, like the Maryland Black Families Alliance.

But perhaps the biggest impact happens, like Sharpton said, closer to home by people like his sister, yours truly, and countless others who make the often difficult decision to speak up and let those nearest and dearest to us know who we really are. In 2007, a Pew Research Center report said that four out of ten Americans had close friends or relatives who were gay. Two years later, a Gallup survey showed that people who know someone who is gay or lesbian are more likely to support equality. That goes for African Americans, too — including the one in the oval office.

I tend to agree with Adam Serwer that the opposition to marriage equality among African-Americans is “wide, but for the most part not particularly deep.” I’d expand on that a bit, however. Opposition to marriage equality among Africa-Americans is wide, but not nearly as deep as it used to be. That change is due to the work of activists and organizations over a number of years, and the courage of ordinary people —like David Wilson, Alicia Health-Toby and Saundra Heath-Toby, and Nigel Simon and Alvin Williams — who put a “black face” on marriage equality every day in their families, churches, and communities.

When Leaders Are Led To Lead

This all goes back to a point I made when after President Obama made his announcement.

We evolved, and the country is evolving with us. If it’s politically safer to support marriage equality now, because public support for marriage equality has increased rapidly in a just a few years, it’s because we made that happen. We evolved and have brought the country with us, one commitment ceremony or PTA meeting at a time.

Two years ago, President Barack Obama was not quite ready to say, as he did Wednesday, that he supports same sex marriage, but he conceded at the time that “attitudes evolve, including mine.” In a question and answer session with progressive bloggers in October 2010, Obama was quoted by Americablog’s Joe Sudbay saying “it’s pretty clear where the trendlines are going.”

If the president was thinking of the trends in public opinion polls, his read was dead-on. Surveys by various national media pollsters have shown a consistent, ongoing trend toward support of same-sex marriage, with slightly more Americans offering support than opposition in measurements taken over the past year.

For example, a just completed national Gallup poll fielded May 3-6 shows 50 percent in support of same-sex marriage and 48 percent opposed, slightly down from 53 percent support a year ago. As Gallup explained, the latest result marks “only the second time in Gallup’s history of tracking this question” that support exceeded opposition.

We did that.

Bob Borosage led his post with Martin Luther King’s famous quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As I’ve written before, that bend doesn’t just happen. If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, it’s because many of us have working hard to bend it in that direction. If the president is lending his hands to that work, even symbolically, I welcome him. There is no such thing as “too little, to late” in that work.

If the president had to take a public position, because public and political pressure forced his hand, it’s because our movement made him do it.

I came to Washington in 1994. It was the year after the Hawaii Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage launched the issue into the national spotlight, and the conservative right capitalized on the issue, declaring it “a major battleground of the 1990s.” The result was the Defense of Marriage Act, prohibiting the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, and absolving states from having to recognize same-sex marriages recognized in other states.

Back then, marriage equality was an issue few gay organizations wanted to touch, because the “numbers” were abysmal. No matter how we looked at the polling results, they were overwhelmingly against marriage equality. It was unthinkable, then, that in less than 20 years we would see the day when a majority of Americans support marriage equality, and our opponents are in the minority.

Yet it happened. The trend on marriage equality is clear. It happened in without the support of a sitting president. It happened because our movement — like other progressive movements before — understood that creating change is the people’s job, and made it happen.

From where I stand, something more interesting is going on. We’ve examined ourselves and found a fundamental weakness: We placed too much hope and faith in the president. It was a mistake, but not because this president has somehow betrayed us. He’s done what presidents do: governed under all the stresses of competing pressures.

It was a mistake because we—not just the president—have to be the agents of change in our society. Electoral victories without sustained movements will never address inequality, poverty, or any of the major issues we face. Abolitionists gave us abolition, not Lincoln. Powerful movements focus on issues, not on presidents. The civil rights movement gave us voting rights for blacks. The suffragette movement gave women the right to vote. The gay rights movement gave gays the right to marry and put an end to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Union victories created the modern middle class.

Increasingly, those who are engaging in this more interesting conversation are asking: How do we extend our electoral organizing beyond the elections?

This is a far more exciting question because answering it correctly will give us a chance at the real prize: building a society governed by progressive values and policies that move us all forward together.

Evolution, political or otherwise, doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens because the environment, political or otherwise, changes in such a way that means survival for those capable of adapting and extinction for those who don’t.

It’s great “when a leader actually leads” as President Obama did on same-sex marriage. But his “evolution” happened because individuals and organizations doing the day-to-day work of building and sustaining a movement changed the political environment. We made it possible, safe, and possibly even advantageous for a sitting president to endorse marriage equality, by changing our families, our communities, and the country. The movement didn’t force the president’s hand. We took the president by the hand, and brought him with us.

Political evolutions of the kind that “move us all forward together,” don’t happen from the top down. That kind of change doesn’t happen “when leaders actually lead.” It happens when leaders are led to lead. Led, that is, by people like you and me.

There’s a lesson for the progressive community in that. It’s something I plan to address in an upcoming post.

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