Poll Shows Blacks More Tolerant of Gays. (Sorry, GOP.)

Terrance Heath

Word to conservatives: Don’t bother trying to peddle your divisive politics to African-Americans; it won’t work anymore. A post-election poll conducted by The Economist suggests that social issues may no longer be an effective means for Republicans to get Black voters on board. (Further evidence suggests that the same goes for Latinos.)

A co-worker handed me a page from the survey a couple of days ago, and pointed out some interesting data showing wide gap between black and white voters on one question: “Do you think openly gay people should be allowed to hold each of the following jobs?”

In each case, the “No” answers were well below 50 percent. So, the overwhelming majority of respondents were fine with gay people as Members of Congress, Army generals, CIA Directors, CEOs, university professors, big city mayors, business managers, and ministers.

That was encouraging in and of itself. But things got even more interesting when the respondents were broken out according to race. It turns out that only 29 percent of African American respondents said “No” to a gay person being minister of a church. (That goes for 29 percent of Latino respondents, too.) Let that sink in for a minute. Only 29 percent of African Americans objected to the idea of a gay minister — compared to 43 percent of Whites.

At first I was surprised, but as I thought about it I realized both recent events and my own personal story bore out what the data suggested: It’s been a long time coming, but a change is coming. In fact, it may already be here.

Long Time Coming, But…

The day after the election was one of sweet victories. As a Maryland resident, one of the sweetest was the historic victory for marriage equality. As an African American and a gay man, it was especially gratifying to see the NAACP endorse marriage equality, and to see prominent African-American ministers support marriage equality — even going so far as to film television spots urging voters to pass Question 6.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLV1nLI6ql05zlvz9PxcAbirbuG-aTS6-3&w=420]

As an African-American gay man raised in the South, and brought up in the Black church, seeing African-American civic and religious leaders speak up for marriage equality was nothing short of a miracle.

It wasn’t that long ago that President George W. Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — just in time for the 2004 election. That year anti-equality amendments were on the ballot in 11 states. All of them passed. Bush and the GOP also used marriage equality to drive a wedge between Democrats and African American voters. They succeeded in increasing Bush’s African-American support from 9 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004 (and from 9 percent to 16 percent, in Ohio).

Eight years later, the nation’s first African American president endorsed marriage equality. Black ministers warned that supporting marriage equality would cost Obama the Black vote, and the election along with it. Some ministers even told their congregations not to bother voting, since they’d have to chose between a Mormon and a candidate who supported marriage equality. Not only did Obama get reelected, but he got 93 percent of the African American vote, thanks to a massive African-American turnout.

The National Organization for Marriage tried to exploit marriage equality as a wedge issue, as in the past. This time around, that tactic failed miserably.

Not only did Black voters help reelect Obama, but Black and Latino voters played a major role in the marriage equality victories in Maryland — reflecting a shift towards majority support for marriage equality among both groups.

When California voted for a gay marriage ban in 2008, 70 percent of African Americans voted for it, and when North Carolina overwhelmingly passed a similar measure earlier this year, many cited the black vote as a big reason. (Shortly after the ban passed in North Carolina, President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage.)

On Tuesday in Maryland, though, 46 percent of African Americans supported gay marriage. And according to national exit polls, 52 percent of both black and Latino voters who turned out Tuesday said they support gay marriage in their states.

(The largest shift came from black women, of which 59 percent now support gay marriage, compared to 42 percent of black men — a huge gender gap.)

That’s a big turnaround from recent years. In 2008 and 2009, a Pew Research Center survey showed just 28 percent of African Americans and 39 percent of Latinos backed gay marriage. And by 2010, support in those communities was rising slower than it was among whites.

There are, I think, at least a couple of reasons why African-American voters help make the difference on marriage equality in this election.

R-I-T-E-S vs. R-I-G-H-T-S

As some of the ministers in one of the Maryland television spots said repeatedly: “We have not forgotten.” Backing voter ID laws may have backfired on the GOP in at least two significant ways. First, it galvanized African-American voters, making them more determined to vote. Second, it reminded African-American voters how their own civil rights were denied generations ago, and how easily they could be denied again. It’s possible that the result was that African-American voters made the connection between marriage equality and civil rights.

The majority of African Americans now support gay marriage because they see it as a civil rights issue, claims a prominent black campaigner in the US.

Ben Jealous, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), says surveys show that most black Americans favor the legislation which has already been passed in several states.

A poll by the Pew Research Center found that 51% of African Americans nationwide now endorse gay marriage rights, while 41% oppose it.

While among whites, 47% favored and 49% opposed the idea.

The research found support had doubled since 2008 when most black voters were in favor of a same-sex marriage ban and opposed the lifting of Proposition 8.

‘We’re talking about it as a civil rights issue,’ Jealous told reporters during a visit to San Francisco last week.

Ben Jealous’ comments are echoed by the ministers in the videos above. Perhaps because they remember that religion was used to justify both slavery and segregation, ministers like Marlyand’s Rev. Delman Coates opposed the use religion to deny equality to another group.

On Nov. 6, 2012, 148 years after becoming “The Free State,” voters in the state of Maryland will have an opportunity to make history by becoming the first state in the Union to pass a marriage equality law at the voting booth, thereby extending the guarantees of equality to gay and lesbian couples in our state. Admittedly, I find the idea of voting on someone else’s civil rights a bit disconcerting because when the rights of a minority are submitted to a majority vote, all too often the minority loses. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that Marylanders will allow fairness to be the guiding principle informs their support for Question 6 on the ballot referendum.

As an African American Christian pastor, I cannot stand on the side of those who would attempt to justify legalized discrimination under the guise of religious belief. The denial of rights to some based upon religious belief sets the precedent for the denial of rights to others based upon religious belief as well, and that would be a very dangerous public policy precedent to establish in America. As a Christian in America, I believe that my charge is to live in my faith, not to legislate it, and as long as the state does not seek to regulate the church, the church should not seek to regulate the state.

I urge Marylanders to vote for Question 6 because it does not force any religious institution or clergy person to acknowledge, affirm, or perform same-sex marriages if it is against their religious practices and beliefs. Marriage equality is about preserving the integrity of our democracy. As a nation, we cannot spend billions of dollars to export freedom abroad, and then enact laws that deny freedom to fellow Americans here at home. That is not right. We cannot have one set of laws for some, and another set of laws for others. That is not right.

Rev. Nelson B. Rivers of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in Charleston, SC, showed that African-Americans can make the distinction between the religious “rite” of marriage and the equal right to civil marriage.

At Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, S.C., the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III supports and follows his African-American congregation’s policy: They will only conduct marriages between one man and one woman.

But the vice president of the NAACP also backed his civil rights organization’s recent statement supporting “marriage equality.”

“We see no conflict in that,” Rivers said, “because I am the leader of the r-i-t-e at my church, the rites, but I’m also a strong advocate of the r-i-g-h-t-s of my members.”

Disappearing Acts

There is another reason for the shift among African-American voters, that hits closer to home. Rev. Coates told the Baltimore Sun a personal story illustrated another reason why Black voters have “evolved” on marriage equality.

He also had a personal connection to the question. Growing up, Coates enjoyed a close bond with a relative who suddenly stopped coming to family events when they both went off to college.

“He disappeared,” Coates said.

He eventually learned that the relative was gay and HIV-positive. Nobody in the family wanted to talk about it.

“I wrestled with that code of silence that many families have when somebody is different,” he said. “I didn’t want the church to be that way.”

Essex Hemphill wrote about invisibility and that disappearing act in his poem “Commitments.”

I am the invisible son.
In the family photos
nothing appears out of character.
I smile as I serve my duty.

Growing up Black, gay, and Baptist in the South was a painful experience to say the least. After coming out to myself around the age of 13, I had to deal with the heavy reality that I could lose the support of my family and community if I didn’t “keep it in the closet.” So, I did. All the while I quietly endured sermons and scriptures that reinforced what I understood would be a heavy penalty for coming out any further.

I stole away to the public library to discover books that reassured me: (a) that there wasn’t anything “wrong” with me,” (b) that I wasn’t alone, and (c) that there were places where I could find community and build a life. So, I waited. As soon as I got my high school diploma in hand, I left for college, came out, and never looked back.

Over the years, I distanced myself from my family and community of origin. Much like Coates’ cousin, I “disappeared” from my family for months, and later years at a time.

Black gay poet Joesph Beam wrote about the personal price of that disappearing act, in his essay “Brother to Brother: Words From the Heart,” from the In The Life anthology.

I am angry because of the treatment I am afforded as a black man. That anger is stoked additionally by fuels of contempt and despisal shown me by my community because I am gay. I cannot go home as who I am.

Coming Home As Who We Are

The result that Reverends Coates and Hickman saw in their churches, as a result of their advocacy suggest that a change has come, and a homecoming is underway.

On Oct. 9, a day after opponents began airing their commercials, Marylanders for Marriage Equality debuted its advertising campaign with the message from the two black pastors.

The group spent about $800,000 a week on television time, and Hickman and Coates remained on the air for most of the campaign.

Backlash came swiftly. And it was personal, Coates said.

“It’s been tough with some peers and colleagues,” he said. “Statements that I’m not a true preacher. I’m not part of the church. A range of judgments and attacks.”

He says critics predicted that Coates and Hickman would destroy their ministries.

Since word of the campaign spread, both pastors have had to add services on Sunday to accommodate increased demand.

During a post-election interview on NPR, Rev. Coats revealed how much his congregation had grown.

MARTIN: So, Reverend Coates, I will begin with you because you are a major supporter of the ballot measure and I’m just wondering, within your congregation, what was the reaction, both to the issue itself and to your decision to take the position that you did?

COATES: There’s been overwhelming support. When I came out in support for marriage equality in February, many of my colleagues thought I had committed professional suicide. They thought my career, my ministry was over. This has actually been the best year in the history of our church. We have had over 1,000 people join our church in the first 10 months of this year. Largely in part, people have expressed their appreciation for having a pastor who takes principled stances, even when it’s not popular.

People do not want to be on the side of codifying discrimination as a part of the law, even if they may have personal religious views on this issu

The reason why Revs. Coates and Hickman had to add services, and why Coates saw his membership jump by more than 1,000, has to do with the role of the church in the Black community; as a refuge from the racism encountered in rest of the world. The church has long been a refuge from racism for generations of African Americans. Growing up, I remember it as a place where our worth was affirmed, our gifts celebrated, and negative message about race were countered.
Now, I think the Black church is starting to serve as a different kind of refuge. The dramatic growth in Coates’ congregation, coming on the heels of his public advocacy of marriage equality reflects a growing desire among African-Americans for places where they can nurture their spirits without having to hear themselves and/or their loved ones — their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, relatives, friends, co-workers, etc. — degraded and maligned.

African-American are “evolving” on LGBT issues, and it’s not entirely because of the “Obama effect,” though certainly the president’s public stand set an example and made it easier for other leaders to stand up. It’s happening because more and more of us have come out. A Gallup poll released in October revealed that African-Americans are more likely to identify as LGBT.

Does that mean “black homophobia” is overstated? Perhaps it’s always been overstated. I do not believe African-Americans are “more homophobic” than any other group. I used to, based on my personal experience. But after reading Horace Griffin’s book, Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches, and understood the roots of homophobia among African-Americans, and the reasons for its vehemence.

Now, it’s becoming a moot question. A growing number of African-Americans are among the 60 percent of Americans who say they have gay friends and family members (as opposed to the 40 percent who just don’t know it yet), and knowing someone gay makes people more likely to support equality.

More and more of us are “coming home as who we are,” and that’s making all the difference.

We ARE Family

I’ve seen the shift play out in my own family. A Thanksgiving visit to Georgia this year brought it home to me how much has changed.

My father never accepted my orientation. That wall existed between us right up to the day he died. I’ll never forget finding a signed picture of George W. Bush among my father’s belongings after his death. Above the signature was a note thanking my father, a lifelong Democrat, for his contribution to the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign. I had no doubt in my mind that same-sex marriage was the sole reason for my father breaking with a his lifelong support for Democrats.

My mother is a different story, though she started out in the same position as my father. In the beginning, she objected to me bringing my family with me for a visit, until I explained that respecting my family was a prerequisite for being a part of my life. Plus, I did not want to deny them a chance to see their grandson. It wasn’t a happy visit. (My husband noted that, in a picture taken moments before we drove to my parents’ home for our first visit, that I had the look of a man going to his execution.) But I wanted my parents to see their grandchild, our first born.

Afterwards, my sister told me that upon being told that my husband and I were adopting our first son, my mother declared it a sign of the “end times.”

Five years later, after my father’s death, when I called to tell my mother that we had adopted our youngest son, and that she had yet another grandchild, she astounded me by insisting that we send her pictures, and saying, “Well, I wish you both the best of luck in raising them, because most important thing is that children have good parents.” It wasn’t until I’d hung up the phone that I realize that my mother — who has for years volunteered to help and mentor young, single mothers in crisis — was talking about us, when she talked about good parents.

Two years after that, I called my mother to tell her that we going to be legally married in Washington, DC, because the Maryland attorney general had issued a decision that Maryland would recognize legal same-sex marriages certified in other states. I knew there was a good chance that our wedding would be in the media, and she might even see us on television. My mother surprised me again by giving us her blessing, and saying “I know that will help you with benefits.” (Being a widow, she understood the importance of benefits and inheritance, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the Defense of Marriage Act still denied us most federal benefits, like Social Security, etc.)

And last week, I brought my family back to Georgia for a Thanksgiving visit, and made it a special point to take the family to visit my mother at her home. She received us warmly, but I was particularly moved when I called to tell her we’d arrived back home, and she took the time to tell me what a wonderful job we’re doing as parents.

This is the woman who thought the idea of us raising a child was a sign of the “end times,” ten years ago. Not bad for a 79-year-old woman.

The rest of the family is also up to speed. My brother and sister were supportive and accepting long before I came out to my parents, let alone married and started a family. Their kids must have picked it up from them, because they’ve never batted an eye, and call my husband “uncle” just like they would if we were a heterosexual couple. This Thanksgiving they were more interested in playing with their two cousins from Washington, DC, and in an old married couple like us.

Why? Because we’re family, that’s why.

And I think that’s why the GOP’s divisive politics aren’t going to work with African-American voters anymore. More and more of us now see those cynical efforts for what they are. And more and more of us understand that when conservatives attack gay people they’re attacking our people — our family, friends, and loved ones.

And we just aren’t having that anymore.

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