At a Democratic presidential forum on gay issues last year, the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart prefaced a question to Sen. Barack Obama this way: "Now, you and I both know that there's a homophobia problem in the black community." Capehart seemed to suggest that he was disclosing a shared secret, but the belief that African Americans are disproportionately hostile toward gays and lesbians is widespread.
That notion will be put to the test Nov. 4, when black voters in California -- expected to turn out in record numbers to support Obama -- also will face a proposition to put a ban on same-sex marriage in the state Constitution. The foregone conclusion, expressed by prominent gay journalist Andrew Sullivan and others, is that this means trouble for gay newlyweds.
Don't bet on it. Although ordinary polls report lower levels of support for same-sex marriage among blacks than among whites, views on same-sex marriage are a rapidly moving target that's tough to pin down, even for experts.
And a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box in the last presidential election. When constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage were on 11 state ballots in November 2004, blacks in Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio and Oklahoma were at least one percentage point less likely than whites to vote for them, according to CNN exit polls. Only in Georgia were blacks slightly more likely to vote for the amendment. (The remaining four states had too few blacks to make a meaningful comparison.)
Blacks, like whites, are divided on the issue. In March 2000, when Californians voted on Proposition 22 (the statutory ban on gay marriage that the state Supreme Court struck down in May), a Los Angeles Times exit poll showed that levels of support were very similar among the major ethnic groups, with Latinos slightly more opposed to allowing gays to marry, Asians and whites slightly less opposed, and blacks right in the middle.
But even that is no predictor. Voter turnout probably will be very different this time from 2000, when the vote overlapped with the California presidential primary. That year, Al Gore was coasting to the nomination and evangelicals came out in record numbers to vote against John McCain.
To guess how someone will vote on gay marriage, find out their age, gender, party affiliation and how often they go to church. Compared with these factors, race has a much smaller, more complex effect. In the most comprehensive study to date of black-white differences in attitudes toward homosexuality, Gregory B. Lewis of Georgia State University combined data from 31 national surveys conducted between 1973 and 2000. His study, published in Public Opinion Quarterly, concluded that "blacks appear to be more likely than whites both to see homosexuality as wrong and to favor gay-rights laws."
By invoking rights, the ballot's wording on Proposition 8 -- the title reads "Eliminates Right of Same-sex Couples to Marry" -- could turn off black voters. Proposition supporters sought a different heading, "Limit on Marriage," but a judge dismissed their case last week.
Across the country, black voters repeatedly reelect African American politicians who support gay rights. The nation's two black governors have forcefully backed gay marriage -- and each has spoken movingly about accepting gay people in his own family. Californians have seen Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums preside over an extraordinary series of weddings this summer, including the union of one lesbian couple that incorporated the traditional African American wedding practice of jumping over a broom.
Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has said African Americans in Congress are, "with no close second, the most supportive group for gays and lesbians" -- more supportive even than the gays in Congress, he added dryly, if you count those who are in the closet.
Obama, for his part, hasn't backed marriage for gays, but he did call Proposition 8 "divisive and discriminatory," whereas John McCain supports it.
Nonetheless, we can expect leaders of the religious right such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins to feature African American ministers prominently in their campaign to end gay and lesbian weddings in California.
It's a cynical strategy. Too often the media have played along. In 2004, for instance, we heard far more about the subset of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family opposed to gay marriage than about how the late Coretta Scott King denounced the "Federal Marriage Amendment" proposed by President Bush that year as "a form of gay-bashing." This year, the anti-gay gospel singer who appeared at a South Carolina concert for Obama got much more play than Obama's critique of black homophobia in remarks he gave on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
So if African Americans won't fill their media-designated role on gay marriage, what about Latinos? In California in 2000, Latinos voted to prohibit same-sex marriage at a slightly higher rate -- 3% -- than the statewide average. But in Arizona in 2006, it was just 1% higher; and in Michigan and Ohio in 2004, it was at a lower rate than blacks or whites. But none of that stopped Mike Luery, the Sacramento bureau chief for the Bay Area's NBC affiliate, from reporting in early June that according to state capital "insiders" and "several analysts," California's Latinos might be so fired up to vote against same-sex marriage that their "traditionally culturally conservative" values could cost Obama the state in November. Irresponsible at the time, this prediction seems ludicrous today, with Obama leading within this group by 40 points or more.
It is possible that California's African Americans this year, like those in Georgia four years ago, will vote for Proposition 8 in larger numbers than whites. But there is also reason to think that, as in six other states four years ago, the opposite might occur in the Golden State.
Opposition to gay rights takes culturally specific forms, and Capehart was right, of course, that there is "a homophobia problem in the black community." But it's no worse than the homophobia problem in America that belongs to all of us.
Timothy Stewart-Winter is the James C. Hormel Fellow in Lesbian and Gay Studies at the University of Chicago.
More on gay marriage
Gay marriage and the black vote
Conventional wisdom says African Americans will vote against it; recent history says don't be so sure.
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