First, Proposition 8 passed and there was a wave of gay-friendly outrage, most of which was aimed at the Mormon church, and some of which was, apparently, leveled at the African American community. Now there’s a backlash at the gays who have appeared–to some–as a pack of wild, fornicating racist assholes. The back and forth is a somewhat unprecedented, and due mostly to the fact that other than Will & Grace and the handful of TV shows and movies that have featured gay characters (or gay themes, like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model), America has not yet had the BIG GAY CONVERSATION. Even after AIDS, our country has a lot of growing up to do in terms of our discussion of queer politics. Although, it may actually be happening, like right now.
If feel obligated to revisit the issue of gays and race since part of the inspirational email I blasted out to my friends (and posted here) addressed the supposed “Obama factor,” which was a theory that the high turnout of African American voters who would turn out to support Barack Obama would generally, and to a larger degree than the general population, oppose gay marriage, which would have spelled disaster for Proposition 8.
Here’s what I wrote in my missive:
Ironically, it looks like the big African American turnout in California hurt gay rights. We cannot ignore the fact that the community overwhelmingly voted for the measure. But this should be looked at as an opportunity to really ramp up outreach within the black community, not as some kind of inevitable factor that can never be overcome. It only points out how much work there is to do to solidify equality for gays in all American communities.
I can’t see anything factually wrong with what I wrote. There was a big African American turnout in CA, and many of them did vote for the proposition, and at a rate higher than the total average. Although, I suppose my wording, “the African American turnout…hurt gay rights” [ital new], suggests blame, or at least may have led one to believe that I was trying to say that Prop 8 wouldn’t have passed without the black vote. In no way did I intend this as a scapegoat. I included this as a note of interest that reaffirmed what I already thought I knew about queer politics and race, which is that minority communities are said to be less tolerant of gay individuals within those communities (we’ll get back to this). I’m also pretty sure my conclusion was that our response to the perceived statistics should be one of responsible outreach, not divisive blame, and that we should not succumb to a belief that change within the black community is not possible.
Since I wrote this, one friend sent me this link to a response from Kathryn Kolbert, President of People for the American Way, who warns “white gay activists” against “blaming” African Americans for the passage of Prop 8. Then statistical superhero Nate Silver posted this. And now everyone’s like, gays are just pissed off and looking for people to blame.
That may be true to a certain degree. A lot of people responded with vehemence to the passing of Prop 8 (but oddly, not to the two other anti-gay measures that passed). Personally, I’m against this trend of gay activists who emphasize the emotional pain the passing of Prop 8 has inflicted, as HRC President Joel Solmonese did in his response. I don’t think we’re going to win this argument by crying or by appealing to people’s sense of niceness. If we’re going to convince the general population to support gay marriage as a civil right that is not subject to public referendum, our argument has to be clear, legal, and articulate fully why marriage is an inalienable right for same-sex couples as much as it is for heterosexual couples. That’s my position.
And the negative tenor of the outrage over Prop 8 may be due to the fact that it actually unwound constitutional rights gays had been legally granted by the state supreme court. The proposition specifically retooled the state constitution so discriminating against gays would no longer be unconstitutional. I imagine this irked a lot of people who had never campaigned for gay rights but were like, Hey, I always thought gay marriage was cool, once the state supreme court did all the work. REMEMBER: There has never been a campaign or ballot measure within that state of California that sought to legalize same-sex marriage.
But I’m not a fan of scapegoating. If anyone is to blame for the passage of Proposition 8 (and other measures like it), it’s every person who actually voted for it. Singling out the Mormon church makes sort of sense, in that the church was responsible for a majority of the funding of the anti-gay marriage campaign. But this is something where I feel, let gay friendly Mormons protest their church. Outsiders protesting a religious organization that itself is a recipient of social prejudice in this country just comes off as too lynch-mobby for my taste; this is the reason I didn’t attend the Lincoln Center area protest in New York, because of its intentional proximity to the Mormon church on 65th street (although I am attending the one today at City Hall).
Likewise, I’m not into “blaming” the black community for the passage of Proposition 8. And further evidence and analysis shows that even had African Americans in California voted in the way that the general population voted, there still wouldn’t have been enough votes to shoot down the ballot measure. So we can definitely say now, the black vote did not cause Proposition 8 to be passed. Phew. That’s great to hear. But we still have some unfinished business.
First, where did this “Obama factor” idea come from in the first place? Did it just materialize out of the hot tempers of scorned gay on November 5th?
On September 20, The New York Times published this article by Jesse McKinley. Now, I’m not scapegoating The Times! Nor am I suggesting that this article is coining the term “Obama factor.” I bring it up as an example of an idea that had been floating around the media well before November 4. Within the article, it’s clear that both supporters and detractors of Prop 8 concerned themselves with what they anticipated would be a minority vote that favored the passage of the bill. One “Yes on Prop 8” latino leader even proudly bragged that Prop 8 wouldn’t pass without the minority vote.
This idea, clearly not backed by any solid statistical data (as now we know), didn’t just materialize out of the depths of white racist angst. If you’ve had any involvement in queer politics or queer studies in the past ten years, you would have heard over and over that minority communities are supposed to be less tolerant of gays within their own circles. Effectively, it’s supposed to be more difficult for black and latino individuals to come out than it is for white middle class folks. This is a meme that is taken for granted within the gay community, not as a cause for racist blame-gaming, but as a cause for sensitivity toward the needs of minority gays, and for outreach within minority communities. This is probably the single reason why predictions of the “Obama factor” weren’t singled out as racist and ignorant before the election, because it was already common knowledge that minorities are more anti-gay on average than white communities are on average. At least, that’s what we assumed.
But once Prop 8 passed, and the “Obama factor” was cited as one of the causes, there was an immediate backlash against the idea–against gays–even though everyone on both sides had already been predicting that it would be a factor!
This happened, in part, because some level minded people showed how, statistically, the factor didn’t doom gay marriage on its own. But also, I think the vociferous response from gay rights supporters, combined with uninformed but not entirely inaccurate ideas about how minorities voted, caused some to view those who cited the Obama factor as one of the factors in the passing of Prop 8 as latently racist accusations from a hurt community of gay people. I haven’t heard or read any pro-gay marriage rhetoric that sounds even remotely racist. It may be out there, but I have not come across it.
I also think that, after Obama’s election, there was a wave of sentiment that sought to deter people from viewing Obama’s success as at all problematic, or complicated, which it was. Obama’s candidacy had always been problematic, for a wealth of reasons. Whether it was how far center he moved on certain issues once he got the nomination, or how he routinely delivered stern reprimands to the African American community for what he perceived to be a lapse in familial responsibility, or how he found a way to both oppose gay marriage and oppose Proposition 8. This isn’t to say that I think Barack Obama wasn’t the best candidate for the Presidency: He absolutely was. But, he’s still a far cry from being flawless or simple.
And so, even as we accept that the African American vote did not pass Proposition 8 all on its own, where does that leave us in terms of our conversation about race and queer politics?
I don’t think it wise to assume that because the “Obama factor” isn’t to blame for the passing of Prop 8, then we don’t need to be concerned about the level of opposition to gay rights in minority communities.
If it’s harder for gays to come out in African American communities, then gay people won’t be coming out to their friends and families. And since it’s proven that people who know gay people are more likely to support gay rights issues, then it makes sense that to see an improvement in the minority vote, we need to concentrate efforts toward opening up minorities toward gay people within their communities. It should still be a goal to improve how minorities regard homosexuality. But I think a lot of the anti-Obama-factor rhetoric has a tendency to gloss over or deny that the problem exists in the first place, and at the very worst, concludes that gay rights don’t need the African American vote anyway. This is preposterous.
We don’t need a backlash against gays right now, who already received three very serious blows…err…maybe there’s a better way to phrase that.
Nor am I calling for a triple backlash against those who are backlashing the backlashers.
I’m only calling for broadening the scope of this conversation while also dialing down the emotional charge: on all sides.
We should be elated that a wedge issue has turned into a national soul-search in terms of gays rights as civil rights. If you feel inclined, head out to one of the many rallies being held today. If not, have a conversation on your own terms, maybe just with yourself.
These are exciting times, which, btw, are not always the easiest times.
Here’s to facing things.