By Steve Charing
When compared to previous ballot initiatives in the U.S. that amended state constitutions by limiting marriages to a man and a woman, Proposition 8 was a squeaker. With a relatively thin margin of 4 % California turned back the clock on their Supreme Court’s edict and banned same-sex marriage.
Yes, it was close compared to the blowouts in the other states where gay marriage was put to a vote, and California’s passage is arguably the most disheartening to gay activists and their allies. Since the California Supreme Court ruled in May that gays and lesbians cannot be denied the right to marry based on the state’s Constitution, some 18,000 couples tied the knot. The legal status of their marriages are unclear at this point.
The recent vote sparked angry but largely peaceful demonstrations particularly in Southern California. Gays, lesbians and allies marched in the streets and protested the role of the Mormon (hardly the vanguards of traditional marriage) and Catholic churches for their oversized monetary contributions to fund anti-gay marriage advertising, often using scare tactics to win votes. Some protesters turned their anger on various Mormon Church buildings.
As the demonstrators marched, the blame game began in earnest. Gay activists not only targeted the aforementioned religious organizations and their followers, but also African-Americans for voting "Yes" on Prop 8 by the margin they did.
Blacks blamed the "No on Prop 8" leadership for failing to adequately market their message to people of color.
Southern California gays accused San Francisco gays for not turning out to the polls in higher numbers.
Even Elton John was blamed for arguing the term "marriage" in the context of same-sex couples was a turn-off to voters.
Yes, there has been more finger pointing than a Three Stooges film festival.
There is sufficient blame to go around. With the election of Barack Obama as the backdrop, African-Americans in California voted for Prop 8, i.e. for the ban on same-sex marriage, by the widest margin of any group: 70%-30% (Hispanics supported the measure by 53%-47% and Asians and Caucasians opposed it by 51%-49%). That plus the higher turnout of blacks voting for the African-American candidate was seen by some as the reason for the measure’s passage.
But according to Nate Silver, the proprietor of the exceptional political numbers-crunching website fivethirtyeight.com, the black vote did not swing the results of Prop 8 one way or the other. "At the end of the day, Prop 8’s passage was more a generational matter than a racial one," wrote Silver. "If nobody over the age of 65 had voted, Prop 8 would have failed by a point or two." Blacks accounted for only 13% of the total vote.
One can argue that the 2-point plurality by white voters against Prop 8 was too narrow to overcome conservative ethnic groups, and that allowed it to pass. It is interesting that in the aftermath of the election a group called "Join the Impact" was formed in a matter of days. It organized the recent nationwide protest of the Prop 8 debacle. This protest covered some 300 cities around the country and garnered some one million demonstrators.
Imagine if such a visible nationwide show of unity was formed prior to the election. Call it "United for Equality." Think of the impression that would have been made on the general population as well as California voters by hundreds of thousands of gays, lesbians and supporters of all stripes peacefully waving placards.
The speeches by activists, politicians, couples and clergy would have helped make the case and could have influenced those who were on the fence. Even if such an event was held just in California before the election, how things may have turned out differently.
This is all Monday morning quarterbacking to be sure. What we don’t need is to blame the failure to achieve marriage equality in California on race.
But we should address the race issues that have been embedded in the gay community for too long. African-Americans have rightly pointed to examples of racism on the part of white gays and lesbians.
White gays are correct to assail the homophobia emanating from the pulpits of conservative black churches. Consequently, the weakest link within the Democratic Party when it comes to equality for gays and lesbians are that many African-American elected officials are not on board with our cause based on their religious beliefs, which stifles progress.
This is an incredibly complex and delicate problem, and it’s not just religion-based. While many socially liberal African-Americans may be otherwise supportive of our goals, they often resent the comparison of our quest for equality to the civil rights movement. And black gays and lesbians must endure the dual cultural experiences of both homophobia and racism.
What is needed is a dialogue to find common ground and try to end the divide. That won’t be easy, but it’s worth a shot. Blacks and whites need to reach out and come together.
The spirit of Obama’s election should help. Hope is great but action is better. And it’s better than simply pointing fingers.