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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Race and Question 6

The high-fives, toasts, hugs, kisses, and dancing have abated somewhat since the historic election on November 6 when Maryland voters supported Question 6 and thus, marriage equality, by over 127,000 votes.  As we turn the calendar to 2013, many of the state’s estimated 17,000 same-sex couples will tie the knot.  Cheers to them all!
This was a surprising outcome because  never had marriage equality been favored by statewide votes until last month’s election.  (We know, of course, that Maine and Washington also made history on that glorious night as did Minnesota in turning back a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage.) 

One of the issues that dominated the conversation following the signing of the Civil Marriage Protection Act and the inevitable referendum attempt in Maryland is race.  We were told from the Proposition 8 experience in 2008 that African-Americans’ opposition to same-sex marriage was a huge factor in upholding the measure that denied gay and lesbian couples the right to marry in California. 
Later analyses from exit polling and other data pointed to a different conclusion.  While more African-American voters in California supported Prop 8 than were opposed, the differential would not have impacted the ultimate result given the percentage of African-American voters in California is smaller than many other other states, especially Maryland.  Regardless, post-Prop 8 assessments indicated there was inadequate outreach to the African-American community—a lesson learned.  The chief contributor to the Prop 8 debacle besides outside money, we found out, was not the black vote but seniors.

Nonetheless, marriage equality advocates in Maryland largely marketed their campaign towards black voters who were expected to comprise around a quarter of the total voters.  Though polls showed greater support among African-Americans, advocates did not rest on those numbers.  The plan was to win over as many persuadable African-American voters as possible to mitigate the number of opponents who have strong religious beliefs against homosexuality and follow the preaching of influential church leaders.
Presenting the testimonials favoring marriage equality and its connection to fairness from two leading black pastors in TV commercials and web videos was a smart tactical decision.  This followed the public endorsements from President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden and former President Clinton.  Also joining in was a key endorsement by Benjamin Jealous of the national NAACP, civil rights icon Julian Bond, Rev. Al Sharpton and several local celebrities—an cache of big-name supporters the Prop 8 advocates lacked. 

In addition, there was a solid grass roots effort, helped out by supportive clergy, in the predominantly African-American areas to reinforce these endorsements and help repel the exposed wedge attempts on the part of the Maryland Marriage Alliance and their sponsor the National Organization for Marriage.
When the happy numbers rolled in on Election Night, it was very obvious the strategy of strong outreach to African-Americans paid off.  In predominantly African-American Baltimore City, the pro-Question 6 folks outnumbered the opponents by 57% to 43% margin.  In Prince George’s County where so many advocates feared that blacks would vote overwhelmingly against Question 6, opponents outnumbered supporters by a scant 3,000 votes out of nearly 370,000 cast.

Marriage equality supporters also held a majority in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties.  The remaining jurisdictions in the state, which are largely white, opposed the measure.  It is apparent that age and political leanings were more of a factor than race.  One could argue that we won not in spite of the black vote but because of it.

On this point, Delegate Mary Washington, the first out lesbian African-American legislator in the state’s history and a powerful leader in achieving marriage equality in Maryland, told me: “The truth here that should never be forgotten by our national and local LGBT advocates is that on Question 6, the African-American voters carried the day well above conventional wisdom and without which we could not have won this historic victory.  It is my hope that what we have done in Maryland is to begin to put to rest one of the longstanding quivers in the arsenal of the anti-marriage crowd and end race-based discrimination and avoidance in our own equality movement.”

I always thought that blacks were given a bum rap on this issue.  Although there is clear resistance to marriage equality among churchgoing African-Americans, other ethnic groups are generally non-supportive as well.  They include Hispanics, Asians, Muslims and Orthodox Jews. Those white Catholics who adhere to their hierarchy’s dogma have consistently opposed same-sex marriage. 
Those who are so-called socially conservative have done the same.  That explains the lack of support for Question 6 in the rural, traditionally conservative jurisdictions in the state.

Ethnicity aside, I believe the real opposition is in the older members of population.  Surely the younger voters under 30 support marriage equality and LGBT rights in general in a big way, and in due course, they will constitute the overwhelming majority.

Other states are poised to attempt to legalize same-sex marriage via the ballot box.  But as Mary Washington points out and the post-election numbers support, the results in Maryland should finally dispel the myth that African-Americans universally oppose marriage equality. 

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