Commentary: Blacks Won't Abandon Obama Over Gay Marriage

President Obama's support of same-sex marriage may have been the worst kept secret in Washington.

Posted: 05/09/2012 01:18 PM EDT
Keith Boykin on Obama and gay marriage.

President Obama supports same-sex marriage.

There, I said it. I couldn't prove it when I wrote those words Wednesday morning, but I knew it in my heart. So did everybody else. In fact, it was the worst kept secret in Washington until President Obama finally said it Wednesday afternoon.

Without Obama's evolution, we would have faced more awkward situations like the ones this week where Vice President Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan both acknowledged their support for gay marriage when asked about it during separate television interviews. And just about everyone else, from Michelle Obama on down, has already hinted that they, too, support same-sex marriage. All this is happening against a backdrop where President Obama came out against a divisive constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman that passed in North Carolina on Tuesday.

So if President Obama supports gay marriage, what took him so long to say it?

I've heard two common arguments explaining how the marriage question might affect the November elections. First, some fear that white Independents in critical swing states like North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio may be turned off by a presidential announcement for marriage equality. Second, others argue that Black voters, especially Black evangelicals, may not vote for Obama if he comes out for gay marriage.

The first argument is debatable. Polls show that 57 percent of Independents actually support gay marriage. True, some swing voters may be turned off if Obama were to support same-sex marriage publicly, but that could possibly be overcome by increased enthusiasm and turnout among young voters, who overwhelmingly do support gay marriage, and also by increased financial support from LGBT voters, who would like the president to sharpen the distinction between himself and Mitt Romney.  

The second argument just isn't true at all.

I don't care what anybody says, Black people are not leaving Barack Obama. While some conservative groups secretly plot to divide Blacks against gays to defeat Obama, they fail to understand that Blacks are politically progressive and socially conservative. Just because some Blacks oppose same sex marriage doesn't mean they're going to vote Republican.

Despite the popular media depiction of widespread Black homophobia, polls have long shown the African-American community to be more nuanced. African-Americans actually do support basic civil rights for gays and lesbians. As far back as 1994, Blacks were actually more supportive than whites (57% to 51%) of allowing gays to serve openly in the military. That's because Blacks tend to see issues of employment discrimination as political, not just social or moral.

African-Americans also have a history of supporting Black elected officials who support gay civil rights. Deval Patrick, the first Black governor of Massachusetts, has been one of the leading political advocates for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights in the nation, and the Black community has consistently supported him. In New York, former Gov. David Paterson, the first Black governor of the state, led the early fight for same-sex marriage, and that decision did not cause Black voters to abandon him.

Over the years, Congressional Black Caucus members, big city mayors, and many other Black leaders have come out for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, without losing their credibility in the African-American community. When Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun ran for president in 2004, they both supported same-sex marriage as well.

Tuesday's vote in North Carolina further exposes the African-American dichotomy between the politically progressive side and the socially conservative side. As NBC News reported, some majority Black counties that strongly backed Obama in 2008 just as strongly supported Amendment One on Tuesday. For example, one overwhelmingly Black county voted for Obama with 70 percent in 2008 but backed the constitutional amendment defining marriage by 70 percent on Tuesday. And in another mostly Black county that voted for Obama with 64 percent in 2008, the amendment passed with 68 percent on Tuesday.

We saw the same trend in California in 2008, where Blacks voted for the anti-gay Proposition 8 but still voted for Obama in the presidential election. Those numbers suggest that African Americans won't abandon Obama if he comes out for same sex marriage.

In some ways, African Americans have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on sexual orientation, which can be seen most clearly in the Black church. On any given Sunday, you might hear a Black preacher in the pulpit deliver a fire-and-brimstone, hell-and-damnation sermon. But if you look behind the pastor, you'll see Black gay men in the choir, on the piano, at the organ, and directing the music. You'll also see them filling the pews and serving on the usher board.

Many of our Black churches would have to shut down if not for the participation of Black gay members. That's why the Black church can be, at times, the most homo-tolerant institution in the Black community, and also the most homophobic. Ever since Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined forces in the 1950s with his strategist Bayard Rustin, who was gay, Black gay men have played a visible, complicated and leading role in our politics and our churches.

Although the church may be complicated, politics isn't. Nothing in our history suggests that Black people will turn against a Black leader who comes out for gay rights. President Obama may have had some other reason to withhold his support for same-sex marriage until Wednesday, but a fear of a Black backlash should not have been one of them.

 

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

 

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