The day after President Barack Obama's groundbreaking announcement Wednesday that he supports gay marriage, I received calls from people eager to weigh in on the issue. One wanted to know if I thought Obama would lose support from black voters for backing same-sex marriage. Another complained that once again the media had made sweeping generalizations about the black community's views on gay marriage in particular and homosexuality in general.
For the record, I don't think that President Obama will lose a significant amount of support from black voters because of his stance on gay marriage. That's largely because I don't think blacks are the ignorant homophobes the media has portrayed them to be. I've made this point before and have been vilified by some who've taken it to mean that I don't think heterosexism is an issue in the black community. I certainly think it is, but it's not a problem exclusive to African Americans. Blacks don't exist in a vacuum and if heterosexism is a problem in the black community, it's because it's an issue in society at large. I can't count the number of times as both a student and an educator, I heard white youths use the word "gay" as a put down or even f----t and then look at me like I've gone batty for objecting. It's even difficult to watch a mindless television show without getting a hearty dose of homophobia. On predominantly white sitcoms such as "The Big Bang Theory," "New Girl," "Friends" or "King of Queens," the running joke is always that the male characters have behaved "gay" in some way and that homoerotic undertones color their male relationships. The message is that being gay is gross and therefore hilarious. Yet, I'm supposed to think of homophobia as just a black thing?
As I've said before I think the blacks likely to oppose gay rights are no different from the whites, Latinos and Asians likely to oppose gay rights. They tend to be older, more religious and socially conservative. Unfortunately the mainstream media tends not to take a nuanced look at voting blocs. Rather than point out that older, evangelical black voters oppose gay marriage and that a large share of black voters are religious, they say black people (which translates to all black people) oppose marriage equality. This time around, though, some media outlets are pushing back. Black websites such as The Root have featured news pieces that explore how the black community really feels about gay rights.
Aisha Moodie-Mills, adviser for LGBT policy and racial justice at the Center for American Progress, has said that she does "not believe the black community is any more homophobic than any other community." She acknowledges, however, that members of the community do need more education on gay rights. Still, she doubts that Obama will lose his loyal following among black voters for speaking out in favor of gay marriage.
"There's been a lot of unfounded conjecture that black support for the president will wane substantially, with absolutely no data to substantiate that," she told The Root. She pointed out that blacks didn't turn away from Obama when he repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or back in 2008 when he spoke out against Proposition 8, California's gay marriage ban.
"The conservative strategy has been to pit black folks against gay folks, to erode the president's base," said Moodie-Mills. "These are the same conservatives who are also trying to disenfranchise black folks by pushing voter-suppression laws and reducing safety-net programs that support a lot of black families who are struggling. When you pull that wool from people's eyes, people get that this is an effort to manipulate our community."
I received similar feedback when I wrote a piece for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in December 2011 on how the media can improve its coverage of African Americans and gay rights. Then, Maya Rupert, federal policy attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told me that by pitting blacks and gays against each other, those truly responsible for the oppression of both groups evade responsibility.
They can say, "It's actually not us," Rupert remarked. "It's really one minority oppressing another minority. They can both attack the black community for being narrow-minded and behind the times and also shield themselves from blame."