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Are Blacks Evolving on Gay Marriage?

Research shows African-American support for gay marriage is stronger than ever.

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Are Blacks Evolving on Gay Marriage?

Marriage Equality Poster

Cary Bass/Flickr.com

The amount of stereotypes about African Americans is so long, it’s hard to imagine that more could be added to the list. After Election Day 2008, however, the idea that blacks are more homophobic than other groups swept the nation. That’s because it initially appeared that a disproportionate number of black voters in California backed a measure to ban gay marriage in the state. While subsequent analysis of exit polls disproved that idea, the generalization that blacks are largely homophobic continued to pick up steam. Four years afterward, research signals that there’s statistically very little difference in the percentages of blacks and whites who oppose same-sex marriage.

President Barack Obama has said his views on same-sex marriage are evolving, as evidenced by his statement in support of such unions in May 2012. The black community’s views on marriage equality appear to have evolved as well, with unprecedented numbers of African Americans choosing to support gay marriage. What’s responsible for their evolution? Prominent blacks such as the Rev. Al Sharpton voicing support for same-sex marriage and the gay community’s outreach to African Americans has contributed to the trend. There’s also the notion, espoused by Aisha Moodie-Mills of the Center for American Progress, that blacks to begin with were never significantly more homophobic than others.

Villains of the Proposition 8 Controversy

What kick started the stereotype that African Americans are homophobes? In the early years of the 21st century, the media devoted much coverage to a phenomenon called the down low, a term that describes closeted gay men who pretend to be heterosexual. Much of the media coverage suggested that this trend mostly involved black men despite the fact that many high profile whites, including former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey and evangelical pastor Ted Haggard lived in the closet for years before being exposed in scandalous circumstances. Blacks continued to develop a reputation for being virulently homophobic in 2008 when the media reported that 7 out of 10 black voters in California backed Proposition 8, a state ban on same-sex marriage. In January 2009, however, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on a study conducted by academics at New York University and Hunter College of New York for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force which found that in actuality 58 percent of black voters supported Prop. 8. That figure was just slightly higher than the statewide level of support for the measure (52 percent).

“Party identification, age, religiosity and political view had much bigger effects than race, gender or having gay and lesbian family and friends,” explained NYU researcher Patrick Egan.

Blacks Evolving on Gay Marriage

As times passes, larger numbers of Americans support gay marriage. Blacks are no exception. A Wall Street Journal poll about blacks’ views on same-sex marriage found that in 2009 just 32 percent of blacks supported same-sex marriage. In March 2012, 50 percent of blacks backed gay marriage. A Pew Research Center poll released in April 2012 offered even more insight into blacks’ opinions on same-sex marriage. It measured views on gay marriage in three presidential election years: 2004, 2008 and 2012. In 2004, 67 percent of blacks opposed gay marriage. That number dropped to 63 percent in 2008 and to 49 percent in 2012. Given that 43 percent of whites opposed same-sex marriage in 2012, blacks can’t be said to be extremely behind the times in terms of marriage equality.

What About the North Carolina Gay Marriage Ban?

North Carolina voters passed a gay marriage ban known as Amendment One in May 2012. That blacks reportedly backed the ban by a 2-to-1 ratio indicates that they haven’t made as much progress as pollsters think on gay rights. But David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, put the situation into context during an interview for The Root. He pointed out, for example, that most voters who turned out during this primary election were Republican and therefore much less likely to support gay marriage. Bositis told The Root, “The speaker of the House in North Carolina admitted that they put it on the primary ballot because if they’d put it on the general-election ballot, it probably would have lost.” Moreover, just 34 percent of the North Carolina electorate turned out for the primary, which is hardly representative of the state as a whole, let alone the black community there.

Bositis stressed that the primary concerns of black voters are jobs and the economy. There’s no reason to conclude that black voters are organizing around gay rights issues. They’ve remained loyal to President Barack Obama despite his opposition to Prop. 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act and his eagerness to strike down “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“In surveys on what African-American voters consider to be the most important problems in the country, which I often ask when I poll, gay marriage does not even show up,” Bositis said.

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