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Obama Victory & Passage of Proposition 8

I don't know about you, but I am happy that the political season is over. The past week has been an exciting time that had many people feeling the contrasting emotions of agony and ecstasy.

Of course, the major story was the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Although most polls had him leading the race for months, there was still some concern whether those numbers of support would hold up in the privacy of the election booth, or if Obama would fall victim to the Bradley Effect, where whites claim to support black candidates but do not vote for them. To many people, his election marks the beginning of a new political era. Like many people around the world, I am curious to see what kinds of policies Obama will champion, since his message of optimism and inclusion is one that resonates with people in these challenging times.

While many celebrated Obama’s victory, their sense of triumph was tempered by the passage of initiatives banning gay marriage in three states. Although losses in Arizona and Florida were disappointing, most of the attention has been focused on California, where Proposition 8 appears to have passed with 52 percent of the vote, although up to 3 million absentee and provisional ballots have yet to be counted.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, millions of dollars were spent to defeat Proposition 8, so its passage was stunning to lots of people. In the aftermath of this setback, there are a number of strategic questions that deserve serious analysis.

Was the gay community too complacent about organizing against Proposition 8? Due to California’s reputation as a liberal oasis, many people believed that people would “do the right thing” and vote against the bill. This assumption, as well as the decision to adopt a non-confrontational tone in order to present gays as “respectable,” were contributing factors to an advertising campaign that has been described as confusing, uninspiring, and ultimately ineffective.

Did people place an inordinate emphasis on celebrity support? The entertainment industry has been one of the largest sources of support, financially and ideologically, for gay organizations. Maybe people expected figures like David Geffen, Lance Bass, Ellen Degeneres, and Rosie O’Donnell to use their influence to help defeat Proposition 8. While Hollywood did contribute a great amount of resources to the fight, perhaps their efforts should have been combined with more grass roots organizing, as was utilitized by Obama during his campaign.

Unfortunately, instead of asking these tough questions, some have opted for the easier route of scapegoating black people for Proposition 8. Exit polling data suggests that 70 percent of black voters supported Proposition 8, giving credence to the commonly-held belief that African-Americans are the most homophobic group in the country. Beyond the fact that black people comprise roughly seven percent of the state’s population, meaning the vast majority of votes for Proposition 8 came from white and Latino people, this a dangerous idea that needs to be dispelled in order for gay organizations to build the kind of coalition building necessary for progressive politics to flourish.

Blacks and gays are often said to have a complicated relationship. The civil rights movement was the model emulated by modern gay activists, and many are quick to describe gay rights as “the civil rights issue of our time.” Yet despite a legendary essay by Black Panther leader Huey Newton that voiced support for gay rights in 1970, and Jesse Jackson’s groundbreaking efforts at including gays as part of his Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s, these groups have not been able to form a lasting alliance.

This is due to a lack of outreach and understanding on both sides. Some African-Americans feel gays are “piggy-backing” off their struggles and not willing to confront racism. The relative invisibility of black LGBTs contributes to a belief that gay rights do not benefit the black community. On the other hand, the gay community often struggles to incorporate African-Americans into its organizations and media, and stories about gay bars making blacks feel unwanted date back to the 1970s. The situation makes too many black LGBTs feel like they have to “choose” or “balance” their membership among two communities instead of fully integrating their identity, a mentally and spiritually exhausting exercise that nobody should have to endure.

Much is made of black people’s involvement with churches as the reason for their homophobic attitudes. There is no denying that the church has been a very significant presence in much of black America dating back to slavery, where it was the only institution in which black people could fully participate. And some black churches did urge their members to vote against gay marriage. Yet proponents of Proposition 8 received some of their greatest support at least 40 percent of its funding, and hundreds of volunteers from the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, leading some to call for an end of their tax-exempt status. All of Califonia’s Catholic bishops spoke in favor of Proposition 8 as well. African-Americans do not run these religious organizations, but it is easier to say blacks are homophobic instead of challenging the parties truly responsible for Proposition 8.

What can be done to improve the relationship between African-Americans and gays? Building bridges often means going outside of your comfort zone. Black organizations should get to know gay people beyond the characters they see on television, and gay institutions may need to leave the comfy confines of gay ghetto a bit more often. It is challenging, but a leadership that realizes the importance of dialogue on shared principles can go a long way towards ensuring a better, more equitable future for all. From “Blackout” 11/12/08 by Anthony Rucker


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