Gay Marriage Won't Stop Black Voters

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

(The Root) — As soon as ABC aired President Obama's May sit-down with Robin Roberts in which he gave his personal endorsement to same-sex marriage, the concern-trolling started: Will this stance hurt him with black voters, who are crucial to his re-election success? Black folks, so the conventional wisdom goes, are conservative on this issue and might stay home rather than re-up with Obama.


North Carolinians voted to ban gay marriage just a few days before the president's statement, and a lot of hay was made over the fact that black voters supposedly voted 2-to-1 for the ban. See! This could be a serious electoral problem for Obama among his base! (Roberts herself even said to the president that this was "a difficult conversation to have" in the black community.)

And so it went. Last week The Root's Keli Goff posed the question to Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus. Then the Associated Press spoke to a bunch of black pastors who said it was possible that black Christians might sit out this election. Just Monday, NPR chatted with the Rev. Derek McCoy, a Maryland pastor who runs a group opposed to same-sex marriage and is trying to defeat a ballot initiative there that would legalize it. McCoy said that he has heard pastors call for people to sit out this November.

But this hypothetical voter sit-out is not a real thing.

Tellingly, Cleaver told Goff that the number of people who might not vote would be "insignificant"; none of the pastors the AP spoke to named a single Obama supporter who said that he or she would abstain from voting; and McCoy was left awkwardly trying to explain how this was a serious issue for people of faith but, uh, he totally wasn't advocating that people stay home and not vote.

And what about all those black North Carolinians who voted to ban gay marriage? That number appears to have been made up. No, seriously: The Politico story in which that number first appeared didn't say where it came from, and ABC reported that there was no exit polling done in North Carolina for that vote.

This hardy little narrative about blacks and gay marriage rests upon the notion that anti-gay sentiment in African-American communities has unique properties, that it is fueled by some special black ignorance. And this notion seeps unchallenged into our cultural discourse. It's why, when gay students are greeted with chilly receptions at Morehouse College, the subsequent conversations are about black people's inclination toward a dislike of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) people rather than the peculiar ecosystem of a Baptist-influenced institution of higher education with a self-selecting population.


It's why, when CNN's Don Lemon came out, he could say with little pushback that the decision was fraught for him because "in the black community they think you can pray the gay away" — as if the "ex-gay" movement is somehow the singular province of prayerful Negroes.

It's the reason the "down-low"-brothers-as-vectors-of-HIV myth received such credulous treatment in the mainstream media, as if "the closet" were an invention as black as jazz and as if health officials hadn't debunked the whole theory anyway.


It's why, when a prominent black pastor denounces gay marriage, it's taken as some sort of neat shorthand about the broader attitudes of his race in a way that a random white evangelical leader's similar proclamation would not. Our homophobia is more potent and obdurate, this premise goes, and not just a mundane old ugliness.

The less-sexy story here is that there's virtually no evidence that any prominent black leaders who have backed same-sex marriage — Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, California Attorney General Kamala Harris — have faced any measurable backlash from black voters for doing so. And black folks' support for gay marriage has grown more robust, just as attitudes on gay marriage have in every other demographic group. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll (pdf) from March found that black support for gay marriage had jumped way up since October 2009, from 32 percent to 50 percent.


Then Obama made his announcement, and the needle really started to move: A survey of black North Carolinians found a 19-point swing in support of same-sex marriage after the president's statement; a majority of blacks now favor it there. Black support for same-sex marriage surged in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. In Maryland, where the aforementioned McCoy is trying to block gay marriage, a poll containing an oversample of black people found a solid majority now in support of legalizing it. And the Washington Post also found an 18-point swing in support among blacks across the country, although the paper noted that its black sample size was tiny.

Professional opinion havers spent the summer worrying that Obama's stance on gay marriage would hurt him among blacks, when the reality is that something much different was happening: Obama's stance apparently ended up bolstering African-American support for gay marriage. As support for marriage equality becomes enshrined as a mainstream Democratic position, black folks, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, are going to take that stance.


This isn't the neat and easy controversy that talking heads want, and it doesn't drive page views. Still, the next time this story pops up — and it almost certainly will before November — we should ask folks to show us the receipts.

Gene Demby is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and the founder of the politics-and-culture blog PostBourgie. Follow him on Twitter