Nov. 19, 2008—The lingering tension between gays and lesbians and the African-American community over the passage of California's Proposition 8—banning same-sex marriage—isn't a laughing matter, but it is absurd. It has all the makings of a Tyler Perry movie starring the casts of Big Love and The L Word.
Diary of a Mad Black Mormon Lesbian Nun? Now showing in California and coming soon to a theater near you.
If, on the one hand, a segment of the LGBT community can be talked into scapegoating African Americans for this political setback, then their civil rights movement has a longer road to travel than it might have seemed before Election Day. And if, on the other hand, there's a slice of black America that is OK with ushering in the Obama era with the narrowing of the definition of democracy anywhere in our society, then we are taking a step back even as we take a step forward.
Somewhere out there, the Catholic and Mormon bishops who encouraged their lambs to contribute the lion's share of the "Yes on 8" campaign funding are toasting to their success as church and state have again unseparated and their beliefs have, for now, become law.
By now, the theory advanced by Andrew Sullivan and others that black voters are somehow responsible for the passage of Proposition 8 has been fairly well discredited, if not completely debunked. Daily Kos contributor Shanikka and new-jack pollster Nate Silver have thoroughly deconstructed faulty exit polling in order to make one very simple point—there aren't enough black people in California to get any ballot initiative passed.
But just because the numbers don't add up doesn't mean that the African-American community has no cause for reflection here.
You don't have to accept gays and lesbians on a moral basis to respect that they should have the same rights as everyone else in our society. You don't have to reach the conclusion that sexual orientation is a characteristic equivalent to race or ethnicity. You don't have to have a personal comfort level with homosexuality. All you have to do is want to avoid trampling on the freedom of people who aren't like you. Do unto others, et cetera. Don't be, as the kids say, "a hater."
Many of us, particularly the generation that fought through the civil rights battles of the 20th century, have a powerful personal identification with that history. From this perspective, any suggestion that the gay and lesbian civil rights struggle is in any way analogous to those struggles is frequently rejected with indignation. The logic: Gays haven't been oppressed in the way blacks have been oppressed in this society—"I don't have a choice about being black." But skepticism about the immutability of homosexuality not only runs contra to most scientific thinking, but also reflects a spiritually impoverished desire to narrow, rather than broaden, the availability of civil liberties. Given African Americans' ongoing (yes, even with a black president) struggle to "secure the blessings of liberty," why should we be motivated to deny this to others?
One reason is religion, and to the degree that the African-American community remains a religiously conservative sector of society, it seems, then, that homosexuality will remain more of a taboo in black America than it is in society as a whole. Far be it from me to try to talk anyone out of their beliefs; if you're Christian and opposed to gay marriage, well, God bless you.
But here's where the rubber meets the road in a democracy: Our system of government was influenced by Judeo-Christian precepts, but we are not now, nor have we ever been, governed by religion. A part of our progression from slavery to the White House has been the idea that this society functions in part because belief and law are separate.
But while Christian beliefs are often cited as a basis for repudiation of gay marriage, the irony is that much of the resistance to same-sex marriage is not, at its core, about religion.
It is human nature to criticize other people for doing something that you yourself don't do. Most straight people can't get their minds around the idea of being gay, so there can be a tendency to view it as wrong—something to be suppressed. For a long time, part of striving for equality has meant being an "ambassador" for the race and presenting a mainstream image that is "respectable," which, for reasons both generational and cultural, hasn't encompassed gays and lesbians. And for reasons both generational and cultural, "respectable" hasn't included gays and lesbians.
That time has passed. Being tied to old prejudices is something that African Americans can't afford. The election of a black president has not erased the problems in the African-American community—high rates of incarceration for black men, sub-par performance of African-American children in public schools, a gap in wealth and income during a time of economic recession. But the era of President Obama means that African Americans have crossed a threshold in terms of our relationship to our country as citizens. And part of full citizenship is taking responsibility for the rights of fellow citizens.
There are and always will be gay blacks and black gays, and any acrimony between these two minority groups, whose principal interests do not in any way conflict, is not only not in keeping with the Obama ethos, but is also not in keeping with the ever-evolving stature that African Americans continue to hold as the minority of many firsts in this country.
On Election Day, African Americans were on the right side of American history. And so were millions of people who aren't black, but who voted for Obama. They voted, not because they have a personal interest in black America, but because they believed he was the right man at the right time. In that same spirit, as long as gays and lesbians are denied equal rights, those who stand against these rights stand on the wrong side.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.