Clarence Page: Gay pride, black justice
"Gay is the New Black," declares the Dec. 16 issue of The Advocate, a leading gay-oriented magazine. Well, not quite. How about, "Gay is the new gray"?
The gray area for a lot of black Americans like me is not in the issue of gay rights but in the comparison some gay activists make between that issue and the movement for racial equality.
I don't oppose same-sex marriage. After years of arguments from the other side about perceived threats to the sanctity of marriage, I have yet to see any impact by gay marriages on my marriage. Nor do I expect to see any.
Besides, single-parenting has climbed so high in the past half-century, especially in black America, that I am delighted whenever anyone still wants to get married.
But gay rights leaders should think twice before drawing too many comparisons to the fight for racial equality. They are tragically correct to point out the murders, beatings, arsons and other hate crimes that continue to be perpetrated against homosexuals. But the history and nature of our oppression is so different as to serve to alienate potential allies instead of winning them over.
I have long thought that gay activists should congratulate themselves that gay rights has made so much progress as an issue in less time than the civil rights movement's decades-long march to the election of a black man to be president.
That progress unfortunately was set back with whiplash force in the double message California voters delivered on Election Day. While America elected Barack Obama to be its first president of African descent, Californians voted for Proposition 8, a measure to overturn gay marriage.
The crosswinds of Obama's win and gay people's loss inflicted what Advocate writer Michael Joseph Gross called "mass whiplash" on those who mistakenly thought a win for one would mean a win for the other. "We were elated," he wrote, "then furious."
Such fury found an unfortunate target as exit polls showed 70 percent of gays voted for Obama but 70 percent of blacks voted for Prop 8. This led some commentators to blame black voters for the loss of gay marriage. That's a bum rap, as Gross points out, because black voters account for only 10 percent of California's turnout.
In fact, the vote was so close -- 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent -- that you could credit or blame, depending on your point of view, any group of voters for the outcome. The measure carried Hispanics and other demographic groups, too. It was also supported by the Catholic Church and the Mormon church, which contributed millions to support the measure.
So why single out blacks? A lot of people, it turns out, made the mistake of presuming that most of the state's black voters would see comparisons to the racial equality movement that, it turned out, most black voters did not see.
How could a people who have known so much bigotry and persecution turn around and inflict it on another group? As many black homosexuals know, black voters tend to vote liberal, but we also have a strong strain of social conservatism closely tied to a strong tradition of church membership. Too often we forget the centuries in which the Bible was cited to justify the dehumanization of black people, too.
If anything, the gay rights movement can take some valuable lessons from Obama's success. It was not that long ago, after all, that he was losing to Sen. Hillary Clinton two-to-one among black voters before he won the Iowa caucuses.
Gay rights were unpopular enough to be a mostly underground movement until the late 1960s. But by 2000, Vermont would become the first state to create civil unions to provide legal rights, responsibilities and protections of marriage to gay and lesbian couples in almost every legal sense except the m-word itself.
Four years later, even President Bush outraged some conservative groups by supporting civil unions, "if that's what a state chooses to do."
Obama turned his popularity around through persistent campaigning and excellent organizing to increase the public's comfort level with him. In the end, he turned a vote for Obama into something in which many voters took pride, just for being on the right side of history.
The gay rights movement has a long way to go to reach that point, but taking time to educate the public is worth the effort. It is better that they win their victories from the bottom up, supported by the voters, than to have them imposed from the top down by the courts.