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Why Claims that Black Californians Deserve Blame for the Passage of California's Anti-Gay-Marriage Proposition 8 Are Unfair and Untrue


Friday, Dec. 12, 2008

Editorial writers and opponents of Proposition 8 – the provision to change the California Constitution to ban gay marriages – are wrong to blame blacks for its passage, as many have done. In truth, they should instead blame themselves for not enlisting black voters, who understand discrimination better than any other group of Americans, in service of the campaign against the Proposition.

Shortly before the November 2008 election, I asked an African American friend how he was going to vote on Proposition 8. I did not think much about that conversation before the election, but afterward, I realized it went a long way in explaining why Prop. 8 succeeded, with the help of black voters. Now, it is up to the California Supreme Court to say whether, in fact, a simple majority of California voters can deny gays equality. But it's possible that it did not have to be that way – and the failure to make the anti-Prop. 8 case effectively to black voters may well be to blame for our current situation.

A Pre-Election Conversation That May Shed Light on the Issue of African-Americans and Prop. 8

I knew my friend Jimmy was a good Democrat, not to mention a solid Obama supporter; indeed, he had spent time with both the Senator and his wife, Michelle, when they were visiting California long before Obama announced his presidential candidacy. Jim was so impressed after meeting and talking to the young Senator, he told Michelle Obama that he hoped the senator would run for president one day. She, however, was opposed to such an idea at that time, because she understandably was worried about her husband's safety.

Jim, who is about my age, is deeply interested in politics, but not a political junkie like me. He was particularly interested in the 2008 election because he so admired Senator Obama and his wife. Several weeks before the election, we were talking about Obama's solid campaign, when I asked him about his feeling toward Prop. 8. His answer actually surprised me: He said he was against gay marriage.

I asked if his opposition was based on religious beliefs. No, that was not it, he assured me, although he had heard people talking about the Proposition at his church. He said he was not sure he could explain it, but the idea of men marrying men, and women marrying women, did not feel right to him. It made him uncomfortable, even though he had business clients who were gay couples, and he enjoyed spending time with them.

He had seen the television ads claiming that if Proposition 8 passed and permitted such marriages, then "gay rights" would be taught to young children, or all churches would be forced to perform the marriages of gays. But he thought (as I do) that the ads were untrue and campaign propaganda, and was not persuaded by them. He also understood well that the ads had been sponsored by the Mormon Church, which was particularly active in promoting Prop. 8's passage.

Reframing the Issue: Is Gayness Seen as an Inevitable Fact, or a Choice?

It occurred to me to try to reframe the issue, which I did as our conversation continued. So I ask if Jim thought being gay was a lifestyle choice, or whether it was more basic and related to a person's biological reaction -- the way they naturally feel toward others. In short, I wanted to know whether he thought homosexuality might be part of a person's mental and biological make-up, just like heterosexuality.

He said that, to the best of his knowledge, science has been unable to definitively answer this question, so far. While there had been studies of twins, the results had not fully resolved the matter. We agreed based on our (remarkably incomplete) collective knowledge that sexual preference appears to be a combination of nature and nurture. Jim explained that he had a few longtime gay friends, both black and white, and he sensed that they each had known about their homosexuality from a very young age, and that none of them had exactly wanted to be gay because, when they were growing up, it was pretty tough being gay. For this reason, he said, he suspected that homosexuality surely is genetic, and "part of the way some folks are wired."

When I noted that, apparently, homosexuals have no more control over their sexual preferences than we do over the color of our skin, he acknowledged the parallel: "Yeah, I see where you are going. You're saying discrimination against gay marriage is no more justified than it is against blacks and whites marrying, the old miscegenation laws. I'll be honest with you, I had not thought about that," he conceded. He fell silent, the conversation moved to other topics, and we did not discuss Prop. 8 again until about a week before the election. At that point, Jim (and I) had each already cast absentee ballots. We talked about voter fraud, the Bradley affect, and Obama's steady climb in the polls during those final weeks of the campaign. At one point, I said I assumed Jim had voted for Prop 8.

"No, no, I didn't," he said. "I got to thinking about our conversations. No way I am going to vote to discriminate against anyone," he said with a smile, shaking his head. "But, you know, I have mentioned what we talked about to other blacks – and they were not looking at this question as discrimination either." He also reported that he had been watching the belated ads of those opposing Prop 8, which he thought had utterly failed to present the issue to the black community as one involving discrimination, Yet he noted that this strategy could have been effective, as the black community surely had no interest in discriminating against anyone.

Blaming the Black Community for Passage of Prop. 8

Because of my conversations with Jim, I was not surprised to learn that seventy percent of blacks voted for Prop 8, and that, as they constituted ten percent of the vote, they thus provided a significant assist in its passage. This fact, in turn, has resulted in charges that black homophobia, and African American churches, are to blame for the success of Prop. 8. This, however, is pure nonsense.

Anyone living in California who watched the very effective scare campaign run by those promoting Prop. 8 – and compared its power to the weak and last-minute efforts to educate voters about the issue that were made by those opposing the Proposition -- understands that the opponents took for granted that the progressives of California would kill the measure. True, there were some televised ads by Prop. 8 opponents directly paralleling Prop. 8 with anti-miscegenation laws and laws such as those that allowed the World War II Japanese internment camps to exist in California. But these were too few and far between, and the message that Proposition 8 would put discrimination into the California Constitution was only one of a number of messages sent.

I believe -- based on the set of ads that was actually run, my conversation with my friend, and the polling of black voters regarding Proposition 8 -- that had the opponents of Prop 8 directed information specifically toward the black community, and clearly put forward the discrimination parallel as their major message, then they would have found allies, not opponents, in that community. The too little, too late, efforts to defeat Prop 8 were not effective, and the opponents can only blame themselves for their poor showing.

Now, unfortunately, we must all hope the California Supreme Court will not let Proposition 8 stand. It would be a tragedy if the Mormon Church were to succeed in changing the equal protection provisions of the California Constitution as they apply to gays by spending a few million dollars for a dishonest campaign to influence the conservatively-inclined voters of this state. In fact, those seeking to protect gays from discrimination in other states can learn much from the California Prop. 8 opponents' failure to appeal to African Americans, who know something about discrimination and have no tolerance for it.

Let's hope too, that Prop. 8 opponents do not compound the mistake of failing to get their core antidiscrimination message to black communities, with the mistake of vilifying those communities for failing to vote against the initiative. There will be other gay rights measures, too, and this is an alliance very much worth forging.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not express the opinions of FindLaw.

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