Will We Evolve Too?

Gaining wider acceptance for LGBT rights often means supporting causes that disproportionately affect other minority communities. Can we collectively look beyond issues important to white people?



When Barack Obama came out in support of marriage equality May 9, it was the first time a president of the United States made a definitive statement of support for the cause. His announcement prompted many African-American leaders to follow suit.

When NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous and his board of directors echoed the president’s sentiments 10 days later, it was the first time the more than 100-year-old African-American civil rights organization had officially thrown its considerable clout behind marriage equality. That month such cultural influencers as Colin Powell, Jay-Z, and Will Smith also got on board, deepening what gay philanthropist and activist Brickson Diamond calls “a watershed moment” in the fraught history of relations between blacks and gays. Diamond lauds the black community’s “evolution” on marriage equality — one that has in many ways paralleled the president’s much-talked-about evolution — while cautioning that there is no monolithic black community, just as there is no monolithic gay community.

Once marriage has been secured for gays and lesbians, will we reach beyond ourselves to turn us into a broader, progressive community rather than the association of self-motivated, single-issue voters we often are? Will the LGBT community evolve, too?

In order to secure marriage equality, a victory that seems increasingly inevitable but will be hard-won nonetheless, LGBT institutions have been reaching out, building bridges and shoring up support among previously untapped constituencies, including African-Americans. It’s a tactic that can be the foundation for transforming LGBTs into a progressive community concerned with issues outside the narrow self-interest of certain factions. But that will only occur if we heed the call to look within, to address the injustices within our own communities and work out our own issues with race.

Vocal supporters of marriage equality have long existed in the black establishment, including the late Coretta Scott King and former NAACP board chairman Julian Bond. But more often there has been tension. Rather recently that tension took on the guise of conventional wisdom when the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008 sparked widespread reports that the anti-equality measure succeeded largely because of homophobia among African-Americans, who had turned out in unprecedented numbers to support Obama. It took many months and a rigorous crunching of the numbers for that bit of unsupported snap judgment to be refuted by actual facts.

And yet the “blacks don’t want marriage equality” narrative has stuck and similar scenarios have played out in the media regarding other states’ ballot measures since. For example, after the passage of the anti–marriage equality and anti–civil unions measure Amendment One in North Carolina earlier this year, local media scapegoated black voters. The dubious data that was the basis of such conclusions was then used to fuel speculative stories positing that blacks will not come out for Obama’s second-term election now that he’s come out for marriage equality. Prior to the North Carolina election, memos from within the National Organization for Marriage were leaked, revealing the antigay organization’s explicit strategy to drive a wedge between blacks and gays by “fanning the hostility raised in the wake of Prop. 8.” Whether driven by NOM or simply by sloppy reporting and knee-jerk racism among LGBTs, the hostility was fanned.

And yet some good has come out of all of the bad results in the past four years. In the wake of Prop. 8, LGBT leaders were forced to examine the ways in which they had failed to reach out beyond their cloistered bubble of mainly well-off, white enclaves in cities such as West Hollywood and parts of San Francisco, to build coalitions with progressive groups that represent various racial and ethnic groups. Even if black voters had overwhelmingly cast their ballots against marriage equality (which data show they did not), it was still clear that LGBT organizations had prematurely assumed that support for equality was firm, that the cultural tide had already shifted enough to make victory likely.