Most gays and lesbians joined in the celebration of the historic election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States on November 4th. Obama received 70 percent of the LGBT vote because of his support of equal rights for everyone and his inclusion of gays and lesbians in his vision of a more perfect union.
Late that night, however, our celebration turned to shock as the results of the California vote on Proposition 8 came in. After the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that it was a violation of the state's constitution to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, the voters of California rescinded the marriages of nearly 20,000 gay and lesbian couples. While 61 percent of Californians voted for Obama, who opposed Proposition 8, 52 percent of them voted for the anti-gay proposition.
The real shock is that 70 percent of African Americans voted yes on Proposition 8. According to exit polls, 52 percent of Latinos and about 49 percent of Asian and white voters supported the anti-gay measure, but seven out of 10 African Americans, who supported Obama by a 94 to 6 margin, sided with the anti-gay religious right to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.
The "Yes on 8" campaign, funded largely by the Mormon and Roman Catholic churches, used quotes from Obama opposing gay marriage to mislead African-American voters into thinking Obama supported Proposition 8. They played to homophobia and anti-gay prejudice in the black community.
It was a painful slap in the face to gays and lesbians. Gays and lesbians played important roles in the struggle for African-American civil rights. A gay black man, Bayard Rustin, organized the 1963 March on Washington. He was attacked by the FBI and conservative black preachers, but Martin Luther King stood by him.
Nearly every major black civil rights leader today supports equal rights for gays and lesbians, including Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis. Bond and Lewis have been vocal supporters of marriage equality for gays and lesbians as well.
One of the highlights of my life was attending the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's "Creating Change Conference" in 2000. The keynote speaker was Coretta Scott King, who reminded us that King said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and called upon everyone who believed in his dream to "make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people."
King was a religious man, but he also believed in the separation of church and state and opposed using government to impose religious beliefs on others. He respected and studied other religions, including Ghandi's teachings on non-violence. He offered a vision for equality for everyone in the United States. He would not have condoned the anti-gay bigotry or the conservative political agenda of the religious right.
Most Americans now agree with the principle that gays and lesbians should be treated fairly and have the same rights as everyone else. Many even support "civil unions" and domestic partnership benefits for gay couples. But these "separate but equal" compromises are not adequate. They do not provide all of the hundreds of federally recognized rights that married couples have in the United States. Only civil marriage can provide equal rights for everyone.
Many religions will not recognize marriage between same-sex couples, and, like other groups, some African Americans struggle with their religious beliefs about marriage and their desire to support equal rights for gay people. Allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry, to have the same rights of civil marriage as straight couples, will not require anyone to change their religious beliefs.
By continuing to equate civil unions and domestic partnerships with civil marriage and claiming to support one but not the other, liberal Democrats are reinforcing the public misunderstanding and fear of same-sex marriages.
It is time for the political rhetoric of liberal politicians about equality and social justice to be matched by political courage, the kind of courage JFK and LBJ had to exercise when they supported civil rights for African Americans, even if it cost the Democratic Party the South, which it did.
Sometimes standing up for one's political principles may have a short-term cost, but it is rewarded in the long-term.
Jim Maynard is a gay activist in Memphis.
Read the rest of Bruce VanWyngarden's editor's note.