Correction: In earlier online and print versions, Style misstated the results of the 2006 gay marriage ban, when 56 percent of African Americans supported banning gay marriage compared with 56 percent of white voters. We regret the error.
The day after the presidential election, Dan Savage, a nationally syndicated sex-advice columnist, gay dad and editorial director of Seattle's alt-weekly, The Stranger, recorded the mixed emotional reaction to the results from the day before.
“I'm thrilled that we've just elected our first African-American president,” he wrote. “I wept last night. I wept reading the papers this morning. But I can't help but feeling hurt that the love and support aren't mutual.”
The day the country elected Barack Obama as president, California, the modern history of which intertwines with America's gay culture, voted to amend the state constitution and ban gay marriage, just months after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was a fundamental right.
Savage was reacting to exit polls from CNN reporting that 70 percent of African-American voters supported the ban. Black voters, however, made up only 10 percent of the CNN exit poll, so the 70 percent figure comes from a sample of about 224 respondents.
In the days following the historic election, the blacks-hate-gays punditry quickly spread, based in large part on the California vote. The media may have gotten swept up in the political soap opera, but the anti-gay marriage block of the GOP has been targeting the black community with get-out-the-vote efforts — even in Virginia's 2006 marriage amendment vote, which was regarded as a fairly safe bet for passage.
Two years ago, when Jim Webb ousted the seemingly invulnerable Sen. George Allen, the former Republican U.S. senator and Virginia governor, the GOP's anti-gay-marriage drive in largely black communities not only secured the constitutional ban on gay marriage, observers say, but also helped send Webb to Washington.
With the black vote critical to Obama's victory Nov. 4, both parties are dealing with a conundrum: The more conservative wing of the GOP has gained a powerful ally in conservative corners of the black community when it comes to gay marriage and social issues. But when it comes to party politics, the black community's increasing numbers at the polls overwhelmingly benefit Democrats.
When Virginia's marriage amendment was on the ballot in 2006, polls showed 56 percent of African-Americans supported the gay marriage ban, compared to 58 percent of white voters who supported the ban. Contrary to Savage's assertion, black voters were slightly more supportive of gay marriage than white voters — in Virginia, at least.
Based on exit polls in Virginia, the overall voting behavior for blacks and whites “look pretty similar,” says Carolyn Funk, director of the Commonwealth Poll at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Measured against previous elections at the time, black turnout in 2006 was even higher than 1989, when Virginia put the first elected black governor, L. Douglas Wilder, into office. Obviously, the 2008 turnout leaves both of those races in the dust.
So why was black turnout so high in 2006?
It may be attributable, in part, to the efforts of both the pro-gay-marriage camp and anti-gay-marriage camp targeting black voters as a pivotal part of their statewide strategies. While African-American party identity is lopsided toward Democrats, Funk says, issue-by-issue there's more of a divide.
“I think it's a nationally known strategy that African-Americans in general are supporters of the traditional family,” says Victoria Cobb, who, as president of the Family Foundation, spearheaded the gay-marriage ban effort in Virginia.
It perpetuated a new arm of the organization — Pastors for Family Values — a consortium of socially conservative black ministers, which as Cobb says still has “great participation.”
“We did radio ads on black gospel stations knowing there was agreement on this,” she says. “And we took a civil-rights leader, Bill Owens, and had him talk about why this is not a civil-rights issue, because that is the only point that you see an African-American heading in the other direction.”
That's exactly what the folks trying to stop the ban counted on, says Claire Guthrie GastaAñaga, who helped lead the opposition to the ban in Virginia.
“We knew that the other side was trying to organize black ministers,” she says. “We educated them on the real-life consequences of constitutionalizing discrimination and what it would mean for them. African-American voters were not interested in having the government in their bedrooms, were not interested in the precedent that you should write anybody out of the constitution. They just ‘got’ that it was wrong.”
The anti-amendment campaign sent out 75,000 mailers to black households across the state. They featured a picture of Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, on the front, and a picture of State Sen. Henry Marsh, with the quotation: “I have worked too long and too hard for equality before the law to endorse a measure like this, the only purpose and principle effect of which is to create second-class citizens.”
“You're kidding,” Cobb says. “That might be why they lost,” she says, adding, “I'm surprised that statistically they'd look at what happened around the country and decide [targeting black voters] was a strategy for them.”
GastaAñaga, however, questions the conventional wisdom that the black community is solid anti-gay territory. Case in point: Compared with the mostly white Colonial Heights, where 73 percent of the voters supported the gay marriage ban in 2006, in majority black Petersburg, 65 percent of the voters opposed the ban.
The point, GastaAñaga says, is that those targeted successes offer a roadmap for gay rights groups to persuade voters. Now, after the 2008 election, that black voting segment is larger and more engaged than before. With enough time and money, she says, a repeal of the amendment is possible.
A few days after Savage, the sex columnist, woke up flabbergasted that San Francisco's state had banned gay marriage, he went on “The Colbert Report,” a satirical news show on cable television. He'd had a chance to look more closely at the polling numbers and found older voters were likelier to vote for the ban, too.
“And they're dying,” he said, “which is some comfort.” S