By The Rev. Madison Shockley
Two weeks after Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to declare support for marriage equality, we are still gauging the impact of his statement. At first blush, some regarded his evolution as a nonevent, since his real position was so well known or at least anticipated, and because the announcement came after the overwhelming vote in North Carolina to ban same-sex marriage there. Recent developments show this interpretation is clearly not the case.
Among the political questions that Obama’s conversion raised is whether he will lose the support of black voters who have opposed same-sex marriage in most states where the issue has been on the ballot. However, since the president’s affirmation of marriage equality, a series of African-American organizations, politicians, sports and entertainment figures have also announced their support, both of Obama’s decision and marriage equality itself.
In particular, the board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People voted in favor of a resolution of support this past weekend. The president of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, said in announcing the vote that “civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law.” Although state chapters have taken various positions on the issue, this statement was meant to clarify the position of the nation’s oldest and most respected civil rights organization.
The NAACP is uniquely positioned to reflect the evolution of the black community on this matter. It is a civil rights organization, not a religious body. But it has clergy on its board of directors and religious affairs committees as part of every local chapter. This allowed the board members to provide the nuance that a strictly religious body often lacks. They were able to emphasize that “we support marriage equality consistent with equal protection under the law provided under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Further, we strongly affirm the religious freedoms of all people as protected by the First Amendment.” This was to make clear that the national board’s support did not have a theological dimension, and the churches will continue to define and perform marriages for their members according to their own tenets.
So although it at first appeared that Obama’s views were shaped by the black community, now it seems that his views are shaping those of the black community. Causation is hard to prove, but polls show a clear movement toward backing marriage equality in the last year. Rapper Jay-Z (whose music genre is often homophobic in its lyrics) came out last week in support of the president and marriage equality. Boxer Floyd Mayweather made a clear and compelling statement of approval. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., has also come out in support.
The larger question has been why the black community has lagged the general population in evolving on LGBT issues. There is a knee-jerk reaction on the part of many commentators to cite the conservative theology of most black churches. But the question has mostly been a nonissue for black churches, which historically focused on black liberation, civil rights and social justice; it’s a nonissue in that the black church had no campaign against the gay community. Then, in 2004, white evangelical leaders started to actively recruit black clergy to the anti-gay movement. This recruitment grew as civil union and marriage equality laws and lawsuits spread across the country. Black clergy were also recruited by Republican political operatives trying to gain electoral advantage in key races. Recently, the National Organization for Marriage (an anti-gay marriage group) developed a key strategy of driving a wedge between the black and gay communities over marriage equality. So the opposition to marriage equality was not as “natural” an issue as many would suppose. It has been promoted as a political strategy by white right-wing forces. But now, with the president leading on the issue, the black community seems poised to follow.
There has never really been a gay rights movement in the black community. There simply has been no social space for a black person to be “out” in the community without being out of the community. The one exception is the entertainment space, which overlaps the black church inasmuch as gay musicians tend to populate the choirs of many black congregations.
Obama cited his Christian faith as the starting point of his evolution. He has now found a path through the “golden rule” of that same faith to support marriage equality for the LGBT community. Interestingly, it wasn’t the church that helped him along that journey; it was his children, his friends and his colleagues. But, of course, Obama no longer has a church. Should he feel more flexibility after the election to attend a church regularly or become a member, will it be an “Open and Affirming” (welcoming of all sexual orientations) style congregation?
The evolution of Barack Obama’s views on marriage equality for lesbian and gay folks did not stop May 9 when he announced his support. I trust that they will continue to evolve as he grows in his own thinking and, of course, as politics allow. There is no credible evidence that black voters will abandon Obama this fall. In fact, recent events seem to suggest the opposite: blacks coming to his defense in spite of previous reluctance about same-sex marriage. Obama’s support of marriage equality seems to have had a major impact on the black community, which, if the trend continues, could turn the tide in states that had previously banned same-sex marriage with the support of a large majority of black voters. Then the president’s decision will not be recorded by history as a belated act of pandering to the LGBT community, but a real act of leadership in the black community.
Barbershop owner Dorsey Jackson does not believe in gay marriage, but he wasn’t disillusioned when Barack Obama became the first president to support it. The window of his suburban Philadelphia barbershop still displays an Obama 2012 placard and another that reads “We’ve Got Their Back.”