Black Folks and Gay Marriage.

(This is cross-posted at my place.)

I don’t know why Andrew Sullivan continues to pontificate about black people, since it’s clear that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  For example, today, he closed a brief post on white evangelicals and gay marriage with this little “observation”:

Black evangelicals are another matter. There is, alas, no ethnic community as homophobic in America as African-Americans. Which is why the ballot initiative in California could be close.

Sullivan doesn’t backup this claim with any data, which is unfortunate, because if he had bothered to do a little bit of research, he would have found a fair amount of evidence to suggest that his assertion isn’t necessarily the case.  But first, let’s parse Sullivan’s statement a bit.  He’s making two (really broad) claims: African-Americans are the most homophobic ethnic community, and African-Americans are more likely to support anti-gay marriage ballot initatives than the average (read: white) American.

With regards to the first claim, a Pew Forum survey released this June found that, at least when compared to white Americans, African-Americans are somewhat more likely to voice opposition to gay marriage (56 percent versus 49 percent) and significantly more likely to oppose civil unions (53 percent versus 39 percent). That however, doesn’t tell the whole story.  For one, those numbers have decreased (folks have become more tolerant) since 2004, and there’s no reason not to expect that to continue as time progresses.  Furthermore, Pew didn’t present a full ethnic breakdown, or even a breakdown which included Americans of Asian, and Hispanic descent.  Absent those numbers, it is impossible for Sullivan to assert (again, without any evidence) that African-Americans are the most homophobic “ethnic community.”

Sullivan’s second claim is a bit easier to address.  The 2004 presidential election provides a lot of data on this front, since anti-gay marriage initatives were on the ballot in several states, and more importantly, a good chunk of those states – Mississippi, Ohio, Michigan – have significant African-American populations. Considering black attitudes on homosexuality, you’d expect that blacks would be more likely to support said initatives than whites. The LA Times found, however, that contrary to expectations, blacks were marginallyless likely to support anti-gay marriage initatives than whites:

When constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage were on 11 state ballots in November 2004, blacks in Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio and Oklahoma were at least one percentage point less likely than whites to vote for them, according to CNN exit polls. Only in Georgia were blacks slightly more likely to vote for the amendment. (The remaining four states had too few blacks to make a meaningful comparison.)

Moreover, it’s not necessarily the case that black homophobia translates to opposition to civil rights for gays:

In the most comprehensive study to date of black-white differences in attitudes toward homosexuality, Gregory B. Lewis of Georgia State University combined data from 31 national surveys conducted between 1973 and 2000. His study, published in Public Opinion Quarterly, concluded that “blacks appear to be more likely than whites both to see homosexuality as wrong and to favor gay-rights laws.”

And it is especially worth noting that African-Americans routinely elect and reelect black politicians with strong stands on gay rights:

Across the country, black voters repeatedly reelect African American politicians who support gay rights. The nation’s two black governors have forcefully backed gay marriage — and each has spoken movingly about accepting gay people in his own family. Californians have seen Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums preside over an extraordinary series of weddings this summer, including the union of one lesbian couple that incorporated the traditional African American wedding practice of jumping over a broom.

Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has said African Americans in Congress are, “with no close second, the most supportive group for gays and lesbians” — more supportive even than the gays in Congress, he added dryly, if you count those who are in the closet.

If I had to offer a convincing explanation for this is the case, I’d say that A) African-Americans are too concerned with pocketbook and law & order concerns to worry about gay people (obsessing over gay marriage is a hobby of the middle and upper middle class), and B) the language of civil rights is still very salient for African-Americans, and the LGBT communities use of that language has, on some level, been successful in drawing black sympathy.

Regardless, even though it is certainly the case that many African-Americans hold negative views of homosexuality (influenced largely by the conservative theology common in most black churches), it is very hard to say that African-Americans are the “most homophobic” ethnic community, and it’s simply wrong to assume that that translates into political action against LGBT Americans.  Sullivan should really try doing a little research before breathlessly posting about these things.

– Jamelle


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • carl

    Here’s my take on this: These “polls” or other “evidence” that claims to prove deep and widespread homophobia on the part of AA/black folks/negroes miss, as you note, the class perspective. If you took a poll of AA’s whose economic and educational profile is similar to that of a particular segment of the white community I don’t think the numbers would be all that different. For example, I don’t think that the typical, white working class community in, say, West Virginia, is any more “gay friendly” than a demographically similar AA community. I’m not saying the polling numbers would be exact, but I’d be surprised if they were widely divergent. After all, if AA are some scared of GLBT then, to use a stereotype of sorts, there would be no men singing in your typical AA gospel choir (hee hee).

  • Great post, Jamelle. I was saying to G.D. the other day that I wasn’t too worried about black folks being the reason the gay marriage in CA would be repealed, because as much as people want to claim we’re soooo homophobic, we’re not really in the business of taking away the rights of others (or ourselves). Glad to see the research.

    Also, seriously: Barney Frank rocks.

  • geo

    when i read it on his blog yesterday, all i could do was shake my head. he made such a clear and definite assertion with no support. i’m glad you chose to research the issue.

    i second shani-o’s accolades. i hope you e-mailed him your post.

  • Aja

    This is an interesting blog and (she chimes in with the choir), very well researched. I was having this discussion with my father the other day. Sadly, from my personal experience through out the years. . . most of the anti gay talk that I’ve heard, has come from my black acquaintances (and I’ve only heard a small amount). I tend to cut those types out of my social circuit. If you really feel that strongly about hating a group of people because they’re different from you. . . we really don’t have to be friends.

  • Rachel

    Any reply to his latest?

    I’d like to hear another interpretation of this data, because I would really like this not to be true.

  • david

    still waiting for your response to this:

    Coates takes issue with my statement about black homophobia. Jamelle Bouie, after looking at the numbers, also says I’m wrong. I wish I were. There is a tsunami of data showing that African-Americans are more opposed to gay equality than any other ethnic group. Here’s a taste of the opposition to marriage and civil unions as recorded by Pew this year. Money quote:

    By more a margin of more than two-to-one (56% to 26%), more blacks oppose gay marriage than favor it. The balance of opinion among African Americans regarding civil unions is only modestly less negative (53% oppose vs. 34% favor).

    More studies bear this out:

    African-Americans are more likely than whites — by a 65 percent-to-53 percent margin — to oppose marriage equality for gays and lesbians, according to a new report by the National Black Justice Coalition and Freedom to Marry.

    The study showed that African-Americans are “virtually the only constituency in the country that has not become more supportive over the last dozen years, falling from a high of 65 percent support for gay rights in 1996 to only 40 percent in 2004.”

    The younger generation is not much better. Young Latinos are much less homophobic than young African-Americans:

    Younger persons generally are more supportive of LGBT rights than are older persons. But significantly more black youth (55 percent) “believe that homosexuality is always wrong” than do Latino (36 percent) or white (35 percent) youth, according to a recent study from the University of Chicago.

    The rampant homophobia in urban black culture also cannot be denied, as well as the role of the black church in fomenting and entrenching homophobia, even as so many black men and women have died of HIV and AIDS. I’ve been following this issue since I first raised the issue of black indifference to HIV and the awful isolation of gay black men as far back as 1990. There are many black heroes in this, with John Lewis and Coretta Scott King standing out; and the Congressional Black Caucus has been very supportive, as has the black civil rights leadership. But it helps no one to deny that the leadership knows how deeply hostile to gay equality many in the African-American community are. I’m surprised that some would seek to deny this rather than confront it.