This weekend the NAACP Board of Directors passed a resolution supporting same-sex marriage, identifying it as a civil right. Earlier this month President Obama made history by becoming the first president to endorse gay marriage, prompting Newsweek magazine to dub him “The First Gay President”. What’s interesting about these two historic (but largely symbolic) gestures is that the fight for marriage equality now seems to be led by African-Americans. As many in the community will tell you, that’s no small thing.
While the black community is largely Democratic, they also tend to be socially conservative on many issues, given the strong influence of the black church. Just 36 percent of black Democrats support legalizing gay marriage, compared to 61 percent of white Democrats.
Though African-Americans fought long and hard for their own civil rights, many have a very tough time embracing homosexuality as a rights issue, viewing it as a sin, plain and simple. The NAACP’s own resolution on the matter gave a respectful nod to the black church, stating “we strongly affirm the religious freedoms of all people as protected by the First Amendment.”
Gay marriage opponents often turn to the black church for support in anti-gay marriage initiatives. And it has worked. In 2008, support from African-Americans was seen as key to helping pass Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage. A Los Angeles Times poll later found that 54 percent of black voters in California opposed same-sex unions.
“As a young black boy from the bible belt who had an inkling that he might be gay, I felt trapped because of the faith-based nature of the people around me,” said Patrick Riley, a 41-year old television producer and personality in New York who grew up in Savannah, Georgia. “I felt a lot of shame associated with it, and as a result, I wanted to be anything but gay.”
Some view this resolution and the president’s position as proof that things are now changing in the black community. Civil rights activist and former chairman of the NAACP Julian Bond told the New York Times that the resolution disproves the notion that blacks are uncomfortable with homosexuality. “This proves the conventional wisdom is not true,” Mr. Bond told the Times.
Riley agrees, but feels the community still has a very long way to go. “It is a big deal what the NAACP has done. It is a big deal what President Obama expressed. But as a black gay man I’m always left to feel like my eight-year old self. There are still a number of voices [in the black community] who have a cold heart for anything gay.”
Follow Mara Schiavocampo on Twitter at @maracamp