Why Blacks Evolved So 'Quickly' on Gay Marriage

What really caused the black community's rapid "evolution" on gay marriage over the past month? The answer is simple: We didn't evolve overnight. We've been evolving for decades, even when the media wasn't paying attention.
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Just when I thought the black homophobia storyline had died out, I came across a provocatively titled article Monday morning written by Lenox Magee: "Has Time Come for Gay Blacks?"

I agreed with Magee's conclusion -- "regardless of what other people say or do, we're going to raise hell until we get equal rights" -- but not with his premise -- "The black community historically has lagged behind the general population in 'evolving'... on LGBT issues."

That got me thinking. What really caused the black community's rapid "evolution" on gay marriage over the past month? The answer is simple: We didn't evolve overnight. We've been evolving for decades, even when the media wasn't paying attention.

Magee's argument that African Americans have been slow to embrace LGBT issues seems to miss an important point: marriage equality is not the only LGBT issue. In fact, until the past decade, many black gay and lesbian people did not believe gay marriage was or should be the focal point of the LGBT movement or the litmus test for measuring LGBT support. A host of other issues like HIV/AIDS, access to health care, jobs, and employment discrimination were often listed as more important by black gay and lesbian people.

But all that started to change in 2003 when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its groundbreaking decision making it the first state to allow same-sex marriage. The decision prompted outrage from critics, including some vocal black ministers. Suddenly, black gays and lesbians were under attack within their own community on an issue they hadn't necessarily chosen. But they began to organize to fight back.

Now we're starting to see the fruit of their labor. Long before President Obama's announcement on marriage equality, LGBT people of color were laying the groundwork for broader support in their own communities. They were coming out, getting married, challenging their churches, defining their own identities, and creating institutions to support and sustain them.

Those actions helped to make it easier for heterosexual African Americans to see same-gender-loving couples and individuals in a new light. So it's not surprising that virtually every prominent African American, except for a few vocal preachers, has come out in support of the president's position in recent weeks. Everyone from General Colin Powell, a Republican, to Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, now seems to support gay marriage. The list includes members of the Congressional Black Caucus, big city mayors, civil rights leaders, black pastors, rappers, recording artists, comedians, athletes, public intellectuals, and many more, but it doesn't even scratch the surface in revealing the true support for LGBT people in the African-American community.

If you listen carefully to what these black public figures are saying, many of them have been supportive of same-sex marriage for quite some time, but they've never been asked about it until recently. That underscores the dirty little secret about the African-American community. Despite all the media hype and rhetoric that black people are viciously homophobic, the truth has always been much more complex.

Historically, black people have voted for gay-friendly elected officials, we've supported most forms of gay rights, and we've welcomed gay members in our churches. And despite all the rhetoric from a few loud voices in the community, we've long embraced some of our most famous LGBT members, from the gay writers of the Harlem Renaissance to the openly gay pop fiction authors like E. Lynn Harris. We've also practically canonized openly LGBT luminaries like James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, and Lorraine Hansberry, and we've celebrated the achievements of openly gay men like Billy Strayhorn and Bayard Rustin. Of course we still face serious challenges with homophobia in the black community, but there's never been any measurable evidence that it's any worse in our community than in any other community.

I've looked at the polling and the research over the past 20 years, and in many cases, black people have actually been more supportive of civil rights for gays and lesbians than whites have, especially when it comes to gays in the military, employment rights, and other issues of discrimination. As far back as 1993, a Gallup poll found that 61 percent of blacks supported allowing gays to serve openly in the military while only 42 percent of whites held this belief. The only issue where we have been consistently less supportive over the years is same-sex marriage. I believe that's because we tend to be politically progressive but socially conservative. On the political issues of discrimination against gay people, we got it all along.

On the social and moral issues, we were taking our cues from religion, which has traditionally been a somewhat more conservative institution in all cultures. But in the black community, our churches have never been so conservative in utilizing the talents of their black gay members. My uncle, Michael Holmes, was a flamboyantly openly gay organist for a popular church in St. Louis, Missouri back in the 1970s, and no one ever questioned him about his sexuality. In fact, many of our churches have embraced a "don't ask, don't tell" policy about homosexuality, and as a result, the black church has become, paradoxically, the most homophobic and the most homo-tolerant institution in the black community.

The tension between our political progressivism and social conservatism existed for decades, but that too has slowly started to change. Then, last month's ABC News poll finally confirmed what some of us have been saying all along. The poll showed African American support for same-sex marriage had suddenly risen to 59 percent, indicating that black people have now become more supportive of marriage equality than whites are.

Give credit to President Obama for moving the conversation forward in the black community. Without his endorsement, it might have taken years to reach the point we have now. But even President Obama could not have changed black opinion so dramatically if blacks were as homophobic as the media portrayed us to be.

The truth is blacks were never more homophobic than whites were. Although we are not perfect, we have always been a welcoming people. All we needed was a little push to remind us who we really are.

Keith Boykin is the editor of For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough. Follow him on Twitter.

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