Will Black Turnout In Calif. Affect Anti-Marriage Prop. 8?

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 9, 2008

One of the largely unasked questions of the election is how the turnout by African Americans in California will affect Proposition 8. Will increased numbers of African American voters who arrive at California polls in support of Barack Obama play a decisive role in eliminating the state's recent same sex marriage advances?

Several veteran human rights activists are working hard within the community to convince African Americans that defeating Proposition 8 is part of the logical continuation of gains made in the civil rights era and beyond.

Their work serves a s a rebuttal to a contentious New York Times article

that speculated, "Black voters, enthused by Mr. Obama's candidacy but traditionally conservative on issues involving homosexuality, could pour into voting stations in record numbers to punch the Obama ticket - and then cast a vote for Proposition 8."

Proposition 8, a result of last year's state Supreme Court decision allowing for same sex marriage, asks voters to decide, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California." As each side spends millions to bend the hearts and minds of voters to their side, the latest polls from this past weekend show a statistical dead heat after adjustments are made for the margin of error. The first poll, sponsored by No on 8 and conducted by Lake Research, shows 47 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. A Survey USA poll shows 47 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed.

But is the link between conservative voting patterns and skepticism among African Americans towards gay rights legitimate, or is it just another attempt to box a diverse population into a convenient label?

"It's wishful thinking on the part of some folks to believe the African American community is monolithic." says Alice Huffman, State President of the California NAACP (www.californianaacp.org). "I don't think it's the case that all black people in California are conservative and are going to use this as an opportunity to not support same sex marriage."

Far from viewing the community as one that leans towards conservative viewpoints on homosexuality, Huffman says, "We are seeing more and more people who are not anti gay rights. I think a significant number will turn out on Election Day and vote the right way, which is for equality." Huffman draws that conclusion, in part, from four recent African American focus groups her organization conducted . The majority of participants demonstrated "a wiliness to discuss the issue" of same sex marriage, "not just turn away and be fearful of it."

For Huffman, discussion is an important first step in generating "a little more tolerance and getting people to buy into same-sex marriage. It's also about getting people to deal with the fact that gays and lesbians are in our community. They're upright citizens who are contributing to society, living a normal life and aren't causing any harm to anyone."

But is the absence of harm enough to inspire tolerance? Dr. Sylvia Rhue, director of religious affairs for the National Black Justice Coalition (www.nbjc.org), attributes much of the social conservatism in the African American community and elsewhere to those the power of the pulpit and the beliefs of parishioners who have "a literalist interpretation of biblical text. And that is the challenge for the work I do."

That work is hampered by the fact that not all congregations are "welcoming, opening and affirming," Rhue says. "We don't have access to all of the 738 African American churches in California. If the ministers say vote yes on 8, people are going to listen."

Key to facilitating a sympathetic vote on Proposition 8 is the ability of Rhue and others to work with clergy to let "people know you can be a person of faith and accept lesbian and gay marriage," as Rhue puts it. "In fact, that is part of your call to social justice work. It's a moral imperative. So we come from that base."

Rhue, who finds herself regularly debating Biblical literalists on issues surrounding homosexuality, has taken to traveling with copies of both the Bible and the Constitution.

Last week, at a town hall meeting held at the University of California, there were "People in the audience who felt that God had established marriage in the Garden of Eden." After the program, Rhue "challenged them on the basis of being grounded in reality. There was no Garden of Eden because there was no Adam and Eve. Humans have been here for at least 150 thousand years. But they totally reject that. Because people believe what they came into somewhat irrationally, you cannot walk them out of it rationally."

So then what else can be done?

In other socially progressive endeavors, effective change seems to come from breaking the issue down to a basic human level--and backing that up with a dose of constitutional law. "We try to touch their hearts, to see a human being who is just like them," Rhue says. "But if they throw a Bible verse at me, I open up the Constitution and ask them where it is in there? I hold them both up and say which one is the law of the land? When you remind them we are not a Christian theocracy, but a secular democracy, it makes them think."

Appeals to civil liberty and duty may, however, prove just as effective as arguments based on Biblical scholarship or constitutional law. "I am a straight woman," explains Huffman. "I don't have any personal need to defeat Proposition 8 other than to believe that our role in America is to fight for justice for all."

It's crucial, she adds, to get others to see "how injustice for one group is injustice for all of us. We need to fight just as people fought for African Americans to have a right to vote and then a right to marry. It was people standing with us; we were not alone. Now it's time for African Americans to stand in coalition with the gay and les community."

Rhue, who is currently on a tour of ten universities and colleges to talk about marriage rights and religion, implores all to "talk to family, friends, coworkers, ex lovers, anyone and get them to vote no on 8." She continues emphasizing, "This is a very person to person type issue,"

Rhue recalls a recent conversation with a friend who casually mentioned her support of Proposition 8 and her belief that it wouldn't hurt anybody. Rhue was quick to point out that the ways in which "It would hurt my family members. She thought about it and said, OK, send me some information. . .People, children and families are going to be hurt and that's why this is such an insidious, hate-based proposition."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.