Racial Divisions Challenge Gay Rights Movement

Proposition 8 protesters i i

Protesters gather in front of the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., to protest the passage of Proposition 8 in the recent election. Robert Durell/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Robert Durell/AP
Proposition 8 protesters

Protesters gather in front of the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., to protest the passage of Proposition 8 in the recent election.

Robert Durell/AP

Votes for — and against — California's Proposition 8, the so-called anti-gay marriage initiative, were close enough that neither side could declare victory on election night. But by Wednesday morning, it was evident the measure had passed. The gay community was stunned.

That morning, at a press conference called to announce a legal challenge to the passage of Proposition 8, lesbian activist Robin Tyler, with her wife at her side, offered, "This is not a culture war — a lot of times the press refers to [gays] getting married as a culture war. This is a civil rights movement."

Jasmyne Cannick, a former congressional and Sacramento legislature press secretary who now works as a political consultant, says that's exactly why more black Californians didn't vote against Proposition 8. White activists' insistence on linking the two movements — marriage equality and racial equality — was automatically rejected by many black voters. That equation, says Cannick, "is dead on arrival when it gets to the black community."

Cannick, who is black and lesbian, grew up in Los Angeles. She says that just as black churches don't often address the homophobic strain that runs through the black community, gays and lesbians don't easily speak about the racism that is silently present in their community.

On the night after the election, when gays and lesbians and their straight allies took to the streets to spontaneously demonstrate against Proposition 8, Cannick says she had friends — gay and straight — who came to march and were called racial epithets by other anti-Proposition 8 demonstrators.

"It didn't take them long to go there," she says tartly of her white gay peers. "And I'll tell you something: it can't be all 'Kumbaya' on Nov. 3, and 'we hate all black people' on Nov. 5. That's just unacceptable."

And tactically inadvisable, since when a new marriage equality initiative pops up on the ballot in the future — a near-certainty — it will take a coalition of groups to make sure it passes.

A Discussion 'Within The Family'

Still smarting from their defeat, gay activists are reaching out to the black community to discuss the need for equal rights for all. At a recent town hall convened by The Los Angeles Sentinel, the West's largest black newspaper, publisher Danny Bakewell Jr. says he's keenly aware that homosexuality of any color is still considered taboo in many parts of the black community. Although the bulk of black voters supported Proposition 8 (most for religious reasons), The Sentinel refused to endorse it.

"Until we can openly and honestly address our issues, our differences and our concerns, we're never going to be able to overcome our fear," Bakewell insists.

The all-black town hall, designed "for a discussion within the family," was a good start, Bakewell said. Although most of the attendees were gay and lesbian, a few pastors whose churches supported Proposition 8 came to politely debate with clergy who opposed the proposition.

One of the latter was the Rev. Eric Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Lee says it's ironic that it took slurs from white gays to get blacks to discuss homophobia.

"I believe that there's been a reluctance, if not negligence, to dialogue about homosexuality within our communities, our workplaces, our churches," Lee says.

The fight over Proposition 8 and its aftermath have illustrated a seldom-seen schism between blacks and whites in the gay community, and put tremendous pressure on black gays and lesbians.

"These folks are fighting a battle on two fronts," says Lee. "They're fighting the homophobia that comes from all of society, particularly within the black community, and then they're also fighting the racism that comes from white gay communities."

And when those communities are at odds, as they were over Proposition 8, the demand on black gays and lesbians is to identify with one group over the other.

Which leaves people like Jasmyne Cannick to ask, "I'm black and I'm also a lesbian, so, I mean, what side am I supposed to be on?"

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