In California’s last election, the passage of Proposition 8 barring same-sex marriage equality was made possible for many reasons, including the meddling of Roman Catholic and Mormon religious leaders, but also in part by the disproportionate support of black voters, leading to dismayed November 5 reactions like this:
I am feeling the same bittersweet feeling this morning. How can such a historic moment for African-Americans in the US be paired with another huge set back for LGBT rights? How can the parallels between banning interracial marriage and banning gay marriage not be seen? How long will it be in the US before we have a gay president?
While there is evidence in representative surveys as well as recent exit polls to support the contention that black Americans (especially religious black Americans) tend to be more anti-gay in their social attitudes than non-black Americans, it is unwise to assume that this tendency automatically carries over to black political leadership.
Consider the United States House of Representatives. 9 out of the 39 members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the House (19.6%) are also members of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. Those who share membership in both caucuses are:
Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY, District 10): Overall progressive action score: 29/100
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX, District 30). Overall progressive action score: 29/100
Rep. Andre Carson (D-IN, District 7): overall progressive action score: 29/100
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA, District 5): overall progressive action score: 43/100
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL, District 23): overall progressive action score: 43/100
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY, District 11): overall progressive action score: 43/100
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX, District 18): overall progressive action score: 57/100
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN, District 5): overall progressive action score: 64/100
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA, District 9): overall progressive action score: 71/100
These 9 members of the Black Caucus who are also members of the LGBT Equality Caucus have earned an average progressive action score of 45.3 for their work in the 111th Congress so far. In comparison, members of the Black Caucus who have NOT joined the LGBT Equality Caucus earn an average progressive action score of just 34.8. The membership of the Congressional Black Caucus is not a monolithically progressive body.
What’s your reaction to finding out that 9 out of the 39 members of the Black Caucus are also members of the LGBT Equality Caucus? Do you want to insert the word “just” before the number 9? Before you do, consider that just 16.5% of the NON-black members of the House are also members of the LGBT Equality Caucus. Members of the Black Caucus are MORE likely than non-members to join the LGBT Equality Caucus.
Here’s another thought point: consider H.J. Res 37, Dan Lungren‘s proposed constitutional amendment to exclude same-sex couples from the right to marry anywhere in the United States. H.J. Res 37 is supported by 35 members of the House of Representatives. None of those 35 are members of the Black Caucus.
Consider H.R. 1024, a bill to grant same-sex couples the same rights under immigration law that heterosexual couples have. 14 out of the 39 House members of the Black Caucus — that’s 35.9% — are cosponsors of this bill. Only 19.6% of of the non-Black members of the House have cosponsored H.R. 1024.
We see that three times over, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are MORE likely than non-Black members of the House to take a gay rights stand. If there’s a homophobia problem in the House, it’s really more of a NOT-Black thing.
So if there’s really more support for gay rights among Black congresspeople than non-Black congresspeople, why don’t we read op-ed columns writing in anguish about the problem of White (or at least non-Black) Homophobia in the Congress, and of the need for our national politicians to look to Black leaders for inspiration? Part of the answer may lie in the way that some prominent black political leaders, like Barack Obama, have managed time and time and time again to rub gay and gay-friendly Americans’ faces in intolerance. It’s not statistical for us to notice, but notice we do.
Another part of the answer may lie in our tendency to simply write off a large segment of White members of Congress: the Republicans. You can count on white Republicans in Congress to either actively persecute gay people or to sit on their hands while it happens. You can count on that behavior so much that after a while it becomes invisible in the discussion. Instead, we focus on what’s happening solely on the middle to left-hand side of American politics, and if we restrict ourselves to that side, then and only then do white moderates and progressives look comparatively better than black moderates and progressives.
A final part of the answer may be that we hold black national politicians to a higher standard. Many black members of Congress identify themselves as (and many indeed are) coming out of the historical civil rights movement, a social movement that embraced the words “opportunity,” “equality” and “rights.” Nobody likes a hypocrite. It’s entirely fair to ask recalcitrant black politicians why some people are worthy of opportunity, equality and rights but not others. But it’s just as necessary, perhaps even more necessary, to ask the recalcitrant white politicians who in greater numbers and in greater proportion fail to support gay rights the very same question.