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Why gays, blacks are divided on Prop. 8

For many African Americans, it's not a civil rights issue.

November 08, 2008|Cara Mia DiMassa and Jessica Garrison | Cara Mia DiMassa and Jessica Garrison are Times staff writers.

For Trebor Healey, a 46-year-old gay man from Glendora, Tuesday's election was bittersweet.

He was thrilled that the nation elected its first African American president. But he was disappointed that black voters, traditionally among the most reliably liberal in the state, voted overwhelmingly to ban same-sex marriage.

He understands that there are differences between the civil rights battles of blacks and gays: For one thing, he notes, gay people have a much easier time blending in. Still, he says, he thinks it's sad that "people do not equate one civil rights struggle with another."

Many black voters didn't see it that way.

"I was born black. I can't change that," said Culver City resident Bilson Davis, 57, who voted for Proposition 8. "They weren't born gay; they chose it," he added, reflecting a commonly held belief that many researchers dispute.

Although many of the state's black political leaders spoke out against Proposition 8, an exit poll of California voters showed that black voters favored the measure by a ratio of more than 2 to 1. Not only was the black vote weighted heavily in favor of Proposition 8, but black turnout -- spurred by Barack Obama's historic campaign for president -- was unusually large, with African Americans making up roughly 10% of the state electorate.

The exit poll didn't ask voters why they voted the way they did. But Madison Shockley, pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad and among the roughly one-third of blacks who opposed Proposition 8, said the vote was understandable. "Black folks go to church, probably more than the Caucasian population, and the churches they go to tend to be very traditional."

Los Angeles resident Christopher Hill, 50, said he was motivated by religion in supporting Proposition 8. Civil rights, he said, "are about getting a job, employment."

Gay marriage, he said, is not: "It's an abomination against God."

One complicating factor was that both sides in the campaign had plausible reason to claim Obama's support. The president-elect strongly stated his opposition to the proposition, calling it "divisive and discriminatory."

But he has also said in public speeches that he opposes same-sex marriage. In the days leading up to the election, some Democrats received "robo-calls" on their cellphones containing an excerpt from such a speech.

"Here is Barack Obama in his own words on the definition of marriage," the call began.

Then the voice of Obama speaking to a crowd comes on: "I believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God is in the mix."

A narrator then urged a yes vote on Proposition 8.

California Democratic Party consultant Roger Salazar was among the recipients of the call.

"They saw the Obama tide coming and they were trying to capitalize on it," Salazar said, adding that the call was "manipulative and deceitful," given the candidate's stated opposition to the amendment.

Still, those efforts, combined with a push by dozens of African American ministers and commercials and mailers arguing that children would be subjected to a pro-gay curriculum should the measure pass, had an effect on voters like Pasadena resident Doris Tucker.

Tucker, who is African American, said she voted for "all the good things," especially Obama and Proposition 8. "I don't think it's right," Tucker said of gay marriage. "They shouldn't let it go on."

On Friday, four leaders of the No-on-8 campaign put out a statement urging cooperation among groups around the issue. "We achieve nothing if we isolate the people who did not stand with us in this fight," the statement said. "We only further divide our state if we attempt to blame people of faith, African American voters, rural communities and others for this loss."

In conversations this week, organizers of the campaign against Proposition 8 discussed the racial divide on the measure. Said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights: "One cannot underestimate the effect that . . . the robo-calls had where people heard Barack Obama's voice and then they were told to vote yes on 8."

Still, she added, the campaign could have done a better job reaching out to black voters. "The way you really move votes in the African American community is with conversations, with [real-life] experience . . . making sure that people see there are African American lesbian and gay people who will be affected by this. That is something we intend to assist our community leaders in doing more of," she added. "That is a real lesson learned."

Ron Buckmire, who heads the Barbara Jordan/Bayard Rustin Coalition, a black gay-rights group in Los Angeles, said the vote shows that "there is a lot of work to be done in the black community."

Buckmire said the campaign should also have emphasized that, at its core, the proposition was about stripping a minority of a right that they had enjoyed. "The civil rights of people should not be put to a vote," he said. "Period. I would have thought that that message would have gotten through."

Shockley agreed. Civil rights, he said, has come to mean "one thing in the popular culture": the empowerment of black people.

But "what people don't realize is that King said over and over that the victories of civil rights were won for everyone," he added, referring to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Political strategist Darry Sragow said that the success of Proposition 8 shows that several assumptions about California voters, particularly black voters, proved to be false -- namely, that "because you are for civil rights and equality, you are liberal on everything."

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cara.dimassa@latimes.com

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

Times reporter Dan Morain contributed to this story.

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