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Overcome the animosity

November 18, 2008

In a letter addressed to "Dear Community," a high-powered coalition of gay-rights leaders is calling for an end to the scapegoating of African Americans for the passage of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in California. Nine painful, anger-filled and vitriolic days passed before this request for calm appeared, and although the letter is sensible and encouraging, words alone will not undo the damage.

Since an election-day exit poll found that 70% of black voters supported Proposition 8, tensions between gays and blacks have exploded on the airwaves, in newspaper columns and on the Internet. The letter, however, notes that blacks make up a small part of the 52% of California voters who supported Proposition 8. Furthermore, it says, a recent analysis of that exit poll determined that it was too small to "draw any conclusions on the African American vote."

Many in the gay community believed, perhaps naively, that shared minority status would create a sense of sympathy between the two groups, and that casting gay marriage as a benchmark in civil rights history would cement that bond. Yet some African Americans were more offended than impressed by the comparison of the right of homosexuals to marry and the right of blacks to vote or to share public accommodations. Then there is the irony of one civil rights dream fulfilled the same night another was deferred. Much has been made of the possibility that a surge in support for Barack Obama helped pass Proposition 8, but according to political analyst Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, exit polls show that first-time voters, 83% of whom cast ballots for Obama, voted against the measure by 62% to 38%.

This has been a wrenching loss for advocates of same-sex marriage, but it should provide an opportunity to forge allegiances. Black people need to hear how denying gays the right to marry devastates families and diminishes us all. Gays need to know that they will find less "hate" and religious dogma among blacks than they imagine, but also a deep grief over the disintegration of the nuclear black family and fear that gay marriage will further erode it. Efforts are quietly underway in Los Angeles to initiate these conversations. We hope they create a truly broad, communitywide imperative for an end to discrimination and for equal rights for all.

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