In commemoration of October being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer (LGBTQ) History Month, Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) has posted a new story here each week chronicling certain events in the evolution of marriage equality in the United States.
Winning over hearts, one at a time, has been at the epicenter of the marriage equality movement for over 20 years. Getting to a critical mass has been a gradual process, with emissaries and allies reaching out to the many diverse constituencies that make up the fabric of the country. Perhaps no other outreach had as dramatic an effect on a single demographic as that of President Obama and the NAACP’s back-to-back endorsements of marriage equality in May of 2012.
While many in the black community, including leaders, had endorsed gay rights and supported marriage equality long before 2012, the average polling showed black support for marriage equality stood at only 41% in early 2012.** But things started to change rapidly.
In less than a two-week period, President Obama followed the lead of Vice President Biden and announced his support for equal access to marriage for gay and lesbian couples and an NAACP endorsement ensued several days later. Propelled by the Vice President’s public support for marriage equality just days earlier, the President expressed his rational for the change of heart during an interview with ABC News:
"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married,” he said.
Although more focused on its decision rather than the reasoning behind it, the official statement of the NAACP was no less unambiguous in its support. “The NAACP has opposed and will continue to oppose any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBT citizens. We support marriage equality consistent with equal protection under the law provided under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
Subsequent polls revealed an immediate increase in marriage equality support among black voters. In Maryland, where a referendum would be on the ballot just six months later, opposition of 56 - 39% reversed itself to 55 - 36% support. National polls also reflected this shift, showing a dramatic reversal from majority opposition to a surge of 59% support for marriage equality among black voters. Although black voters in Maryland would ultimately vote, ever-so-slightly, against the Maryland referendum for equal access to marriage, the margin of difference between the black community and overall electorate had shrunk, considerably.
While the NAACP has provided few specifics on the breakdown in favor of the vote for marriage equality among board members, President Obama’s endorsement was said to have contributed to the decision of board members who had been previously uncommitted. As for the decision itself, Cornell William Brooks, President and CEO of the NAACP, says, “The NAACP supports marriage equality and strongly believes that all Americans should be allowed to love and marry the partner they choose. The mission of the Association has always been to ensure the political, social and economic equality of all people.”
MEUSA’s primary focus has always been about story-sharing, making as many people as possible aware of the stories of their gay family members, friends, neighbors and associates. Support that evolved in the black community after President Obama’s and the NAACP’s endorsement of marriage equality shows how story-sharing by former marriage equality opponents (or fence-sitters) is also a powerful tool in changing peoples’ perspectives. That the black community now supports marriage equality in substantially similar numbers to the rest of the population is a testament to that reality.
**It is worth noting that contrary to certain narratives that opposition among black voters to marriage equality had an outsized effect on the passage of Proposition 8 in California, studies by the Center for Urban Research at CUNY (City University of New York) and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force have determined that this discrepancy was in fact statistically insignificant.
Photo 2: 9 May 2012, President Barrack Obama announces his support for marriage equality in ABC interview. Screen grab from news video courtesy of CNNPolitics.
Photo 3: 21 May 2012, NAACP president: Marriage is ‘civil rights issue of our times’ - NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous speaks at his organization's national headquarters in Baltimore. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers) Their support was announced on 19 May 2014.
Photo 4: 16 July 2014, Cornell William Brooks is the new NAACP president (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post).