By Karl Vick and Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 7, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 6 -- Any notion that Tuesday's election represented a liberal juggernaut must overcome a detail from the voting booths of California: The same voters who turned out strongest for Barack Obama also drove a stake through the heart of same-sex marriage.
Seven in 10 African Americans who went to the polls voted yes on Proposition 8, the ballot measure overruling a state Supreme Court judgment that legalized same-sex marriage and brought 18,000 gay and lesbian couples to Golden State courthouses in the past six months.
Similar measures passed easily in Florida and Arizona. It was closer in California, but no ethnic group anywhere rejected the sanctioning of same-sex unions as emphatically as the state's black voters, according to exit polls. Fifty-three percent of Latinos also backed Proposition 8, overcoming the bare majority of white Californians who voted to let the court ruling stand.
The outcome that placed two pillars of the Democratic coalition -- minorities and gays -- at opposite ends of an emotional issue sparked street protests in Los Angeles and a candlelight vigil in San Francisco. To gay rights advocates, the issue was one of civil rights. Attorney General Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. reworded the ballot language to state that a yes vote was a vote to "eliminate the rights of same-sex couples to marry."
That appeal ran head-on into a well-funded and well-framed advertising campaign in favor of the ban -- and the deeply ingrained religious beliefs of an African American community that largely declined to see the issue through a prism of equality.
"I think it's mainly because of the way we were brought up in the church; we don't agree with it," said Jasmine Jones, 25, who is black. "I'm not really the type that I wanted to stop people's rights. But I still have my beliefs, and if I can vote my beliefs that's what I'm going to do.
"God doesn't approve it, so I don't approve it. And I approve of Him."
The overwhelming rejection of same-sex marriage by black voters was surprising and disappointing to gay rights advocates who had hoped that African Americans would empathize with their struggle.
"I wasn't surprised by the Latinos," said Steve Smith, senior consultant for No on 8. "Basically, Latinos and the Anglo population were fairly close. The outlier of the proposition was African Americans. Many are churchgoing; many had ministers tell them to vote."
Indeed, Proposition 8 promoters worked closely with black churches across the state, encouraging ministers to deliver sermons in favor of the ban.
"What the church does is give that perspective that this is a sacred issue as well as a social issue," said Derek McCoy, African American outreach director for the Protect Marriage Campaign. "The reason I feel they came out so strong on the issue is one, for them, it's not a civil rights issue, it's a marriage issue. It's about marriage being between a man and a woman and it doesn't cut into the civil rights issue, about equality.
"The gay community was never considered a third of a person."
Black residents agreed with that reasoning in interviews at a Culver City mall on Thursday. David Blannon, 73, who opposed the measure, said his wife summed up her yes vote in one sentence: " 'As far as I'm concerned, that's not something I read in the Bible.' And let it go at that," he said.
But Kesha Young, 32, called religious arguments a cover for persistent prejudices rooted elsewhere. Taboos against homosexuality are exceptionally strong in Africa, McCoy acknowledged.
"I'm going to tell you something about the black race: We love to pass judgment. I think that's just a smoke screen about the church thing," said Young, a licensed vocational nurse.
Anthony Maurice-White, 31, who is gay, said he learned early in life to keep his sexual orientation to himself around fellow blacks as a matter of routine. "Closed minds," he said in the mall parking lot. "And they're afraid of change."
His friend Ike Young, 21, nodded agreement. "I'm straight, but I think a lot of people are bi-curious but they're afraid of what family members will think of them," he said.
The Latino vote for the ban also appears rooted in culture.
"It's our tradition," said Flor Guardado, 38, who voted yes. "In Latino Central American culture, the gays aren't accepted."
Guardado said that in her native Honduras, she would not tell her mother if she had a lesbian friend. "If I had a lesbian friend, they'd think I was a lesbian, too," she said.
But in Los Angeles, where she owns a hair salon, a different kind of diplomacy obtains. All eight of her employees are gay. When they asked how she voted, she tells them it's a secret.
"I'm sorry for the gay people. They have feelings," said the mother of two. "Legally, I don't want that for the children. They will be confused and think it's okay. They might think they're gay, too."
Television commercials supporting the ban skirted the issue of rights, and instead declared that schools would treat same-sex marriage as normal. Even opponents acknowledged the ads as powerful and positioned to influence minority voters, whose children account for a disproportionate share of the public school population.
Pablo Correa said his mind was made up by a TV spot in which a young girl comes home from school and tells her mother she learned how a prince could marry a prince.
"Before, I didn't know about Proposition 8. When I saw the commercial, it opened my mind," said Correa, 42, standing in his beauty supply story in Boyle Heights, in heavily Latino East Los Angeles.
"I don't discriminate against people," he said, with a wave at the rows of lipstick and makeup. "I have a lot of customers who are homosexuals, transsexuals and bisexuals. I'm not against these people."
He added: "But I'm a traditionalist. I come from a traditional family. People can do whatever they want in their own life, but I have to protect my family."
Still, strategists for neither major party saw the outcome on Proposition 8 as an opening for Republicans to corral minority voters who share a socially conservative agenda.
"I think it's unclear that the social conservatism would trump economics," said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican strategist in Los Angeles. "Certainly with Latino voters there have been opportunities to market themselves on a socially conservative level. But the Republican Party has been too bumbling and irresponsible to do anything with it."