The Real World

The American Prospect Online features an article by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixiera; entitled “Movement Interruptus,” it examines the Democratic trend toward majority status. I have a few quibbles with some of their premises; they ignore Ross Perot’s contributions to Clinton’s victories, and they claim that “Kerry’s health-care program was incomprehensible except to policy wonks,” which seems absurd to me, as I read it and understood it, and I’m hardly a healthcare policy wonk, unless battling with my health insurance company has somehow qualified me.

The particular conclusion, though, with which I take the most issue was the following:

[Kerry’s] margin among African-Americans was slightly smaller than Gore’s in 2000 – no doubt a product of his patrician aloofness.
I’ll concede that, although I never found Kerry to come across as especially aloof, perhaps the seeming lack of a common touch was felt by others. (I have yet to definitely determine whether a significant amount of voters were turned off by an actual aloofness that somehow escaped my notice, or whether its alleged existence was a media creation akin to Gore’s exaggeration compulsion.) However, if Kerry’s “patrician aloofness” was found off-putting by black voters, I believe that it’s only a part of the story.

In their essay, Judis and Teixiera recall a pre-election visit to Martinsburg, a small, blue-collar West Virginian town (which I assume, as its associated anecdotes are separate from their discussion of minority voters, is predominantly white). Martinsburg voters cited gay marriage and family values when addressing concerns with Kerry as a candidate. I find it astonishing that Judis and Teixiera allow for such reasoning among white voters, but conclude that a lower number of black votes for Kerry was “no doubt” due to aloofness. Perhaps the authors of The Emerging Democratic Majority are too hopeful about the prospects of solidifying the traditionally Democratic black vote, ignoring or willfully blinding themselves to the slow but determined efforts of the Right to peel off socially conservative black voters.

Homophobia remains pervasive within all ethnicities without exception, but there is a particular aversion to homosexuality among communities where either traditional gender roles of a male-headed household are preferred and/or where there exists a dearth of strong male role models. All too many black communities fall into the latter category. Combined with the increasingly hostile conservative Christianity that seeks to extend the oppression of gay rights, homophobia in black communities (as in others) is becoming a significant problem, and one that Democrats cannot ignore as they pursue equal rights on behalf of gays and lesbians.

The recent advertising insert placed in the Washington Post by Grace Christian Church is indicative of the type of divisive strategies that are being utilized by the Right to attempt to splinter the black community and pull social conservatives into the Republican fold. To reduce losing black voters to a disconnect with a Northeastern liberal is to deny the problem we face, not just among black voters but among social conservatives of all stripes.

* * *

Recently, there has been heightened interest in the disparity between the rates of HIV in women of white and non-white communities. One of the theories that has captured some media attention is men on the down-low – men who lead their lives as straight men, but have sex with other men. I’m not going to purport to know whether there is any significant causal link between men on the down-low and HIV rates among women, but I am interested in the link between men on the down-low and homophobia in the communities from whence they come.

At university, one of my closest friends was a black man who was and is still one of the coolest, strangest, most interesting people I’ve known. We had the kind of friendship that meant a call in the middle of the night if one of us had read an interesting line in a book, the kind of closeness that means one shared look can move both of you out of a crowded bar and off to a swath of grass somewhere. He spent weekends with my family; we spoke at my old high school together to a creative writing class.

I can remember the day he told me that he had gone home from a bar with another man and spent the night with him. I remember him insisting that he wasn’t gay, even though I didn’t care if he were. I remember him continuing to chase women with an oddly false determination that seemed quite strange to me. I remember his roommate accusing him of being gay, and his behavior becoming increasingly erratic. And I remember him telling me that black men aren’t gay.

He was brilliant and beautiful and weird, and most of all, he was tragic. He seemed torn straight down the middle sometimes, and he lived on the down-low, although back then (almost a decade ago now – oh my), there wasn’t a name for it, aside from “a little fucked-up.”

* * *

He differed from the men to whom something like the Grace Christian Church piece might appeal, because he wasn’t religious and he wasn’t homophobic – we shared many gay friends in common, though none of them black. He was similar to them, though, in that the homophobia with which he’d been raised was insidious and intense enough to have denied not only his own homosexuality, but also the existence of any gay men in his home community.

I fail to believe that such a situation was unique to him, or that such strong antipathy toward gays and lesbians would not translate into an extreme discomfort with gay marriage. And though I’ve been highlighting the black community in response to Judis’ and Teixiera’s article, frankly I’ve yet to meet anyone of any color who is virulently anti-gay, but comfortable with a political candidate who supports gay rights.

The Right is claiming that homosexuality is immoral, and they’re telling anyone who will listen in any way they think will convince them. I wonder when the Left will speak as loudly in defense of equal rights, reminding the Right that denying rights to gays and lesbians is immoral, and it’s an injustice we are determined to rectify.

The problem is that Democrats have taken their black constituents for granted for far too long, and I fear the same will happen as the GOP makes their fractious inroads using gay marriage as a hateful but effective wedge. The Democrats have turned all but a blind eye to the needs of their black voters, about which Al Sharpton cautiously warned during his speech at the Democratic Convention, while still assuring the Right that his vote was not for sale. But as the Republicans increasingly come calling in black communities, what will be the Democrats’ reply when the voters there ask, “What have you done for me lately?”

I fear that ignoring the reality of the gross prejudice that haunts gays and lesbians in their communities is a conscious decision to avoid addressing the problems in a community that, by and large, both parties have massively underserved. Democrats have had their votes, but they haven’t given as good as they’ve got, and now socially conservative blacks have been offered a real alternative – a party that will address their concerns about gay marriage, if nothing else (and nothing else it would be). While the Right is taking advantage of those very prejudices, fanning the flames of fear and hatred, Democrats convince themselves it was Kerry’s patrician aloofness that did them in and continue to ignore the realities of black communities.

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