Nadine Smith had just spent the last three years trying to defeat a ballot initiative that would prevent her and her girlfriend, Andrea Hildebran, from taking the next step. So last November when the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment, which defined marriage as occurring between a man and woman, passed by only two percentage points she knew exactly whom and what to blame.
“The failure to do outreach to black and Hispanic communities was disastrous,” said Smith, executive director of grassroots LGBT advocacy group, Equality Florida. She maintains that black voters, had they been communicated with, could have helped to defeat her state’s version of California’s Proposition 8.
Smith accuses the Florida Red and Blue campaign, Equality Florida’s better-funded coalition partner in 2008’s uphill battle to mobilize Floridians against Amendment 2, of acting on the stereotype that African-Americans are homophobic.
“Utter nonsense,” said Derek Newton of Smith’s post-election analysis. Newton, who ran Florida Red and Blue, admits, however, that his campaign purposely did not pursue African-American voters.
Roughly $400,000 spent on polling, research and focus groups all concluded, Newton said, that not only did upwards of 70 percent of African-Americans support the amendment but that their positions were “unmovable.”
“I’m hard-pressed to think of what we could’ve done that would’ve been worse [than canvassing black neighborhoods],” he said. Newton paused before answering his own question.
“I suppose we could’ve run out and asked people to vote yes.”
Newton’s unresolved election year quarrel with Smith over outreach to black voters may be a local affair but it is a peek over the ledge of a much wider, national rift between some African-Americans and the LGBT community. It led Smith to participate in a recent panel titled, “Are Blacks Really THAT Homophobic?” The discussion, part of the annual National Association of Black Journalists convention held August 5-9 in Tampa, was an attempt to unpack the pervasive stereotype that African-Americans are irreparably homophobic.
In the weeks leading up to the 2008 election, New York Times headlines like ‘Same-Sex Marriage Ban is Tied to Obama Factor’ predicted a surge in black voters would end gay marriage in California. When Prop 8 did indeed pass, African-Americans, as a group, received the brunt of the blame.
In fact exit polls showed that even though 70 percent of African-American voters favored Prop 8, no single demographic—much less a small minority of voters within the state—swung the vote.
Still, the sense of betrayal and anger directed towards African-Americans stuck.
“It gave me a glimpse of some of the willingness to accept some pretty ugly stereotypes about the black community,” Smith said by phone.
About 15 minutes into the hour and a half long discussion, Rashad Robinson media director of the prominent national advocacy group, Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation dismissed the premise that any racial group could be generalized as homophobic. He also took journalists to task for advancing that message.
“Often times what I see in stories [about gay marriage],” he said, “is the ‘why’ is because they’re black and [therefore] homophobic.”
Robinson confirmed that GLAAD’s own internal polling showed African-Americans are least supportive of gay marriage but Smith countered reliance on polls with what she has seen and heard as a community organizer.
“While we had the grassroots infrastructure and people willing to be out in the hot sun talking to voters, the big money went to [Florida Red and Blue, which] would not talk to black voters,” said Smith, who believes in finding the right way to communicate with African-Americans.
After all, her and her new wife’s legal rights are at stake. Smith and Hildebran married this past weekend–in Vermont.