ANNAPOLIS – Same-sex marriage opponents counted African-American voters among their allies leading up to November’s election, expecting them to help overturn legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry in Maryland.
Polls in the months prior to November’s referendum on same-sex marriage seemed to back them up, with African-Americans showing less support than whites. But as the months wore on, opposition softened, especially in the face of endorsements from President Obama and prominent entertainers, as well as a media campaign that included clergy, athletes and other public figures.
By Election Day, voters in the state’s large, predominantly black jurisdictions — Baltimore and Prince George’s County — joined to support same-sex marriage by a 4-percentage-point margin. In Baltimore, same-sex marriage got 57 percent of the vote. In Prince George’s, where opposition was expected to be very strong, it got 49 percent of the vote.
Statewide, same-sex marriage was approved with 52.4 percent of the vote.
Those results did not surprise many in the African-American community.
“There was this misconception that black people are overwhelmingly more homophobic than whites, and that is just not true,” said the Rev. Mother Meredith Moise, a writer, speaker and missionary in Baltimore who is active within the LGBT community.
In the weeks leading up to the election, polls and analysts were predicting a close race, with the majority of African-Americans expected to vote against the referendum. A Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies poll conducted in September found that 44.2 percent of African-Americans supported same-sex marriage legislation, and 52.3 percent opposed it.
Patrick Gonzales, who conducted the September Gonzales poll, said the African-American vote changed drastically between polling in January 2012 and polling in September, from a 2-to-1 majority against same-sex marriage to almost an even split.
African-Americans make up 64 percent of the population in Baltimore, and in Prince George’s County, African-Americans make up 65 percent, according to 2011 Census data.
Almost 30 percent of Maryland’s population is African-American, according to the 2010 Census, and they made up almost 25 percent of the electorate in November, according to The Baltimore Sun and Patrick Gonzales.
“This election dispels this myth that the African-American population is against same-sex marriage. There has not been a shift in the community, but just how we understand the issue,” said Jodi Kelber-Kaye, the associate director of the Honors College at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an expert on LGBT issues.
While sometimes conflicting factors, such as the prominence of African-American mega churches, support from young voters and a more spread-out electorate, may have influenced the votes in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, where a majority of the state’s black population resides, many believe there has been a change within the African-American community towards favoring same-sex marriage that has gone unnoticed by political experts.
“The impression among national organizations was that it was not going to pass because people were not sure where African-Americans stood,” said Fred Mason, the president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO. “It’s a hard community to read, even in national polls the community often gets misrepresented.”
Few African-Americans were surprised that the legislation passed, and many were glad that the election may have worked to shift the perception of the African-American vote.
“What these results indicated was that African-Americans as a whole do not oppose same-sex marriage. There was a lot of unreliable polling about the African-American population that just wasn’t true, just as many black churches support marriage equality as those who oppose it,” said UMBC’s Kelber-Kaye.
One such church is Mount Ennon Baptist Church, a mega church in Clinton, where the Rev. Delman Coates came out in support of the referendum in February. One of the few African-American religious leaders in his county to do so, Coates believes his support helped shift the discussion towards acceptance of same-sex marriage.
“By having an African-American pastor come out, it shifted the discussion ? very early on.” Coates said. “I distinguished civil marriage from religious marriage ? It went a long way to shifting the narrative to creating this comfort level for people to think, ‘If my pastor can support this, I think I can as well, even if I don’t believe in it.'”
However, some religious leaders who were against the referendum, attribute their loss to advertising, which shifted the perception of the legislation in favor of same-sex marriage within the African-American community, they said.
“I do believe how it was advertised, it influenced people’s decisions ? making people think the majority were favoring same-sex marriage,” said Pastor John Robertson of Kingdom Light Ministries, who preached against Question 6 at the African-American church in Baltimore.
Derek McCoy, the chairman of Maryland Marriage Alliance and the president of Maryland Family Alliance, agreed, and said that African-American voters were misinformed about the referendum’s implications and swayed by advertising that targeted solely African-Americans.
The African-American vote, “was critical,” McCoy said. “The only ads you saw on TV were centered on the African-American community. They bypassed everybody else, and only focused on African-Americans ? They played an interesting card, making them feel guilty, because who wants to be against fairness and civil rights?”
Regardless of what happened this election, McCoy still thinks many African-Americans are against same-sex marriage, but voted for the Democratic Party’s ticket, as they have historically done, he said.
“Unfortunately, this is Maryland, which is decided by Baltimore, Prince George’s County, and Montgomery County. People followed the Democratic ballot and didn’t have the education when going into the polls ? You can vote for Obama, but against redefining marriage, and I don’t think people heard that,” McCoy said.
The struggle to change the minds of the African-American community was uphill, many said, as shown by the shifting polls.
“Prince George’s County was the hardest county to convince the equality of marriage (referendum) in. There were a lot of misconceptions, a lot of rumors ? we set out to dispel the rumors,” said Bob Ross, the president of the Prince George’s County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ross was involved in campaigning for the passage of Question 6 in his county, with phone banks, canvassing and e-mail advertisements. Because Prince George’s County is more spread out than Baltimore, he said it was more costly to reach out to people than it was in the city.
The presence of colleges and the support from students made the difference in Prince George’s County, Ross said.
“It was the younger voters who put it over the top here,” he said.
In Baltimore, the legislation passed by a larger margin, (57 to 43) many say because the gay community in the city is more outspoken, and used that to its advantage during the campaign.
But gaining votes was still a struggle, said Ezekiel Jackson, a political organizer with 1199 SEIU, United Healthcare Workers East and the president of Marylanders for Marriage Equality.
“Early on, people said the African-American community was going to vote against (same-sex marriage), and the African-American community said, ‘Hold on, how can we talk about this as an issue affecting families, as a civil rights (issue),'” Jackson said.
Jackson said the longtime assumption that African-Americans are against same-sex marriage should be put to rest.
“I know for sure, nationally, there has been a big change in our demographic,” Jackson said.
Around the campus of Morgan State University, many young people were against, and even offended, by the African-American religious opposition, said Carla Wills, who works within Morgan State radio programming.
Young voters played an important role in the passage of the referendum, as many young people are more tolerant of same-sex marriage.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 66 percent of voters 18-29 support same-sex marriage legislation, and 66 percent of voters 65 and older are against it.
“Baltimore city’s population is slightly younger, and the results are consistent with the national trend that across the board, young people vote for marriage equality,” said Delegate Mary Washington, D-Baltimore.
This election may have helped change the assumption that all African-Americans vote the same way.
“There is this idea that all African-Americans think and act a certain way. That is just not true. I am happy people will have to re-think how African-Americans approach matters of equality,” said Washington.