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Blacks’ support a surprise on same-sex marriage

- - Sunday, December 9, 2012

Same-sex marriage opponents counted black 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 before November's referendum on same-sex marriage seemed to back them up, with black residents 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, 54.2 percent of voters supported same-sex marriage.

Those results did not surprise many in the black community.

"There was this misconception that black people are overwhelmingly more homophobic than whites, and that is just not true," said the Rev. Meredith Moise, a writer, speaker and missionary in Baltimore who is active within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Polls and analysts were predicting a close vote, with the majority of blacks expected to vote against the referendum. A Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies poll conducted in September found that 44.2 percent of blacks supported same-sex marriage legislation, and 52.3 percent opposed it.

Patrick Gonzales, who conducted the poll, said the black vote changed drastically between polling in January and polling in September, from a 2-to-1 majority against same-sex marriage to almost an even split.

Blacks make up 64 percent of the population in Baltimore, and 65 percent in Prince George's County, according to 2011 census data.

Almost 30 percent of Maryland's population is black, according to the 2010 census, and they made up almost 25 percent of the electorate in November, according to The Baltimore Sun and Mr. 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, who studies LGBT issues.

While sometimes conflicting factors, such as the prominence of black megachurches, 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 black community toward favoring same-sex marriage that has gone unnoticed by political analysts.

"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."

At Mount Ennon Baptist Church, a megachurch in Clinton, the Rev. Delman Coates came out in support of the referendum in February. One of the few black religious leaders in his county to do so, Mr. Coates believes his support helped shift the discussion toward acceptance of same-sex marriage.

"By having an African-American pastor come out, it shifted the discussion very early on," Mr. 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.'"

Young voters played an important role in 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 ages 18 to 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 L. Washington, Baltimore Democrat.

This election may have helped change assumptions about blacks, she said.

"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 rethink how African-Americans approach matters of equality," Ms. Washington said.