Don't Blame the National Organization for Marriage

In case anyone thought the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) was around to promote racial harmony, unsealed strategy memos, recently released as part of a court case, show that this is the last thing on the group's mind.

Since 2009, NOM has tried to "drive a wedge between gays and blacks" by publicizing prominent black leaders' opposition to marriage equality and goading members of the gay community into denouncing them as "bigots." NOM also sought to "interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity" and "identify glamorous young Latino and Latina leaders, especially artists, actors, musicians, athletes, writers and other celebrities willing to stand for marriage." The goal: to incite resentment between key Democratic constituencies in order to make supporting marriage equality toxic for politicians.

For any political organization, having the cold political calculus of its leaders exposed is unseemly, and many gay-rights bloggers—and even The New York Times editorial board—have condemned NOM's race-baiting tactics. While I agree that this is deplorable, it's important to note just how vulnerable the gay-rights community was to this ploy. In the aftermath of the Proposition 8 vote in California, which banned same-sex marriage in the state, some in the gay community were on their way to making the race-war scenario a reality without NOM's help. The organization recognized this as a crucial weakness; as the memos note, "Fanning the hostility raised in the wake of Prop 8 [was] key to raising the cost of pushing gay marriage."

In case you don't remember, after exit polls showed that 70 percent of black voters had supported Proposition 8, prominent voices in the gay-rights community blamed black Obama voters for the referendum’s passage. At The Stranger, Dan Savage said that he was "done pretending that the handful of racist gay white men out there … are a bigger problem for African Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color." In the days preceding the vote, Andrew Sullivan talked about "[t]he rampant homophobia in urban black culture … as well as the role of the black church in fomenting and entrenching homophobia" (in fairness, Sullivan was one of the first to urge readers not to scapegoat the black community, but only after the vote). Gay-rights activists hurled racial epithets during Prop. 8 protests, and comment threads were full of racial resentment.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. Truth Wins Out's Wayne Besen; gay-rights blogger Pam Spaulding; People for the American Way President Kathryn Kolbert; the Daily Kos; and The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates condemned the scapegoating. Stat guru Nate Silver dug through the data and determined that the generational breakdown of the vote was more significant than the racial one. Ultimately, the gay-rights community rightfully blamed itself for failing to effectively reach out to the black community and tasked itself itself with doing better in the future.

The NOM memos should serve as a reminder of that commitment. The organization’s effectiveness at splitting the LGBT movement hinges on the movement seeing itself as white, in opposition to a homophobic black culture. The most powerful weapon against this narrative is the facts: Gay people are as big a part of the African American community as they are the population at large. It is only possible for NOM to drive a wedge between gays and blacks if these communities don't see each other as overlapping. To the extent they don't, it only reveals a failure to acknowledge the diversity of both communities.

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