President Obama’s new stance on gay marriage may put him at risk with a major bloc of his supporters, African Americans. The president May 9 reversed his long-held opposition to same-sex marriage, saying the switch was an “evolution” based on his conversations with gay staff members, openly gay service men and women and his wife and daughters.

“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts in an interview that appeared on the network’s “Good Morning America” on May 10.

But the anti-homosexuality sentiment is one that seems entrenched among Blacks, based mainly on religious belief. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, 55 percent of Blacks oppose gay marriage, and 42 percent support it. And the president’s longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage was, perhaps, among the reasons 95 percent of Black voters supported him in 2008.

“A lot of African-American leaders right now are really dazed by this because we didn’t see it coming. For the last four years, the African-American clergy have really supported, covered, and prayed for President Obama, and it (the president’s announcement) really came without any warning,” said the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple, on CNN’s “Early Start” on May 10.

He further predicted, “Sunday is going to be a real great divide in Black churches and churches across America discussing the issue. African Americans are, by and large, sexually conservative and socially more aggressive. And so, pastors on Sunday morning are going to be really walking a balancing act. How now do we juxtapose this issue up against a president that we have supported over the last four years?”

Obama has shouldered increasing pressure from liberal factions within his Democratic base to support same-sex marriage. Some have even equated the initiative to the Black struggle for civil rights.

“The right to choose whom to marry is not just a civil right, but a fundamental human right,” said Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in a statement. “That is why I opposed the Defense of Marriage Act (which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman) in 1996 and support its repeal today. And it is why I strongly support President Obama taking a stand on this important moral issue.”

But that equation—of marriage equality to the civil rights fight—is a bone of contention among many Black opponents of same-gender marriage, who say the two are in no way related.

“Our Civil Rights Movement was about enforcement of the rights we were already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Therefore there can be no equating Blacks and Civil Rights with gays and special rights,” wrote Black Republican strategist Raynard Jackson in a column this week. “So…to equate gay rights with Civil Rights should be an insult not only to the Black community; but to all who sacrificed for Blacks to gain the Civil Rights that Blacks were already due.”

Despite the disconnect between the president and a segment of the Black community on the issue of gay marriage, Bryant – who is spearheading a major national voter registration campaign – said African-American voters will likely stand behind the president come November.

“…By and large, African-Americans are going to support President Obama. I don’t think that this is going to be a deal breaker because there so many issues at stake when you deal with Pell Grants, when you deal with predatory lending, when you deal with job preparedness and you see the economy on the surge of rebound. I think African-Americans are going to stand with the president, with his presidency, but not on this policy.”

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Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO