There's a gorgeous moment in Yoruba Richen's documentary The New Black, currently playing the film festival circuit, in which two young black lesbian activists canvass an inner-city black neighborhood to drum up support for the gay marriage initiative that was on the ballot in Maryland's 2012 statewide election. The women approach a group of young men hanging out in front of an apartment building to talk to them about voting and — more specifically — supporting gay marriage.
"I ain't voting on that gay shit," says the most vocal of the guys. "I ain't with that."
What follows is an amazing back-and-forth. One of the young women succinctly breaks down how black people have to have each others' backs, how she has theirs and she needs them to have hers. It's not at all a volatile exchange, and the young women hang tough with their political stance. But what turns the conversational tide for them is when the chillest guy in the group — lounging on the stairs, his arms folded lightly across his chest — calmly asks the nearby naysayer, in particular, and homophobes in general, "Who are you to tell someone who they can be with?" Then, addressing the two women, he says simply, "I got you."
It's a moment of unforced loveliness that encapsulates how homophobia plays out in the African-American community — and upends the outsider perception of that community as a hotbed of intolerance. Often the first and loudest to speak out on gay issues are those with the least enlightened attitudes. But they're not representative of the whole. More progressive voices — too often rendered invisible by mainstream media — jostle right alongside them.
The coda to this dialogue is even richer. Just before taking off, one of the women asks the group, "Y'all need community service hours?" As some of those gathered sheepishly admit they do, she tells them, "Y'all can always volunteer with us." She adds with a laugh, "And we feed you."
At that moment, it becomes painfully obvious all that was lost — folks with knowledge of the subtleties and realities of the black community, and the ability to connect dots and issues for non-gay voters — when mainstream, largely white-led queer political groups failed to reach out to black LGBT folks and their black hetero allies to coordinate in the fight to secure gay marriage.
Homophobia is undoubtedly a serious issue in the community, with the church feeding and reinforcing bigotry. But The New Black is Richen's pushback against the widespread notion that black people are the reason gay marriage was for a time in danger of not being realized. The documentary's heroes and heroines are black. Richen weaves together stories of people coming out, of queer families formed without legal recognition or protections, of straight allies (clergy and lay persons alike) battling homophobia, and of the ways the institution of marriage either was historically denied to black people or failed to afford them real legal and political security. What emerges is a look at the ways race, specifically blackness, has been cynically portrayed by the mainstream media (including the so-called liberal press), right-wing politicians and religious leaders, and white queer activists.
By necessity, she points out that the Mormon and Catholic churches were the real forces behind the push to thwart gay marriage — neither of those institutions having black power brokers in them. But the film stops short of stating the obvious: It's white people who are responsible for the delay in gay marriage being a right. They're the ones who have spent political capital to put anti-gay initiatives on ballots, have conceived and executed controversial anti-gay-marriage campaigns, have spent countless millions to secure their bigoted goals, and have flocked to polling booths to vote against gay marriage.
If there's a flaw in Richen's film, it's her failure to dismantle, with data, lingering racist myths around California's 2008 Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which for a time banned same-sex marriage. The Associated Press's infamous exit polls initially claimed that 70 percent of the state's African-American voters voted for Prop 8 (later adjusted to 59 percent). But what neither the pollsters (whose methods have been roundly denounced as shoddy) nor those who cited (and still cite) those figures have acknowledged is that black Californians don't have the actual numbers to have affected the ballot outcome one way or the other.
Poll results released by the Public Policy Institute of California in December 2008 show that Prop 8 received a total of 6.8 million votes, according to the California secretary of state's final tally, and reveal that, at most, about 900,000 of those votes came from African-Americans.
Analyzing the data, Justin Ewers wrote for USNews.com, "If black voters had voted the same way as whites — 50 percent for same-sex marriage and 50 percent opposed — the net gain for same-sex marriage supporters would have been slightly more than 500,000 votes. Prop 8 passed by a margin of just under 600,000 votes."