Obama Surge Confounds Gay Marriage

New black and Hispanic voters could support California's Proposition 8.

October 27, 2008, 7:32 PM

Oct. 28, 2008 — -- In 2003, the Rev. Roland Stringfellow, who had served as pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist church in Indiana for a decade, resigned quietly rather than face his black congregation and explain that he was a gay black man.

"At that time, the best thing was not to proclaim it," Stringfellow told ABCNews.com. "When it comes down to being a black man, oftentimes we are forced to make a decision, 'Is my community or family more important than my own well-being?' We choose to live in silence and play the role, living on the down low."

Today, 39, and living in San Francisco, Stringfellow belongs to a more socially liberal church and hopes to be married one day. He is openly fighting California's Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to outlaw recently legalized gay marriage, and cultural prejudices in his community.

But Stringfellow's views may not be typical of most minorities in California, who could hold the key to the future of gay marriage in the most populous state in the nation.

If passed, the ban would amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

In this historic presidential election year, political observers say high voter turnout for Democratic front-runner Barack Obama -- who is predicted to draw record numbers of churchgoing blacks and Hispanics -- may spell the demise of legal gay marriage in California.

"Maybe people don't want to talk about it, but it is definitely a major issue," said Stringfellow. "They feel [gay marriage] takes away from the image of the strong, black family. I think it's a shame that those of us who are gay or bisexual and want to be responsible for our families are not even allowed to because family members see our contributions as less and counter to the black culture."

Black parishes that argue scripture opposes same-sex marriage are joined by a broad coalition of traditional churches -- from white evangelicals and Mormons to Hispanic and Chinese Christian parishes and even some orthodox Jews.

The opposition includes gay and civil rights groups, unions, businesses and corporations, ethnic lobbies and Hollywood actors like Samuel Jackson, Brad Pitt and Ellen DeGeneres.

But, in another twist to this complex issue, both the NAACP and the National Black Justice Coalition have broken with many black parishes.

Proposition 8: Changing the Rights to Gay Marriage

In a survey of 35,000 Americans about religious beliefs conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 46 percent of those who attend historically black churches believe that society should discourage homosexuality. But that group is far more accepting of gays and lesbians than white evangelicals or Mormons, who frown on them at rates of 64 percent and 68 percent respectively.

People for the American Way Foundation, whose African American Ministers Leadership Council has embarked on a multiyear project to challenge homophobia, found in focus groups that older churchgoing blacks in California were open to marriage equality.

"African-Americans are generally opposed to discrimination, but on marriage they need to sort out the distinctions between legal equality and religious belief," said Sharon Lettman, spokeswoman for People for the American Way Foundation. "Most people haven't had a chance to have that conversation. The workshops we did at the NAACP's California state convention last weekend make it clear that people are hungry for it," Lettman said.

In May, the state legalized gay marriage, drawing gay couples from around the world and buoying sales tax coffers and the tourist industry. Same-sex marriage is also legal in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Arizona and Florida voters face similar legal bans on Election Day, but all eyes are on California. At least 64,000 people from the 50 states and more than 20 countries have given money to support or oppose Proposition 8.

Many like Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobby based in Washington, have flown to the state to pursue the fight. He says that the proposition is "more important than the presidential election."

"We've picked bad presidents before, and we've survived as a nation," he said. "But we will not survive if we lose the institution of marriage."

Just one week before the election, campaign finance records show contributions totaling more than $60 million, according to The Associated Press.

"It's a staggering amount," said Matt Coles, director of the LGBT Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the ban. "California is a cultural trendsetter. If voters decide same-sex couples can marry, it has an enormous influence."

Polls released last week from the Public Policy Institute of California showed the fight to defeat Proposition 8 was ahead by eight percentage points, but insiders say it's a dead heat.

Minority Voters Weigh In on Same-Sex Marriage

"This election is eminently winnable or losable," Coles told ABCNews.com.

"Proponents have 40 percent of the vote nailed down," he said. "We are convinced we have 40 percent of the voters nailed down. The remaining group of people is conflicted. They don't like gay marriage, but they don't like taking something away from other people."

Greg Herek, a University of California psychology professor who specializes in research on sexual orientation, said as a group, blacks, even those who support gay rights, tend to oppose same-sex marriage.

But "age may override race," said Herek, who opposes the ban. "It's true the African Americans may turn out to vote against Proposition 8, but the younger may be more supportive of gay marriage."

"I don't have a crystal ball and it's a bit of a cliffhanger, but the Obama and [John] McCain race will be over early in the evening," he said. "We'll be up late with Proposition 8."

Supporters of the effort have made "significant inroads" into the Chinese and Korean church communities, according to Karin Wang, who works with API Equality-LA, a group that represents Asian Pacific Islanders.

"Collectively, these ads are all continuing a pattern of misinformation," Wang told ABCNews.com, "namely, the use of arguments that in mainstream media would appear ridiculous and illogical, as well as outright homophobic."

Ads in the Chinese media warn of "evils," such as polygamy or incest, and laws that protect gay students as "opening the door to all sorts of chaos in the schools," she said.

Hispanics, who tend to be even "more committed to traditional marriage" than white evangelicals, are also expected to vote in record numbers this year and will likely support the proposition, according to the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

"Don't touch something that's part of our religious faith narrative," Rodriguez told ABCNews.com.

Still, Rodriguez said Hispanics may be the "most conservative" of all ethnic groups on the issue of same-sex marriage, but are not "homophobes," and support the "canopy" of civil rights legislation enjoyed by people of all colors and sexual orientations in California.

Now, with the fate of Proposition 8 hanging in the balance, white evangelicals have missed an opportunity to use the power of the Hispanic vote.

"There could have been a turning point if they'd engaged the Latino community," he told ABCNews.com. "Of the million of dollars invested in saying 'yes,' nothing was invested in the Hispanic community. They said, 'Any of you who are brown and speak Spanish can lead a prayer.'"

"If the proposition fails, it's a direct result of the power brokers not engaging the Hispanic community in the state of California and only in a token role, rather than sharing the leadership mantel."

Ballot Decision Beyond Picking a President

But some opponents of the ban have more faith in Hispanic voters, especially the youth.

"Everyone knows it's going to be a really tight race," said David A. Lee, 52, a screenwriter who lives in Palm Springs and opposes Proposition 8. "I am really hoping it comes down to our side. The younger generation seems to be in our corner."

"Those going for Obama are not the most socially conservative," said Peter Kresel, 65, a consultant from Palm Springs who rushed to the altar before the vote on Proposition 8. "The more who get to the polls, the better, and I remain optimistic."

So, too, is Gary Goldstein, who also moved quickly to marry his partner in Los Angeles before the Proposition 8 vote. "Ultimately, I think people will make the right decision. My ads would say, 'Do not legalize discrimination for any group, especially for a group that has known discrimination.'"

Meanwhile, Stringfellow, who now works as a welcoming coordinator for San Francisco's Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, is placing bets on the younger, black voters.

"Young people are not hung up on the same prohibitions," he said. "[Being gay] is seen as more mainstream. 'What's the big deal?' they say. I am hoping they will vote with their hearts and not what their pastors have told them."