Dealing the Race Card in the Gay Marriage Debate

In modern intellectual discourse, when one is short on substantive arguments, one may safely retreat to spurious analogies, personal offense or even out right name-calling. A tactic that uses all three ploys is golden. Accusing your ideological opponent of racism is one such strategic maneuver. Recently, the issue of gay marriage brought out the race card.

At a December 8th news conference, an organization called the National Black Justice Coalition announced a campaign to lobby African American civil rights organizations to oppose the enactment of a Federal Marriage Amendment. Perhaps a recent Pew Research poll showing African Americans opposed to state sanctioned gay marriage by a 2-to-1 margin stimulated this effort.

The same day, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s (NGLTF) executive director, Matt Foreman made a statement in response to the press conference. He characterized those opposed to gay marriage as “masters at using wedge issues to divide America.” And then as sure as night follows day, the race card was offered as trump. Painting a picture of the wedge-masters, Mr. Foreman said, “If you take their hoods off, you’ll see the same faces who vehemently oppose affirmative action, strongly support capital punishment, gleefully ridicule welfare recipients, and consistently block hate crimes and non-discrimination legislation.” No more discussion, if you oppose gay marriage, suggests Mr. Foreman, you are a hooded, or should I say closeted, de facto member of the KKK. I wonder if democratic presidential candidates Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry who are on record as opposing gay marriage have taken off their hoods lately?

So that’s how you play the race card. Make the assumption that sexual orientation is analogous to race as a human trait and then any opposition to gay political activism is by definition racist.

But what about that assumption? Is sexual orientation analogous to race?

It is a tempting but flawed analogy on at least two counts. Genetically speaking, we are all closely related with very few racial differences at the level of DNA. However, the differences often associated with race, such as skin color are fixed once inherited. A second observation is that identical twins all share the same genes and all share the same racial characteristics. These two observations are not true of sexual orientation.

For instance, a 1993 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry by Daniel Golwyn and Carol Sevlie reported the experience of an exclusively gay man who sought treatment for social phobia. At the outset of his treatment, he reported exclusively homosexual behavior, thoughts and fantasies. However, even though he did not set out to change his sexuality, the man reported a complete shift in his attractions and fantasies. He lost his homosexual attractions and shifted to a heterosexual orientation. I could give other examples of this flexibility. I have never read of a person spontaneously changing race, have you?

Concerning genetics, there is evidence that genes may play a small role in the formation of sexual feelings but this involvement is akin to the purported genetic influence on one’s attitudes toward casual sex. In fact, the genetic influence on sexual attractions may be less. In a 2000 study on identical twins in Australia, researcher Michael Bailey found that 20% of the male twins and 24% of the female twins shared homosexual orientation. This is much lower than the 50% figure usually cited by the media. Dr. Bailey suggested the earlier higher concordance rates were likely inflated. And this is much lower than the 100% concordance for characteristics associated with race.

The race card gets played in many ways as it relates to gay marriage. Even the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court used the race analogy in its recent decision saying to forbid gays from marriage would be like forbidding interracial marriage. However, no matter how much rhetoric and name calling advocates produce, they cannot make sexual orientation like race.

Many blacks say as much. Rev. Talbert Swan II of Springfield, MA was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “I believe there’s no comparison whatsoever.” Rev. Swan believes race is different, in part because “I could not choose the color of my skin. For me to ride down the street and get profiled is something a homosexual will never go through.”

Given the fact that the Black Justice Coalition is planning an ad campaign to sell the connection between race and sexuality, we will likely see the race card played with regularity.

I intend to ask for a redeal.