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updated 11/19/2004 3:14:21 PM ET 2004-11-19T20:14:21

Did the fight for gay marriage defeat John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential Election?  That seems to be the conventional wisdom in America, judging from exit polls indicating that the most important issue was “moral values,” beating out such other crucial issues as economy/jobs, taxes, education, terrorism and the war in Iraq.

To many Americans, those “moral values” translated directly into a stand against gay marriage, civil unions and anything to do with homosexual rights. A week after the election, a debate raging both inside and outside the gay community centers on whether a certain segment of the activist gay community cost Kerry the election with a fight that was both ill-timed and poorly executed.

Scapegoat?

Some argue that the flurry of same-sex marriages, mostly in San Francisco, riled up many conservatives and evangelicals – as well as a significant contingency of church-going Black folks – to vote against Kerry.

Others contend that the gay community is being used a scapegoat, noting that Kerry – despite a flawed war in Iraq, an economy that had a net loss of nearly 1 million jobs, rising healthcare concerns and a popular Southerner on his ticket – was unable to secure the states necessary to oust Bush. 

“This election was not lost, because of gay-marriage. It was lost, because of John Kerry,” says Terry Michael, a former Democratic congressional and presidential press secretary, who is gay.  The director of the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, his commentaries criticizing Kerry have been published in numerous papers and journals.

“He was an incredibly flawed candidate. [Kerry] was a cold guy, who made Al Gore look like Oprah Winfrey. He lost this election because people could not bond with him,” Michael added.

But Steve Weinstein, managing editor of the New York Blade, a gay newspaper, says it is dishonest to absolve the gay community of any culpability in Bush’s Nov. 2 victory.  “I accuse the gay leadership in this country of putting their own selfish interests above the greater good of the electorate,” he says. In an article published last week in The Washington Blade, the nation’s largest gay newspaper, Weinstein, writes, “There is no reason why we should have been pursuing the issue of gay marriage on the eve of an election year.”

The Trap Was Laid

It’s important to note that Kerry didn’t support gay-marriage; he advocated civil unions. Perhaps, he appeared as a gay-marriage supporter after the Supreme Court of his home state of Massachusetts issued a 2003 opinion stating that civil-marriage licenses in the state must be made available to same-sex couples. The gay community’s longstanding alliance with the Democratic Party added to the perception.

Author, political commentator and gay rights advocate Kevin Boykin believes that the Republican Party began setting its trap for the Democrats virtually the moment the gay-marriage opinion rose from the Massachusetts Supreme Court – a full year before the election.  “I remember when Tony Perkins [president of the conservative Family Research Council] and other people on the right wing basically said, in the fall of 2003, that they wanted to make this an issue in the 2004 Elections,” remembers Boykin. “You have two choices: not do anything or to respond. When there was an attack, the community decided to respond to it.  There never was a push for gay marriage. There was a push against something, which was the Federal Marriage Amendment and the 11 state ballot measures.”

Sideshow Issue

The Rev. Walter Faunteroy, a former D.C. congressman and longtime civil rights advocate, agrees that the Republican Party deftly used the gay-marriage issue to divert the American public’s attention away from more pressing issues.  “The Republican Party chose this as the primary wedge-issue or diversion issue and was successful in getting people to forget the lies and the mistakes that were made by President Bush on handling the war on terrorism, and focused on a sideshow issue that ran away with the circus,” says Faunteroy, who now heads the National Black Leadership Roundtable.

But for many pundits, the real Republican coupe lay in the party’s ability to use its anti-gay/pro-morality message to draw in a sizable segment of the African-American community, which traditionally votes Democratic.  In a February 2004 New York Times article,  Genevieve Wood, a White Republican with the Family Research Council, urged Black Christians to speak out against gay rights activists, saying that gays were attempting to equate their fight with the civil rights struggles of African Americans.

Jasmyne Cannick, a Black, gay writer, producer and activist living in Los Angeles, believes that Wood’s tactic was just the thing to infuriate many African Americans, especially considering that the message: "gay civil rights are like Black civil rights," often came from a gay, White male, who, by appearance, hasn’t been disenfranchised economically.  “That turned off nearly every Black person in America,” explains Cannick of the National Black Justice Coalition, a gay rights organization. “I think the right-wing was very strategic … by going through the Black church and trickling in that faith-based initiative money to buy Black votes.”

Black Rights vs. Gay Rights

While Boykin agrees that organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force need to do a better job at bringing Black gay people to the table when strategizing, he doesn’t see the harm in comparing gay civil rights with Black civil rights.  “Personally, I think the comparison of gay civil rights and Black civil rights is fine,” says Boykin, who also serves as the board president of the National Black Justice Coalition. “It doesn’t really make any difference of whether they’re the same.  This whole comparison debate gets us off track.   It creates this hierarchy of oppression when we start deciding this group’s suffering was worse than that group’s.  At the end of the day, we should not use that as a test of whether people are entitled to equal rights under the law.”

illustrating the effectiveness of the Republican strategy, three Boston-based Black clergy organizations – the Black Ministerial Alliance, the Boston Ten-Point Coalition and the Cambridge Black Pastors Conference -- issued a joint statement against gay marriages. In Chicago, the Rev. Gregory Daniels, senior pastor of the Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, went so far as to tell his congregation that “if the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them.”

When the tally was in, the Bush acquired about 11 percent of the Black vote nationally, 2 percent higher than in 2000. In the key battleground state of Ohio, the president garnered 16 percent of the Black vote, and many political experts say that gay marriage might have been the lone issue that delivered those extra 2 percentage points to the president.

But just how important was that 2 percent?   Not much, argues Boykin. “A shift of a percent, here and there in the South probably wouldn’t have made a difference in any of those states,” he says. “We have a cultural divide in our country, and Black people tend to vote progressive or Democratic, and they will probably continue to do so, long after this election.”

Adds Faunteroy: “The Republican Party failed miserably. The goal was to get 16 percent of the Black vote, which is the tipping-point for rendering the Black vote insignificant in the country."

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