The media’s knee-jerk reaction to President Barack Obama’s stance on marriage equality has been to question whether black voters, of which only 39 percent agree with the president’s newly announced position, will abandon him over it. Supporters and critics alike, who cite enthusiasm for the first black president to far outweigh the dissonance they feel about his support of gay rights, have debunked this idea.
But there is also a more practical reason for the black community’s overwhelming support of the president. His policies are more responsive to the socioeconomic needs and priorities of black families than the alternative. And his support for marriage equality is no different.
Race-baiting conservatives have tried to push the narrative that gay rights are exclusive privileges sought by white, middle-class, gay and transgender people that pose a threat to communities of color. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, antigay policies are also a great threat to the black community. They hurt hundreds of thousands of black gay families and their children and other “nontraditional” family structures prevalent among the black community.
Black gay and transgender families are among the most economically vulnerable in our society. Black lesbian couples experience poverty rates of 21.1 percent, compared to 4.3 percent and 14.4 percent of their white lesbian and gay black male counterparts, respectively. And black lesbian couples raising children are twice as likely to be living in poverty.
Antigay family policies directly hurt the black community by denying equal legal protections to thousands of children and families. These laws also tend to generally ignore contemporary family structures, where parents may be biological or nonbiological, married or unmarried, gay or straight. The invalidation of these families simply because they are not made up of a biological mother and father renders them legal strangers and weakens their ability to care for one another and their children.
Black families are incredibly diverse, and as we show below, they fare best when policies and laws are fair and inclusive to all Americans. The gay and transgender population is also diverse. The most recent census data shows that more than one in five same-sex couples are interracial, and 46 percent of same-sex couples with children are people of color.
The dangers of a narrow definition of family
Laws that limit the definition of family ignore other common family structures and deny them basic protections. Narrowing the definition of what a family is discriminates against anyone who does not fit into the “traditional family” framework, which would include single-parent households, unmarried families, and extended families.
Many black families fall outside this definition. According to the Census Bureau, about 36.4 percent of African Americans are single-parent households, with the vast majority being female-headed households. And many black children are raised by extended families, by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and nonbiological caretakers. Extending the category of “family” and “parent” is necessary to ensure that all of these family units have access to safety net programs that help to safeguard them.
The recent North Carolina Amendment 1, which was upheld during the state’s May 8 primary, illustrates the dangers of a narrow definition of family. It states that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state,” meaning that any relationship that doesn’t fit within that box is excluded—which includes a significant portion of black families.
Among other things, this type of policy can potentially harm unmarried women seeking domestic violence protection, which would disproportionately impact black gay and transgender women who experience domestic violence at alarming rates. Almost half of all black lesbians have experienced some form of domestic violence, compared to 25 percent of heterosexual women.
The impact on children in gay and transgender families
Under this narrow definition of family, it’s the children who suffer the most, particularly the estimated 2 million children being raised in gay and transgender families.
Gay and transgender families and ultimately all families of color can be denied access to health care and safety net programs under these laws. According to a CAP report, safety net programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Children’ Health Insurance Program, often use the narrow definition of family, meaning that a child must be raised by legally recognized parents in order to receive assistance, including but not limited to food and nutrition support, child care assistance, cash assistance, health insurance, and educational loans.
This unequal treatment also means that unrecognized families are unable to receive tax credits and deductions intended to lower the cost of raising a family, leaving many nontraditional families with a higher tax burden.
Not only that, the narrow definition of family allows unmarried families of color and gay and transgender families of color to be discriminated against in adoption rights, as only 19 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to adopt. In the remaining states, children of gay and transgender families lack legal ties to one parent threatening hospital visitation rights, end-of-life decisions, and parental rights.
The North Carolina amendment also illustrates how detrimental antimarriage equality policies can be. Under these policies children of unmarried parents could lose their health care and prescription coverage and have their protection threatened if something were to happen to the other parent. This type of extreme language puts children and families at risk by denying them equal legal protection.
Marriage equality policies are good for families of color
In a recovering economy communities of color need policies and legislation that will support a growing job market and healthy families—not ones that use race-baiting tactics to drive a wedge between communities. The black community’s support for President Obama is not only about accepting a broader understanding of family but also social and economic policies at the forefront of protecting African American communities.
Sophia Kerby is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 and Aisha C. Moodie-Mills is an Advisor on LGBT Policy and Racial Justice at the Center for American Progress.