Just six weeks prior to the 1996 election, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA ushered in a new era of civil rights struggle for sexual minorities, as it barred same-sex couples from seeking the federal benefits of marriage. Moreover, DOMA allowed states the right to refuse the recognition of same-sex marriages originated in other states. Shortly thereafter, at the state-level, same-sex marriage went up for a vote as early as 1998, as voters from states, such as Hawaii, Nebraska, and Nevada, elected to place bans on same-sex marriages in their respective state. The American constituency seemed to turn against the tide of liberalization documented by social scientists during the 1990s. Using race as a lens to understand the political and moral backlash against sexual minorities witnessed in the new millennium, this study maps trends in the political tolerance of homosexuals pre- and post-DOMA for blacks, whites, and other racial groups.
In the context of this backlash against the civil rights of sexual minorities, issues of race boiled to the surface. Most notably, gay civil rights activists blamed the passing of Proposition 8 – a ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California – on the high turnout of African American voters for the election of Barack Obama. Primarily focusing on the apparent contradictions around the issue of marriage equality, media pundits pointed to the Black Church and Blacks’ sexual conservatism to make sense of the theorized political hypocrisy that African American voters and leaders now displayed towards sexual minorities in the new millennium. Social science data seemed to reflect this contradiction in sexuality-based measures, as racial divides in same-sex moralization and support for marriage equality grew as the millennium unfolded. Yet, studies have documented that the Black-White divide in opposition to marriage equality began to show as early as 2004, preceding the election of Barack Obama. This paper fills a gap in the literature: Little research has attended to racial cleavages in attitudes towards the non-marriage political issues of homosexuals as a demographic group, with no attention to trends in such attitudes after DOMA.
Using data from the General Social Surveys, the extent to which racial divides in the political tolerance of sexual minorities has emerged in the post-DOMA era will be assessed. First, this study examines the correlates of changing racial cleavages in the political tolerance of sexual minorities before and after DOMA. Second, the nature of trends in sexual minority moralization – a key correlate of racial cleavages in the political tolerance of sexual minorities – is evaluated. Third, we consider the implication of trends in political and moral tolerance for understanding shifts in support for marriage equality. The primary contribution this study makes is revealing the key contribution moralizing culture makes to understanding racial divides in the political tolerance of sexual minorities with regards to both marriage and non-marriage issues.
Using data from the 1973-2014 General Social Survey (N = 31,865), this study finds that DOMA sets the stage for increased racial cleavages in political and moral attitudes towards sexual minorities. Second, the creation of a post-DOMA Black-White gap in non-marriage political tolerance is an artifact of increased resistance to the demoralization of sexual minorities among Blacks post-DOMA. Meanwhile, post-DOMA Other-White gaps in non-marriage political tolerance is an artifact of racial differences in religious affiliation. Third, analysis of the 1988 and 2006-2014 General Social Survey (N = 7,638) reveals that Blacks’ relative reticence to support marriage equality in the new millennium represents Blacks’ post-DOMA resistance to same-sex demoralization. The paper concludes by considering the significance of the inter relatedness of political and moral tolerance for understanding racial inequality in attitudes towards sexual minorities. DOMA marked an increase in public contestations of the moral and political status of sexual minorities. Post-DOMA the civil rights issues of sexual minorities for racial minorities became tangled in concerns about the moral status of same-sex behavior, rather than a pure “civil rights” issue. We discuss the implications of the aforementioned findings for understanding the ways that a politics of respectability continues to inform Blacks’ views of the civil rights of sexual minorities.