There are a few things my mother loves unshakably: Jesus, her family, and President Obama — perhaps not in that order. Growing up black in the segregated South left her not bitter, but motivated to ensure her family would have a better life. Obama's election — and reelection — are part of her dream.
But the president's declaration of support for same-sex marriage pitted her difficulty with homosexuality against her unwavering support for "her man," Obama. After my daughter was done cheering the president's announcement, she said, "Uh-oh! What will grandmother say?"
Despite her career as a social worker, the Bible trumps sociology textbooks for my mother when it comes to matters of sexuality. She believes that God loves the sinner, but that homosexuality is morally wrong. According to a recent Pew Research Center, she is far from alone: African Americans oppose same-sex marriage at greater rates than white Americans, though the gap has narrowed dramatically in recent years.
While my mom has helped clients of every sexual orientation in many ways, she never understood — or, in my opinion, sought to understand — gay people, refusing to consider the idea that sexuality likely has biological rather than social roots. We have had countless heated arguments on this point alone.
We sometimes joke in our family that to my mother, no one is gay. When I said I thought the African American CNN anchor Don Lemon was brave to come out, for example, she replied with apparent shock, "No, he's not gay, is he? Are you sure?" That is her standard response.
My mother's love for Jesus and her bedrock belief in the heterosexual bond were standard in our rural South Carolina hometown, and she's still a country girl at heart. Her peer group still consists mainly of friends and relatives who share her ethnic background, Southern roots, and beliefs. Although there were 13 children and more than 90 first cousins in my grandmother's family, I cannot name a single gay cousin on that side — a statistical impossibility. I do not even know of any gay cousins among their children or, by now, grandchildren, and news travels fast in my family.
All of that demonstrates the depth of the moral dilemma many black voters find themselves facing given Obama's newly stated views on gay marriage. These folks may not have the deep pockets some groups have, but black people voted in 2008. I scoff at the notion that this move was not politically risky for the president.
On the day of Obama's announcement, I was expecting a telephone call of the kind I usually get whenever there is a somewhat major news story. "Did you hear Newt?" my mother will ask, or, "SEPTA trains are canceled today!" Yet my telephone remained eerily silent.
So I called her. "What did you think of the president's interview?" I asked.
"Timely," was her one-word response. Her voice was strained, even pained.
I felt a bit sorry for her, and I started to leave it at that. But my family doesn't work that way. "Tell me more," I said. "What did you really think?"
At that point, my mother surprised me by launching into a set of talking points that would have made a seasoned political strategist proud. She said all the right things about people having the right to be together no matter what others think, about how horrible it must be not to have someone you love at your side when you're ill, and about how gay couples deserve the same benefits as other couples.
Then, just when I was beginning to wonder if this was really my mother, she tacked on: "But you know, deep down, President Obama doesn't believe that stuff."