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Papa's Got a Brand New Outlook on Gay Marriage

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When President Obama endorsed marriage rights for same-sex couples on May 9 -- becoming the first American president to do so -- he said his adolescent and pre-adolescent daughters had influenced his thinking. The girls have friends raised by same-sex couples, he said, and they could not imagine that their friends' parents should be treated differently.

Do Sasha and Malia Obama represent a sea change in black attitudes towards gay rights?

The NAACP's May 19th announcement in support of same-sex marriage, which came on the heels of President Obama's, was a surprise to many. Superficial analysis of California's Proposition 8 ballot initiative suggested that when blacks came out to vote they voted against marriage equality. While talk around the passage of Proposition 8 asserted that black voters disproportionately fueled the initiative, an extensive study showed that other factors such as age, party identification and church attendance are more relevant than race in influencing anti-gay marriage beliefs.

Much has been said about the relationship between attendance in the Black Church and opposition to gay marriage, but less has been written about factors such as generational mindsets and the influence of popular youth culture. Polls conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reveal that black opposition to gay marriage has fallen from 67 percent in 2004 to 49 percent this April -- a huge shift.

In a blog post, Bristol Palin critiqued the president for letting his daughters make policy decisions and quipped that teens who support gay marriage are unduly influenced by TV shows like Glee. Palin's remarks might not be that far off in terms of linking TV representations to popular attitudes. And when it comes to black youth attitudes there is an unlikely source: America's Next Top Model, the reality show hosted by Tyra Banks.

The West Indian and African American teenage girls I researched in Brooklyn watched Top Model religiously. The show featured openly gay men, including "Miss J," (J. Alexander) and "Mr. Jay," (Jay Manuel) -- both of whom have since been fired from the program. Tyra Banks, the executive producer, has long been an advocate for gay rights. For the 60-plus teens I interviewed, Miss J and Mr. Jay's sexuality was never an issue. For the girls in particular, Top Model's multiple gay experts and one transgendered contestant were unremarkable.

The youth understood that anti-gay sentiments and the Black Church have been historically connected. Discussing an episode of Top Model, a 17-year-old second generation Jamaican girl said, "[Although] a Christian is supposed to be open-minded to everything," she could "understand a Christian that's homophobic or that's basically that threatened or that scared of it." This remark was tempered by another West Indian girl who summed up the relationship between Christian belief and social equality, saying, "As a Christian you're not supposed to tear people apart and treat them negatively."

These teens are coming of age within African American and West Indian ethnic groups -- homophobic attitudes have traditionally been a pressing issue in both. For an earlier generation of African Americans, popular cultural cues such as Eddie Murphy's homophobic stand-up routines reflected anti-gay sentiments while fringe voices like filmmaker Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied broke the silence on the realities of gay black male identity. In West Indian popular culture, fundamentalist readings of the bible fed violently homophobic dancehall lyrics of the sort articulated in Buju Banton's "Boom Bye Bye."

There are more current examples including the popularized fear of closeted black men "on the down low," who spread HIV to unsuspecting female partners, and the gay distancing remarks in hip hop artist Lil' Wayne's usage of "no homo." Still, for the teens I studied, these examples are overshadowed by the acceptance portrayed on shows like Top Model and Glee, and by hip hop stars like Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z. Minaj has said that her alter ego "Roman Zolanski" is a gay boy, and Jaz-Z voiced support for marriage equality after the President's announcement last month.

If black youth are taking their cues from and influencing such trends, then they are in step with their White, Latino, and Asian peers. According to a 2003 study funded by the Pew Chartable Trusts, the majority of Americans between the ages of 15 and 25 show high levels of support for gay rights and these views are maintained across all racial, ideological, geographic, partisan and religious lines. The study also found that African American and Latino youth support for extending equal housing, employment, and hate crime protections to gays exceeded that of white youth. Majorities of African American and Latino youth also supported civil unions, marriage and adoption rights.

The Obama daughters' role in influencing their dad, the president, to support gay marriage speaks to a generational divide that is closing. Civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Action Network, have organized a Father's Day Silent March against racial profiling for which more than 50 LGBT organizations have announced their support. By condemning the NYPD's Stop and Frisk program and joining the march, gay rights groups are claiming the injustices experienced by black and Latino youth as their shared cause.

First President Obama and then the NAACP come out in support of marriage equality. Now civil rights and LGBT groups are joining forces. Whether we credit Top Model or Sasha and Malia, this makes a worthy Father's Day gift for a president who started out as a community organizer.

Oneka LaBennett, author of She's Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn, is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Director of American Studies at Fordham University. She is also Research Director of the Bronx African American History Project. This piece was developed via the Op Ed Project's Public Voice's Fellowship at Fordham University (www.theopedproject.org).