Global Politics

Proposed gay marriage amendment forces Somali immigrants to confront taboo

This story is a part of

Global Nation

This story is a part of

Global Nation

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Ali Gama, a Somali Muslim who lives in Minneapolis, said he supported the proposed same-sex marriage ban in Minnesota. (Photo by Michael Holtz.)

Ali Gama doesn’t hesitate to share his views about same-sex marriage. Yet as part of the Somali community in Minneapolis, he knows the subject is taboo among many of his peers.

Two of his friends quickly leave the table in a cramped Somali shopping center after the discussion begins. Gama keeps talking. He’s eager to explain the connection between his disapproval of gay couples and his Islamic beliefs.

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Adam,” he says. 

His four friends who’ve stayed nod in agreement — it’s as simple as that. 

Gama fled Somalia 17 years ago, escaping a brutal civil war in the east African nation. Like many other Somali refugees who came to the United States, Gama brought with him a devout Muslim faith.

Cawo Abdi, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, say it’s that strong faith that is likely to propel Gama and many of his fellow Somalis to vote in support of Minnesota’s same-sex marriage ban in November.

National campaigns have long focused on immigrant voters in swing states with large foreign-born populations. More than 40 million immigrants now living in the U.S., and they’re one of the fastest growing constituencies in the nation. Presidential candidates are targeting the 22 million eligible Hispanic voters in their campaigns.

Now immigrants are a target of groups in Minnesota on both sides of the drive to pass a same-sex marriage ban — a constitutional amendment that effectively closes the door on gay marriage.

In some states, similar amendments have passed by wide margins, like North Carolina’s passage of a ban in May by 20 percentage points. Minnesota, though, remains narrowly split, with 43 percent of voters supporting the ban in a recent poll and 49 percent opposing it.

So immigrants could play a significant role in Minnesota, where more than seven percent of the population is foreign born. And their numbers are rapidly increasing, according to a 2010 report by the non-profit Minneapolis Foundation. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of foreign-born citizens increased 33 percent in Minnesota, compared to 22 percent nationwide.

“It all depends on how close the vote is,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside who studies immigrants in American politics. “The closer you get to 50-50, even a group that’s less than five percent of the population could tip the balance.”

More than 40,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, or about 0.7 percent of the state’s total population. State demographer Susan Brower estimates that 10,000 to 15,000 of them are eligible to vote.

Though the state’s Somali electorate remains small, Minnesota for Marriage, a group that is fighting in support of the constitutional ban, isn’t taking any chances in winning it over. Spokesman Chuck Darrell said representatives from the organization had met with imams from three of the largest mosques in Minneapolis trying to win support for the ban. They’ve also appeared on local Somali TV.

Recent immigrants often vote Democrat and the party sponsors voter registration drives in these communities. But Darrel says “the amendment itself cuts across denominational, political and ethnic boundaries. The harder the Democratic Party works to get out their core base to elect President Obama, the better the amendment is going to do.”

National surveys show a majority of Americans support legalizing gay marriage.

But Ramakrishnan says that among foreign-born citizens — core constituents of the liberal base — opinions vary widely. Many Asian immigrants support legalizing gay marriage while a majority of Latinos oppose it. Little polling data exists for other immigrant groups.  

The organization that’s lobbying against Minnesota’s same-sex marriage ban, Minnesotans United for All Families, plans to hire a Somali liaison by the end of July. Nimco Ahmed, a Somali American and the group's ethnic community organizer, said educating Somalis about the implications of the ballot initiative was an important step.

"People don't have a good understanding as far as what is on the ballot," Ahmed said, adding that some Somalis think gay marriage will become legal if the amendment fails. 

Abdi, the University of Minnesota professor, expects many first-generation Somali immigrants to side with social conservatives in supporting the ban, as would many of their children. Yet she says some young people no longer share their parents’ strong religious principles and, for them, gay friends may be part of their lives.

Still, other Somalis view the ban’s narrow definition of marriage — one man and one woman — as an infringement on their belief in polygamy. Polygamy is allowed, with certain limits, in Islam, but is illegal throughout the United States.

Minnesotans United for All Families, the anti-amendment organization, does not endorse polygamy, says spokeswoman Kate Brickman.

That puts Somalis who believe in polygamy but disapprove of gay marriage in a difficult position, says Mohamed Dirie, former president of the Somali Student Association at the University of Minnesota.

“I personally will be voting no because when I vote no I’m not saying yes to gay marriage,” he said. “What I’m saying is ‘no I believe in other types of marriages.’”

The same-sex marriage ban will force many more Somalis to come to terms with their beliefs. But just because it’s on the ballot doesn’t mean it’s something they’re ready to openly debate. 

“There’s not that much open discussion yet in the community,” said Hashi Shafi, executive director of the Somali Action Alliance, a Minneapolis-based community group. “It’s something new to them, and I think it takes maybe some time.”