by Steve Charing
The recent protests at Pikesville High School over "Coming Out Day" brought to light the prevailing homophobia within large segments of the African-American community. To be fair, there were white protestors—parents and students—who believe gay and lesbian children should not be coming out at school. And supporters of the Gay-Straight Alliance-run event counted African-Americans among them.
However, the youth minister of the Greater Bethlehem Church of Randallstown, a mainly African-American church from outside the school’s zone, organized the protests, while the Morgan State University radio station. WEAA, was used to bring out the protesters, approximately 20 in all. In fact, Duane Johnson, the station’s Gospel Director, led the protests and the taunts.
Why all the fuss? The GSA was promoting a gay film festival and selling rainbow wristbands. Can you spell h-o-m-o-p-h-o-b-i-a?
"The homophobia in the black community largely comes from a religious perspective," said Meredith Moise, an African-American who is a Deacon herself and field coordinator for Equality Maryland, the state’s principal lgbt advocacy group. "Unfortunately, many of these churchgoers have no idea of the biblical context of the anti-gay verses they like to throw at us. These folks use the Bible and religion as a shield for their fear of lgbt people."
And the irony is that white southern preachers had waved around the very same Bible as a weapon to be used against blacks in opposing integration, interracial marriage and civil rights. One would think, then, that African-Americans would appreciate the devastation wrought by biotry.
While a large number of church going African-Americans sincerely believe that homosexuality is a sin (as do white fundamentalist Christians, Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Muslims), there is more to it than that. The almighty dollar plays a significant role, as well.
Many sermons in black churches do, to some extent, speak of challenges within their own communities such as crime, poverty, education, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancies, single parenting, drugs, etc. But being preached to on these issues isn’t very sexy to parishioners, as these are internal problems facing the black community. So attendance is held down to a degree.
But to beat up on other groups? That’s a different matter. It’s so much more fun to condemn the "sins" of others than to address their own. And who better to kick around than homosexuals?
"Homophobia is the last acceptable prejudice in America," wrote Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and an African-American. "Its perpetrators comfort themselves with the thought that they are simply castigating a group of sinful sexual bohemians…mocking and vilifying the lives of people who happen to love someone of the same sex."
Fiery sermons ignite the crowds; they attack the "gay lifestyle" and its attendant sins. They condemn homosexual acts as an abomination in the eyes of God. And they recoil at the idea of "gay marriage." Hatred is often spewed from these very pulpits that once railed against hate. The folks file in, the adrenaline flows, and the collection baskets fill up.
Besides the extra cash raised in these churches stemming from the anti-gay rhetoric, African-American preachers found another source of dollars. To tow the line for the homophobic Republican Bush Administration, African-American clergy are in a classic battle of the pulpits to increase attendance and gain funding from the government. Faith-based money is a powerful lure, and the wedge issue of same-sex marriage is huge.
So how is this homophobia by blacks hurting lgbt causes? On the national stage, the anti- gay marriage faction has been motivated to vote in states that had constitutional amendments on the ballot. And although many Democrats are privately sympathetic to marriage equality, they are now too hamstrung to support marriage for same-sex couples lest they incur the wrath of influential black preachers among others who find the concept a bitter pill to swallow. They know that public pronouncements would be used against them by Republican smear operatives to divide the voters.
This homophobia among blacks is manifested at the state level, too. As I reported in this paper in March, three African-American delegates—two from districts with large lgbt populations—bucked the Democratic Party and co-sponsored a proposed state constitutional amendment that would prevent lgbt individuals from marrying in Maryland. (The effort had failed in committee during this past year’s General Assembly.) They were clearly more interested in placating the black ministers in their districts than adhere to Democratic principles of equality.
Moreover, one of the staunchest opponents of same-sex marriage at the state level is Delegate Emmett Burns, an African-American clergyman, who is repulsed by the idea of gays "sashaying up to the altar."
Allies such as civil rights leaders Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rev. Al Sharpton, Coretta Scott King and Julian Bond and organizations like Equality Maryland and the National Black Justice Coalition have been trying to bridge the gap, which is a daunting task. The principal challenge is to have blacks accept the notion that the lgbt struggle for equality is another form of civil rights advocacy. Many African-Americans resent the comparison because lgbt individuals can better hide their identity than blacks can. Perhaps. But why should we have to?
Furthermore, it should be noted that more than a few gays and lesbians joined blacks arm-in-arm during the civil rights marches of the 1960’s. Said Coretta Scott King, "Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma…and many other campaigns in the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices of their own, and I salute their contributions."
Gay African-Americans themselves are particularly victimized.
The controversy surrounding the lack of inclusion of gay blacks in the Millions More Movement gathering, as reported in the last issue of OUTloud, is a prime example. "Homophobia in the black community is an obstacle to black unity and progress," said Meredith Moise, who received an ICON award from Baltimore Black Pride.
And this lack of acceptance of African-American gays by African-Americans has far more dangerous effects. Wrote Cynthia Tucker, "Black Americans harbor a profound homophobia that assists the spread of HIV by driving men to have sex with other men ‘on the down low.’"
Perhaps the best strategy for addressing the homophobia is for more blacks to come out and face it head on. "Black lgbt people are everywhere in the black community," said Moise. "We will continue to come out and tell our stories. Black lgbt people are no longer willing to parcel out their identities to make others comfortable. We have a vested interest in the liberation of our people and will work toward those ends as long as we have breath," she said.