Saturday, October 29, 2005

The troubling homophobia in the black community

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.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Telling it Straight to Straights

Dispelling gay myths is key to getting straight people to understand our issues

By Steve Charing

History has taught us that opponents of gay rights have combined two elements to try to thwart lgbt progress: selective inflammatory religious rhetoric and promulgating myths about the lgbt population. I’ll set aside the religious angle for another day.

But the myths advanced by our straight opponents have been every bit as dangerous, and they should be dispelled. If you get the chance to speak to straight folks about these myths, consider using the arguments contained in the following:

Myth #1—Gay people choose to be gay. In discussing this issue, I would raise these questions: Why would I choose a sexual orientation that would alienate myself from my peers at school and risk the violence and isolation that bullying produce? Why would I choose to misrepresent myself in front of my family, friends, co-workers and neighbors? Why would I choose a life where would be discriminated against? And why would I choose a sexual orientation that would not allow me to biologically have children and raise a family?

To put it simply, I did not have any more of a thought process in deciding the direction of my sexual orientation as straight people do.

Myth #2—There is a gay lifestyle. There is no more likely to be a gay lifestyle than a straight one. TV footage from gay pride parades depicting the lgbt community as drag queens and leather types is an over exaggeration and totally misleading. There are far more heterosexual cross dressers and straight people engaged in leather and S&M fetishes than you would ever find in the gay community. Except you never see them on the news.

Gay people work, pay taxes—much of it going to educate straight people’s kids, eat in or dine out, watch movies, listen to music, work out, enjoy their hobbies and pets, attend social functions, watch some TV and do virtually everything that straight people do. What is so gay about that lifestyle?

Myth #3—Gays in the military would hurt morale. Gays have been in the military since Alexander the Great, and wars have been won and lost irrespective of their presence. The idea that a gay person would overtly come on to a straight soldier or sailor is not beyond possibility, but it is unlikely that such risky behavior would be undertaken by most gay and lesbian troops.
Straight people react differently around gay people depending on their experiences. But the same warnings were heard about blacks integrating in the military and our armed services survived very nicely, thank you. While a number of western nations permit gay personnel in their military, the U.S. continues to lag primarily because of its southern-based culture, for which the top commanders are afraid to change the mindsets of their subordinates. And with M-F sexual harassment proliferating in the military academies and throughout the services, the military can’t claim that gays are hurting morale. Plus there’s also that other little morale problem called Iraq.

Myth #4—Gays can be "cured." Most legitimate mental health organizations discredit that theory and maintain that more harm than good comes from the dubious—sometimes tortuous—procedures used. Questionable organizations such as PFOX, a conservative propaganda tool set up by the religious right, argues that gays can be changed to heterosexuals. They can’t.

Myth #5—Same-sex marriage would ruin the institution. All we have to do is point to Massachusetts where marriages involving gays and lesbians have occurred since May 2004. The state continues to have the lowest divorce rate in the country. So when Lois and Susan got married, straight couples didn’t file for divorce. The institution is only threatened by heterosexuals—not gays.

Myth #6—Same-sex marriages require religious blessings. What lgbt people are seeking are civil marriages—not religious marriages. Clergy do not have to perform these services. In fact, as many couples in Maryland get civil marriages as those in a house of worship. They are validated by the state and confer the same rights as if religious marriage ceremonies took place.

Myth #7—The religious right hates the sin but loves the sinner. Not true. They hate the "sinner." They uniformly oppose marriage for same-sex couples on the basis that according to the Bible, homosexuality is a sin. But unless I am unaware that the Bible has been recently amended, murder is also a sin. But I never heard the fundamentalist Christians oppose the civil rights or marriages of murderers, or for that matter, armed robbers, child molesters, carjackers, rapists, etc. No, when we’re the sinners they hate US!

Myth #8—Children raised by same-sex parents are being hurt. Once again, multiple studies confirm that such children are no more likely to be psychologically hurt by having two moms or two dads than if there had been a mom and a dad in the household. It’s better to have two than one parent, but gender is not a factor.

Myth #9—Gays are asking for "special" rights. What lgbt folks want are the same rights as anyone else. We aren’t looking for any kind of special rights—just protections that we are treated equally and fairly under the principle "all men are created equal." It’s all about fairness. Members of gay couples should have the same rights as married couples when visiting a hospitalized partner or having the ability to make key medical decisions with respect to his or her care.

Many other unfair misrepresentations exist. I believe this covers the main ones. Dispelling these myths and telling our stories to straights will go a long way towards setting the record straight.