Black Clerics Hold Myopic View on Marriage and Family

Black nationalist rhetoric spewing misogynist and homophobic invectives about women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is considered a mainstay in hip-hop culture — but it has also been a mainstay in many black churches.

In hip-hop culture, especially in its music, black nationalist rhetoric is argued to be a form of artistic expression. But in the African-American church culture, it is pontificated as a form of “God speech” that sends out a 911 call from pulpits about the imperative for black liberation. This occurs in much of the same the way Moses and Aaron in the Exodus narrative were sent to Pharaoh to say, “Let My People Go!”

Many African-American pastors of prominent black churches across the country oppose same-sex marriages. This is troubling in part because of the anti-queer element in their decisions. But it is also troubling because such decisions are devoid of any analysis of the history and struggles that African Americans had to go through to marry each other and to marry across the color line.

Deemed as unfit for such a holy rite within the institution of slavery, African-American slaves were forbidden to marry. So they were forced to “jump over the broom” — an African-American tradition — in front of their consenting slave masters to consecrate their nuptials, until the end of the Civil War in 1865. And many slave masters were totally opposed to slaves choosing and marrying their loved ones, since their purpose in life, in the eyes of slave masters, was for breeding and not for romance.

The legal protection for interracial coupling was won in the now-famous case Loving v. Virginia. Mildred Loving, an African-American woman, violated the anti-miscegenation laws of Virginia — laws that were prevalent throughout the U.S. — by marrying a white man. Struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1967, no state today can prohibit such a union.

Many African-American pastors of prominent black churches across the country oppose same-sex marriages. This is troubling . . . because such decisions are devoid of any analysis of the history and struggles that African Americans had to go through to marry . . .

A noted ally for gay civil rights, the Rev. Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church, one of Boston’s most prominent black churches, told the Boston Globe his reason for opposing same-sex marriage is a prophylactic measure to combat “the epidemic level of fatherlessness in America.” While one of the truths behind black fatherlessness is economics and the systematic disenfranchisement of both African-American men and African-American women, another truth about African-American men — from the unemployed to the mega-athletes — is them not taking responsibility for their progenies.

And none of this has anything to do with same-sex marriage.

However, exhorters of the black nationalist rhetoric, like Hammond, often get so confused about the plight of African-American men in their dogged and myopic efforts to rescue themselves as the “endangered black man” or to restate themselves as patriarchs in “the fatherless black-headed household” that they do not do the requisite work to rescue African-American children and their mothers — which would ostensibly save us all.

Myopic views of what constitutes a family feeds into the heated brouhaha about same-sex unions. For example, while President Bush has his troops looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he has detonated a weapon of mass discrimination here on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans with his proclamation on Oct. 3, 2003 announcing “Marriage Protection Week.”

Applauded by his ultra-right-wing constituents who are hell-bent on narrowly defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman, Bush has once again collapsed, if not blatantly ignored, the edict that insists on the separation between church and state.

With declaring the week of Oct. 12-18 as “Marriage Protection Week,” Bush wrote in his proclamation: “Marriage is a sacred institution, and its protection is essential to the continued strength of our society. Marriage Protection Week provides an opportunity to focus our efforts on preserving the sanctity of marriage and on building strong and healthy marriages in America. Marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and my Administration is working to support the institution of marriage by helping couples build successful marriages and be good parents.”

With heterosexual marriage being so sacred, Bush and his conservative cohorts fail to see how it is constantly desecrated on any given weeknight by being slotted for family entertainment television shows like “The Bachelor” that cavalierly join people together for high Nielsen ratings.

The sanctity of marriage and good parenting are not predicated on compulsory heterosexuality, but instead they are held up by the love of any two people working in concert as a family. With heterosexual marriage being so sacred, Bush and his conservative cohorts fail to see how it is constantly desecrated on any given weeknight by being slotted for family entertainment television shows like “The Bachelor” that cavalierly join people together for high Nielsen ratings.

Also, when society narrowly defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman, it is not only policing the sexual behaviors of LGBTQ people, but society is also policing the sexual behaviors of heterosexuals. Handcuffing marriage to a heterosexual paradigm merely chokes its possibility of ever flourishing and lasting, especially as we are coming to understand the fluidity of gender and sexual identities as well as the constant changing configuration of family units.

For African Americans, multiple family structures — which same-sex marriages present — could not possibly be what African-American clerics like Hammond oppose, because they are what have saved and what are still saving African-American families. A grandmother or an aunt and uncle raising us in their loving homes have anchored our families through the centuries. And these multiple family structures, which we have had to devise as a model of resistance and liberation, have always, by example, shown the rest of society what really constitutes family.

One of the ways that this society has been able to control and regulate human sexuality has been through the institution of marriage, and its last form of discrimination within the institution is same-sex unions. It has always been the business of both church and state. Who we love has always had to pass the test of both. However, to deny us the right to marry is not only unconstitutional in terms of its violation of our civil rights, but also ungodly in terms of the inherent holiness in the nature of love.

The theology of marriage as solely a heterosexual enterprise gets its genesis from the Adam and Eve narrative in the Bible. Although God introduced the couple to each other, God never married them nor sanctioned heterosexual coupling. She just merely blessed their union. However, the biased belief that marriage is only for heterosexuals is always displayed at anti-gay rallies where our opponents carry placards which boast their biblical proscription, “God made Adam for Eve, not Steve!”

The issue here is not what the Bible says about marriage or what it says or does not say about LGBTQ people, but instead the issue here is what are our rights as taxpaying law-abiding citizens stated in the U.S. Constitution. What we as LGBTQ people want is our civil rights, to have a civil marriage. Domestic partnership is a pacifying attempt to give us a separate but supposedly equal equivalent to a civil marriage. However, history has shown us, in its treatment of African Americans with its “separate but equal” edicts, it does not work and more importantly it is unconstitutional.

The theology of marriage as solely a heterosexual enterprise gets its genesis from the Adam and Eve narrative in the Bible. Although God introduced the couple to each other, God never married them nor sanctioned heterosexual coupling. She just merely blessed their union.

Marriage is an inalienable right, one that ought to be afforded to all and adapted in light of the changing world we live in. But this issue of who has the right to marry whom has become the prism through which heterosexism, homophobia, and black nationalist rhetoric refract and reflect light on both the black community and the black church.

Black nationalist rhetoric re-inscribes the dominant bigotry against lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people, albeit it is viewed and accepted as a liberationist discourse. Its social currency is found not only in the megabucks it generates in the hip-hop music industry, but also is heard in its uncritical exhortation by African-American men of the cloth from church pulpits across this nation, like Hammond’s.

Troubled by Hammond’s position on same-sex marriages, Jacquie Bishop, a beloved African-American activist, transgresses two taboos in the African-American community when it comes to the issue of marriage — she is a lesbian in an interracial relationship. Bishop summed it up this way: “His articulated heterosexism while disappointing is not surprising. It speaks to the larger challenges black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have and our need to create our own organization.”

In the African-American community, oppressions are seen hierarchically, with racism believed to be the ultimate and in some cases the only oppression that African-American people face. Issues of sexism and homophobia within the community are dismissed under the hegemonic control of black nationalism. The connection between oppressions like racism, sexism and homophobia are eclipsed within the African-American community because of the patriarchal hold by heterosexual black pharoahic men.

True liberation, however, is the realization and understanding that discrimination against any individual or group is discrimination against us all.

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