No Marriage Between Black Ministers and Queer Community

A minute after midnight on Monday, May 17, was a great getting-up morning for us lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer residents in the state of Massachusetts — at 12:01 a.m., same-sex marriages became legal. But it was also a sad reminder for many African Americans in light of the fact that 50 years ago the issue of racial segregation in America’s public schools was nationally shamed and ruled unconstitutional in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.

Although these two marginalized groups have much in common in terms of their struggle for freedom, as well as in terms of celebrating their individual civil rights victories, both African-American and LGBTQ communities are not compadres in the struggle for liberation.

“The gay community is pimping the civil rights movement and the history. In the view of many, it’s racist at worst, cynical at best,” the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a local African-American Boston minister and president of the all-male National Ten Point Leadership Foundation, told The Boston Globe.

While Rivers is known to take black nationalist and Afrocentric points of view in dealing with all issues of race, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow Coalition , is a more moderate voice. And while Jackson adamantly feels that LGBTQ people deserve equal protection under the law and that the Constitution should not be amended to ban same-sex marriage, Jackson does, however, think the comparison between gay rights and the black civil rights struggle is “a stretch,” as he mentioned at a talk in March at Harvard Law School. “Gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution.” Jackson told his audience.

To get African-American male ministers, in particular, to think outside of their narrowly constructed boxes about race is an arduous task. And much of the reason is because of the persistent nature of racism in the lives of black people and the little gains accomplished supposedly on behalf of racial equality.

Many African Americans see that civil rights gains have come faster for queer people. From the Stonewall Riots of 1969 to May 17, 2004, the LGBTQ movement has made some tremendous gains into mainstream society, a reality that has not been afforded to African Americans.

And while the freedom to marry has been an arduous struggle and a right long overdue for LBGTQ people, the debate did not begin with queer people.

Many African Americans see that civil rights gains have come faster for queer people. From the Stonewall Riots of 1969 to May 17, 2004, the LGBTQ movement has made some tremendous gains into mainstream society, a reality that has not been afforded to African Americans.

The marriage debate here in the U.S. began when African-American slaves were forbidden to marry, so they “jumped over the broom” — an African-American tradition — in front of their slave masters to consecrate their nuptials until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

A century later, the debate concerning interracial marriages between African Americans and white Americans ended in 1967. That year marked the moment when the U.S. Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia.

For many African Americans, the LGBTQ debate about the freedom to marry appears to be more than just a pimping of the civil rights movement to them. It also appears as the erasure of their history as a people who are still striving to get what they feel LGBTQ people already have — access to mainstream society.

While the feeling among African Americans is understandable, the reason is, nonetheless, wrong. With such a myopic construction of race, the oppressions of African-American LGBTQ people are ignored not only at the expense of the AIDS epidemic ravaging the entire African-American community, but is ignored also at the expense of combating white supremacy.

One of the real issues behind black homophobia is African Americans’ lack of understanding about the pernicious nature of white supremacy that not only impacts the lives of black heterosexuals, but also the lives of black women and black LGBTQ people.

African-American LGBTQ people suffer under the reign of white supremacy, as do African-American heterosexuals. Racism is as rampant in the white queer community as it is in the larger society. And one of the reasons it continues to play havoc in the lives of all African Americans is because subcultures within the African-American community — like straights and queers — work against each other rather than together to combat racism.

With the LGBTQ movement persistently donning a white face, all other faces of color are marginal at best and invisible at worst. And it is these faces that are also marginal or invisible within their ethnic communities. However, these faces of color become important, visible and needed to the larger white LGBTQ movement only when the white LGBTQ movement is actually pimping a black moment of the civil rights movement for a photo-op to push their agenda.

In other words, many African-American ministers scoff about the LGBTQ movement comparing its struggle to the black civil rights movement for the following reasons:

  • the LGBTQ movement exploits black suffering to legitimate its own;
  • it appropriates the content of the black civil rights movement, but discards the context that brought about it; and
  • it is white queers’ rallying cry against heterosexist oppression, yet they dismiss the responsibility that comes with their white skin privilege.

I posit that because of the bleaching of the Stonewall Riots, the beginnings of LGBTQ movement post-Stonewall is an appropriation of black and brown queer liberation narrative absent of black and brown people. . . [this] makes it harder for white queers to confront their racism and for African-American ministers to confront their homophobia.

Also, because white LGBTQ people don’t take responsibility for their white privilege, it is their visible domination we see in the movement. The Stonewall Riot of June 27-29, 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York City, started on the backs of working-class African-American and Latino queers who patronized that bar. Those brown and black LGBTQ people are not only absent from the photos of that night, but they are also bleached from its written history.

Because racial prejudice was a dominant oppression all black people faced — straight or queer — during the troubling black civil rights era of the 1960′s, Dr. Gerri Outlaw, an openly lesbian African-American professor of social work at Governors State University, just outside of Chicago, said, “Had those patrons been white the cops would have harassed them, but there would not have been a riot.”

I posit that because of the bleaching of the Stonewall Riots, the beginnings of LGBTQ movement post-Stonewall is an appropriation of black and brown queer liberation narrative absent of black and brown people. And it is the visible absence of these black, brown and yellow LGBTQ people that makes it harder for white queers to confront their racism and for African-American ministers to confront their homophobia.

At 12:01 a.m. on May 17, the city of Cambridge was the first to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Much deliberation went on about who should be the first couple to get their license. The photo-op would become one of the iconic images of the event. The immediate thought was to look for same-sex couples of color. But the few that reside in upscale Cambridge were not available for a myriad of reasons. And the few same-sex couples of color I talked to all told me they would feel exploited. The next search was for biracial same-sex couples. However, the couple Cambridge got was an elderly white lesbian couple that we in Cambridge know and love dearly. However, the selection process for the photo-op moment does not negate the nagging problem of how race shows its face even in an important historical moment like this one.

On the evening of May 16, Cambridge City Hall opened it doors to celebrate all the work that went into gaining civil marriage rights for LGBTQ people. African-American and out lesbian City Councilor E. Denise Simmons dubbed the event, “Cambridge Celebrates Marriage Equality.” Simmons was the first to suggest that Cambridge jump-start same-sex marriages.

On May 16, as we waited for the clock to strike midnight, I was reminded how many African-American Christian churches across the country celebrate “Watch Night Services.” These can be traced back to December 31, 1862, which was also known as “Freedom Eve,” when African-American slaves came together across the nation to await the good news that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had finally become law. And on that day, January 1, 1863, a new life began for us even as the Civil War was still going on.

While the war on same-sex marriage will continue to be debated in Massachusetts and across this country, in order for this victory won by the LGBTQ community to be fully embraced, understood and celebrated by the larger African-American community, the LGBTQ community must also work with African-Americans to combat their white supremacy.

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