A Queer Year in the Black Community

Published in The Witness, January 4, 2006, and The Advocate, January 6, 2006.

Looking over the major events of the past year in the African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community, I realize that we have accomplished quite a lot. As we cross over into 2006 while standing on the shoulders of our LGBTQ foremothers and forefathers, I want to provide a glimpse back at our creative genius and collective strength that got us through the raging culture wars of 2005.

Building an African-American civil rights organization

Keith Boykin, founder and president of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), created the organization in 2004 to address the social justice issues of African-American LGBTQ people. As a civil rights organization of black LGBTQ people and our allies, the NBJC is dedicated to fostering equality by fighting racism and homophobia. The group advocates for social justice with a focus on African-American communities by educating and mobilizing opinion leaders, including elected officials, clergy, and media.

In October 2005, the NBJC was approved for 501(c)(3) status. And in November 2005, NYANSAPO, the magazine of the NBJC, premiered. The magazine is a first-time comprehensive look at how African-American LGBTQ people live out the intersection of their multiple identities.

Standing in need of prayer

On the church front, our community heard the usual cacophonies of hollering homophobes. The shock and awe, however, came from our allies.

In 1999, the Rev. Willie F. Williams of Union Temple Baptist Church in southeast Washington, D.C. had opened his church for a forum on discrimination against same-gender loving (SGL) people. However, in July 2005, the prominent African-American minister set off a firestorm with his now-notorious sermon denouncing gays and lesbians.

With graphic language, Wilson told an approving audience erupting frequently in “Amens” that “Lesbianism is about to take over our community. Women falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something, it ain’t real. That thing ain’t got no feeling in it. It ain’t natural. Anytime somebody got to slap some grease on your behind and stick something in you, it’s something wrong with that. Your butt ain’t made for that. No wonder your behind is bleeding. You can’t make no correction with a screw and another screw. The Bible says God made them male and female.”

In August 2005, the well-loved and lauded liberal African-American pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who has a same-gender-loving ministry in the church, wrote in the church’s magazine The Trumpet his real views about this segment of his congregation, causing many parishioners to leave the church.

In his article “Maybe I Missed Something!” many of us who admire him got to see how our issues are not a priority in his prophetic social gospel intended to ameliorate the social conditions of all God’s African-American children. “While our denomination grappled with how to address that human problem, the denomination also, at that Synod, voted to ordain a homosexual. Guess which item made the newspapers? Maybe I missed something!”

And in his closing tirades on SGL issues, Wright said this: “Are 44 million Americans with no health care insurance less important than ‘gay marriage?’ Why aren’t Black Christians in an uproar about that? Maybe I am missing something!”
When the article came out, many of us were disheartened in light of the United Church of Christ’s positive stance on ordaining and marrying SGL people to see Pastor Wright breaking ranks with his liberal denomination to stand in solidarity with a more conservative Black Church position.

Campaign against homophobia

While our connections and contributions to the larger black religious cosmos are desecrated every time homophobic pronouncements go unchecked in these holy places of worship, there are, unbeknownst to many, African-American ministers who support the ethos and expression of our spirituality. These ministers understand that one can be unabashedly Christian, unapologetically black, and also uncompromisingly SGL- friendly while standing within the Black Church tradition of a prophetic social gospel.

In August 2005, the Rev. James A. Forbes, senior minister at the Riverside Church in New York City, held a conference to address anti-gay rhetoric spewing from pulpits in conservatives churches.

The Rev. Al Sharpton has, along with his National Action Network, become a leader in the fight to stamp out homophobia in the Black Church. Why the personal stake in the issue? His sister is a lesbian. In the October issue of The Advocate, Sharpton stated, “I understood the pain of having to lead a double life in the system [since] we grew up in the church.”

And while misogynistic and homophobic lyrics are a mainstay in hip-hop music, hip-hop artist Kanye West is on a campaign against homophobia by challenging his fellow rappers to eschew those rhymes. During an interview for an MTV special, West disclosed that he changed his views when he found out his cousin is gay. “It was kind of like a turning point when I was like, ‘Yo, this is my cousin. I love him and I’ve been discriminating against gays.'”

Tied in a knot

Marriage equality remains controversial, with African-American ministers leading the campaign against it. Most of the African-American LGBTQ community, however, is not wedded to the idea either.

With continued silence and no action from the communities on the topic of same-sex marriage, the issue nonetheless will not be disappearing anytime soon. Social research, moreover, shows that African-American same-gender households have everything to gain in the struggle for marriage equality and more to lose when states pass amendments banning marriage equality and other forms of partner recognition.

In November 2005, Equality Maryland and the NBJC published “Jumping the Broom: a Black Perspective on Same-Gender Marriage.” The publication was produced to initiate dialogue in churches, fraternal organizations, media outlets, and NAACP chapters. The report revealed that forty-five percent of black same-sex couples report stable relationships of five years or longer. Even if marriage becomes a legal option, clergy will decide who they wish to marry. And twenty percent of black men and twenty-four percent of black women in same-sex households are denied health care benefits for their partners by the government.

Million more steps for an inclusive march

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the historic October 1995 Million Man March, the Minister Louis Farrakhan announced on May 2, 2005, plans for the October 2005 Millions More Movement March. Not surprisingly, however, Farrakhan’s invitation to an “all-inclusive” and broad coalition of African-American civil rights leaders and organization once again excluded LGBTQ activists and organizations.

Organizers promised an LGBTQ speaker at the event. Keith Boykin was dropped on the day of the event, but Cleo Manago, founder of Black Men’s Xchange (BMX), an Afrocentric support system for the empowerment of black men of diverse sexualities, was not. Why? Manago supports the fundamental tenet of Farrakhan’s theology that there must be a conscious separation from the dominant white heterosexual and queer cultures.

Having their say

Works discussing the African-American men “on the down low” became best-sellers, led by J.L. King’s 2004 best-seller On The Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of ‘Straight’ Black Men Who Sleep with Men. Keith Boykin then dispelled the myth that men “on the DL” caused the AIDS epidemic in his 2005 best-seller Beyond the Down Low, exposing how the Black Church and its sexual politics contribute to the “Down Low” subculture.

Activist and minister K. Godfrey Easter, previously known for his 2002 book Love Lifted Me Despite the Church, declared himself to be “ex-gay”, and anounced a 2006 publication date for a new book: Love Lifted Me Because of the Church: Why One Can Not Be Gay & Christian. Godfrey gushes that the turnaround came simply because, “God did it! All I can say is that inside me, the instant love cataclysmically collided with wisdom, a great separation took place — me from homosexuality,” and his website hawks the opportunity to talk with him for fifteen minutes about it for $50.

And Terry McMillan, bestselling author of How Stella Got Her Grove Back, is “waiting to exhale” from the news that her boyfriend-turned-husband, Jonathan Plummer, who inspired the blockbuster hit, is gay.

Coming out moments

October is celebrated as “coming out month,” and this year had some memorable coming-out moments in sports and entertainment.

Three-time WNBA MVP and Olympic gold medalist Sheryl Swoopes came out in an interview with ESPN’s The Magazine.

And after a dearth of black cast members in Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L Word, a deluge of applause was heard throughout the nation’s LGBTQ community when the black cast of Noah’s Arc premiered on Logo, a gay and lesbian cable channel.

Final farewells

Within the African-American community, we have lost great heroes — most notably Rosa Parks, the mother of the 1960s civil rights movement, in November.

When we lost R&B crooner Luther Vandross, the queries about his orientation surfaced once more. Vandross finally came out before his death to set the record straight. He was “bi” — not sexually but coastally. He had homes in both California and New York.

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