Charlene E. Cothran sent shock waves throughout African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities nationwide. The longtime African-American lesbian publisher and editor-in-chief of Venus Magazine recently wrote an article entitled, “REDEEMED! 10 ways to get out of ‘The Life’ if you want out!” In it, she wrote that she’s now not only “saved,” having turned her life over to Jesus, but “straight” as well.
A staple in the African-American community, Venus Magazine was the first and only queer magazine owned and operated by a black lesbian that spoke to and about the unique intersections of being black and LGBTQ in both the African-American and white queer communities. And Venus’ loyal readership had hoped the magazine would do for its queer population what revered publications like Ebony and Jet magazines did for all people of the African Diaspora – that is, change society’s negative and misinformed perceptions about us.
But as a fledgling magazine with the threat of folding always hanging over its head, Cothran opted to take financial support from black churches funded by white right-wing Christian organizations that emphasize “reparative therapies.” In fact, she opted to be her own magazine’s “ex-gay” poster girl, rather than let the magazine fold. And with her 4-year-old publication, Kitchen Table News, funded by black church support, Cothran has not only sold her soul for paltry pieces of silver and gold, but she has also sold out the African-American LGBTQ community for her ravenous desire to save her magazine by any means possible.
Those betrayed the most by Cothran’s purported conversion are her New Jersey queer African-American brothers and sisters who helped get Venus up and running in its early years.
“It is my personal opinion that you have done so for money – for business advantage. For this, your own religion provides the best one-word summary – JUDAS,” stated a letter to the editor in Venus signed Members of New Jersey’s LGBT Community.
However, when confronted with these allegations, Cothran states the contrary:
“Venus has managed to pay for itself AND Kitchen Table News. In fact, we are considering closing Kitchen Table News because after four years it simply is not paying for itself. As for support from black churches, we have been and continue to be avoided by them financially. Any support given usually comes in the form of an ad, here and there, but these ads are few and far between. We have sought support from professional black clergy associations in New Jersey, but have not gotten a single official or unofficial, public or private endorsement to date.”
What Cothran isn’t telling us is that not only is she getting financial support from black churches, but they have helped her land anti-HIV ads from big pharmaceutical companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Abbott Laboratories that pay for half the cost of the magazine, with the other half paid for by the black churches promoting “ex-gay” ads targeted to the African-American LGBTQ community. One of these ads features Rev. Carla Thomas Royster, founder and pastor of Blessed Redeemer Church in Burlington, N.J. The ad states, “Only God brings us out of the closet: An uncensored testimony of one woman’s struggle with life and a lesbian spirit.”
But Cothran’s strategy to keep Venus alive is foolhardy at best and deliberately deceptive at worst to both her former readership as well as to the black churches she convinced her magazine would win over souls.
In Cothran changing neither the magazine’s name nor its readership, she convinced her financial backers that her Christian “ex-gay” rhetoric would be an easy sell. Using the Moses motif, a narrative embedded in black church liberation theology where God gives him the Ten Commandments, Cothran positions herself as a Moses figure with her list of 10 “demandments” that will deliver us out of a life of sin.
She states, “Although I have lived as a lesbian for my entire adult life, it is without a doubt my soul’s purpose to use my gifts to LOVINGLY share the truth about how we got here: how we came to be gay and lesbian, how we can enjoy our ‘lifestyle’ and how we came to believe that this was OK with God.”
But Cothran has found no one is buying her truth.
“I would have a whole lot more respect for Charlene had she just said that she’s decided that she no longer wishes to be a lesbian, … period. But she didn’t,” says noted African-American lesbian activist and writer Jasmyn Cannick. “Instead, she chose to revert to what pastors have been doing to black gays for years and use the Bible as her personal weapon of choice against her own people.”
Cothran not only colluded with the black church in bashing LGBTQ people, but she also participated in her own exile. Having neither the black church community to welcome her back into their fold as the prodigal daughter, nor the LGBTQ community that once accepted and revered her, Cothran stands along.
And she’s coming to realize that she was not only journalistically irresponsible with her blind ambition to save her magazine, but she was also ethically reckless with a readership that would have accepted her folding her magazine respectfully rather than using us for her personal gain.
And what does it mean to gain the world but lose your soul? Cothran’s actions show she knows of neither.
Published in In Newsweekly, March 1, 2007.