Gulf between black, gay communities narrowing

There was a time when the only voices the American public heard on the issue of marriage equality in the African-American community were those of fire and brimstone, bible-thumping ministers. Today, their vitriol is weakening as more and more African-American elected officials and black civil rights organizations are speaking up on our behalf.

And as these voices begin to challenge African-American ministers’ fetters on the community and their ownership of civil rights, African-American elected officials and civil rights organizations have expanded their outreach not only to their constituencies but also to the larger cause of American democracy.

“This is likely the greatest civil rights battle of our lifetime. It is fundamentally wrong to discriminate against gay and lesbian citizens. It is as wrong to write discrimination into our historic state constitution,” according to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Patrick comes to this knowledge firsthand. Given his ancestors’ history of slavery, and also as a beneficiary of the gains from the black civil rights movement of the 1960s, Patrick – the first African-American governor of Massachusetts – understands that the American ballot process should never be used to deny its minority citizens basic rights and liberties.

And with the indefatigable work of Patrick, MassEquality and others, Massachusetts lawmakers rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage by a vote of 45 to 151. It failed to garner the 50 votes needed to put it on the 2008 ballot, thus allowing LGBTQ citizens to continue marrying across the commonwealth.

“In Massachusetts, the freedom to marry is secure. Today’s vote was not just a victory for marriage equality, it was a victory for equality itself,” Patrick said to a rejoicing crowd outside the Statehouse.

But where Massachusetts has this basic right, 49 other states do not. And talk of marriage equality in African-American communities in these other states loses much of its momentum and impact due to race-baiting ministers disguising their homophobic rhetoric under the guise of saving the endangered black family.

“I think it is not because blacks are anti-gay [or] black clergy who are on the right, but rather they are saying, let’s protect marriage because two out of every three black babies today are born out of wedlock, and there’s a disintegration of the black family,” Bishop Harry R. Jackson said on the late night African-American television talk show “Tavis Smiley” on PBS. “So what we’re saying is draw a boundary line around families, not ‘We don’t like gay people,’ but rather, if we let this thing called family and culture in the black community keep sliding down the slippery slope it’s going, what are we gonna have left? And we’ve got to start somewhere at changing America as far as blacks go.”

As one of the religious right’s go-to guys, Jackson consorts with bigwigs like Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, and James Dobson, founder of Focus on Family. Why? Because he is monetarily rewarded by them and others to maintain a wedge between black and LGBTQ communities through his High-Impact Leadership Coalition. With High Impact’s mission to educate and empower African-American churches, communities and political leaders across the country regarding moral values, one of its primary focuses is the prohibition of same- sex marriage.

And one of the ways Jackson’s organization shuts down healthy dialogue in the African-American community on the issue is with high profile ads attacking the rights of LGBTQ citizens in order to save the black community.

Case in point: Just recently High Impact put out an ad entitled, “Don’t Muzzle the Pulpit” in Roll Call, the leading publication for congressional news and information on Capitol Hill. The ad’s goal was to block S. 1105, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention bill.

While muzzling the pulpit is not a bad idea in order to quell its homophobia and restore the spiritual health of the community, Jackson, however, gets his point across. The ad has one huge photo of an African-American minister with his mouth bound, surrounded by ten smaller photos of African American ministers in support of the ad’s message. The ad states that prosecutors and anti-Christian groups will use the Shepard Act to take away black ministers’ freedom to speak and exercise their religion.

While it is true that the black church does indeed need a free pulpit, it does not have the bullying power it once did both in the community and in the halls of Congress. With equally powerful institutions in the African-American community, like the historic NAACP and the National Black Justice Coalition, joined together, they are challenging the church’s anti-gay rhetoric to do what the black church has failed to do – acknowledge and save all black families.

“Marriage is a civil ceremony that apportions some rights and responsibilities to both parties. If for some reason you don’t want me to marry in your church, that’s OK, it’s your church. But don’t bring your religious bigotry into city hall,” NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said in a video created by the National Black Justice Coalition.

While it is true that the white LGBTQ community needs to work on its rampant racism and unbridled white privilege that thwart all efforts for coalition building with both straight and queer communities of color, African-American ministers who say that the LGBTQ movement is pimping or hijacking the black civil rights movement will now have a difficult time maintaining this rhetoric in the face of the recent statement put out by the NAACP’s Legal Defense & Educational Fund.

During a June 12 Capitol Hill ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws – and sponsored by several straight and queer civil rights organizations across the country – the Legal Defense & Educational Fund released an historic statement: “It is undeniable that the experience of African Americans differs in many important ways from that of gay men and lesbians; among other things, the legacy of slavery and segregation is profound. But differences in historical experiences should not preclude the application of constitutional provisions to gay men and lesbians who are denied the right to marry the person of their choice.”

The tide is turning in the American-African community toward acceptance of LGBTQ people. And if black churches and faith-based organizations like High Impact continue to not accept us, it looks like the rest of the community will. •

Published  June 21, 2007 in Black Commentator, In Newsweekly, and bilerico.com.

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