MLK Day Reflection for LGBTQ Justice in the Black Church

Today is MLK Day, and I am proud to count myself among the many people working for social justice today who stand on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Too many people think King’s statements regarding justice are only about race and the African-American community, thus excluding the LGBTQ community. But King said, “[T]he revolution for human rights is opening up unhealthy areas in American life and permitting a new and wholesome healing to take place. Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial justice.”

Members of King’s family also embrace his words, extending them to the LGBTQ community. For example, in 1998, Coretta Scott King addressed the LGBT group Lambda Legal in Chicago. In her speech, she said queer rights and civil rights were the same: “I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King’s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

Like her parents’ faith, the Kings’ eldest daughter Yolanda’s faith in the civil rights movement drove her passion for LGBTQ justice. “If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, you do not have the same rights as other Americans,” she said at Chicago’s Out & Equal Workplace Summit in 2006. “You cannot marry. … [Y]ou still face discrimination in the workplace, and in our armed forces. For a nation that prides itself on liberty, justice and equality for all, this is totally unacceptable.”

However, I must say that as an African-American minister having pastored churches, and having worked alongside black ministers and their parishioners, I have learned that whom we shout out and pray to on Sunday as an oppressed people does not have any relation to whom we damn, discard, and demonize, thus making us an oppressor to people marginalized and disenfranchised like ourselves. The black church is an unabashed and unapologetic oppressor of its LGBTQ community and, consequently, a hindrance in progressive movement toward LGBTQ civil rights in this country.

While King would undoubtedly shake his head in disbelief concerning his brethren, he would applaud the stance the NAACP took on marriage equality. In quelling the tension between black civil right activists and ministers of the 1960s who still vociferously state that marriage equality for LGBTQ Americans is not a civil right, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. marked the 40th anniversary of “Loving v. Virginia” (when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 struck down this country’s anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional) by stating the following concerning same-sex marriage:

“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 fight to marry the person of their choice.”
But if King were with us today, he would be sad about how homophobia continues within the black church community, which has a profound impact on the mistreatment of its LGBTQ community, and its inattentiveness to the AIDS epidemic ravaging the black community.

Religion has become a peculiar institution in the theater of human life. Just as the Latin root of the word, “religio,” means “to bind,” it has served as a legitimate power in binding people’s shared hatred. But King’s teachings taught me how religion plays a profound role in the work of justice. A religion that looks at reality from an involved, committed stance in light of a faith that does justice sees the face of the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the dispossessed — and that also includes its LGBTQ people.

As a religion columnist, I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against LGBTQ people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other” and is usually acted upon “in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news, I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy but aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism.

I miss the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I miss the sound of his voice, the things he said with his voice. I miss the choir that resounded within him with his voice. In keeping his dream alive, we must continue to lift our voices. We must speak our truth to power. And those of us who live on the margin must speak out, because our survival as LGBTQ worshippers in our faith communities is predicated upon our voices being lifted.

Each year, I mark the MLK holiday by reexamining King’s teachings, remembering that my longing for LGBTQ justice is inextricably tied to my work toward religious tolerance in the black church.

And this is why I continue to speak up.

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