Thomas Menino was inarguably one of the best mayors the city of Boston ever had.
As Boston said farewell to its longest-serving mayor, the city also celebrated the life, career, and integrity of a great public servant. As mayor to “all the people” of Boston—African American LGBTQ communities felt heard, respected and represented during his administration.
For example, every year Mayor Tom Menino’s Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events put on its annual Boston GospelFest at City Hall Plaza. And because the Gospelfest is a public and taxpayer-funded community event, it’s opened to all- even its African American lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities.
For many in the African American—both in the LGBTQ and straight Christian communities—excitedly await Boston’s annual Gospelfest. Gospelfest brings together huge gatherings of black church-going Christians across Greater Boston and across denominational affiliations in fellowship with one another.
While for many African American heterosexual Christians, Gospelfest is a second worship service for them for the day because it’s always held on a Sunday, for many African American LGBTQ Christians, Gospelfest is our only worship service for the year.
Because there are so few welcoming African American in Greater Boston, Gospelfest affords many of us in our black LGBTQ communities a sweet moment—as unabashedly Christians and unapologetically queers—in corporate worship and celebration with our faith communities in an inclusive and public space.
In 2010 a public outcry ensued concerning that year’s GospelFest megastar Pastor Donnie McClurkin. McClurkin—the poster boy for African American ex-gay ministries who spews anti-gay religion-based vitriol—was billed as the main event. That year, many in the African American LGBTQ communities stayed home, and so did the mayor.
Menino thoughtful absence from the event sent shock waves throughout the African American church communities, and sent a powerful message.
This protest, however, wasn’t Menino’s first time skipping an event because it excluded a segment of Boston’s LGBTQ population.
Menino was possibly the most pro -LGBTQ mayor in the country. He refused to participate in the traditional South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade when organizers barred an LGBTQ group from marching, and he told the Chick-fil-A franchise that the city of Boston will not tolerate discrimination against its LGBTQ citizens. Always an advocate for marriage equality, Menino has thrown his weight around and has used his power on behalf of LGBTQ civil rights, and have succeeded in doing so.
However, when it came to moving Boston’s black ministers on LGBTQ civil rights, Menino’s struggle was much like that of other elected officials and queer activists—immovable. And, he knew many of Boston’s black ministers were in lock step with black homophobic clerics across the country.
Menino’s absence from that year’s Gospelfest was another sad example of how Boston’s black ministers—an influential and powerful political voting bloc of the mayor’s—would rather compromise its decade-long friendship with City Hall than denounce McClurkin’s appearance.
And while Boston’s black ministers’ support of McClurkin’s appearance put the mayor between a rock and a hard place with its LGBTQ and African American communities, it also puts Menino in a difficult spot with his African American LGBTQ communities. But Menino didn’t falter or renege on his allegiance to our civil rights.
Greater Boston’s African American LGBTQ communities, however, had wished the mayor’s office had contacted someone from our communities in their vetting of McClurkin.
Ms. Julie Burns, the Director of Arts, Tourism & Special Events for the Mayor’s Office came late to knowing about McClurkin’s anti-gay rhetoric. When Burns called me about the McClurkin kerfuffle with the Gospelfest just weeks away she was apologetic.
“I learned yesterday—through the (Boston) Phoenix article regarding the City of Boston Gospel Fest—of the depth and breath of Donnie McClurkin’s views on the Gay community. I am embarrassed to say that I was not aware of this and we obviously should have vetted him further. Gospel Fest is in its 10th year and is arguably the largest Gospel event in New England. Minister McClurkin was recommended to us by a number of people and we were swayed by his artistic honors. Of course, this does not excuse the situation that we now find ourselves in! Please rest assured that Mayor Menino did not know anything about this and would never condone ‘hate speech’ of any kind,” Burns wrote in an email to me.
During the AIDs epidemic Menino stood by the entire community.
For example in 2001, Mayor Menino raised money to help pay for a liver transplant for Belynda Dunn, 49, an AIDS activist living with HIV and hepatitis C.
As an African American heterosexual woman, Dunn was the wake-up call to the African American community and the Black Church that HIV/AIDS is not solely a gay disease but instead it’s an equal opportunity virus.
When the color of the epidemic shifted from white to black, the inherent gender bias focused only on the needs of African-American men and rendered women invisible. And when gender became a new lens to track the epidemic, white women were the focus.
The feminization of this disease made many of us AIDS activists and scholars wonder if the same amount of money, concern, communication, and moral outrage that was put into white gay men with the disease would be put into curbing its spread among black women.
The disparities within the healthcare system contribute to the disproportionately higher number of HIV cases among African-American women, which directly affects their quality of life and the spread of HIV.
Dunn had been denied payment for a transplant by her health insurer because of her HIV status. But Menino stepped in, announcing at a press conference at the Boston Living Center that his staff would “explore fund-raising options.” Menino raised an additional $175,000 Dunn needed to pay for her transplant.
Menino attended every Boston AIDS Walk except one during his tenure. And at every Walk his message was the same: “I stand with you; I care about you; I serve as mayor to all the people.”
And he did.