Theology Thursdays: Religious Leaders Struggle to Support Black Gays - But not the Lifestyle by Hazel Trice Edney
For years, it was an issue that many African-Americans were uncomfortable discussing. But now that gay rights is out of the closet, many Blacks are struggling with how to support gays as people without sanctioning their lifestyles.
There is no question that Black gays and lesbians are out of the closet. Last week, Atlanta, like 18 other cities around the country, hosted its annual Gay Pride Week, with an expected attendance of more than 15,000. Openly gay men, such as E. Lynn Harris, have published widely read books that discuss their homosexuality.
Despite the books, parades, coming out parties and “proms,” many African-Americans have mixed feelings on the subject.
“It is a wedge issue. It is a very divisive issue. But, it is an issue that up until most recently in the last four or five years, would not even be approached,” says Rev. Timothy McDonald, president of the People for the American Way’s National African-American Ministers Leadership Council, a group of more than 700 ministers. “We’ve always dealt with it behind the scenes. I think more recently in the last three to five years we’ve started having more and more conversations about it.”
Those conversations may have multiplied after the recent March on Washington. At that event, Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton, and Coretta Scott King linked the rights of homosexuals with the struggle that African-Americans face in the United States.
“We are here because our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers are being subjected to persecution, discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation,” Martin Luther King III told the crowd. “Let me say this. Homophobia is nothing but fear and hatred. That has no place in the beloved community.”
Lewis described his vision of the beloved community: “All of us, Black and White, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native Americans, gays and straights, protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, must pull together for the common good. This is our mission. This is our calling. This is our mandate.”
The rally at the Lincoln Memorial, at which hundreds of gays stood out by marking their tent with pink balloons, comes on the heels of an unprecedented step by the Episcopal church, which confirmed its first openly gay bishop this summer.
Few Black churches are willing to go that far.
For example, the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the governing body of more than 7,000 predominately Black congregations in more than 30 nations, reaffirmed last month at a special session in Dallas its official position against openly gay clergy.
“The Bishops reaffirmed again that the official position of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is not in favor of the ordination of openly gay persons to the ranks of the clergy of our church,” states Bishop Richard Franklin Norris in a letter that he ordered read in every AME church. “This position reaffirms our published position papers, public statements and prior rulings, all of which indicate that we do not support the ordination of openly gay persons.”
While the AME Church makes its position clear, some denominations remain curiously silent.
Rev. William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, which claims a membership of 6.5 million, refused NNPA’s request for a comment on the issue. Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper, former general secretary of the organization, says the subject has not been debated by the organization.
Cooper’s personal view coincides with the official position of the AME bishops.
“I think one of the things that’s happened with the Civil Rights Movement is that it has been broadened to include so much that what it has done is effectively put the Black issue to the side,” says Cooper, pastor of the Metropolitan African-American Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. “I think that there are some folks who, because they need public attention, grab a hold of every issue and want to be politically correct.”
The Bible is clear on the evils of homosexuality, says Hasani Pettiford, author of “Pimpin’ from the Pulpit to the Pews: Exposing the Spirit of Lust in the Church.”
In his book, Pettiford points to Leviticus 18:22 (King James Version) as a key scripture: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”
He also cites I Corinthians 6:9-11: “…Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [homosexuals], nor abusers of themselves with mankind…shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you, but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the spirit of God.”
Sylvia Rhue, director of the Equal Partners of Faith, a national advocacy group that included the rights of gay and lesbian Christians, says scriptural interpretations are often misleading.
For example, as Leviticus uses the word “abomination” in the King James Version, she says, “There is no Hebrew word for abomination. The word is ‘toevah’ or ‘toebah,’” she says. “It means ritually unclean to enter to the temple as were any women when they were menstruating.”
However, other translations of that verse command abstaining from homosexual acts without referring to the word “abomination.” The New International Version reads, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”
Rhue argues that some of the confusion is because the term homosexuality is not used in the Bible because the term wasn’t invented until 1869 and didn’t become a part of the American lexicon until the 1900s. However, there are references to “effeminate” behavior, such as I Corinthians 6:9.
McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, understands both sides of the argument.
“There are those who are in the ministry who just blatantly, unequivocally, define homosexuality as sin. There are others in the ministry, who are still struggling with that,” McDonald says. “I used to be one of the strongest gay bashers there was until I encountered loving, compassionate gentle people who said, ‘I did not choose this. There’s no way that I’d be in my right mind and choose this lifestyle. This is who I am.’”
McDonald continues, “The fundamental theological question of homosexuality is: Is it by birth or is it by choice? That is the fundamental theological question. And then there are several thousands hermaphrodites born every year, babies with both sex organs. It is not as clear-cut as some ministers want it to be.”
And if people are born that way, as many contend, McDonald says he needs another answer. “I don’t know why God did that. I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Rev. Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has heard gay rights activists equate their struggle with the Civil Rights Movement.
“I don’t think it’s synonymous,” he says, referring to the two movements. “I think there are similarities. It always has been divisive but it’s time for the choir to sing. I don’t mean just an excluding choir. I mean an inclusive choir. And if I’m going to err in terms of critical issues like that, I’m going to err on the side of inclusiveness.”
David Almasi, director of Project 21, a Washington-based Black conservative think tank, says, “Unfortunately, a lot of those people recognized as the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are happy to have that [gay and lesbian] political backing behind them. And so they’re embracing it. The civil rights community is not doing this for a civil rights reason as much as a way to maintain power, maintain authority, to have large political backing that maybe someday they may be able to call on the homosexual lobby or the anti-war in Iran lobby or whatever for political favors.”
Black gay activists disagree.
“Dr. King said none of us is free until all of us are free,” says Keith Boykin, former executive director of the now defunct National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum. “I don’t think that the movement stops when Black people achieve equal rights. I think the movement continues until all of us are free.”
Boykin explains, “I’ve met thousands and thousands of gay men and lesbians over the years and none of them would voluntarily choose to be a part of another oppressed group, especially those who are Black or Latino.”
Recent polls show Black support for gay lifestyles on the decline, especially after a Supreme Court ruling on June 26 overturning Texas’ anti-sodomy law.
Support for homosexual relations between consenting adults has varied from a low of 32 percent in 1986 to a high of 60 percent last May. The Supreme Court ruling apparently touched off a dramatic reversal, with support for such unions dropping 10 to 12 points in just two months.
The poll initially showed Blacks and Whites about even in their levels of support for legalized gay relations, with 59 percent of Whites favoring them and 58 percent of Blacks holding a similar view.
In July, after the Supreme Court’s Texas ruling, the percentage of Blacks supporting such relationships dropped by 23 points, from 58 percent to 35 percent. The overall drop in support for all races was 10 percent. The margin of error was 3 percent.
McDonald concedes that Black ministers in particular are of two minds.
“The jury is still out,” he explains. “In the Black church, there is just now beginning to be debate and the semblance of open discussion on this issue. Not by a long shot are we there yet.”
Hazel Trice Edney is Washington Correspondent for BlackPressUsa, where this article first appeared
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Thursday, September 4, 2003