As the nation prepares to celebrate the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., this weekend, I am reminded that while much has changed since the March on Washington 48 years ago, much remains the same. What has changed includes the entry of sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression into the social justice spotlight. What remains the same is the insidious persistence of racism.
This dual reality is one of the reasons many African Americans are uncomfortable with the comparison between gay rights and civil rights. Notwithstanding the euphoric talk of “postracialism” that accompanied the historic election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States of America, some black people are concerned that the fight against other forms of oppression is often waged at the expense of the unfinished battle against racism.
They would contend that if LGBT equality is not a “white” issue, then we must also remember that racism is not a “black” issue. Therefore, connecting the dots of oppression must be a mutual process shared by all, regardless of the particularity of one’s individual or group experience. While this is a sound argument, it is often hidden behind the following weaker, less convincing arguments.
The civil rights argument sets up a sharp dichotomy between civil rights and gay rights and, therefore, the latter is not seen as a black issue. This possessive perspective, as indicated in my previous column, reflects a profound resentment by some African Americans for what they see as the LGBT community’s attempt to co-opt the spirit, the methodology, and even the language of a movement that, since the 1950s and ‘60s, has been almost exclusively identified with the black struggle for racial justice, freedom, and equality in America.
Since black Americans do not own the concept of civil rights, however, it would seem to me that those of us who have been the victims of oppression and discrimination would be the last ones to facilitate the oppression and discrimination of others. As civil rights advocate Julian Bond once stated, “people of color ought to be flattered that our movement has provided so much inspiration for others.”
The historical argument perpetuates the widespread myth that homosexuality did not exist in traditional African societies and that Europeans introduced it to, or imposed it on, black people through such means as the African slave trade, the institution of American slavery, European colonialism, and the mass incarceration of black men, especially in the United States.
According to contemporary scholarship, however, one could argue that, instead of introducing homosexuality to Africa, Euro-Americans have been more instrumental in introducing homophobia and heterosexism. The results of this introduction can be seen in the recent influence of American conservative evangelicals on African Christianity. This unholy alliance has spawned increased intolerance of homosexuality on the African continent, exemplified by the so-called “Kill the Gays” bill introduced in the Ugandan parliament and the recent murder of Ugandan antigay activist David Koto.
The diversion argument contends that the focus on LGBT equality diverts the attention of black people from more pressing issues. For example, in his testimony opposing the marriage equality bill before the District of Columbia City Council, a prominent African American witness argued that the issue once diverted the attention of the American people from the Iraq War and, at the moment, was diverting the attention of D.C. residents from issues such as health care, housing, and unemployment.
Unfortunately, some black leaders who profess to be LGBT rights advocates often seem all too willing to push issues like marriage equality to the back burner so that presumably more critical issues may receive the bulk of the attention. This disconnection of oppressions overlooks the ways in which they are integrally related.
The religious argument suggests that because black people are arguably the most religious people in America, there is no way that homosexuality or gay rights could possibly be a black issue. After all, according to this reasoning, most African Americans adhere to a theologically conservative form of Protestant Christianity in which the Bible, as the central authoritative text, “clearly condemns homosexuality as a sin.”
One of the problems with this argument is that black people, like other people, are religiously and spiritually diverse. And while the overwhelming majority are Christians, all black Christians do not interpret the Bible in the same way. Furthermore, how does one define “religious”? Does it simply mean going to church and professing certain religious beliefs, or does it mean actually practicing those beliefs? With the exposure of so much hypocrisy—sexual and otherwise—from the pulpit to the pew, it is increasingly difficult for black people to contend that LGBT equality is not our issue because we are so “religious.”
The family argument declares that gay equality, with particular reference to marriage for gay couples, cannot possibly be a black issue because it threatens to destroy the black family. This logic is based on a dubious comparison between the breakup of black families during slavery and the claim that marriage equality wil lead to the breakup of black families. Defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, this so-called biblically based position views nontraditional family configurations as a threat to two primary functions of a normative nuclear family: reproduction and socialization.
This argument ignores the fact that many heterosexual married couples are either unable or unwilling to reproduce and, further, that homosexuality usually has nothing to do with the contemporary disintegration of black families. It also overlooks the fact that, contrary to destroying the black family, many loving, gay couples are actually saving it through adoption, foster parenthood, mentoring, and other creative means. Consequently, untold numbers of neglected and forgotten children are being rescued and socialized through the love and care of strong, close-knit families headed by gay couples.
Closely related to the family argument is the manhood argument. This argument contends that because the black man was not allowed to be a “man,” both during and following the trauma of slavery, gay rights is not a black issue. The need for the black man to restore his masculinity requires his absolute domination, devaluation, and suppression of femininity. Hence, the black man must, at all costs, resume his rightful role as the head of his household and as the chauvinistic stakeholder and decision maker in his family, community, nation, and world.
This macho, domineering, patriarchal understanding of manhood, supposedly based on biblical principles, has contributed to the dysfunctionality of the black family, the hypocrisy of the black church, and the deterioration of the black community. Domestic violence, sexual infidelity, child abuse, and stringent homophobia are just a few of the negative side effects of this narrow understanding of what it means to be a man.
Finally, some African Americans do not view LGBT equality as a black issue because of the denial argument. This argument, similar to the now-defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” U.S. military policy, essentially denies—or at least ignores—that homosexuality exists within the African American community. This denial is based on black people’s continuing quest for respectability and acceptance by the larger society. We have always known that LGBT brothers and sisters exist within our families, communities, churches, schools, and places of employment, but have not been inclined to openly admit or even mention it.
One of the rules within the black community—sometimes spoken and sometimes unspoken—has been that if one of our members is gay, he or she should be advised, “Just don’t flaunt it.” In other words, “Hide your true identity, keep it under wraps, and, by all means, do not exercise the forbidden freedom to openly express your unique personhood.”
This message has created a culture of lies and deception that, in my opinion, should now come to an end. Not only is this unhealthy for our LGBT brothers and sisters but it is also unhealthy for all of us, including our children. I have always wanted my children to grow up in a world in which they would understand and appreciate God’s rich gift of human diversity. Our challenge is not simply to tolerate those who are different but to celebrate them.
With New York recently joining a growing number of states and the District of Columbia in legalizing marriage for gay couples, it is incumbent upon black people to understand that we can no longer take an “either/or” approach to the different forms of oppression that impact our families, communities, nation, and world. Instead, we should adopt a “both/and” approach as we acknowledge the reality that all forms of oppression are interconnected and that none of us is free until all of us are free. LGBT equality is not a “white” issue but an issue that affects each and every one of us. Or, to put it another way, “Gays are us.”
The Reverend Dennis W. Wiley, Ph.D., is pastor of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. He is a contributor to the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality, or FIRE, initiative at the Center for American Progress, which explores the impact of public policy on gay and transgender people of color. This column is part of a series which will discuss progressivism within the black church.