December 06, 2008

Moving Toward LGBT Equality in the African-American Community

H. Alexander Robinson, the CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, wrote an essay for The Advocate where he shared his concerns about how the African-American community's role in the passing of California's Proposition 8 was perceived and how to bring more of them toward the acceptance of equality for LGBT people. Here is an excerpt:

As we go forward, we need to be mindful that our foes will continue to attempt to use President-elect Obama, the black church, and campaigns of deception and fear to foster their own agenda in manipulative and devious ways. President-elect Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage is grounded in his view of marriage as a religious institution. We must be steadfast in not allowing public officials to use religion to determine their positions on matters of justice. We know as a community all too well that this reasoning can be harmful to blacks as well as LGBT people.

It is incumbent on every one of us to dedicate resources to educate our brothers and sisters on same-gender loving marriages and LGBT issues. As a community, blacks have always looked to the church as our beacon of hope and a source of political leadership. Black churches must recognize that they are going against their own teachings of tolerance and acceptance by preaching from the pulpit against same-sex marriage. These are cultural impediments that will only be overcome by real conversations about the status of LGBT people. We also recognize that we have affirming ministers and religious institutions, and we need to empower them and have their words highlighted and recognized in the mainstream and LGBT media.

I think Mr. Robinson makes a critically important point here. I strongly believe, both within and beyond the African-American community, the goal must not be to defeat or circumvent religious organizaitons. Instead, there needs to be a grass roots effort to reach out and educate the members, humanizing these issues by putting people in front of them to share their stories, showing the pain of exclusion and discrimination and that they are not abominations or deviants, they are people's neighbors, co-workers, brothers, sisters, and parents.

People might hear fire and brimstone condemnation from the pulpit but those who are willing to see and think for themselves, if they have a different reality to consider, will often draw a different conclusion. It is those people, I believe, that can pull churches, and eventually entirely denominations, out of the 1950's and into the equality of the 21st century.

Click here to read the rest of The Advocate article.


  1. Jim and Brenda, thank you for this. For the better part of a decade, I belonged to, and played numerous active rolls, in one of the nation's leading, predominantly African-American Pentecostal congregations. Its size and prominence drew a widely eclectic following, including a great many gay people. Unlike the majority of Pentecostal churches, regardless of ethnicity, its pastor and people were refreshingly broadminded and hospitable to everyone who worshiped there.

    The sermons were free of any homophobic invective. Yet, that said, the pastor drew a hard line on sexual immorality, which he concretely defined as any activity outside of traditional marriage. During a private conversation, he subtly, yet clearly, let me know he knew I was gay and explained that he expected anyone in leadership--gay or straight--to conduct themselves in keeping with the church's doctrinal standards. On one hand, his was a remarkably equitable and wise approach, and during my time there, I honored the church's teaching. Yet on the other, it didn't remedy the fact that any gay member of his church was essentially asked to forfeit all possibilities of seeking and entering a loving, productive relationship. The compromise wasn't balanced. But it was a substantial concession on his part nonetheless.

    I tell you this because it may help explain some of the complexity and nuances affecting the black church's intransigence regarding gay marriage. In order to bring them to the brink of approval, we need first to change the overriding--and overwhelming--opinion that consenting to same-sex unions is tantamount to approving immoral behavior. And, frankly, I don't see that working as effectively or quickly as we need it to.

    But there is a better way, and I think Robinson taps into it. Rather than frame marriage as unjustly denied to legitimate, loving gay couples, I believe black and other minority Christians would respond more readily if we bypassed their hearts and appealed to their minds. In other words, we should present our case to them as a civil rights issue, plain and simple. And in this context, we shouldn't hesitate to discuss bans on same-sex marriage as today's equivalent of Jim Crow laws. If we drive that message home, the moral question shifts to their side, asking them to defend denying any American citizen equal rights and access to legal benefits. The African-American who refuses to stand for social equality, despite religious or cultural differences, dishonors the struggles of his/her people.

    If we think we'll ever persuade the black church as a whole that same-sex marriage is Biblically justified, we might as well pack up and go home. But if we appeal to their own history and fight for equality, opposing gay marriage becomes unjustifiable and, ironically, supporting it will be viewed as the only Christian thing to do. If the black church has learned anything over the past 50 years, it's that principles trump practice.

    We'll have to agree to disagree about the morality of gay sex. When both sides can bring themselves to respect each others' views about that, I have no doubt we can unite in principle against immorality of legal and social discrimination advocated by Prop 8 and its like.

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I agree that the best inroads to make in the African-American churches is to couch GLBT equality as a civil rights issue and, although it is a different fight than that fought in the 1950's and 1960's, discrimination is discrimination. Some churches will NEVER accept same-sex couples, but if they can be removed from aggressive opposition to legal rights that would be a huge step forward.