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Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islama leader with a history of anti-gay rhetoric dating back to the 1980shas invited a gay and lesbian advocacy group to help convene the 10-year commemoration of the Million Man March. Last week, Farrakhan sent a letter to the National Black Justice Coalition, the Washington, D.C.based advocacy group, opening the door for its members to share in sponsoring the Millions More Movement slated for October 15. Even as the African American community debates the issue of gay rights, Farrakhan has taken a step that might be surprising to his longtime observers. In response to months of heartfelt letters, he wrote: "You are absolutely correct. The Millions More Movement is for all of us. . . . Please be assured that any member of our community that has gifts, skills, and talents to plan for the redemption of our people will be welcomed at the table."
Farrakhan's invitation comes even as other African American leaders, from Reverend Al Sharpton to hip-hop superstar Kanye West, call for greater acceptance of gay people. "This could signal a turning point in our community," says Keith Boykin, who heads the Justice Coalition. "We are seeing an unprecedented discussion about sexuality in the black community. I'm confident that 20 to 30 years from now we will look at homophobia in the same light that we now look at racism."
As evidence of the conversation reaching a crossroads, Boykin also points to the chatter in the blogosphere over remarks by the Grammy Awardwinning West, who last Thursday told an MTV audience that "everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people," and that he just wants to "come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, 'Yo, stop it, fam.' "
Bit by bit, the closet appears to be opening. "This is in the shadows," says Anslem Samuel, editor in chief of The Ave, a hip-hop quarterly. "This is something we don't usually speak about openlyat least not in a positive light. Kanye says a lot of 'crazy' things, but this isn't crazy. It's quite brave, actually."
While Farrakhan is appealing directly to the gay community, and West to the wider range of young people, Sharpton has been sending a gay-friendly message to an older generation. One of the few 2004 presidential candidates to come out in favor of gay marriage (Carol Moseley Braun was another), Sharpton recently announced the launch of an initiative to fight "latent homophobia" in the black community. He told reporters that discrimination contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS, which has hit the African American community especially hard.
Congressman Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, says times have changed. "The devastating effect AIDS is having on congregations has led to a greater sensitivity," Rangel says. "Now you don't hear the same level of anti-gay rhetoric. I know of at least one pastor who has died of AIDSmany more deacons. Homosexuals have always been a part of our churches, it just wasn't talked about. Ten, 20 years ago they were in the dark ages, in part because the African American gay community wasn't as aggressive in obtaining their rights as their white counterparts."
Anti-gay sermons and the silence of churchgoing gays and lesbians are still problems, says Boykin, author of Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. He says he has watched many stay silent in the face of hurtful wordsand keep coming back for more. "The black church is the most homophobic and the most homo-tolerant institution in the black community. I've been in congregations full of homophobic gay men. We go to church week after week to get beat up."
Boykin's organization keeps a short list of religious leaders he says are actively working against gay people. Seattle pastor Ken Hutcherson of the Antioch Bible Church made the cut for spearheading the first of a series of enormous anti-gay-marriage rallies. "I have many people in my congregation who used to be homosexual," Hutcherson tells the Voice. "They have received counselingjust as any sinner can be counseledand they have repented. The black community that takes a liberal view of the Bible, they are saying you have to change with the times. For those of us who take the Bible as a literal guide to life, the black-and-white truths are set by God."
There's also Reverend Willie Wilson, pastor of the Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. In July the minister shocked that city's gay community by making disparaging remarks about gay and lesbian sex and warning his flock that "lesbianism is about to take over our community." He later issued an apology for using "intemperate" language and explained he'd learned from local school officials that pre-teen lesbian sex had become "pandemic."
Wilson, executive director of the Millions More Movement, has a few more months to hone his message before Boykin and crew show up. Not only have leaders with the National Black Justice Coalition agreed to help sponsor the rally, they've made two requests: They want gay speakers on the podium, and they want a discussion on homophobia. "We are happy to be a part of this," says Washington, D.C., activist Ray Daniels. "But we are not just going to show up and be quiet."
Still negotiating for space in this year's event, the Justice Coalition is planning a pre-march rally in downtown Washington. After gathering in Freedom Plaza, gay and lesbian activists plan to join the Millions More when it begins at noon. Farrakhan's response to them now, says Boykin, will dictate whether the march is "a protest or a celebration."