Maybe it was destiny. As the nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, gays and lesbians launched a new chapter in their own struggle for equality. But the black clergy that lit the fire for change half a century ago is now out to dampen that flame, at least where same-sex marriage is concerned.
“If the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them,” Reverend Gregory Daniels, a black minister from Chicago, announced from the pulpit in February. A few eyebrows were raised, mostly in the gay community, but that reaction was overshadowed by the disappointment with a much more prominent Chicago minister, Reverend Jesse Jackson. In a speech at Harvard Law School in February, Jackson spoke out against same-sex marriage and rejected comparisons between the civil rights and gay rights movements. “Gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution,” he said, and “they did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote.”
Was this the Jesse Jackson I thought I knew? I first met him in 1984 when he brought his Rainbow Coalition to my college campus for a presidential campaign that openly included gays and lesbians. I was with him again in the 1990s at Harvard Law School, when he came to lend his support to our movement for faculty diversity. I traveled with him to Zimbabwe in 1997 to speak up for gays and lesbians in that country. All along I had assumed that he supported full civil rights for us, but apparently I was wrong.
In my lifetime, African Americans were denied the right to marry white people, and now we who are black dare to deny matrimonial rights to gay people—people like me. In a recent poll, 65 percent of blacks opposed same-sex marriage, although other surveys have shown strong support for laws banning discrimination against gays. What offends most black people is the comparison between the gay-marriage struggle and the black struggle for civil rights.
In the past six months, dozens of black ministers across the country have spoken out against same-sex marriage. And despite the common liberal portrayal of these clergy as stooges of the white religious right, some of the ministers, like Jackson and Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who once represented Washington, D.C., in Congress, have long records fighting for progressive causes.
Has the black church succumbed to the machinations of the white religious right? “I’m sure they’re being co-opted, but they don’t need a great deal of co-optation,” says Reverend Peter Gomes, a black Baptist minister. “I think they come to the prejudice on their own.”
Gomes attributes the black social conservatism to racial assimilation. “The African American religious community has spent so much time trying to prove to the white community that it is the same, that for all intents and purposes it shares many of the worst prejudices of the white community.”
Gomes’s perspective may be influenced by his identity: He’s openly gay, and the chaplain at Harvard University. That’s a very different constituency than he would find in a black church, and no doubt it’s significant that support for same-sex marriage is strongest among black ministers who preach at white churches. There are notable exceptions to this rule, such as reverends Al Sharpton and Joseph Lowery. Support is also strong among secular black leaders such as Coretta Scott King, Carol Moseley Braun, and Julian Bond.
It’s puzzling that the black church is so much more conservative on same-sex marriage than it is on other divisive issues such as abortion. The answer may lie in the invisibility of the black gay and lesbian community. While the black church embraces single mothers, drug addicts, and ex-cons, it does not embrace black homosexuals largely because they haven’t organized to make their presence felt. Instead, black gays and lesbians have been shamed and silenced into a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship with the church.
A few years ago I interviewed Reverend H. Beecher Hicks, pastor of a popular black church in Washington, D.C. Hicks strongly condemned homosexuality and told me that “those who seek to find a way to legitimize this particular lifestyle will meet with no success.” But days later when I visited his church for Sunday service, I recognized a number of black gay men in the congregation. Some were members of the choir, others were ushers, and a few had even more prominent roles. I can’t imagine how this church would survive without black gay men, and I can’t imagine that the homophobia would continue from the pulpit if they spoke up against it.
But they don’t speak up. Far too many black gays and lesbians maintain a truce with the church that allows them to serve quietly, and this conspiracy of silence enables the church to remain simultaneously the most homophobic institution in the black community and the most homo-tolerant.
While black gays and lesbians have been sidelined, the white gay community has been caught off guard. As conservatives wisely used black ministers to speak against same-sex marriage, the gay community put out images of white couples and put white spokespeople forward, thereby creating the perception that this is an issue for white folks trying to cash in on the black struggle.
It seems obvious that black messengers are more effective than whites in communicating with black audiences. Maybe that, too, is one of the lessons of the Brown case. Despite all the progress toward integration, black people still don’t trust white people, even those who suffer from discrimination themselves. Beneath the surface of racial tolerance, we’re still a country divided by skin color—and certainly the gay community is divided by race.
Given their unique role straddling two worlds, black gays and lesbians may hold the key to unlocking the door of homo-tolerance in the black community. “I think the black community is going to become more accepting, more tolerant,” Julian Bond predicts. “I can’t place a timetable on it, but I’ll tell you one thing: It depends on the degree to which black gays and lesbians begin to stand up in their churches, in their organizations, and say, ‘This is me you’re talking about.’ That’s a powerful, powerful message.”
Keith Boykin is president of the National Black Justice Coalition, which works to build alliances between blacks and gays on the issue of marriage equality.