Fighting to be free: Black ministers and the Black gay community

By Kenyon Farrow

Wake up Black people! Lock your windows and doors! Lesbians are coming - and they're taking over the Black community!

You haven't heard? Apparently you missed Rev. Willie Wilson's recent sermon at Union Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

I wish this were a joke. In fact, I wish it were even funny. But Rev. Wilson - who is, ironically, the executive director of the Millions More Movement march - actually said in a July 3 sermon, entitled "You've Got to Fight to be Free" and first reported by the Washington Blade on July 15, that "lesbianism is about to take over the community."

Wilson took the hot mess that was his sermon and sent it further down the gutter. He went on to say "women falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something, it ain't real. That thing ain't got no feeling in it. It ain't natural. Anytime somebody got to slap some grease on your behind and stick something in you, it's something wrong with that. Your butt ain't made for that. No wonder your behind is bleeding....The Bible says God made them male and female."

Despite outcry from Black LGBT leaders and local elected officials, Wilson has refused to apologize for the outburst. Black LGBT activists planning to participate in the October Millions More march say their efforts have been ignored by march organizers for six months now.

It's hard to know where to even begin in considering Wilson's "sermon." But I am at the least surprised by his detailed familiarity with homosexual sex acts. I'd certainly like to see the history on his web browser.

What is more shocking than his window-view into the sex lives of gay men and lesbians, of course, is the recklessness of this speech, particularly for someone leading a high-profile community-mobilization march. Today, even the most raging homophobes use sophisticated, sound bite-friendly language like "protecting the sanctity of marriage" or the "Contract with Black America on Moral Values." Wilson's statements have the subtlety of government-sponsored films on the dangers of homosexuality from the 1950s.

This isn't the 1950s, but the fact that Wilson's congregation is heard shouting its approval throughout the sermon is proof that his thoughts on homosexuality still have great currency in the Black community in 2005.

While Wilson may not consider himself a part of the white-led religious right, his homophobia certainly makes him their accidental ally. In 2004, an unprecedented number of Black ministers (well-funded by religious right think-tanks) closely aligned themselves with the sorts of individuals and organizations that have long worked diligently against Black political interests, all in the name of demonizing LGBT people. I need not remind you of Chicago's Rev. Gregory Daniels, who boldly declared, "If the KKK was opposing same-sex marriage, Reverend Daniels would ride with them."

What do statements like Daniels' and Wilson's mean for the daily lives of LGBT people in the Black community? For starters, they both foster and encourage attitudes that literally put our lives at risk.

The hate speech coming from our churches has had a dangerously paralyzing influence over our community's response to the AIDS epidemic. Pastors like Wilson exploit and amplify the same bitter divisions within Black America that have too often stood in the way of communal self-preservation. Moreover, Wilson and his ilk also drive too many Black gay and bisexual men into an unhealthy, schizophrenic existence.

"I don't think we're really going to get a hold of HIV until we can get real about it and not be so in denial about who folks really are," says Washington, D.C.'s Rev. Alvin O. Jackson, in a recent conversation with BlackAIDS.org. Jackson says pulpit-driven homophobia not only slows our response to HIV, but also puts people at risk for contracting it because "people are pushed even further into the margins and into all kinds of strange ways of dealing with their sexuality. If we could let people integrate [their sexuality into their lives] and just be a part of the community and be who they are, it would work much better. So I do think we contribute to [the epidemic] in our denial of who folks are."

Today, many Black LGBT people also live daily with the real threat of violence. Just the perception of gender variance can mean verbal or physical assault.

In 2003, 15-year-old Sakia Gunn was murdered in Newark, N.J. when she refused the advances of a man, explaining to him that she was a lesbian.

This past June, 32-year-old Dwan Prince was verbally harassed by two young men in his largely Black neighborhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. When he was so arrogant as to speak up for himself, his attackers viciously beat him nearly to death. He remains in a coma.

A few months later, when a Black youth was attacked by white men in Howard Beach, Queens, it made front page news and many prominent Black leaders loudly denounced it. Rightly so. But none of them have said a word about Dwan Prince.

Since February, we in New York City have also been witness to four murders of members of our community, including Rashawn Brazell, Marvin Paige, Kenmoore Thomas and Jamal James. It is not clear that any of these murders were hate crimes as we currently define the term, but each murder bore the hallmark of antigay attacks: extreme, over-the-top violence. In Brazell's case, police found his body dismembered and discarded in trash bags that were ditched on subway tracks and at a recycling plant.

Whatever the motives, there remains a stony silence from our community and religious leaders about the clear rash of deadly violence Black LGBT New Yorkers are currently enduring. That silence further emphasizes how little our lives matter to the larger Black community.

So, what are we to do about this? Personally, I am sick and tired of conjuring the names of Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Alice Walker and, our new favorite, Bayard Rustin as proof that Black folks "in the life" are a value and an asset to the community. That kind of awareness building has its place, but it is woefully insufficient. Knowledge is power, but fear can override all common sense - and, as Rev. Wilson has sadly demonstrated, common human decency as well.

Black gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender folks, as well as those in the community who stand with us, have got to publicly challenge the institutions and individuals that continue to add to our oppression. Thankfully, this very thing is happening all over the country.

Black LGBT people of faith held the second Souls a'Fire! conference in Chicago in June. In New York City, several organizations have come together for a campaign mobilizing Black LGBT people of faith. We are challenging Black clergy to work toward ending violence in our community.

It is often said that if every churchgoing Black person "in the life" did not go to church one Sunday morning, many congregations would simply be incapable of having service. (They certainly would be without the tenor section!) Whether or not Wilson, as leader of the Millions More Movement, recognizes our worth and our power, we ourselves must remember that we, too, can move millions! And we can do so by taking a lesson from the title of Wilson's sermon: You've got to fight to be free.

Kenyon Farrow is a writer and organizer living in Brooklyn, New York. He is also the communications and public education coordinator for New York State Black Gay Network. For more info visit his blog at http://everyshuteyeaintsleep.blogspot.com.

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