(Originally published on October 27, 2006.)
It’s been an strange month to be black and gay in America so far. First there was the gay bashing that killed Michael Sandy in New York, and the disturbing news of Tyrone Garner’s lack of a burial 37 days after his death with the possibility of a pauper’s burial in the end. Those depressing stories were balanced out somewhat yesterday by the news of the New Jersey Supreme Court decision and the fact that a black lesbian couple was among the plaintiffs whose willingness to take a stand yielded that historic moment.
But even that good news was tempered by reading Keith’s post about his speech at Central State University, a historically black college in Wilberforce, Ohio. It was the inspiration for the title of this post. I considered titling it “Hysterically Black Homophobia,” because of the reaction Keith says his speech got. But it felt too serious a topic for snark, though the response of the students as described by Keith does indeed seem hysterical, and the homophobia at its foundation is historical.
I’d have written about it yesterday, but sometimes when they’re angry people say things they either don’t mean or that are said in a manner more inflammatory than constructive. For example, yesterday I probably would have written some things pretty inflammatory things about Black folks and religion. Would have meant them too, as much as the students who heard Keith’s speech meant everything they said in response.
One of the things I might have said about religion if I’d posted yesterday is that it can sometimes cause people to divorce themselves from reason and any ability to think critically about what they’re told.
When the subject turned to religion, a few students in the audience starting shouting at me to express their disagreement. I discussed the story of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis. I talked about Leviticus 18 (man shall not lie with man) and put it in context with Leviticus 19:19 (not to wear mixed fabrics), Leviticus 19:27 (not to shave or get hair cuts), Leviticus 19:28 (not to wear tattoos), and other passages of the Bible that are selectively ignored. I even reminded the audience how white slave owners had used religion to justify the oppression of black slaves. But only a few people in the audience seemed to pay attention. Many of the rest were on their feet, moving about and protesting.
When an audience member shouted out something about Jesus, I reminded him that Jesus never discusses homosexuality anywhere in the Bible. “Noooo!” they shouted. “You’re misinterpreting the Bible,” another yelled. “Not in my Bible,” I heard someone say in the distance. Then I posed a challenge. “I have $100 in my wallet,” I said. “I will be happy to give it to anyone if you can find a single passage in the Bible where Jesus talks about homosexuality.” The audience exploded in outrage. It took another 60 seconds to get them to calm down again.
I continued on with my speech. A few minutes later, a young man in the back row of the audience stood up and yelled something. I think he said “I found it!” but I couldn’t hear him well enough to be sure. The crowd turned to face him in the back, and I stopped for a moment to listen. He yelled something about the Bible and he walked to the far aisle and walked all the way down to the front of the stage, where I motioned him to join me at the podium with his Bible.
I held the mic to his face as he quoted the passage from the New International Version of the Bible. He read aloud: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
The audience erupted in shouting and applause again, and the young student slammed shut the Bible and marched off the stage as though he had proved his point. After the crowd finally quieted down, I explained. “The passage he just read was from 1 Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 9. It was an epistle written by Paul, not by Jesus,” I said. “That’s because Jesus never mentions homosexuality anywhere in the Bible.”
The audience didn’t buy it. That’s because many of them have never studied the Bible. Unfortunately, they’ve been taught simply to repeat the homophobic rhetoric recited by their pastors and their parents. Anyone who challenges that rhetoric must be the devil. Even if the concerned Christians in the audience can’t prove their arguments, they feel morally superior enough to repudiate mine without any real knowledge or facts.
At a seat of knowledge, a “historically Black” seat of knowledge, ignorance and superstition reign; and on a subject most of the students there would probably consider more important than anything else they study. Though if they study their other subjects the way they’ve apparently studied the Bible, there isn’t much to say about the quality of their education, if they’ve never questioned what they’ve been told and never read beyond what was placed in front of them. So, when presented with a reality that doesn’t fit neatly into the box that defines their world, they hide behind what another black gay blogger wisely defines as “headless monsters”.
A headless monster a belief that has been refuted over and over again, but is still pushed as fact, usually by someone who has a vested interest in telling lies.
You can kill the head but the monster still lives because it is being propped up.
I was raised in a church probably much like those in which the Central State students swallowed (not learned) their faith. I heard the same Bible stories, and probably nearly the same sermons, more or less. I guess the difference is that at some point I asked questions, and when I didn’t find the answers in what was given to me, I went looking. And perhaps that’s where I went wrong since, depending on who you ask, “original sin” has less to do with sex than with seeking knowledge. And at some point I realized that God had not leaned down from heaven with quill in hand and written the Bible from beginning to end, and that it wasn’t unchanged and unchanging, but that it was written and rewritten by people grounded in a time an place in history that influenced what they wrote; compiled and edited by people who were grounded in a time and place in history that influenced what they voted in and what they left out.
When I was growing up, I heard an old legend that if you read the Bible all the way through from beginning to end, it would make you crazy. Now I think what makes you crazy isn’t reading the Bible, but reading it literally and to the exclusion of anything else. That will drive you insane as surely as sitting in a dark room and never allowing any light to enter it would make anyone insane. Let in a little light, and you see enough to make things out. More light than that, and suddenly the way you thought the world around you worked doesn’t make sense anymore. But not enough light and you either have to create stories to explain what you can’t fully see. Or you have to just not see it. With African Americans, it began with the first slaves who were converted to Christianity only to be confronted with the biblical passages that justified and even sanctified their enslavement, and for the sake of sanity had to “not read those parts.”
Having read and reviewed Horace Griffin’s new book Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches, I basically concur with his premise that the vehement homophobia expressed by many Blacks stems from a the history of so many Black slaves being converted to Christianity by conservative denominations that stressed biblical literalism, strict Victorian sexual morality that was prevalent during the same period as American slavery, and a reaction against the stereotypes of Blacks as insatiable sexual savages. The Central State students, however, do not have the excuse that their ancestors had. Having a few centuries between them and slavery, and being at most a few steps away from information — or, to extend the metaphor, a few steps away from the fucking light switch in that darkened room you’re now sitting in and choosing to keep darkened — makes choosing not reaching out for it and inexcusable act of willful intellectual and spiritual laziness.
It is easy to take literally the words on the page, rather than try to understand them in the context of the time, place, and people who produced, translated, and selected them. It is easy to ignore the contradictions from one text to another; to dismiss, as Sam Harris put it, “the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes,” and to yet be willing to embrace that which you can fully impose on others. It is harder to read more widely and deeply, for a deeper understanding of faith that may not affirm everything you’ve been taught. It is harder to leave the embrace of certainty and make peace with uncertainty — to admit that you don’t know or have all the answers to how the world should work, and that they can’t be easily found between the covers of any one book — but that may also be part of what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.”
The Central State students have taken the easy way out on their religion. They are, as Staceyann Chin (who shared the stage with Keith for that memorable experience) wrote in her poem about the Central State convocation, still practicing a slave version of their religion, with little more understanding than that; hiding behind “headless monsters,” as invested lies that define others as inferior to them and despised by their god, much like the owners of their ancestors were not all that long ago.
and so Black folk continue to be caught wheel and hamster
between racism and under-education
and misguided loyalty
disguised as religion
same Bible that told niggers
“be happy they got nice Masters!”
Same pages now being used by niggers to tell black faggots
they ain’t shit
never mind the number of choirs they have kept going
the revolutions they have orchestrated
never mind the dykes that kept marching in Selma
and New York
fuck the writers that made it so Black students could be in college
making infantile noises at a phenomenon they know nothing about
except that they despise us
And no, by the way, I no longer give a shit about defending African Americans against the notion that they’re more homophobic than whites, for the same reason I no longer give a shit about defending a Black politician like Harold Ford against the racist attack ads the Republicans are running against him. Because Harold Ford is no different than the racist Republican candidate running in Virginia, and the students at Central State University are no different than the Klan or a gang of marauding skinheads. I don’t defend anyone who would turn around and leave me and mine twisting in the wind. I no longer care.
I no longer care, because in a world ordered the way they appear to want it ordered against me and mine, every single one of them would have and should have the very life stoned out of them. Those who aren’t stoned to death can be sold into slavery. The female students and faculty should be driven from the school completely, and maybe even handed over to be raped it if means preserving the dignity of men. The Bible, the one they flip through so furiously to condemn someone else that they skip over the passages that — just a few verses down — condemn them too, says so. Part of me hopes they get it, even given what it would probably mean for me, just so long as I can stay long enough to look into their eyes, to see their faces when it arrives for them too. I’d even happily greet them in hell, if I believed in it, just to see their faces when they arrived.
I no longer care because they aren’t my people. There was a time when I would have been saddened by the behavior of the students at Central State; depressed because it would have been another case being rejected by “my people.” But no more, because they aren’t my people. They aren’t my people like Wellington Boone isn’t when he accuses gays of “raping his movement,” as though Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, an Barbara Jordan never existed. They aren’t my people, just like Michael Steele isn’t as the newsletter from Equality Maryland this week reminded me of his statement that he opposed marriage because “white gay men already have a lot of rights.”
They aren’t my people because they don’t think people like Keith, Staceyann and I exist, or that we should exist and if we do we deserve whatever we get. They don’t believe that couples like Alicia Heath-Toby and Saundra Toby-Heath exist or should exist.
We have been a loving and committed couple for 15 years. We live in Newark, New Jersey, and our church, Liberation In Truth Unity Fellowship Church, is a part of our extended family. We attend church services and participate in church events, and we are active in our community.
For us, marriage is not a political issue or an academic issue. This is a real issue about our lives. Our burdens are heavier and our expenses are greater simply because we can’t get legally married. We can’t get family health insurance, so we have to pay two deductibles instead of one. And in order to protect ourselves in case something happens to one of us, we have to go through the expense of hiring a lawyer to prepare legal documents. We have to go through all that just to get the same legal protection that most couples get when they say “I do.”
Our relationship is just like many others. We take care of each other. We think about what the other needs. We work at our jobs, and we pay our taxes. But if something should happen to one of us, all that can mean nothing if the state, the hospital, the insurance company, or the employer doesn’t recognize our rights. We pay first-class taxes, but we’re treated like second-class citizens.
We are your neighbors next door. We ride the bus and subway with you. We sit next to you at lunch. We work next to you. We have a home, two sons and 5 grandchildren. And we have a family.
If two complete strangers met each other last week and got legally married today, they would have more rights under the law than our relationship has after 15 years of being together. That’s not fair, and that’s why we’re here today.
It doesn’t matter to them that black gay and lesbian members of their families and communities (and churches, whether they realize it or not) stand to lose or gain the most in the fight for marriage equality.
Black same-sex couples have more to gain from the legal protections of marriage, and more to lose in all 13 states that passed amendments banning marriage and other forms of partner recognition. A groundbreaking study released in October 2004 by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Black Justice Coalition shows that Black lesbian couples are parenting at almost the same rate as Black married couples, and that Black same-sex couples parent at twice the rate of White gay couples. They also earn less, are less likely to own a home, and are more likely to hold public sector jobs.
Three in five Black female same-sex households (61 percent) include at least one child of one or both of the same-sex partners. Black lesbian couple households are almost as likely as Black married opposite-sex couple households to include a child of one or both of the adults (69 percent). Nearly half of Black male same-sex couple households (46 percent include a child of one or both of the partners.
Black same-sex couples earn $20,000 less per year than White same-sex couples and are less likely to own the home they live in. They also earn less than Black married opposite-sex couples.
Black same-sex partners are more likely than White gay partners to hold public sector jobs, which may provide domestic partner health insurance. Eight of the 11 state anti-gay marriage amendments approved on November 2 ban or threaten domestic partner benefits provided through state and local governmental entities, such as Dekalb County, Georgia or Ohio State University.
They don’t know or don’t care that marriage equality would mean benefits for black gay and lesbian members of their community.
* Forty-five percent of Black same-sex couples reported stable relationships of five years or longer on the U.S. Census.
* Twenty percent of Black men and twenty-four percent of Black women in same-sex households in the Maryland area work in the public sector but are denied healthcare benefits for their partners by the government.
* Same-sex couples do not receive the protections of joint rental leases with automatic renewal rights. Only approximately 55-57% of Black same sex couples own their own home.
They don’t care what happens to couples like Alicia and Saundra or what happens to people like Michael Sandy or Tyrone Garner as much as they care about a two thousand year old book that damns them as surely as they believe it damns us; even as it leads them to lie down with politicians who will send their brothers and cousins and sisters off to die in a needless war, and leads them to stand beside politicians and a party who don’t flinch at appealing to racism in voters or fielding racist candidates, who will turn around and attempt to bring back the poll tax, and who’ll promise big things but leave you holding the bag.
But more than anything else, they don’t care about the hell they create for their brothers, sisters, etc., in the name of a heaven that sounds about as plausible as the big rock candy mountain. I know because I did my time in it, and occasionally those of us who managed to escape it hear echoes or catch glimpses of those still trapped inside, as Keith relates at the end of his post.
I know there are gay men and lesbians on that campus who are suffering from the oppression of their classmates. One student came out to me in an email message sent a few hours after the event. Needless to say, there are dozens of other students out there who were hoping for a comfortable space for dialogue but instead found themselves forced deeper into the closet. I feel sorry for those students. I think some of the students who openly challenged us are themselves struggling with their homosexuality.
I remember during my freshman year of college, there was another young black man who started the same year and lived in my dorm. I noticed him because he caught my eye, and I thought I caught his. But we never talked because we moved in different circles and went in different directions. I came out rather publicly, joined the gay student group, and eventually became a co-director of the group. He pledged one of the black fraternities on campus, and eventually became a brother. I saw him occasionally on campus, and we always seemed to catch each other’s eye, but never spoke.
Then one evening, he walked into a meeting of the gay student group. I saw him, and gave what I hoped was a friendly smile. But I hung back because I didn’t want to make him nervous or think I was making a move on him, and scare him away from the group, because I realized how hard it was for him to be there and how much he really needed to be there. He looked relieved and scared to death all at the same time. He’d heard all the things his minister/family/fraternity brothers always said about people like me/him/us. They were probably echoing in his head the whole time he was in the meeting. I can only imagine he probably feared both the possibility of being shut out of the only world he’d ever known or been prepared to live in and the possibility of shutting off a part of himself he probably always knew was there. He probably knew, as Dwan Prince learned, that being honest about who is was would mean losing the support and protection of the only community he’d ever known.
He hung around for a while after the meeting, and I introduced myself to him before he quickly left. I never saw him at another meeting again. I saw him around campus from time to time, and several months later at an MLK Day march, where I marched with the gay student group and he marched with the black student organizations that jeered at us. Our eyes met that day too, and he didn’t join in their derision of us. I don’t know what happened to him, but my guess is that he went back into the closet and probably stayed there, with the help of his friends, fraternity, brothers, family, and church who did everything they could to keep him there.
They’re kinda like Pharaoh’s army, in all it’s various incarnations down through the ages. Looking at them, don’t see my people. I see Jeff Davis or Bull Connor. I catch glimpses of my people, hidden away behind holy walls mortared with ignorance and fortified by cruelty, suffering inside and looking for a way out.
If the students at Central State knew their own history or journeyed deeper into their faith than the stories they heard in Sunday school, the sermons they heard in church, and the condemnations carefully selected from legalistic scriptures that damn them as much as anyone else, and have been used to dehumanize them in the same way they use them to dehumanize others, then they might see the same thing I see. They’d see their people hurting because of them. They’d see my people, hurting because of them, and reach out with healing and acceptance instead of hatred and condemnation. Then to me, they’d be my people.
But they can’t and they won’t so they aren’t. And probably never will be. Period.