OPINION | Keith Boykin's 411 by Keith Boykin March 03, 2005
A recent event may mark a turning point in the fight to end homophobia in black America.
When I first heard that Tavis Smiley's annual "State of the Black Union" event would take place on February 26 at Bishop Eddie Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, I was very concerned. A few months earlier, Long -- the pastor of a 25,000-member black mega-church -- had led a controversial march against gay marriage that started at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Jr. Center.
"To march from the King Center against the rights of gays and lesbians is a slap in the face to Dr. King," I said at the time.
So why hold an event at Long's church? Under pressure from critics to answer this question, Smiley explained that the venue was chosen, in part, because it was large enough to accommodate the free event's thousands of attendees. It was not an endorsement of Bishop Long's politics, Smiley explained. He was right.
Much to my surprise, Smiley invited not one but two openly gay presenters to participate in the C-SPAN-covered event. Black AIDS Institute Director Phill Wilson and I both took part, along with several other leading figures in the black community, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, Princeton professor Cornel West and University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Eric Dyson.
Smiley seemed to join with others in challenging Bishop Long's political agenda. While sitting on the same stage with Long in the middle of his own "sanctuary," a number of prominent panelists questioned Long's participation in a White House meeting between black religious leaders and President Bush.
At first it seemed the real value of the day was that Long was forced to defend his position in his own church, in front of members of his own congregation, but there were other stunning developments. During a news conference with the panelists, Minister Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, announced that women and gays would be encouraged to participate in the 10th anniversary observance of the Million Man March, to be held in October.
"The makeup will be our people, whoever we are," said Farrakhan. "Male, female, gay, straight, white, dark, rich, poor, ignorant, wise." Farrakhan added, "We are family. We will be coming together to discuss family business."
After the press conference, I went up to Farrakhan backstage and shook his hand. "Minister Farrakhan," I said. "My name is Keith Boykin, and I am a black gay man. And I want to thank you for your inclusive comments about gays in the Million Man March." Without missing a beat, Farrakhan responded with a long, warm embrace. "Brother, I love you," he said as we hugged. "We are all part of the family. We are all part of the same community." This was coming from the same leader who had once seemed to advocate death for gays.
That historic encounter marked a dramatic shift in the Nation of Islam's long-troubled relationship with the LGBT community. If Louis Farrakhan can grow and evolve, there is hope for the rest of black America too.
There were other breakthroughs that day. The Rev. Jackson aptly summed up the problem and the challenge for black America. "In 2004 a number of blacks got distracted by non-budget, private morality issues rather than public policy issues," he said. Jackson dismissed the ridiculous anti-gay argument made by some black preachers that gays did not have to sit in the back of the bus as blacks did. "There were gay whites and gay blacks in Jim Crow," he said. "The gay whites didn't have to sit in the back of the bus, nor march for the right to vote," he added, but black gays did.
For his part, Professor Michael Eric Dyson cited the contributions of black gays and lesbians such as James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, who had helped shape the civil rights movement. Dyson, Jackson and I delivered our remarks in the middle of a black Baptist church with a public reputation for homophobia.
Of course the day was not without its challenges. The program almost ended on a sour note when a fiery female evangelist delivered a fiercely homophobic benediction. With our hands joined, heads bowed and eyes closed, the evangelist claimed that God did not create homosexuals. It was as if she had not listened to anything that the panelists had said. But there was one saving grace. I stopped praying with the evangelist and opened my eyes to discover that many audience members had opened their eyes and stopped praying as well. For the first time in my experience, I saw a large number of black people in a black church refuse to condone the homophobia from the pulpit. It was a small step, but that day we stood up for the principle that religion should be used as a tool for love and not a weapon of hate.
Despite my initial misgivings, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church turned out to be the perfect place to hold the event. What better place to confront the homophobia of the black church than in the black church itself?
------- It's incredible how the people that know the least are the first to offer advice.