Saturday, March 8, 2008

Week in Review: Letting Sunshine In

A rare March snowfall (the second in several days) put me into contemplative mode yesterday, so this weekly news wrap-up is a day late. As I type, the snow is still lying on the ground, with the new season’s daylilies and Louisiana iris beginning to spike through it. A bright scarlet spray of flowering quince bravely fights against the cold, to herald a spring that now seems impossibly far away.
The stillness of yesterday’s snowfall also allowed me to finish Kevin Sessums’ wonderful memoir Mississippi Sissy (NY: Saint Martin’s, 2007). Though Sessums grew up in a neighboring state, and is seven years younger than I am, I can certainly relate to much of his experience of growing up a sissy in a Southern state in which fathers expect to have their masculinity mirrored to them by their sons. Sessums notes that the sense of being identified as different—in an unacceptable way—when one is too young even to understand the mechanisms of prejudice, induces a watchfulness, a tendency to listen and observe, in young gay boys: “That’s what most sissies do when we are children: We sit apart and listen” (preface, unpaginated).
Indeed. The experience of being identified as (and shamed for) being less than the ideal man-in-the-making places one on the sidelines from early on—listening, pondering, trying to put pieces together: above all, trying to foresee the next inexplicable blow, to stay out of its way, when the chastening rod can descend so suddenly and unexpectedly, simply because one is not who one is expected to be. As Sessums notes, “…the one-word condemnation all little sissies must deal with at some point, the one that reverberates in the echo chambers of our collective memory. ‘Shame,’ came the utterance, ‘shame…’ ”(p. 135).
When we survive—and Sessums has done so magnificently; he has not merely endured but prevailed—we hope to give something back. We hope to make it just that much easier for those coming after us, when we tell our stories—easier to know that one is not alone in the world; and easier to identify and avoid cruelty and violence. We hope that, by telling one more story of unmerited pain endured by children identified as gender-inappropriate, the back of homophobic cruelty and violence may be broken in the future.
And so to the news of the week:
I’ve blogged in past days about the recent spate of anti-gay violence in Ft. Lauderdale. As I’ve noted, the violence is fueled by a group of ministers supporting Ft. Lauderdale mayor, Jim Naugle, in what Pam Spaulding calls a campaign of “homo-hate”
The good news this week is that spotlighting Naugle’s inappropriate use of his office to channel fundamentalist homophobia has resulted in a curtailing of his activities. The organization Fight Out Loud recently led an action alert campaign to make Naugle accountable for the violence he was inciting (
This week, several blogs have reported that Ft. Lauderdale has decided to remove Naugle’s bi-monthly column from the city newsletter. Since the column had become a forum for Naugle to “spew homo-hate,” shutting down the column will provide one fewer venue for the dissemination of such hate that is fueling violence in this part of Florida.
Among the blogs reporting on this update of the Ft. Lauderdale story week are Bilerico ( and Pam’s House Blend ( For those interested in more information about the ministerial alliance supporting Naugle, several blogs have linked to the following 2007 local news article at the time Naugle began targeting the LGBT community:,0,7179279.story.
Since I cite Pam’s House Blend blog so often and have included her in my links list, I’d like to say a few words about this blog. I don’t know Pam Spaulding personally; have never met her. But I read her blog daily, because I find it one of the most level-headed and yet politically daring commentaries on news today—news affecting the LGBT community, to be sure, but news in general as well.
Pam (who is African American) has been relentless in calling for open dialogue about homophobia in the African-American community. As she noted in this 20 Jan. posting about Obama’s remarks at Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta challenging homophobia in the black community (, even though this critique is focused on a segment of the American population, homophobia in the black community is everybody’s problem, and sunshine is the best disinfectant.
Pam continues letting the sun shine in this week, reporting on a recent talk by Mayor Denise Simmons of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the nation’s first openly lesbian black mayor, and City Councilman Ken Reeves, the first openly gay black mayor, at Harvard ( According to Pam, the Cambridge Chronicle reports “most of the homophobic sentiment they've [i.e., Mayor Simmons and Councilman Reeves] incurred as politicians and as people has been at the hands of black clergy and religious leaders.” Pam concludes, “This is a tragic disservice to the black community, and further proves how pathological and deep a problem this is. I'm glad that Simmons and Reeves are speaking out and it's being covered in the media.”
Pam Spaulding’s blog this week also reports on an appearance of Rev. Ken Hutcherson—whom Pam characterizes as a “raging homobigot activist”—on TBN’s “Praise the Lord” show on Thursday ( Pam transcribes some of Pastor Hutcherson’s remarks, and comments on them. Among them is the following eerie observation: “Love hurts! Love hurts! My love hurts my kids sometimes. Hurts 'em good!” Indeed.
Why do I, a white gay man with Southern roots, believe that it’s important to engage homophobia in the African-American community? After all, it’s not as if there’s not homophobia in abundance right within my own community to engage.
I’m interested in addressing this phenomenon—and homophobic violence anywhere it occurs—because I agree with Pam Spaulding: homophobia in any community is the problem of all communities. It happens that the pastors supporting Naugle in Ft. Lauderdale are African American. It also happens that the young gay man buried last week after being murdered in Ft. Lauderdale was an African-American teen. It also happens that Rev. Hutcherson is African American.
Homophobia is a problem in the black community—as it is in the white community. It affects African Americans; it tragically ended Simmie Williams’ life. It affects all of us. We all lose, when anyone dies through unmerited violence; we all lose when gifted young people have their lives snuffed out, and never have a chance to contribute to the community.
African Americans are a churched people, by and large. African-American churches have been marvelous instruments of progressive social change. It grieves me to see any churches siding with oppression, particularly when this oppression issues in violence—whether the “soft” violence of discrimination, or the “hard” violence of actual physical assault. As a theologian, I have always considered it part of my calling to explore the roots of social violence, to expose them, to try to address and contribute to the healing of such violence.
When I began my teaching career in 1984, I had two job offers, one from a prestigious “white” university, the other from an historically black university. The choice was, for me, a no-brainer. I took the position at the HBCU. Though most of my grad-school classmates could not understand why I would turn down a much more lucrative and high-profile job at a mainstream university, I saw the choice as one between the vocation to serve, to make my voice count, to give back, and the choice to live a cloistered scholar’s life that would not have an impact on the world around me. I chose the HBCU.
As Kevin Sessums notes throughout his book Mississippi Sissy, the roots of white Southerners are intertwined with those of black Southerners. There is no way to talk about our future except by talking about a shared future. Sessums’ experience of marginalization as a sissy boy growing up in the American South sensitized him to the ugly oppression of African Americans. He heard the bible used to justify discrimination and violence against black citizens, just as he heard it used to justify discrimination and violence against gay people. The mechanisms of oppression were the same, in both cases. The people promoting the oppression were the same. The white churches bore tremendous responsibility for fostering racism, just as they did for fostering homophobia.
I saw the same picture, growing up as a young white gay boy in Arkansas. My experience of coping with homophobia led me, early on, to question and then oppose racism. I find it extraordinarily painful now to be susceptible to prejudice on the part of African Americans, who have much to gain by remaining in solidarity with others experiencing unmerited oppression. I find it difficult to understand how anyone marginalized by the power centers of society cannot see that those power centers play one marginalized group against another, to maintain their unjust control. In fighting among ourselves, we play into the hands of those who wish to oppress all of us.
This is why I speak out. This is why I call on the African-American churches to renounce homophobia, just as I call on my own and other “white” churches to do the same. This is also why I have been heartened at Mr. Obama’s clear witness against homophobia in the African-American community.
This week, a video clip of Obama’s courageous statement that homophobia is not Christian has been uploaded on several blogs, including the Towleroad blog ( and Michelangelo Signorile’s Gist at
And in my own church, the oppression continues. The Clerical Whispers blog reported in the past week that, lest we remain in doubt about Pope Benedict’s stands on gay rights and gay human beings, the pope has praised the United States for its opposition to gay marriage—see
At the same time, the recent Pew Report statistics showing a significant proportion of American Catholics having walked away from the church continue to be studied. This week’s National Catholic Reporter contains an insightful podcast analyzing what’s happening with young Catholics in the U.S. The report concludes that many young Catholics keep believing, but are increasingly choosing not to belong: see
This week’s National Catholic Reporter also carries an editorial challenging church leaders to sponsor a national discussion to examine the exodus from the church—see In my view, if church leaders did sponsor such a nationwide dialogue (and I will be surprised if they do), they’ll find that a very significant reason for the exodus—particularly among young Catholics—is the church’s unrelenting homophobia.
As an example of such homophobia: the Clerical Whispers blog reports this week that St. Stephen’s parish in Minneapolis, a well-attended welcoming community with a vibrant liturgy and many social action programs, is being forced to make its liturgical life conform to the narrow expectations of the diocese: see The blog quotes a former parish council member, Mary Condon Peters, on the liturgical shutdown: "It's incredibly sad. All these years, there was room in the big old Catholic tent for all of us. And now there isn't. And they gave us three weeks' notice." This has traditionally been a rare parish in which gay Catholics have felt at home.
One has to wonder if the big old tent will contain anyone in the future except the righteous remnant, if the church continues along its present path of weeding out those identified as unwashed and unwelcome.
And as all this happens, a reminder that the recent Fight Out Loud video about violence against LGBT citizens of the U.S. in 2008 ( shows that we who are gay are being murdered at the rate of 1 person every 8 days in 2008.
Do the churches have anything—anything convincing—to say about that?

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