Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren as Obama's Inauguration Pastor: Slap in the Face

Maybe it’s the stories that form the backdrop to the waning days of the year, for some of us. The family that has no place, moving between Nazareth and Bethlehem, then heading down to Egypt with the newborn babe.

I don’t know. What I do know is that the urge to be someplace else is strong right now. To relocate. To be shut of this nation with the soul of a church.

If those stories of uprooting and dispossession form the backdrop, then the push, the sense of urgency, comes from the new administration’s choice to have Rick Warren give the invocation at the January inauguration.

This is an atrocious choice. It’s not merely distressing. It’s insulting. It’s a shot across the bow at an entire group of citizens. At people who are already hurting because of the success of initiatives targeting us in various states, in the same election that brought Mr. Obama to power.

Commentators are viewing Rick Warren’s political consecration by the Obama administration as a slap in the face of the gay community. And it is a slap in our faces, in the faces of all of us who are gay and who donated to the Obama campaign, who worked hard to see Obama elected. Who hoped to have a place in the new America he claimed to represent.

And who are now being told to accept things as they are, as they have been, in this nation with the soul of a church. Accept second-class citizenship. Learn to swallow the fact that millions of your fellow citizens are not about to treat you with minimal human decency or accord you the human rights they enjoy.

And are going to abuse religion to justify their hatred. The choice of Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation is a choice that justifies the misuse of religion to target and attack a demeaned group of citizens. It is a statement to millions of gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans about what we must learn to live with in the new America of Barack Obama: diminished expectations, curbed rights, continued attacks from people professing to speak for God and on behalf of a God of love.

Like it or lump it. Your voice doesn’t count. Not enough, that is, for the new administration to forgo choosing Rick Warren as its symbolic religious spokesperson, while informing us that Warren has an admirable social justice record. Really? Is that what his approach to the gay community is about—social justice?

This is grotesque. It says to me, this choice of a high-profile anti-gay pastor among the thousands of other people of faith who might equally have been chosen to play this symbolic role of blessing the new administration, that the new president does not intend to move forward with any real urgency in the area of gay rights, once he comes into power.

It says to me that Obama doesn’t get it and doesn’t intend to get it. No, I take that back. I think that he actually does get it. What I fear he lacks is the political will to enact what he knows to be right. His “pragmatic” desire to build bridges, even with those on the extreme religious right, inhibits and will continue to inhibit his commitment to effect simple justice for those deprived of justice, now that he is elected. Now that our votes have been counted and we can return to our business as usual.

You know, the old business of waiting for promises to be fulfilled when there is no intent of fulfilling them. The tired business of expecting wrongs to be righted, doors opened when they have been slammed shut unjustly. All that any citizen wants or expects in a bona fide democracy . . . .

The Rick Warren choice communicates to me as a gay citizen who has supported Obama that I don’t count. I don’t count, because I belong to a minority of citizens whose rights are trampled on by the majority, and so I don’t have to count—not when pragmatism rather than a commitment to solidarity and human rights rules the roost.

I am, I think, even more anguished by Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to play this symbolic role at the start of the new administration, because of the nonsense being talked in recent weeks about the “gay is the new black” slogan. It continues to strike me as noteworthy that a president who has experienced ugly discrimination due to his race apparently does not get or intend to get the discrimination others experience due to sexual orientation.

Nor do many African Americans get or intend to get that discrimination, if what I am reading in blogworld lately about the “gay is the new black” slogan is any indication. And those who do not get or intend to get this discrimination include, to their shame, some gay and lesbians of color, who appear intent on playing the religious right’s divide-and-conquer game with a vengeance, when it comes to other gay Americans.

The “gay is the new black” discussion suggests to me that Obama’s lack of any will to get the discrimination experienced by gay citizens is part of a larger dynamic. I am beyond tired of hearing African Americans, including LGBT African-Americans, excuse homophobia in the black community. I have long since grown weary of the vicious, destructive marginalization of those outside the black community who call on African Americans to come to terms with homophobia—the destructive marginalization of this issuing such calls as racist.

I am sick of hearing African-Americans annoyed by gay Americans stereotyping all white gay men as rich and racist. This poisonous tactic is right out of the playbook of the religious and political right. It serves no interest except that of those who want to play color against sexual orientation and divide two minority groups, both of whom deserve equal rights and humane treatment.

I am also appalled at the claim of many people of color, including many gay and lesbian people of color, that the movement for gay rights is discontinuous from the movement for African-American rights—that gay people illegitimately appeal to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as the catalytic moment of the gay rights movement. Surely those denying the connection realize they are distorting history—including the powerful insights of prophetic African-American leaders such as Bayard Rustin, Coretta Scott King, and Mildred Loving, all of whom stated explicitly that the gay rights movement stems from and legitimately carries on the goals of the black civil rights movement.

We are now being told by some people of color that we who are gay and lesbian should give African Americans time to begin feeling comfortable with those of us who are LGBT. That we should allow people of color time to overcome their aversions.

As I came of age during the civil rights period of the 1950s and 1960s, I recall no such provisions crafted for white folks uncomfortable with black people then. Nor should there have been such provisions. We were expected to deal with our aversions. And we did so, those of us who knew that the expectation was warranted.

It is disappointing, to say the least, to find people whose life experiences should open them to understanding so conspicuously lacking in understanding of the struggles of another marginalized community. People intent on not getting it, whose life experiences should predispose them to get it. As I have had to get it—wanted to get it, struggled to get it—as a white gay men sensitized to racial discrimination by my own experiences of discrimination.

It is disappointing—it is tragic—when people appear not to learn sympathy, compassion, the value of solidarity, from their experiences of oppression. It is tragic when the oppressed turn into the oppressor, given power.

There are definitely problems with homophobia in the African-American community. And stigmatizing those of us who happen to be white and gay—and yes, who live in Southern states tainted by historic racism—as rich racists is not going to solve those problems. They will be solved only when gay and lesbian black people start claiming their identities openly within black communities and black churches, and start challenging the homophobia.

The homophobia within the black community—toxic homophobia that is contributing to the precipitous rise of HIV infection among women of color, as well as to the bashing of gay men and men perceived to be gay by black men—will not be addressed effectively until black gay and lesbian folks demand better of their brothers and sisters. And stop asking for a free pass for people who color who discriminate against gay people. And who justify that discrimination with the bogus claim that black suffering trumps gay suffering.

Yes, given the chance today to relocate someplace else—anyplace else, anyplace that permits an aging gay couple some humanity—I’d head there with Steve in a heartbeat, after the choice of Rick Warren as Obama’s inauguration pastor. I’m tired. I’m tired of the oppression. I’m tired of having my gifts taken for granted and not acknowledged. I’m tired of having my work to overturn the oppression of others thrown in my face by those with whom I’ve stood in solidarity—who then turn around and justify the oppression of my brothers and sisters and me.

Make no mistake about it: if you’re gay and watch to the inauguration proceedings, you’ll now be receiving a crystal-clear message from the new administration about where you really stand in this nation with the soul of a church, in the new America of Barack Obama: you will be tolerated, but not supported. You will be permitted to yammer on about discrimination and human rights as long as you recognize that your oppression and suffering don’t hold a candle that of the truly oppressed.

You can expect to be called economically privileged even when you are not by any means. You can anticipate being slandered as a racist even when you have spent years working to combat racism and to stand in solidarity with people of color.

Get used to it. Fit in. Or else. And as you listen to the message on inauguration day, don’t expect many of your LGBT African-American brothers and sisters to be sharing your misery at the message. Many of them will, to their discredit, be right there with the religious-right chorus, chanting that message of getting used to it or else. Positively celebrating your misery along with the Rick Warrens of the land . . . .