Thursday, January 15, 2009

African Americans, Prop 8, and Homophobia: Ongoing Discussion at Box Turtle

Box Turtle Bulletin has been doing a valuable service to the African-American and gay communities—and to the public at large, since these are questions driving to the heart of our democracy—by keeping discussion of the vexed question of proposition 8 and black homophobia (and white gay racism) alive. As I’ve stated before, I tread into this territory with cautious steps. It has been clear to me following the victory of prop 8, from the moment discussion arose about the attitudes of people of color to the victory of prop 8, that there are strong interest groups eager to squelch open conversation about these issues.

Anything anyone seeks to say about the issues—honestly, openly—is hedged by numerous menacing hedges from the outset of the conversation: keep out. Beware. Don’t go there. These hedges with their warning signs are designed to make discussion impossible. They have the effect of distorting the conversation, as well, such that appeals by a white gay man—especially one living in the American South—for continued dialogue about these issues are easily framed and dismissed as racist discourse, even when the white gay man in question has spent years writing about questions of race, challenging racism, and contributing to cross-racial dialogues.

I have noted that I’m aware I bring to this discussion a unique perspective—one situated in real-life experiences unique to my life. Because these experience are admittedly out of the ordinary, they may well make what I have to say about black-gay dialogue eccentric. On the other hand, precisely because they are unique real-life experiences, they also may be an entry point into the conversation that gives me something to say about the issues.

I am a white Southerner who grew up in a racist culture, and who became aware of that fact as I came of age, in early adolescence. My growing recognition of the complicity of most white churches of the South in the historic racism of my culture led me, even in my early teen years, to a strong interest in religion—and in the role religion plays in either furthering necessary and morally warranted social changes, or in impeding those changes. My awareness that my own church was deeply implicated in my community’s racist culture, and was not willing to do the right thing and lead the way to necessary change, led me away from my family church of origin to the one “white” church in my community—the Catholic church—that invited people of color to worship side by side with white people in the 1960s.

These commitments led me as an adult, with a theology degree in hand, to teaching and administrative work in several HBCUs—historically black colleges/universities. As with most HBCUs, these institutions were all church-owned. As I have noted on this blog, my decision to work in HBCUs—at a much lower salary than I could have earned in a mainstream institution, lower than the salaries my grad-school classmates were earning—was a deliberate decision.

I chose to work in HBCUs because I regarded my decision to study theology and teach it at the university level as a vocational decision. This decision was an outgrowth of my early adolescent inklings that, when we recognize our complicity in structures of injustice within our cultures and communities of faith, we have an obligation to deal with those structures: and to recognize that we have interiorized the injustice, by growing up within structures that shape our consciousness, from childhood on.

I saw my decision to teach in an HBCU as a decision not merely to teach, but primarily to learn: to learn from a culture I had grown up being implicitly taught to denigrate, but which had been an integral part of my life and of my family’s history for hundreds of years. I needed to learn from those I had been taught to feel better than; I needed to keep grappling with my own racism, the racism anyone raised in a racist culture imbibes with his or her mother’s milk.

As I’ve also noted, against my wishes and inclinations, early on in my years working in HBCUs, I was tagged by top administrators at each HBCU at which I worked as an academic leader, someone they wished to promote to the position of department chair, and then of academic dean/vice-president. I reluctantly accepted those positions after strong insistence from the leaders of those HBCUs—African-American leaders—because they convinced me that I had gifts to give the community, which could not be realized if I did not assume these leadership roles.

However, because I was also, at least in the first part of my academic career, a closeted gay man still struggling to come to terms with his sexual orientation and with his long-time committed relationship with another gay man and the implications of making that relationship known in my public life, being elevated to a leadership position in church-related HBCUs brought me face to face with issues of sexual orientation. With the refusal of HBCUs to acknowledge that anyone on their campus was gay—students, faculty, administrators, staff.

My being made a department chair and then academic dean/vice-president confronted me with excruciating questions about how to be true to myself as a gay man who gradually became public about his sexual orientation and his life in an explicitly homophobic professional context. These developments also brought me face to face with serious questions about how to do my job adequately—e.g., when it required me to lead discussions about how the school adhered to accreditation requirements that called for it to refrain from discrimination and to teach students to understand and accept LGBT persons.

I soon discovered that the inability—the refusal—of some HBCUs and their leaders to entertain those questions, even when they are necessary questions to entertain if the school seeks to remain accredited, placed me in an anguishing position. Unless there was support from the top level of a school’s administration for me as a leader who happened to be gay and who also happened to have to deal with “gay issues” because that was part of his job, I was easily targeted. Everything depended on the willingness of those in charge to permit open discussion and to refrain from scapegoating gay employees—to do the decent, humane, and moral thing and extend to a gay human being the same respect they demanded for themselves as people of color, or as women, or as black women.

At the last HBCU at which I held a position of academic leadership, I found that, when I once mentioned the existence of LGBT advocacy organizations in a discussion of many types of advocacy organizations in which students might do service learning work, I was “putting my lifestyle in the face” of colleagues. I found that, though I had been asked to lead a campus-wide attempt to enhance the school’s civic engagement curriculum, any mention of civic engagement work for LGBT organizations was forbidden, another way of putting my lifestyle in the face of the campus.

When faculty came to me asking for support groups for women and LGBT students, faculty, and staff, and when I brought that proposal to the top levels of the administration, I was told that this project did not merit consideration, and that it was another attempt on my part to publicize gay issues and put my lifestyle in the face of colleagues. When I noted that I had not originated this project, but that faculty were concerned about the effect of silence about gay issues on students struggling with their sexual orientation, I was punished.

At the same institution, I was told that, even though the administration knew I was gay and living with a partner whom it also hired when it hired me, and even though we had been told we were welcome as an openly gay couple, our coming to work together daily in our single car was problematic, putting our lifestyle in the face of the campus. We were given written instructions not to take each other to the doctor. We were informed that the bishop of the church that owned the school—it's a United Methodist university—had protested our hire, when he discovered we were a couple. He claimed he had no problems with gay employees, only with gay couples.

Through my work at HBCUs, I learned that there is an almost impenetrable veil of silence surrounding even the existence of gay persons on the campus, and a strong will to demonize, punish, and expel anyone who raises questions about that veil of silence, even when his or her job requires him to raise such questions and when silence is not an option if the school is to remain in good standing with accrediting bodies. I learned that homophobia is alive and well in African-American culture, and those who try to address it are quickly stigmatized and silenced.

Once again, this is the backdrop of life experience against which I address issues of homophobia in the black community and of racism in the white gay community. These experiences propel me into that discussion. They give me no choice about pursuing the conversation, even when I know that I place myself at risk for engaging in it, when exceptionally strong interest groups want to read all discourse of white gay folks about these issues as racist—and, in particular, the discourse of someone raised in the American South.

All this as prologue to the posting that follows, which will focus on the recent discussion of these issues at Box Turtle . . . .