Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama and Gay Questions: The African-American Churched Context

For anyone trying to understand President Obama’s refusal to deal with gay issues—or even speak about gay lives and gay concerns—thus far in his presidency, a posting by Pam Spaulding at her House Blend blog yesterday is must reading. I’d like to offer some thoughts about this posting now, as background to my posting earlier today about Harry Knox and what I fear will be President Obama’s response to pressure from the Catholic far right acting in collusion with the political right to fire him.

Pam Spaulding entitles her posting, “Why President Obama Hurts His Own Case of Addressing Homophobia in the Black Community.” Pam builds her insightful analysis around an article by Marc Fisher in the Washington Post two days ago, which argues that, in ignoring gay issues now, the new president is necessarily playing pragmatic politics.

Fisher notes that historians will be puzzled by the fact that, on the one hand, Obama’s election appeared to usher in a new era of acceptance of the moral claims of gay human beings in our culture, and on the other hand, a strange turn in Obama’s attitudes, which represents a tempering or even a reversal of his approach to gay matters prior to his election. He notes that Obama’s approach now is “primarily political,” and is dominated by “electoral concerns,” particularly by his need to play to churched voters—a need evident in his selection of Rick Warren for a prominent role in the inauguration.

Pam Spaulding agrees with Fisher. She concludes that Obama is unwilling to challenge the anti-gay views of churched voters. She goes further, in fact, and argues that Obama has made a “decision to purposefully confuse the issue” of gay rights with his African-American churched supporters.

Pam notes the considerable backlash against gay rights now underway in some sectors of the African-American community—a backlash so powerful that it has caused D.C. mayor Marion Barry to do an about-face on gay issues that equals the one we seem to be seeing with the new president, such that Barry did a preposterous (and totally unconvincing, given his own personal history) grandstanding act when the D.C. city council recently passed a bill to recognize gay marriages performed outside D.C. In voting against the bill, Barry announced that he was defending morality! He also observed, “"All hell is going to break lose. We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this."

The black community is just adamant against this: Barry is speaking the gospel truth here, though, of course, there are powerful and morally compelling spokespersons within the black community who reject homophobia and who argue that it is immoral, not moral, to demean gay persons and create second-class citizenship categories for gay persons. These powerful, morally compelling spokespersons include Leonard Pitts, to whose response to Barry I’ve just linked.

Still, it is important to note that, in dragging his feet on gay issues and playing games with gay lives, the new president is quite decidedly playing to one of the groups most strongly in his corner—the African-American community, and churched African Americans in particular. As Pam Spaulding notes, anyone following blog discussions of gay issues that center on African-American concerns can easily see this.

If the gay community wants to understand what it is up against in dealing with the silence of the Obama administration about gay lives and gay issues, it cannot afford to discount the African-American community—as it has all too often done in the past. It is important that gay citizens understand the significant, even determinative, role that black attitudes about gay people and gay rights have been playing in the new administration.

As I’ve noted previously on this blog, I have my own personal experience with precisely the dynamic now underway with the new president. My partner and I accepted the invitation of an African-American friend several years ago to work in the administration of her college. On the strength of verbal promises she made to us, and never dreaming that she would betray us (because she is a strong, committed churchgoing Methodist), we uprooted ourselves, took on a second mortgage, and moved to a new state to assist this friend who had publicly stated that she supports gay rights and combats discrimination against gay people.

Only to find ourselves in one of the most hurtful situations of our lives: within weeks after our arrival at our new workplace, our friend began to hammer away at us as a gay couple, precisely because we were a gay couple. She informed us that, just as we arrived at the new jobs, the United Methodist church, which owns her school, had had its annual statewide meeting and had split down the middle about whether even to admit gay members, let alone disavow its homophobia. She told us that her United Methodist bishop had informed her he would not have approved our hire, had he known we were a couple. She told us not to come to work together, not to go to lunch together, not to take each other to the doctor: to closet ourselves, in other words.

It was an intolerable situation. We had walked into a trap, because we had believed that an African-American Christian who professed to deplore homophobia would not first betray and then savage us. We are now saddled with a second mortgage on a house we cannot sell, which drains us financially, and I am without a job or health insurance, after what this African-American Methodist friend did to us.

This experience, and my years of work in HBCUs, have taught me some critically important lessons about the attitude of some African Americans about gay lives and gay issues. What I learned through this experience of harsh discrimination has opened my eyes to some thought patterns within the black community that I now see amply represented on blogs discussing Obama’s behavior towards his gay supporters. My life lesson also helps me to understand why Obama is maintaining silence and even reneging on his campaign promises to the gay community.

We in the gay community need to know that many African Americans—particularly many churched African Americans—not only resent our comparison of our struggle for rights with the African-American struggle, but actively combat that struggle as an immoral struggle. This attitude is strong in some sectors of the black community despite the prophetic witness of African-American leaders like Bayard Rustin, Mildred Loving, or Coretta Scott King,* all of whom noted the parallels between the black struggle for civil rights and the gay struggle.

We in the gay community also need to understand that, for some African Americans—including many churched African Americans—a psychological dynamic born out of years of oppression remains very strong in the approach to gay people: this is the need to ridicule, resent, and subordinate someone who appears weaker and lower than oneself. Read the comments of many African Americans on blogs discussing the new president’s treatment of his gay supporters, and this attitude will leap out everywhere: gays are out of line, whining about their rights, demanding what they haven’t earned, undermining the president, behaving as they usually do, like petty, quarrelsome children.

Some African Americans resist and will continue to resist any analysis of the struggle of gay human beings for human rights as a moral struggle. Those who take this approach will continue to fight for the right to treat gay human beings as morally and psychologically defective persons whom one may ridicule and discriminate against with impunity. Many of those following this line of thought will taunt the gay community for not playing politics as adroitly as the black community does, for not recognizing that the pie of human rights is tiny and has slices enough only for a few—and certainly not for weak, immoral gays.

And as this goes on, many black churches will—just as many white churches do—not only not seek to curb the savagery, but will actively promote it. There is a clear, undeniable correlation between church membership and homophobia in the black community, as there is in the white community—with notable exceptions in both communities, within some church communions.

What makes Mr. Obama’s decision to stand with these churched supporters promoting bigotry is his own recognition that, in taking this stand, he is betraying moral principles. As the article by Marc Fisher I cite above notes, in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Mr. Obama wrote,

It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided . . . and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history.

I would submit that, to be capable of writing such a sentence, one must already have arrived at the moral insight that one is on “the wrong side of history” in opposing gay marriage, and in remaining silent about the lives and struggles of one’s gay friends and supporters. I read this as an admission on the part of the new president that he chooses to place pragmatic political expediency over doing what is right, when it comes to questions of gay people and gay rights.

Why? Because he can do so. There is not a sufficient price to be paid, when someone who knows in his or heart that he is doing wrong betrays gay friends and supporters today. In fact, the price to be paid is considerably on the side of those who make, not break, solidarity with gay persons.

I have sought long and hard to understand why my purportedly gay-affirming African-American friend betrayed my partner and me. Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that it simply does not matter to her—not very much—that she has done so. She will, after all, walk away from her current position with money galore. With all the money she will have earned, why should she worry about the fact that she has placed us in a situation of financial need and personal grief?

As President Bush said, why worry about history, anyway, when you won't be around to read it? He, too, walked away with lots of money . . . . We are a culture that lives frankly and unapologetically by the power of the dollar, even when we pay lip-service to other values. And where one's treasure is, there will one's heart be.

I can’t, of course, speak for what people have to live with in their own souls, when they behave treacherously towards others. And I believe that as our culture shifts regarding gay lives and gay issues, we will soon see a new moral consensus which, once and for all, reveals those who attack and betray gay persons as anything but morally admirable people.

But we are not yet there. And there is a price to be paid, at this tipping point moment in our history, by leaders who move towards the future, who help shape that new moral consensus. When that price means engaging the powerful, malicious forces of the religious right, which has worked very hard to fan the flames of homophobia in black churches as well as white ones, what's a leader to do?

*For my reflections on the contribution of these thinkers, follow links to Coretta Scott King and Bayard Rustin. Information about Mildred Loving may be found by entering her name in the search engine at the top of the blog.