In the months that follow Barack Obama's presidency, his supporters and critics already have begun to judge the impact of his legacy. One topic that has indisputably impacted American society is Obama's stance on LGBTQ issues, particularly with the passing of same-sex marriage, transgender rights and international equality initiatives. His administration moved forward LGBTQ rights faster in his eight years than the entirety of American history. Ironically, some of the greatest opposition came from a corner who celebrated almost everything President Obama presented and once was a safe space for social justice: the Black church.
The Black community as a whole embraced President Obama with a great sense of pride. Most of this support was rooted specifically in his relationships to the Black church. From his remarkable eulogy at the Charleston Massacre funeral to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy during his first presidential campaign, his connection to the Black church ran deep. When it came to LGBTQ rights though, the two didn't see eye-to-eye. He had broken one of the cardinal rules of this institution which was to discuss homosexuality in an open, equal and accepting manner.
Rather than allow homosexuals to be open in religious settings, the Black church almost unilaterally demands homosexuals to hide their identity, serve in the church while at the same time condemn their lifestyle regularly from the pulpit. President Obama's confrontation and acceptance have challenged this head first.
To understand the impact of Obama’s policies and the future of the Black church becoming a safe space for all, we must first review the history of the Black church, gender identity within the Black community and the church's history in political advocacy.
Theology Passed To and Restructured by Blacks
From its conception, the Black community's relationship to religion has been complicated. Christianity was primarily introduced, in North America and beyond, as tool to control and institutionalise white colonial practices and thought. Words intended to inspire and provide salvation, were in turn used as a method of fear and to shackle. As slave organisations were a constant threat to white owners, prayer groups and religious gatherings were heavily supervised in a efforts to avoid uprising like that of slave and Black preacher, Nat Turner's infamous rebellion. According to African American Registry, one slave recounted "the white folks would come in when the colored people would have prayer meetings, and whip every one of them. Most of them thought that when colored people were praying it was against them."
Even through this period, slaves took ownership over their religion by interpreting their own sense of the gospel to free themselves of oppression, sang negro spirituals which were used as coded language against their owners and jumping the broom was used to symbolise the bond of marriage as traditional marriage rituals were illegal. This ownership continued after slavery and underwent changes during Reconstruction to develop a religion that matched their new found freedom. This became the foundation in building a diverse Black church that positioned itself as the beacon of hope to help build family bonds, facilitating equal rights and provide a safe space in a still oppressive society.
While the Black church evolved in its teaching, political and social positions, much was still founded in its original theology passed from white Christianity. James Baldwin refers to this as "Protestant Puritanism." Baldwin once said "One is born in a white country, a white Protestant Puritan country, where one was once a slave, where all standards and all the images… when you open your eyes on the world, everything you see: none of it applies to you." These 'standards' and 'images' of gender, sexuality and social customs such as marriage, are now seen in the Black church's response to homosexuality.
A Gender Complex
Identity is essential for any human, but for at risk groups in society, this creates a greater need to own one's self. For the Black community, one of the ways this has been demonstrated is through a hyper gender complex. Social perceptions and political policies have shaped this over time, but certainly have had impact on everything from the role of Black women in the workplace and at home, to ideas of masculinity and voting rights (or lack thereof)
The idea of gender roles have been further deepened and reinforced by the Black church. Men are to guide the family and exude the highest level of masculinity. For some churches, unmarried men can only become a deacon if he is married to dispel any possibility of homosexuality. Women are to submit to their husband, given strict dress codes and encouraged participate in supportive roles to men within the church despite that they make up 70%-90% of congregations. And the idea of marriage is very much rooted in that sex and children out of wedlock are sins.
Similar treatment can be seen with homosexuals. It is no secret that homosexuals have been coming to the church since its beginning. The role of the homosexual, in some cases, is also very prominent. Black churches across the country have homosexuals primarily serving within the music ministry. Choir members, praise and worship leaders, songwriters, organists or ministers of music. While being openly condemned for their lifestyle, they are also praised for their talents and the attention the church receives. Similar to the hairdresser or cabin crew stereotypes, the minister of music role is one without sexuality and gender. It simply is a coded role for allowing a certain part of homosexuals to exist, but only a part that straight people benefit from and are comfortable with.
In an interview with the Advocate, Faith Cheltenham of BiNet USA gave an in-depth account for Black gender pre-slavery in Africa. “Homophobia did not exist on the continent before colonialism." She went on to add "There were over 500 words for same-sex behaviors across five different regions of Africa, like ‘boy wife’ or ‘woman warrior.’ After colonialism came a system of surveillance and oppression. It wasn’t just that people were being burned or killed for being gay, it was that community leadership was told by colonialist suppressors ... that anybody who participated in this same-sex behaviors was evil, dirty, [and] that they needed to be eradicated." It is for this reason that Cheltenham claims with 400 years of slavery, 150 years of Jim Crow and the continued racism of today, African-Americans are "unaware of their history of homosexuality, of their support of LGBT identities, of their creation of multiple gender identities.”
Politics Rooted in the Church
As the 20th century progressed, the Black church evolved from theology based to tool of empowerment as the Civil Rights Movement being the driver. This is in part due to younger generation’s more radical approach to social injustice and the great migration of Blacks from the south to the north. In the late 1940s, 50s and 60s, the Black church became the center for mobilization, planning and executing boycotts, rallies and marches against racist institutions.
While social activism became a major theme throughout Black churches, theological and biblical teaching were still at the center of its motives. As congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis observes: "Slavery was our Egypt, segregation was our Egypt, discrimination was our Egypt, and so during the height of the civil rights movement it was not unusual for people to be singing, 'Go down Moses way on down in Egypt land and tell Pharaoh to let my people go.'" With the death of Emmet Till, Rosa Parks refusing to give up seat and Jim Crow, organizations such as Southern Christian Leadership Conference were formed to fight discrimination.
The civil rights movement gave way to propel the Black church to be a symbol of safe spaces and a driving focus in fighting for social justice, but recent years have proven challenging for the Black church. White flight, gentrification and aggressive capitalism, have shifted the direction of the Black church. Reverting back to Protestant Puritanism's purpose to restrict rather than empower, the Black church's political and social stances are becoming increasingly discriminatory. From women's reproductive rights to same-sex marriage, the Black church seems to be actively fighting against acceptance and progress. In 2004, many high profile Black ministers helped re-elect George W. Bush saying they stood with him for his stance against same-sex marriage. In exchange, these ministers received federal funding from Bush's faith-based initiatives.
While this article began with stating President Obama's challenge to the Black church as the primary push for recent dialog, this is certainly not where it began. But what was the trigger point that made this bigger than any other similar discussion? What is different about Obama's position is that the conversation started without scandal and shame as we've always addressed it in the past. It came from a place of love, understanding and equality. This perhaps is the reason the impact is so great. We simply haven't had an open conversation that contradicted the tradition of silence.
We'll wait to see how the rest of Obama's policies are revered, but we already know the amount of admiration for Obama within our community has made our people take notice and think about homosexuality in the church. The impact is already here. They key for the Black church is to reject heterocentric Christianity yet hold onto the elements which are rooted in our quest for equality, celebrate our identities and choose to be a community which embraces our foundation in social justice. It is then when Black preachers begin to accept their gay son's lifestyles, the lesbian's wife is no longer addressed to as a "friend" and that the mother of a transgender takes her daughter shopping for her first dress. These are the safe spaces that we need: family, acceptance and love.
The Black church has an opportunity, another chance at restructuring its teachings to be truly organic and free from any influence. The chance to accept. The chance to evolve. The chance to be open. I'm reminded by a recent quote from activist DeRay McKesson in saying, "If your love for me requires that I hide parts of who I am, then you don't love me. Love is never a request for silence." And the LGTBQ community has been requested to keep silent. What's next for the Black church is up to them. Will the request for silence remain or will it teach a new kind love aligned to our history?
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