The New Black: African-Americans and the gay rights struggle
by Jeanette Marantos, KPCC
Equality for gays and lesbians may be the new civil rights struggle, but many African Americans see gay marriage more as a threat to their religious beliefs and families than a civil rights issue.
That’s the central premise in the award-winning documentary The New Black: Family, Faith and the Fight for Equality, which was presented May 22 at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum and will air on most PBS stations at 10:30 p.m. on June 15.
In a blunt, personal and often funny conversation, four African American marriage equality proponents discussed the film and the issues dividing many in the African American community. The panel, moderated by BBC journalist Joanne Griffith, included Monica Anderson, founder of Spectrum Queer Media in Oakland, Rev. Mark Whitlock of the Christ our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine and writer/educator/counselor Yolo Akili agreed that gay rights are another form of civil rights, but Akili warned against language that calls gay rights the ‘new” civil rights.
“It’s like the ‘old’ civil rights was race issues, and that’s done, that’s passed, nobody does that anymore, right?’’ he said. “We need to be cautious about how we allow the conversation to be framed. I don’t think it’s very useful to talk about the ‘new civil rights’ or ‘old civil rights. We need to talk about social justice and human rights.”
The documentary follows the battle over Maryland’s Question 6 referendum to approve or reject same-sex marriage in the fall of 2012, and how that fight split over religious and racial lines. Although the referendum was ultimately approved with 52.4 percent of the vote, exit polls conducted by the AP and Edison Research found that African-American voters rejected the ballot by a slim majority.
Through the stories of activists, families, and clergy on both sides of the debate, The New Black charts the evolution of this divisive issue within the black community and sheds a strong light on the reasoning of African Americans who oppose marriage equality and gay rights.
“Most black males who accept it (homosexuality) accept it in the context of a vice,” said one African American man in the film. “Well, we all have vices and as long as it’s not harmful to me, you can keep your vice to yourself, What I worry about is not how gays will influence me, it’s how they will influence their offspring.”
“No one can make a child gay,” replies an exasperated gay activist. “The heterosexual influence is a million times stronger than the homosexual influence.”
The film notes that while the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s grew out of the black church, most African American pastors took a strong stance against marriage equality in Maryland. “Don’t let people get you talking about gay rights,” thundered one pastor in the film. “This is not about a gay right. There’s a difference between civil rights and sacred rights.”
The pro-side is just as passionate that gay rights is a civil rights issue: “Let’s be clear,” says Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC). “This is the unfinished business of black people being free.”
"The New Black," directed by Yoruba Richen, was presented in partnership with Community Cinema, which provides free screenings of films from the Emmy award-winning PBS series, “Independent Lens.” This was the final film in Community Cinema’s 2013-14 season.
Watch the documentary on PBS stations on June 15, and listen to our audio from the 40-minute panel discussion after the film.
On arguments that marriage is a “sacred right” between a man and a woman:
Rev. Mark Whitlock: “I have a real issue with Protestant ministers suggesting that (gay marriage) is a sacred challenge ...because marriage in the Protestant church is not a sacred institution. It’s certainly an institution recognized by God but it is not one of our sacraments—there are only two: baptism and communion on the first Sunday or whatever Sunday you choose. So this just becomes an opportunity for them to become God-like by suggesting we have to protect God or protect the church, as if the church needs protecting.”
On defining a family, and why many African Americans oppose gay rights because it can hurt the “family”
Monica Anderson: We have to look at this from the context of folks who were bred and our children were chattel property, with the emphasis on having a male stud and a female incubator. We have to deal with trauma associated with that. Why are black folks so focused on the nuclear family and defining family based on whether we have progeny, I have children and most of my gay friends have children, so it’s not as if that is somehow an impossibility. But if it’s so fricking illogical, why are we still caught up in that mindset? We have to really look at our definition of family, and in my opinion family is the people who love, accept and grow you, so it doesn’t matter if there’s two mothers or two fathers, two mothers and father, a grandmother and uncle….and it doesn’t necessarily need children either.
On “choosing” to be gay
Whitlock: “My brother is gay, and he would talk about, ‘Do you think I chose to be disliked? Do you think I chose to be spat on? I didn’t make that choice. I knew that I was gay from the time I was 5. I’ve never been with a woman, I don’t have an interest in being with a woman, but I love God with all my heart, my soul and my mind.’ For me, when the church chooses to pick and choose who’s in the church, it’s not a church at all, it’s a social club.”
Anderson: I’m the community screening liaison (for The New Black) and we go into a lot of conservative communities to show this film. The comment I get the most is something like, ‘Well, you choose to be queer,’ and I look them straight in the eye and say, ‘When did you choose to be straight?’ And they say, “I didn’t choose to be straight. I was born this way,’ and I say, ‘Well, I guess we have something in common because I was born this way too.’ Once we speak up and start having more of these conversations, then people won’t ask, ‘When did you choose?’”
On whether marriage equality should be a central issue in gay rights
Yolo Akili: “It’s really important to acknowledge a large faction of black LGBQT community is cautious and skeptical of the marriage movement. There are bigger questions (such as) why the state gives rights to people in romantic unions that other people can’t get, like, if my grandmother and I live together and we’re taking care of kids together, why can’t we have the same tax incentives that you two can have just because you’re married and romantically and sexually involved with each other? Why is the state making that differentiation and should it be allowed to make that differentiation?”
On the future of the church if it doesn’t address gay rights issues
Whitlock: The Pew (Research Center’s) study suggests that churches have lost 30-40 percent of their members between the ages of 16 and 35. They’re spiritual but not religious. They don’t have any interest in going to church or dealing with the hypocrisy of the church, and the real dividing rod is same-sex marriage, and homosexuality. They’re asking, ‘Why isn’t a gay person accepted in the church when the preacher is sleeping with half the congregation?’ and ‘Why isn’t same-sex marriage allowed in the church when people are getting divorced and married, divorced and married?’….Churches are beginning to wrestle with these questions now, and there’s a real divide because our bench of bishops is 65 years and older, so they’re caught up in that paradigm of those who think homosexuality is from hell, whereas an 18-year-old doesn’t see it as an issue at all, so unless the church deals with this, the church as we know it today will not exist.”
Monica Anderson aka Kin Folkz: Founder of Spectrum Queer Media; creator, New Black Freedom Summer Tour. @YourKinfolkz
Rev. Mark Whitlock: Executive director of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement; pastor of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine.
Yolo Akili: Writer (Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Everyday Feminisms); educator, artist, counselor/group facilitator (African American and Latino LGBTQ youth). @YoloAkili
Joanne Griffith: Writer, journalist, and host of weekly show "The Archives" on BBC Radio 5 Live. @globaljourno