Last spring when President Barack Obama announced his “evolving” support for marriage equality, many conservative groups were confident it would woo black voters to their side and ultimately deliver a death-blow to the president’s reelection bid. They, as is often the case, were certain that President Obama’s words would create a divide in “the black church” and the overall black community. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Instead, when President Obama took to the White House pulpit to deliver his second inaugural address on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he did so on the heels of an election that garnered the largest African-American voter turnout in history, including 95 percent of black Protestant voters’ support .
The work to paint African-Americans and “the black church” as a monolith has a long and sordid history. Even before the shameful passing of Prop. 8, media outlets and community groups painted the African American community as inherently homophobic and intolerant to LGBT social justice. As a result, welcoming and affirming faith leaders stepped to the front.
Using a strategy to engage, educate and encourage, we used our collective intellectual, influential and economic power to show how discrimination is interconnected and how it is not healthy for the black community to gauge their worth based upon a white evangelical hegemony. Our work was emboldened by the support of younger African Americans articulating a growing agitation against the irrelevance, bigotry and what I call bhomophobia (black homophobia highly influenced by the desire to be seen as acceptable citizens by white Americans). Still, it is true that black homophobia is too often present in black churches across America, so it is good that faith leaders began playing active roles in advocacy organizations such as the National Black Justice Coalition, GLAAD, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, the Human Rights Campaign and Many Voices. Black theologians and social justice advocates strengthened their long-standing work within the black community and among black churches. This allowed us to be visible and to challenge the misconception that LGBT issues don’t affect communities of color and people of faith.
African-American theologians also began throwing major shade on naysayers who felt black voting power would implode on the basis of marriage equality. When it was revealed that the GOP and NOM used wedge tactics to spur much debate it became increasingly obvious that anti-gay activists were trying to important hate into African American communities.
All of this allowed us to build an environment that welcomed President Obama’s May 2012 announcement in support of marriage rights and the NAACP’s support, that followed. It has also led to more and more black churches and congregants supporting LGBTQ rights and welcoming the presence of openly self-identified LGBTQ persons as members.
As we begin Black History month, it’s important to recall the historically oppressed groups President Obama mentioned us during his inaugural speech: from Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. To be sure, the tragedy of Stonewall impacted the lives of many African Americans, especially those of the transgender community. However, President Obama spoke no finer words than these, “when times change, so must we.”
No other community of people has worked for change, especially related to civil rights, than African Americans. The progress made to affirm the rights of LGBTQ persons is both our continued political and moral responsibility. We either move ahead or we begin to reek of stagnate ideals and beleaguered leadership.
Dr. Pamela Lightsey serves as Associate Dean and Clinical Assistant Professor at Boston University School of Theology. She is also board member of Reconciling Ministries Network and Coordinating Team member of Church Within a Church.