LOS ANGELES -- On the Sunday that a minister preached that God did not love people like her, Jacquelyn Holland wanted to storm out of the church. But she sat and listened to the sermon, even as her homosexual orientation was called "an abomination" and equated with "murder, a heinous crime," Holland said.
"This person just eliminated me," Holland, 46, said of the preacher she heard two years ago. Holland is now a minister in Unity Fellowship Church of Christ in Newark, which accepts people of all sexual orientations. She was one of many people at a Unity-sponsored conference of black gay and transgender Christians here who said such sermons are common in mainstream black places of worship.
Archbishop Carl Bean, who founded Unity Fellowship Church in Los Angeles, greets a congregation member.
(Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
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Now, as the debate has intensified over whether same-sex marriage should be legalized or constitutionally banned, what some black gay Christians characterize as a long-standing "don't ask, don't tell" relationship between them and their churches is coming under greater strain.
A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that since 2000, black Protestants have become far less likely than other Protestant groups to believe that gays should have equal rights. Black Protestant support for gay rights dipped to a low of 40 percent this year, down from 65 percent in 1996 and 59 percent in 1992.
Among all the other groups surveyed -- including not only other Protestants, but also Catholics, Latino Catholics, Jews and members of unaffiliated churches -- support for gay rights increased over the same period.
Black Christians' attitudes toward homosexuality reflect the traditional church teachings -- and other factors specific to the black experience in America. Ram A. Cnaan, director of the study of organized religion and social work at the University of Pennsylvania, attributed the feeling among black Protestants to their historical experience of discrimination.
"It's part of being an oppressed minority in this country," Cnaan said. "They're thinking, 'We have to prove ourselves more than anyone else. Our leadership comes through the Christian church, and the thinking is that having people like that might detract from our strength.' It's more difficult to have people who are different."
In addition, black ministers reject the comparison of the gay rights struggle to the black civil rights struggle.
Gays "cannot compare what they are going through, sexual decision and preferences, to what happened to us," said the Rev. Ken Hutcherson of Antioch Bible Church in Redmond, Wash. He invoked the three-fifths compromise, under which three of every five black slaves were counted in the populations of slaveholding states, as an example of the dehumanization of black people. "As an African American, can I have don't ask, don't tell? As soon as I walk into a room, you know I'm black."
God, Hutcherson said, condemns homosexuality. "I think it's a choice," he said. When his church members identify a gay person who is unable to change, "you kick them out," he said.
The Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, a minister at New Bethel Baptist Church in Northwest Washington and the District's former congressional delegate, said that he defends gay rights in general, but that "I part ways with advocates of gay rights" when it comes to same-sex unions.
"As an African American whose people have not yet recovered from a form of slavery that was based upon destruction of the family," he said, "I believe we do not need any more confusion about what a marriage is and what a family is."
Opposition to same-sex marriage in the black church may influence black voting in the presidential election. A survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies showed that 18 percent of black Americans say they support President Bush, who has said he would support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Analysts say it is not certain whether that support will translate into votes, but that is about 10 percentage points more than the vote Bush received in 2000, according to exit polling.
Sen. John F. Kerry, Bush's opponent, said he believes marriage is a union between a man and woman, but does not support amending the Constitution to reflect that view.
The Human Rights Campaign has targeted black voters in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for ads saying that the focus on same-sex marriage is diverting attention from other issues of concern to black communities, such as jobs. But the churches' authority remains formidable.
"Our entire church took a stand against the same-sex marriage issue," said the Rev. Stephen F. Smith of Greater Destiny Church of God in Christ in Memphis, part of a national congregation whose members number more than half a million. "I've heard that many large black congregations are out there beating the bushes for Bush," Smith said.
The Rev. J. Edgar Boyd of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco said he was disappointed to see black ministers support Bush exclusively on the same-sex marriage issue. "I don't think his stance on same-sex marriage makes him a hero," he said. "It just happens to be in accord with my stand and where the A.M.E. church stands."
But amid the proselytizing, black ministers are overlooking the presence of gay men and women throughout black churches, said Archbishop Carl Bean, founder of Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in Los Angeles. Some of them, he added, are in highly visible positions, on deacon boards, in pulpits and playing the piano -- as Little Richard once did -- in gospel choirs that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in recording sales each year.
A separate gay culture thrives in the black church, wrote J.L. King, author of "On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of 'Straight' Black Men Who Sleep With Men." In a chapter devoted to life in the black church, King wrote that the church is a choice site for gay men seeking partners.
"It's as if the church is in denial," he wrote. "They are unrealistic about the number of members living double lives."
Bean, 60, said he felt called to the ministry in 1982, when the AIDS epidemic was killing gay men of all races. "Where were they?" he asked of the black clergy. "The same place they had always been on sex: silent and hiding."
Bean became the face of black AIDS activism in Los Angeles in the 1980s. When black men died, he said, their mothers would call him. "Can you bury my son?" he recalled them asking. "My preacher won't do it."
He founded Unity Fellowship, taking John 3:16 -- "that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish" -- as the bedrock of its belief. The church later expanded elsewhere.
Bean said black ministers used the Bible as a weapon. "It's no different than what white fundamentalists did in the South when they took Scripture out of context to justify slavery," Bean said. "They would leave church, put on a hood, find a black person, kill them, take off the hood, go back to church and sing 'Amazing Grace.' "
Michael I.N. Dash, associate professor of ministry and context at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said Bean's criticism is based on anecdotal evidence. Although he agreed that the black church's response to AIDS was sluggish, "I would say vigorous efforts have been made through resources that are now available to us," he said. "Across the nation, black people have been made aware of the epidemic and are responding."
As for the broader debate on gay rights, "we need to find ways. Let's talk about it," he said. "I provided a discussion in my class the other night, and two African guys called it a sin and an abomination and that we were the church of hell."
Boyd said he does not mind sitting on panels with gay ministers, and noted that gay people are coming out of the closet more often. But what is true in San Francisco might not be true elsewhere.
Jacquelyn Holland said it was not true in Brooklyn, where she sat through the sermon that belittled her two years ago. "I definitely felt like the church didn't accept me," she said. Because I was that way, they didn't love me."
Holland said she is trying to move the black church to embrace her sexual orientation with the power she knows best -- prayer. "I see hope in that God moves mountains one little rock at a time," she said. "I think I'm a little bit optimistic because I have to be."