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Why two black D.C. pastors support gay marriage
About three months before that first union ceremony, we held a church meeting to present the two requests and to explain that we intended to honor them. We asked for the congregation's support and received an overwhelmingly positive response. However, as we drew closer to the first ceremony, the goodwill we thought we had witnessed on that evening slowly evaporated. The anger and dissension that had been bubbling erupted when that longtime church member confronted us at the end of the ceremony. She, and the scores of other members who left the congregation after the same-sex ceremonies began, painfully reminded us that although everyone in the black community does not think alike, the roots of homophobia run deep.
We are sometimes asked what accounts for the homophobia within the African American community. This question seems to assume that the community is disproportionately homophobic compared with other racial and ethnic groups. We are not aware of any credible study that has conclusively proved this assumption. However, our first-hand experience has convinced us that homophobia within the black church and the wider community is real. And the factors that have nurtured these beliefs over the years are complex.
When issues of gay rights and gay marriage come up, the first question many black people ask is, "What does the Bible have to say about it?" This seemingly innocent question doesn't acknowledge that when we approach the Bible, our perspective has been shaped by where we were born, by whom we were raised, what Grandma taught us, where we went to school and what our pastor preached in church -- usually conservative ideas on matters such as homosexuality. Therefore, we tend to interpret the Bible not objectively, but through the lens of our cultural and historical context.
The conservative strand of black religion is evident in what Harvard professor Peter Gomes calls "bibliolatry" -- the practice of worshiping the Bible rather than worshiping God. It is also found in a "literal" interpretation of the Bible that focuses more on the letter of the text than on its spirit, and concentrates on passages about domination, oppression, hierarchy, elitism and exclusion rather than on the major themes of love, justice, freedom, equality and inclusion that run throughout the Bible.
A more complicated element of black homophobia is the lingering influence of sexual stereotypes that originated during slavery. According to theologian Kelly Brown Douglas, the myth of "over-sexualized" black bodies portrayed black men as violent "bucks" who posed an ever-present threat to white women, and black women as "Jezebels" who seduced white men.
These stereotypes served to justify the whipping, lynching and castration of black men, and to excuse the sexual violation of black women by white men. They were just one element of what blacks had to struggle against to gain acceptance and respectability in white society, especially during the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. On this matter, religion has often been a vehicle of suppression, accommodation and control. While the church was a refuge from the horrors of racism and played an empowering role in African American history, it also taught black people to repress behaviors -- especially sexual behaviors -- that might attract unwanted attention, appear uncouth or seem threatening to white people.
A final piece that shapes black attitudes toward same-sex marriage is the preoccupation with racism in the black community. This obsession, although justifiable, has led to a failure to appreciate how racism is inextricably connected to all other forms of oppression. Those who fail to see this connection may resent the comparison of gay rights with civil rights. But as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Last week, two black D.C. Council members voted against the same-sex marriage bill. But five black council members voted for it. Our black mayor signed it on Friday, and our black congressional representative has promised to defend it on Capitol Hill. Although the bill faces the possibility of intervention by Congress, something revolutionary is happening in this city to debunk the notion that the black community's homophobia is entrenched.
Many new members are joining the church, excited by our vision. The couple for whom we performed the first union ceremony at our church are still together and doing well. And the man who aspired to the ministry was ordained a few weeks ago and is now a chaplain supervisor at a local hospital. Some who disagree with us have condemned us to hell. But we believe that God has granted us the courage of our convictions.
We will continue to stand at the altar in our community, telling all the couples who come before us: "Let it be known that you are joined together not only by your love for each other, and by our collective love for each of you, but by the love of God."
The Rev. Dennis W. Wiley and the Rev. Christine Y. Wiley are pastors of Covenant Baptist Church in Washington. They are co-chairs of the organization DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality.