The spirit of unity surrounding the upcoming Millions More Movement, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March, suffered a setback last week as two groups largely excluded a decade ago -- gays and women -- questioned whether they're really welcome.
The reason is that the Rev. Willie Wilson, the national executive director for the gathering, said in a July 3 sermon at his Southeast Washington church that lesbians were about to take over and that black women who earn more than men are partly to blame for breaking up families -- notions widely criticized as divisive and wrong.
Wilson's comments about wage disparities revealed deep divisions between men and women over the reality that black women climb the corporate ladder faster and graduate from college in higher numbers than men. These issues have been highlighted in books and movies, often focused on black women's difficulty finding a suitable mate.
Nisa Muhammad, who heads the Wedded Bliss Foundation, which sponsors an annual Black Marriage Day in cities nationwide, said blacks shouldn't be angry at one another.
"The anger," she said, "needs to be directed toward a society that does not allow black men to succeed at the same rate as black women."
As with the Million Man March, groups are forming nationwide to send delegations to Washington for an event Oct. 15 that has the blessing of the National Council of Negro Women, the NAACP and big-city mayors including D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
Debates about the inclusion of women and gays had quieted when the march organizer, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, said publicly this year that all black men, women and children, gay or straight, were welcome.
After Wilson's comments, one church canceled a planned organizing meeting and several gay and lesbian groups called for Wilson's ouster. But there has been no mass exodus of support. Williams, through a spokesman, condemned the statements but said he would not "let impressions about one individual derail a movement."
Tears and harsh words have flowed as would-be and former allies struggled to grasp how Wilson, a man of the gospel known for outreach and advocacy, could spew what they characterized as homophobic and misogynistic language. Wilson told his congregation that his comments were taken out of context and that he has often reached out to gays.
One result is that topics typically discussed in whispers -- relations between black men and women and sexual orientation -- are being aired in the mass media, triggering calls to keep black folks' business in-house.
But Meredith Moises, who lives in Baltimore, said backroom meetings among blacks too often mirror those in the larger society, leaving those marginalized -- whether because of race, gender or sexual preference -- without a voice. If she's going to rail against the intolerant white pastors, Moises said, she has to do the same with the black ones.
"Black folk don't like their dirty laundry aired out in public," said Moises, a lesbian and a field organizer at Equality Maryland, which lobbies for gay, bisexual and transgender rights. "This is a family affair, and I'm just as family as anybody else."
The controversy started with a sermon. Parishioners at Union Temple Baptist Church are accustomed to Wilson's fiery speeches, blunt talk and willingness to take on seemingly intractable issues like homelessness, crime and justice for the poor.
But national and local gay rights groups, and even some of his own parishioners, said that this time Wilson went too far.
At one point, he said: "Lesbianism is about to take over our community. I'm talking about young girls. My son in high school last year tried to go to the prom. He said: 'Dad, I ain't got nobody to take to the prom because all the girls in my class are gay. Ain't but two of 'em straight, and both of them ugly.' " He followed that with a graphic description of sexual encounters between two women, concluding finally, "It's destroying us."
Philip Pannell, a longtime political and gay activist, has led the charge locally to have gay men and lesbians included in the Millions More Movement. The goal, he said, is to have at least one gay man and one lesbian speak from the podium and have a seat on the national organizing committee. In light of Wilson's comments, Pannell said, gays are deciding whether to continue to participate in October or to hold a protest the day of the event.
Marion Barry, former mayor and current D.C. Council member, said he sought out Wilson, a friend and spiritual adviser, to tell him he ought to apologize. Wilson has not. Barry has counted himself as a friend of the gay, lesbian and transgender community since he was a young revolutionary in the 1970s. Last week, as he tried to mediate the dispute, the old warrior was called a traitor because he said the Millions More Movement "is bigger than any of us."
Pannell, who organized the meeting at a favorite Ward 8 haunt, Players Lounge, was incensed. "Just tell them it's their march," he yelled at Barry. "You're saying that we don't count. You are telling them they can engage in homophobic bigotry and you will allow it."
"You're a liar," Barry came back at Pannell, who began to cry. "And don't scream at me," the former mayor said. Apologies and handshakes came soon after.
Two full days were devoted to this issue on Joe Madison's national radio talk show. The full tape of Wilson's July 3 sermon (more than an hour) was played. Madison, heard locally on WOL (AM 1450) and nationally on XM Radio, focused on the part of the sermon dealing with the earning power of women and the resulting effect on black men.
Wilson, who ran for mayor in 2002, had preached:"Brothers have been so put down, can't get a job. . . . A lot of sisters making more money than brothers and creating problems in families. That's one of the reasons our families are breaking up."
One caller insisted that Wilson was right about black women. "They're looking down on brothers who don't make as much," said the caller, who identified himself as Randall.
Madison cut him short, noting that he has three daughters. "You guys come off it," Madison said. "Quit being so insecure. . . . This isn't the 1800s."
H. Alexander Robinson, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said the anger directed at gay men and lesbians is also misplaced. "America sees us, treats us as black first," he said. "The negative things that impact the black community affect us."
Carlene Cheatman, who refers to herself as the "queen mother" of the city's gay movement, said that's why everyone should participate in the march.
"This is a perfect opportunity," she said, "to get people to understand who you are, that your survival rights are the same as theirs."