Will ’Bishop’ Eddie Long’s Gay Scandal Alter Black Churches’ Homophobia?
Eddie Long, an Atlanta-based black pastor, has long been a leading anti-gay voice among African Americans of faith. Now a lawsuit accuses him of pressuring three young men into sex when they were teens under his spiritual authority. Will the allegations lead to changes in America’s black churches, which have been stereotyped as staunchly homophobic?
"Gay men and lesbians have always been present in the black church, actively engaged at that," noted Joshua Alton in a Sept. 23 Newsweek.com article. "The prevalence of gay men in black church choirs and bands, for example, is accepted but not widely discussed. The unspoken agreement is that gay men get to act as Seraphim, so long as they are willing to shout in agreement as they are being flagellated from the pulpit. It’s an indignity some gay men subject themselves to each and every Sunday. Why should they have to live this way?"
Alston went on to write that the three young men were of the legal age of consent when the alleged sexual encounters took place, and to opine that the story would be touted and received much differently if Long’s supposed victims were young women.
But there are questions that lay beyond the ages of the parties who were purportedly involved, or even their genders: issues such as the contrast between the sexual mores espoused publicly by a man of the cloth and his own private conduct, and the question of whether pressuring another person for sex from a position of authority is ever defensible.
Still, the primary focus of the story, as Alston pointed out, is the gay element. "Long’s predicament is bringing back to the surface the endless debate over whether or not homosexuality is fundamentally moral or acceptable, a debate that preachers like Long have prolonged with their bigoted teachings," Alston wrote, going on to wonder whether the suit would spark dialogue about the place of black GLBT people of faith within the church, or whether the larger issues would be ignored. Wrote Alston, "It’s about the black community on the whole and whether or not gay men and lesbians are going to be considered full citizens in it."
Alston recalled how another black pastor in Atlanta, Dennis Meredith, had gone from espousing anti-gay views to "preaching acceptance" once his own son came out as gay. Some parishioners left, rather than hear a message of love and acceptance for gays; they were replaced, however, by new congregants looking for a church that would accept and affirm them.
The issue of homophobia in black churches has been an ongoing topic of discussion among GLBT people of faith and of color. A meeting in the spring of 2009 brought leaders and students together at Howard University for a discussion of the phenomenon. One gay Howard divinity student, Dustin Baker, noted, "It’s a hard statement to say, but the reality is oppressed people do oppress people. At one point in time, the black church was an oppressed group of people...and at times we oppress individuals, especially people of same-gender-loving communities." Baker had worked with gay youth and lost two teens with whom he had worked to suicide.
Sharon Letterman of the People for the American Way was also at the meeting, and told the group, "Amongst the African-American community, sexuality is not a conversation. It’s not just homosexuality," Letterman specified; "sexuality is not a conversation." Letterman went on to say, "We have allowed a subculture to be created within our community because we won’t have this conversation."
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Samuel, from Victory for the World, a church in Stone Mountain, Ga., noted that Biblical injunctions against gays had been cited by anti-LGBT pastors, but uttered a note of caution. "Certain text in the Bible, as we know, had been used to support slavery in America for over 200 years," Samuel pointed out. "Certain texts have been used to justify patriarchy and sexism," added Samuel. "We have toxic text in the Bible that needs to be interpreted in the light of the truth, and... from the light and lenses of the all-inclusive love of Jesus."
Indeed, the allegations against Long claim that the cleric pointed to scripture to coax his purported victims into sessions of oral sex. But the public affirmation of scriptural passages seen as condemning gays and private conduct would seem to be two different things, if epidemiological data are to be believed. HIV transmission rates are soaring among young black MSMs (men who have sex with men, whether they identify as gay, bi, or straight), and while some black churches cling to anti-gay messages, others have begin to tackle the problem by addressing the AIDS crisis in the black community.