President Obama, Gay Marriage and the Black Church: Detroit Opinion
It's a dilemma for Black ministers and the church community: They've preached against homosexuality, but now, the president has expressed support. Where does this leave LGBT folks of faith?
Chrysanthia Chenault and Akeah Fluker gaze into each other’s love-swept faces at Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit.
Standing before two ministers with other lesbian couples, they exchange vows in a commitment ceremony during the recent Motor City Pride, a celebration among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Holding hands and smiling, they vow: “I, a child of God, take you, my gift from God, to be my partner, to love, honor and comfort you through this journey of life we share together and to be faithful to you as long as we both shall live.” They exchange rings and kiss under the sunny June sky.
“We thought about going to New York to get legally married,” says Chenault, 33, sporting ornate cornrows in her hair and a royal blue shirt beside Fluker, 20, who wore a long black dress. “But with our schedules for work and school, that will have to wait. Then we saw this, and felt it was the right thing to do.”
Although the union feels right for the New Haven couple, for now, it’s as close to a wedding as they can get in Michigan. In 2004, voters banned same-sex marriage and civil unions by approving a constitutional amendment.
Eight years later, the several enamored same-sex couples like Chenault and Fluker, who exchanged vows at Hart Plaza this year, celebrated in a deceitfully calm eye of a storm. Their wish to legalize same-sex marriage has become a lightning rod issue in the 2012 presidential election.
Controversy has thundered louder since May 9, when President Barack Obama became the first American head of state to endorse same-sex marriage. Five days later, “Newsweek” magazine called him America’s “First Gay President” on a cover showing a gay pride rainbow halo over his head.
This dramatically amped up the same-sex debate in the Black church, putting many African-American clergy in a very thorny position. On one hand, they adhere to the Black church’s historic homophobia that is so strong that many clergy and churchgoers closet their homosexuality rather than endure fire and brimstone condemnation and outright expulsion. At the same time, they encourage churchgoers to re-elect America’s first Black president.
The Obama Obligation
“Realize, my sisters and brothers, Obama is not the Pope,” preached the Rev. Jim Holley of Detroit’s Historic Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church during a fiery sermon, “The Scandal of Going Both Ways,” preached on May 20.
“Obama is a politician trying to be re-elected,” Holley told hundreds of churchgoers. “And therefore, I’ll still vote for Obama, but I don’t have to agree with everything that Obama says. Let the church say ‘amen.’”
He echoed the sentiment 200 Black pastors from nine denominations expressed while attending the Conference of National Black Churches in Washington, D.C. in late May. Whether they agree or disagree with the president, they say they will still encourage parishioners to re-elect him.
But the Coalition of African American Pastors is so enraged they petitioned U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to grant them a meeting with Obama to ask him to “rescind” his support of gay marriage. They also are furious that the NAACP endorsed same-sex marriage, which drew praise from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
“The homosexual community” is “trying to hijack what we bled for, what we suffered for, what we died for,” said Coalition founder the Rev. William Owens during a May 17 press conference in Nashville. “I was in the civil rights movement, and I can tell you that I did not march one inch… for same-sex marriage.”
Joining Owens, nearly a dozen ministers, none from Detroit, stressed that God and the Bible disapprove of same-sex marriage.
“Thou shall not lie with mankind as with womankind. It is abomination!” Holley preached to a chorus of “Amen” and clapping as he quoted Leviticus 18:22 during his fiery sermon.
Dr. Harold Ellens, a world-renowned Bible scholar who lives in Farmington Hills, says, “The Bible does not say yes or no to same-sex marriage.”
Ellens, author of the 2006 book, “Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration,” explains the religious community creates an anti-gay framework with certain scriptures because, “You can make the Bible say any darn thing you want.
“The Bible is not against homosexuality as we know it today—inborn homosexual orientation; and two, homosexual behavior. The Bible does not address that issue because in the Greco-Roman world, there was no knowledge of the psychodynamics of the psychological theory about homosexuality.”
He means in the Leviticus scripture Holley recited, “Leviticus law says that it’s an abomination for a heterosexual (man) to have sexual intercourse with another heterosexual man. In those days, they didn’t know the sexual orientation was the driving force.”
Ellens says the men considered having homosexual sex entertainment between men who were experimenting together or part of pagan rituals. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a pagan is described as a heathen, a person who worships multiple gods, one who has little or no religion and who delights in pleasures and material goods.
“The word ‘abomination’ in Hebrew always refers to engaging in pagan worship,” Ellens says.
Sodom and Gomorrah
Likewise, Ellens says many preachers say that God destroyed Sodom in Genesis 19:24 because of rampant homosexuality.
In the scripture, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, hosts two angels who spent the night with his family. The men of Sodom surrounded the house, demanding that the “men” come out so they could have sexual intercourse with them.
When Lot offered the men his two virgin daughters, they stormed the house to get the men. Ellens says Lot does not deny the men access to the male visitors because homosexuality is wrong; he was adhering to the law of hospitality.
“If you breached the law of hospitality,” Ellens says, “you were more guilty than second degree murder. This was the worst crime you could commit, to allow danger to the come to the stranger who was in your midst. The condemnation of Sodom in the Bible is not about homosexuality. It’s about their failure to respect the law of hospitality.”
Yet he says this scripture remains a favorite for preachers denouncing homosexuality.
Indeed, Holley said during his recent sermon: “The Bible says that God hated Sodom and Gomorrah so much, He destroyed the whole city.”
This presents a double-edged sword for gay African Americans. The church is a sanctuary of spiritual strength, yet can be the source of the greatest condemnation.
“There’s homophobia here, especially in my family,” says a 21-year-old Detroit college student at Motor City Pride who asked that her name not be used. “I would be kicked out of my family if they knew that I’m gay. My family is very religious, but I stopped going to church a year ago. It felt hypocritical because they talk about (being gay) is horrible and you get judgment.”
Controversy and Conflict
Likewise, Chenault and Fluker say their mothers used the Bible to reject their relationship.
“I really went through the wringer by my mother,” says Chenault, a security guard. “I got tired of hiding it and fighting it and my mom would cry with me; she went to the Bible with me.
“Finally my mom just said, ‘You know what? I love you. You’re my daughter. It doesn’t matter to me, as long as they treat you right, whether it’s a man, a woman.’ Now my mom loves Keke.”
However Fluker, a college student, wipes a tear, saying her mother refuses to speak with her. “She says the Bible says it’s wrong for women to be with women and men to be with men.”
Detroiter Phillip Pugh, 69, says he “fell out with the church” when he owned The Oakland Express restaurant with his partner of 41 years, Mike Petross, 65. Every Sunday, he said, eight gay male teenagers would come for breakfast.
“They went to one particular church in Detroit and the minister had singled that group out,” Pugh remembers. “He talked about them so badly in the church, saying horrible things about homosexuality, one of them ended up committing suicide two weeks later.”
Curtis Lipscomb, founder of KICK, a Detroit nonprofit agency that helps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender African Americans, says, “One of the reasons for the continuous spread of AIDS among young gay men is that the stigma is high and there are a lack of resources to address the needs of these young people.
“If the backbone of the Black community is the Black church, and the church denounces you, then there’s nowhere to go. You can’t go to your family or co-workers. So you lean on like-minded people who are ignorant to the disease and transmission, and you wallow amongst each other.”
His agency hosts the Help and Heal faith-based support group for African-American gay men who are HIV positive. “Our message is that God still loves you.”
Secret Sexual Orientation
Lipscomb adds that homosexuality often is an open secret in the religious community.
“Many who are suppressed and oppressed believe they have to hide in the closet in order to spread God’s word,” says Lipscomb, 47.
He says the Rev. Eddie Long preached against homosexuality in his Georgia mega church, yet settled lawsuits alleging sexual relations with three under-aged male parishioners.
“These pastors who are on the down low, standing in these pulpits preaching fire and brimstone, preaching hate to members of their congregations to be excluded is not what Jesus would do,” says the Rev. Darlene Franklin, founder of Agape Spirit Life Ministries in Detroit.
Black pastors criticizing President Obama should advocate equality for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
“These pastors know that with even a half-baked study of these scriptures, that Jesus Christ never said anything about marriage being specifically between a man and a woman,” says Franklin, 56, who married Agape co-founder the Rev. Deacon Glenda Wyatt last August in Connecticut.
“The Black community has never really embraced the thought of two women or two men in an intimate sexual relationship,” says Dr. Lyn Lewis, former chair of the University of Detroit Mercy Department of Sociology.
Lewis says President Obama’s endorsement has created “a higher level of tolerance in the Black community for homosexuality and everything that goes with it, up to and including gay marriage.”
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 59 percent of African Americans support “marriage equality,” up from 41 percent last summer.
Yet a Black lesbian couple, Tawana Williams and Stacey Baker, recently returned from their Las Vegas honeymoon to find their Novi home burned down.
“Might allegedly be a hate crime and some references to me and my partner’s sexuality,” Baker told Fox 2 News.
They may never find out who destroyed their home, and some people such as Pastor Marlin Reid of The River Church in Southfield doesn’t want their lifestyle to ever be accepted. In fact, he says President Obama is advancing the “gay agenda” to make the lifestyle accepted as normal.
“This country is going down morally,” he said. “Homosexuality is a dishonorable lifestyle. It can’t procreate. It’s damaging over time for the human body. If everybody turned (gay), the human race would die out.”
That sort of rhetoric and fear has silenced many gays and lesbians, and their families, says Michelle E. Brown, 48, of Southfield, who writes for the LGBT newspaper, Between the Lines.
“President Obama empowered a lot of people who have been our allies to step up and say, ‘Yeah, I’m for this. It’s a basic right.’ By starting this dialogue, we’ll have really hard conversations that will heal our communities, our families and our churches.”
ELIZABETH ATKINS IS A SCREENWRITER, AUTHOR AND DETROIT-BASED JOURNALIST.