by Ngozi Okaro
“Black people in America and around the world are impeding gay rights,” or so I’m being told. I have been troubled recently by remarks about blacks' perceived intolerance for the LGBTQI community. Not only is this perception a gross overgeneralization, it also fails to recognize the special role black people have had, and continue to have, in bringing forward gay rights.
Two recent encounters demonstrate the casual willingness to blame black people for America’s lack of acceptance of the LGBTQI community.
My church recently held a reception for a visiting lesbian clergy-person. I attended the reception with curiosity, as I am always interested in meeting visitors and in supporting my friends. During the reception, some participants began to complain loudly that the governments and churches in “Africa,” “Uganda,” and “Nigeria” were the cause for anti-gay sentiment in the American and global church. Having just seen anti-gay vigilante footage from Russia, I posited that there was anti-gay sentiment in many places. One gentleman suggested, during the question and answer period, that we American Methodists should break from the body that included Africa and Asia. His reasoning was that all of the resources are in the West so we didn’t need the developing nations anyway. I understood “resources” to mean money. Four of the people in the room were black (two of us African), one was Latino, and one was of Asian ancestry; the rest were white.
As a black, Nigerian-American, it was difficult to be in a room where I had thought that I was standing in unity with my Christian brothers and sisters -- in common cause -- only to be told that it was my people's fault that gays in America are not accepted. And further, that my people were expendable on the roads toward Christendom and justice. It felt bad. I can’t imagine how distancing that kind of black-blaming rhetoric feels for black gays.
As we separate, one from another, by blaming and shaming, we become smaller. I know that I shrank in that room with my fellow parishioners as they blamed me and those who look like me. I think that the moral authority of the moment shrank too.
A week or so later, a smart, kind friend told me that she heard that the reason California outlawed gay marriage a few years ago was because black people voted against it. She was skeptical of the claim because she didn't have any black friends who were anti-gay, however, she concluded that her friend must be right because she lived in California and was herself black, although not anti-gay.
I have been to California, but to make sure that I understood the demographics, I checked the census records. Between 2000 and 2010 the black population of California stood between 6.7% and 6.2% of the total population.
If one looks closely at the root of the backward thinking that prompts some Africans toward homophobia one might discover the influence of the Western church. The anti-gay proclamations and laws that we read of are based, in part, on a religion and its cynical political theatre brought to Africa from the West. Read the essay by Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writing in February that the Nigerian government is wrong to pass anti-gay laws.
A bigger problem though is that singling out and blaming specific groups leads to disunity, diminishes the social justice movement by cutting off voices, and is just plain mean. One could maybe make a case that if all non-black gays and lesbians convinced their own families that gays were equal that we would not have any restrictions on gays in America. But as someone who has been victimized, I know that it can be easier to point the finger at the other and blame that other for your injury rather than accept that those close to you may have harmed you too. And in America, blacks have for centuries occupied the scapegoat/victimizer role.
I am not saying that there are not blacks and others who do not support equality for all. I am saying that many states central to the anti-gay-rights fight are majority white (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Idaho). So it is false to blame slow progress for gay rights on blacks.
If one needs to be reminded that black people are moving boldly to advance LGBTQI rights, even while much of America is against said rights, answer these questions. Which sitting president came out in favor of gay rights? Which US Attorney General gave full federal recognition for same-sex marriages?
The first openly-gay major professional sports league athlete is black, the first openly-gay national beauty pageant contestant is black, and the first openly-gay college student who is a professional football prospect is black.
None of this is to say that others have not contributed. What I do believe is that it is wrong to generalize – or demonize blacks as anti-gay rights; especially as so many have championed gay rights. Frankly, I’ve not known my people to be anti-justice. They who in large part created the template for social justice movements in America.
Love and faith have a funny way of turning things around. Two weeks after I shrank at church, another speaker came along who enlarged my hopes. Frank Schaeffer, a white man who was defrocked as a United Methodist minister for officiating his son’s marriage, shared the word with my congregation. He thanked God for lawyers for their work in bringing about God’s justice. Schaeffer specifically called out Attorney General Eric Holder for standing for equality. To quote Reverend Schaeffer, “Love is the law.”
And then, just days later, the Bishop over my church conference declared publicly that under his watch, there would be no more trials against clergy for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions. This declaration made the African-American Martin D. McLee the first sitting United Methodist bishop to take such a stand. I think that Bishop McLee might agree that justice and love exist only in community.
As we move to the next phase of our movement, we should accept that all people bring assets to the table, regardless of their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. We can live in a country where we are not defined by who is within the margins and who is outside of them. We can create a new paradigm, one that is shaped by love, justice, and abundance, where margins are erased so that all are free.
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Ngozi leads education, social justice, and community organizations to meet their missions. She is currently a Fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program, and a Visiting Fellow at Africa America Institute, where she stewards capacity-building projects. Her prior work includes projects for organizations including National Urban League and its affiliates, Brooklyn Hospital, INSEAD, Voices Unbroken, and Yale. Ngozi graduated from Georgetown University Law Center, Morgan State University, NYU’s Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, and Coro Leadership New York. She practiced law before she began her work managing nonprofits.