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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the 15th Annual Human Rights Campaign National Dinner at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Obama told the largest U.S. gay-rights group that the progress made on policies that have benefited the gay community still is threatened by opponents who want to “turn the clock back.”
“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter,” wrote Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. Ada, the pioneer of “mujerista theology,” theology done from the perspective of Hispanic women, has just died. But her chapter, “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century,” has never been more timely. If you want to be an ally of justice in the 21st century, Ada emphasized, you’d better be willing to embrace complexity.
Here’s a very recent example. The first African American president in American history has just said he supports marriage equality for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. So naturally the controversial story stemming from this historic moment is about the African American church and its resistance to marriage equality?
What am I missing here? Well, one thing I’m missing is a more complex response.
President Obama’s “evolution” on LGBT equality can be said to actually track that of other African Americans. African Americans have been steadily decreasing in their opposition to marriage equality for LGBT people; according to a Pew Research Center poll from April today only 49 percent of African American respondents described themselves as opposed to marriage between gays and lesbians, 14 percent fewer than in 2008. That’s a huge percentage of change.
On the other hand, 74 percent of white evangelicals oppose gay marriage. And as is clear from recent news reports, anti-gay messaging from white evangelical pulpits, post President Obama’s statement, may fill the enthusiasm gap many evangelicals seems to feel for Mitt Romney. So who is driving the opposition to LGBT equality in terms of sheer numbers? Here’s a clue: it’s not the African American church.
As a straight, white ally of racial justice and LGBT equality in the 21st century, a key emphasis for me has to be on not taking the easy path of either/or. Another emphasis needs to be on not overlooking the obvious, as failing to recognize that President Obama’s evolution tracks other trends among African Americans instead of reading his response as a break with the African American community. His response is a break with some African Americans, but not with others.
Thus, it is also critical not to see the African American church and its leadership as a monolith on LGBT rights. The opposition to the anti-gay Amendment 1 in North Carolina crossed racial and religious lines, as the umbrella group, Protect All Families, demonstrates on its Web site, Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, preached with power and biblical authority against Amendment 1. When I was on the inaugural Religion Council of the Human Rights Campaign, we clergy who were allies and supporters of full LGBT equality were a multi-faith, multi-religious group, and multi-racial group, including African American members.
And I can tell you for a fact, from teaching many African American students at Chicago Theological Seminary who either are themselves LGBT or who are supportive of LGBT equality, and who are preparing for ministry in the African American church, the future of change toward greater openness on LGBT equality in the African American church has never looked better.
That’s a strong biblical argument for LGBT rights. But it is also a strong argument for maintaining mutuality with the African American struggle through their complexity of responses and not singling out the African American church for special criticism.
“Solidarity will not become a reality unless we are totally committed to mutuality,” wrote Ada. Contradictions continue, but we move forward when we do not abandon the totality of our commitments.