(The Root) — President Obama's evolution on same-sex marriage has inspired a new generation of African-American LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists. And the surprise is that many of them are straight and Christian.
Last month the National Black Justice Coalition sponsored its third annual Out on the Hill summit, which brought together a strong group of African-American leaders, activists and media professionals — all committed to NBJC's mission of empowering black LGBT Americans and helping to eradicate both homophobia and racism. White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and the Rev. Delman Coates of the 8,000-member Mount Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., were among the many prominent figures who lent their solidarity.
"It's extremely important to have straight allies, but especially faith leaders who believe in our cause," said Kimberley McLeod, NBJC's communications director. "The more people see important voices in their own communities speaking out in favor of gay rights and marriage equality, they realize it's OK for them to evolve — just like President Obama did."
McLeod's honest approach unveils the conundrum at the heart of what many African Americans still struggle with: the full embrace of gay rights as civil rights. The conventional wisdom among the political chattering classes is that the black community is deeply religious and socially conservative — if not openly homophobic. The marriage-equality endorsements of high-profile religious leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Otis Moss of Chicago and Coates, all of whom support the gay-marriage ballot initiative in Coates' home state of Maryland, have proved conventional wisdom wrong.
Yet a small but vocal group of black clergy have responded negatively to their fellow pastors, going so far as to call them hypocrites for failing to abide by strict interpretations of biblical texts. Some ministers who had supported President Obama's bid in 2008 are now expressing opposition to his progressive view on marriage equality.
Polls show that these maneuvers have done little to erode Obama's support among his most loyal voting base in the black community, but the work of challenging homophobia among African Americans remains a worthy cause.
The NBJC summit, held in Washington, D.C., the same week as the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference, also included an appearance by John Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In a wonderfully progressive twist of fate, Wilson has partnered with the NBJC to implement an LGBT Equality Initiative on the campuses of HBCUs across the country. The aim is to educate young African Americans about the dangers of homophobia and to encourage solidarity in the quest for equality.
The Root spoke with Coates — a 2012 The Root 100 honoree — about his involvement in the push for marriage equality. He addressed the challenges of confronting old attitudes and religious hypocrisy and explained why Christian ideals support love beyond gender.
The Root: Why have you become such a vocal supporter of marriage equality for gay Americans?
Delman Coates: I believe that the government should not co-sign discrimination, whether that's against blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, women, gays or anyone else. And African Americans in particular — given our history — are the last people who should be on the side of discrimination. What I like about being American is that we live in a pluralistic society. We have freedom of and freedom from religion.
TR: You're becoming a leading voice on this controversial topic — especially among African-American faith leaders. Are you not concerned about potential backlash?
DC: No. Not at all. And as far as my church family is concerned, this has been our best year yet. When I first spoke out in favor of marriage equality, there were many who thought I had committed professional suicide. But we've had about 1,000 people join our congregation in the first nine months of this year alone. And we're largely African American.
That suggests to me that the people in the pews are further along on this issue than those on the pulpit. I don't want to be associated with the kind of rhetoric I've heard from black ministers for decades: denigrating gays and lesbians and doing it in the name of God. I don't have that kind of Jesus, and I certainly don't know him that way.
TR: What's your opinion about President Obama leading the charge on this topic?
DC: I am hugely proud of President Obama's leadership. As I've said before, he was elected president of the United States — not pastor of the United States. Religious dogma cannot and should not influence his policy judgments. What is so sad is that these wedge issues end up distracting citizens and politicians from more important things, like health care, education, unnecessary wars abroad and poverty.
TR: Do you see a role for religious leaders in politics?
DC: As far as the black church is concerned, it is time for us to recognize that we have a long, vibrant history of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters serving in our churches. The friendship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin should serve as an example for all of us. I believe the role of the majority is to protect the interests of the minority, and I pray that my voice will help serve others — gay, lesbian, straight and transgendered alike. The doors of heaven are always open.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.