Will ’Bishop’ Eddie Long’s Gay Scandal Alter Black Churches’ Homophobia?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 24, 2010

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.

AIDS and Black Churches

An EDGE article from June 18 recounted, "Nationwide, those of African descent count for nearly half of all known cases of people with HIV, in spite of the fact they comprise only 12 percent of the country's entire population." Black churches, the article said, were starting to bring the issue into the light, advising congregants to get tested and to start talking about the issue in the community at large. Some pastors at black churches--including Rev. Raphael Warnock, of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta--publicly tested for HIV.

"The Black clergy are at the forefront of this battle," the president of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, C. Virginia Fields, told EDGE. "Do they get the media attention? No. Do they get the criticism? Yes. They are where the black community looks for leadership on these issues and their voices can help shape an agenda on AIDS issues. They have the audience through their congregations each Sunday, and reach more black folks of every walk of life than any legislator or leader, nationwide. They are the ones in the position to influence our community."

And the fight being waged by pro-LGBT members of the black clergy and other members of the African American community is a fierce one: the National Black Justice Coalition has hosted events such as the Faithful Call to Justice, targeted at eliminating anti-gay messages emanating from behind the pulpits of black churches.

But some indicate that the community of African American people of faith is still torn over the question of acknowledging, let alone accepting, the gays in their midst. "I see many churches say they want to help reach 'these people' but when they really get into the trenches, they still get hung up by the whole 'gay' ideology, that the virus is a gay epidemic," writer and AIDS activist Terry Angel Mason told EDGE. "But the reason we are facing this epidemic today is because we refused to believe we had gay folks in the church in the first place. There are thousands of us. What is it with the African American church not wanting to deal with life as it is?" Added Mason, "They have refused to embrace advocacy. It has killed us and it is killing us."

That refusal lies at the root of Alston's Newsweek essay. A Sept. 22 story in the Christian Science Monitor (picked up and posted at topix.com) echoed Alston's question regarding acceptance and inclusion of GLBTs in the black religious community. Writer Patrik Jonsson recalled in the CSM article that six years ago, Long headed a protest against legal parity for gay and lesbian families, and described the famously anti-gay preacher as "one of the most visible members of a group of high-powered black evangelicals, often sporting muscle-cut shirts that show off his thick arms. He has called himself the 'spiritual daddy' to young black men in search of salvation."

The article also noted that anti-gay messages accusing gays of trying to "destroy" the family not only fuel whites' distrust of GLBTs, but blacks' as well. And yet, Jonsson reported, blacks often do their best to accept family members who come out of the closet.

"This might be a time of scandal" for African American people of faith, said Tulane University's Shayne Lee, "but it will also spark a renewed dialogue" on the place of black GLBTs in their secular and religious communities. "The fact is, Eddie Long is one of the most respected black Christians in the country, he's very popular and very influential, and that's why this is going to get a lot of people talking about the issue of sexuality."

"The point is not whether [Long] is gay or not or he denies or admits it, but this is really about how people [in the black community] feel that black people should be represented in public, and that is about being heterosexual," the University of Maryland's Melinda Chateauvert told the Christian Science Monitor. "There are [millions] of black people who are gay, members of families, pastors of churches, who serve in the military--they're everywhere. But the deliberate closeting--not necessarily by them, but by other people--is really problematic."

Members of Long's church and of the wider community have expressed a reluctance to believe the allegations, but have also expressed anxiety about the result if they should prove to be factual. "[I]t's going to cause a lot of destruction in our community," a radio show caller said.

"I'm just praying, trying to stay hopeful that it's not true," a member of Long's flock, Anshay Tull, said in a Sept. 24 AP story. "If it is true, he has to take that up with God. But that can't take away from the Word that he gives. I think he's very gifted."

The allegations against Long may be taken personally by his flock, theorized Johns Hopkins University's Lester Spence, who told the AP that, "People who are members at that church probably felt better about themselves because they are members. Now, there are a whole bunch of people trying to figure out what their place is, what's going to happen to the church and what's going to happen to them."

Others, however, had their doubts even prior to the allegations. Zack Hosley, who left Long's church, told the media, "If you see [Long] out and about in Atlanta, he rubs elbows with celebrities and I just wouldn't think a man of God would be hanging out with [rapper and convict] T.I."

The AP reported that Long has mostly held his peace, but is expected to address the accusations during worship services on Sept. 26.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.