Though the most visible black man in America has endorsed gay marriage, don't think that our long struggle to reconcile the religious ethics that animate so many black communities and gay rights is over.
Many black pastors claim that their disagreement with same sex marriage is rooted in scripture. But since when did black folks, who embraced the spirit of Christianity long before literacy was even legal for many of us, start depending on literal readings of the Bible? We all know that according to a literal interpretation of the Bible we should still be in chains. The opposition to gay marriage in black churches is not about scripture. It stems from the desire to protect patriarchy, a central defining element of black churches today. Homosexual unions would challenge the foundation of a church in which men and women are viewed not only as fundamentally different, but also as entrenched in a divinely inspired hierarchical relationship which privileges men over women.
Sexism in black churches is a long-standing tradition, which is most visible in the fact that black men still overwhelmingly make up the leadership, especially in the role of senior pastor, of black churches. Meanwhile women make up the majority of the members. According to the Pew Forum for Religious Life women make up 60% of black churches. Because of this imbalance, black ministers often characterize black women as the "backbone" of the church, but as theologian, Jacquelyn Grant points out, "...most of the ministers who use this term are referring to location rather than function. What they really mean is that women are in the "background" and should be kept there..." Turn on any televised black mega church and you can see this arrangement in action as a lone man preaches vehemently to pews teeming with women. None of the major mega churches, with their influential television ministries, have a woman at the helm. Meanwhile, black women are filling collection plates all over the country, in some cases funding multimillion-dollar operations, run almost exclusively by men.
At the root of these disparities is an overt theology put forth by many churches that insists that men and women have fundamentally different roles in marriage. Where men are to assume a leadership position, women are to be helpmates to men. Though ministers insist that that neither role is superior or inferior, they wouldn't have to make that argument if it wasn't so obvious that there is no equality in this arrangement. Women are considered by virtue of biology to be less capable in the eyes of God and man. Thus, even though many of these churches include women ministers, they are often relegated to ministering to women about how to be better helpmates to men.
To be sure, there are black churches that hold more progressive views, churches that espouse liberation theology and promote a basic sense of equity between men and women. President Obama's former church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago where Rev. Jeremiah Wright once ministered is among these churches. But even at this beacon, there has never been a woman as head pastor. This is because the roots of patriarchy run so deep in black churches that many members whether consciously or unconsciously can't imagine women holding the chief position of leadership.
Homosexual unions would fly in the face of patriarchy by poking holes in the very notion of a male-female hierarchy as the primary means through which marriage, and relationships between men and women, can be understood. Who for example would be the head of the household if both partners were men? In a lesbian marriage, who would play the role of helpmate? In fact, if lesbianism is a viable possibility then perhaps men are not a necessarily required for leadership in and outside of marriage after all. Indeed, lesbianism is the big bugaboo for black churches, even more so than gay men. There has always been a specific place cut out for gay men in black churches. As long as they are musical and don't openly acknowledge themselves as sexual beings, they can go on directing the choir without question. Though they are certainly carefully constricted, they too have some of the privileges of being men in a black church. They are given the benefit of a doubt. But there is no such place for lesbianism because it is the ultimate rejection of the patriarchal structures that are the mainstay of the church.
In the end, if marriage equality is ever to get any traction in black churches, we first have to begin dismantling the patriarchal structures that define them. Though women are often subordinated to men, their numbers alone make them a powerful constituency. If these women would stop buying into their own oppression, all hell would break loose in the black church. If just half of these women stopped sitting down in those pews and passing their hard earned dollars to men who drive cars that cost more than these women's houses, change would be swift and unrelenting. Black women should treat the black church the same way they would treat a patriarchal, self-serving, preachy boyfriend, and let their feet do the talking. If they ever do, patriarchy and homophobia in black churches will fall by the way side.
Cassandra Jackson is a Professor of English at The College of New Jersey. Her latest book is Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body.