The civil rights issue of our time is gay marriage, and the key players in our country's most significant civil rights movement are on the wrong side of it. The black church has taken on a new role: oppressor.
As a black person born in the late '60s, I missed the actual Civil Rights Movement, but the remnants of oppression and stories of segregation were always fresh on my grandmother's mind. It was her lessons in black history, literature, and Christianity that inspired me to be proud of my heritage. She did her best to teach me the value of diversity, and so I learned to love all people regardless of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or socioeconomic background.
Although my grandmother taught me to love, she was not immune to her community's mores. And so she also -- unconsciously -- taught me to deny the humanity of another human. My uncle (one of her five sons) is gay. For his entire childhood and young adult life he was teased and beaten by his brothers for being gay. Our family never spoke aloud about my uncle's homosexuality, and for decades we called his life partner, who was a kind and loving man, his "friend." It was against the rules to openly accept, acknowledge, or appreciate my uncle for all that he really was. This was being a good Christian in my family's eyes, but for me it was telling a lie and an act of oppression.
Today, I am still shocked by the response of some of my black Christian friends to the plight of gay people in our nation. "I just don't agree that gay people can compare their struggles to ours," they bemoan. This is followed by the list of injustices blacks have experienced: the middle passage, slavery, lynching, rapes, and deaths. "Gay people haven't suffered nearly as much as blacks," they say. "Being black is not a choice," they add. "As if being gay is," I respond. I don't support the comparison. For me, the sufferings of a person or a group of people at the hands of other humans are frightening and heartbreaking. Instinctually, I feel that if any group can be oppressed, then I can be oppressed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this very point when he said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." This is why I'm always flabbergasted when I see some black Christians fighting against the civil rights of gays. We know firsthand the impact and dehumanization of discrimination.
Like many black people, I was raised in the church. I was in church every Wednesday evening and all day Sunday. There was Bible study, Sunday school, and services. I have some great memories of growing up in church. However, when I became a young adult, I began to recognize a conflict in the church's "truth" and reality. Preachers and church members spoke of the sinful nature of homosexuality, but sometimes, the very people leading prayers, preaching, and participating in the choir were obviously gay. Living in Los Angeles, I've sat in some of the biggest megachurches and have been baffled to learn that some of these church leaders -- who preach that homosexuality is a sin -- are closeted gay people. After watching a close friend's life come undone because of a scandal around her closeted gay husband, I left Christianity for good. Such hypocrisy in a place promoting spiritual growth was more than I could handle.
Not all Christians oppose gay marriage because they are struggling with their own sexual orientation. There are also those black Christians who oppose gay marriage because the Bible declares, in their interpretation of it, that homosexuality is a sin. This is their sincere belief and value system. However, the Bible was also key in the justification of enslaving blacks centuries ago. Blacks were believed to be descendants of Canaan's son Ham and, accordingly, were cursed to serve as slaves. We perceive this as outrageous. Is it not equally outrageous to think that God deems another group of people to be less than? Rather than opposing the right of people who love one another to be married, I will suggest that there are those black people who might look into their closets and begin cleaning them out. Our churches might begin making their priority the rising numbers of gay black men who are contracting HIV each year. They might teach church members self-awareness and inner growth as a means of revealing the spirit of Christ within them. When I was a practicing Christian, learning how to embody the loving spirit of Jesus -- who dared not judge but lived a life of love and compassion -- would have served me well. I believed then, and still hold dear, Jesus the Christ's command to love. Above all things, love.
Love is the driving component. Those who have suffered grave atrocities at the hands of others know too closely what the absence of love creates. They know the isolation, fear, devastation, and self-hatred the lack of love breeds. We don't need gay people to be lynched in order to know that the denial of their rights is damaging to the progress of all peoples. If one person has suffered at the hand of another, we need not measure that suffering to prove its value. In our attempt to distance ourselves from the plight of gay people, we also distance ourselves from our own struggle and take the position of oppressor.
Gay is the new black. And some Christian blacks must be willing to look into their hearts and find the seeds of fear that would have them deny the humanity of another in the name of God (just the way it was done to them not that long ago). Let's ask ourselves: do we fear gays or fear being gay? Why must gay leaders in our churches and communities serve clandestinely? Consider what the power of love and acceptance might offer if we are willing to stand courageously with gays as we stood for ourselves decades ago. Our freedom will not truly be granted until we can pass it forward. Gay is the new black, sadly, because many blacks haven't been willing to embrace their own practices, secrets, fear, and shame about homosexuality. Many blacks have not been able to reconcile their real-life experience with their faith, and until they do this, they are oppressed people who are also practicing the oppression of others.
Follow Monique Ruffin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moniqueruffin