By Sikivu Hutchinson
(Excerpt from Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, March 2013)
For the past several months, Crenshaw Boulevard in predominantly black South Los Angeles has featured a series of striking billboards condemning homophobia and its role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The billboards are the work of the black gay activist group In the Meantime Men, headed by Jeffrey King. Sounding a “code red alarm” on the raging HIV/AIDS epidemic amongst African Americans King said, “The staggering rates of increased teen suicides in the last five years, and the uncontrollable increase of teen homelessness in America have awakened our senses to the damaging effects of homophobia in the Black community. Every year, thousands of Black LGBT people are displaced from their homes, families, churches, and communities due to their sexuality, gender, gender identity, and gender expression. This has resulted in a mass influx of homeless youth on the streets of Los Angeles and other cities throughout the nation.” [King will be a panelist at the upcoming “Confronting Homophobia in the Black Church” roundtable hosted by Black Skeptics Los Angeles at Zion Hill Baptist Church on February 27th] With African Americans comprising the majority of new HIV cases in the U.S., the epidemic has devastated black communities nationwide. Yet the refusal of mainstream black America to seriously confront how homophobia and black religiosity drive homelessness and HIV only deepens the killing fields.
In her book Invisible Families Mignon Moore notes that “some in the Black gay community use religion to validate their identities as same-gender loving people.”[i] Rejecting the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, gay African American Christians focus instead on what they believe to be the loving, compassionate, universalist message of Jesus. As one respondent in Mignon’s book says, “I do believe God loves me and even though they may not agree with what I am I think that this is between me and God.”[ii] For many African American LGBT folk, faith is intimately tied to cultural identity and is not easily shorn even in light of the social conservatism and heterosexism of mainstream black America. Indeed, according to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, when compared with their white counterparts, African American LGBT folk are more likely “to attend religious services, to engage in prayer, and to self-identify with a religious affiliation.”[iii] Straight, gay, bi and trans African Americans live together in segregated communities where racism, white supremacy, and criminalization shape their shared lived experiences. Save for the drumbeat of white normalcy portrayed in TV, film, and advertising, our worlds are overwhelmingly black and brown. Thus, it is not surprising that gay African Americans are invested in the same religious cultural traditions that prop up straight normalcy yet may afford them with a sense of community. Despite the overall increase in secular Americans, people of color have not embraced secularism in significant numbers.
Yet, countering the homophobic dogma of organized religion is only one aspect of LGBTQ enfranchisement. And it is for this reason that existing Humanist organizations are inadequate for queer youth of color. The needs of LGBTQ youth of color can’t be adequately addressed by culturally homogeneous or colorblind approaches that don’t acknowledge the intersection of heterosexism, white supremacy, and racism. For example, queer youth of color are especially vulnerable to becoming homeless. Family economic instability, sexual abuse, religious dogma, discrimination at school and in local neighborhoods often precipitate homelessness amongst African American queer youth. The nexus of foster care and mass incarceration has also dramatically increased homelessness amongst youth of color. Youth who age out of foster care have few resources to fall back on, putting them at risk of becoming homeless.[iv] Youth who come out of the juvenile or adult prison systems may be unable to find jobs or housing due to employment applications that require criminal felony disclosures.
With its illusion of glamour and accessibility, the city of Hollywood is a popular magnet for runaways and homeless youth. The majority of Hollywood’s homeless youth are African American. Forty percent of all homeless youth in the community identify as LGBTQ.[v] Floating spectrally in the hills above the workaday traffic, the old Hollywood sign is a faded beacon and gilded promise for the klieg lit dreams of youth everywhere. It’s purported that thousands of young people used to dam up at the now desolate Vine Street Greyhound terminal off of Sunset Boulevard every year. Many sought refuge from personal trauma and upheaval; hungry for a new beginning, a semblance of family, home, and, true to the cliché, a shot at fifteen minutes of fame. Hollywood is home to a network of homeless youth shelters run by organizations like the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center and Covenant House. As the largest privately-funded homeless youth shelter in the nation, the faith-based Covenant House has historically been averse to the needs of LGBTQ youth.[vi] After years of discrimination against trans and gender queer youth, Covenant House Texas implemented culturally responsive policy that specifically addressed the targeting of trans youth.[vii] According to Houston’s Out Smart magazine: “Since the leaders who followed its founder were Catholic nuns, its service has always included a religious component. With little official acceptance of gay people coming from the Catholic Church, Covenant House has not been encouraged to focus on LGBT-specific programs and training.”[viii] Writer Rachel Aviv echoed this view in a New Yorker article on queer homeless youth. She noted that the organization’s “Catholic underpinnings have complicated the shelter’s response to increasing numbers of gay residents.”[ix] One young lesbian Aviv interviewed complained that she felt pressured to go to church. After she objected to a staff member’s heavy proselytizing “they sent the pastor to talk to” her.[x] Promoting a new book about several inspirational homeless teens, the head of Covenant House has said that “we are each made in the image and likeness of a loving God.”[xi] But having been despised and demonized by “God” for so long, when the script is flipped and an authority deems that God is suddenly loving and forgiving; why is God necessary at all?
When my colleague Josh Parr and I ran a homeless youth leadership group at Covenant House California in Hollywood from 2009 to 2012, some youth struggled to be housed according to their gender identity. Conflicts about sexuality and gender often played out in our group. “Amber”, one of our female transgender interns, got into fights with a cisgendered female youth leader who had “problems” with having her as a roommate. In the general population of the facility there was clear tension between the “hard” bangers, and so-called gang-related males (who had come directly from the juvenile system), and openly queer and questioning youth. Both groups navigated public identities that had been demonized as criminal, other, and threatening. Being both homeless and of color already made them vulnerable to racist police who often roust and profile homeless people of color on the streets with impunity. According to the Center for American Progress, of the “approximately 300,000 gay and transgender youth who are arrested and/or detained each year (more) than 60 percent are black or Latino.”[xii] Carrying on the charade of hyper-masculinity, some of the hard boys were conflicted by their own inability to be truly free; to be comfortable in their own skin as bi or gay young men. Most of the residents had not gone through any training or focused discussion on homophobia and gender identity. The faith-based culture of the organization could not address much less affirm the multiple layers of queer of color lived experience. What also became apparent with our youth interns was that the generally conservative culture of Covenant House could not help them reconcile the deep divide between their elusive dreams of TV, film, and music industry stardom and the reality of crushing poverty that homeless youth face. Although the facility provides some job search resources, the more important long term goal of college access is a major stumbling block for permanently transitioning youth of color out of homelessness. Because their lives are marked by constant physical, social, and emotional upheaval, homeless and foster care youth have lower college-going rates and higher attrition rates.[xiii]
These issues were a perfect storm in the life of Todd, one of our most dedicated interns. Bright and well-spoken, Todd had come to Covenant House from a background of sexual abuse and prostitution. He seesawed between wanting to go to nursing school and cosmetology school. Speaking to high school students about his experiences on the streets trading sex for food, pocket change, and shelter, he emphasized the dangerous options queer youth have after being rejected by their families. At home and in the street, trans and queer youth are more likely to experience sexual abuse and sexual assault. Lacking meaningful job skills, resources or education, Todd and many other youth at Covenant House were forced to rely on survival sex to stay afloat.
Racialized stereotypes about normative black and Latino gender roles also place trans youth at high risk, both on the streets and in schools. The brutal 2008 murder of gender non-conforming teen Lawrence King by a male student at an Oxnard middle school shone a national spotlight on transphobia and violence. But the fact that King was a working class boy of color, possibly grappling with racist cultural misperceptions about what his “rightful” gender identity should be, was not examined in mainstream discussions about the tragedy. The 2009 suicides of Carl Walker Hoover and Jaheem Herrera, eleven year old boys of color who had been harassed at school because they were suspected of being gay, did not make headlines. At the same time, bullying-related suicides involving white gay youth were more widely publicized and seized on as national calls to action.[xiv] These cases were highlighted in magazines and on cable TV and network news. Town halls were convened, experts were tapped, and bullying prevention became the mantra in public schools. But the mainstream view that youth of color aren’t deserving victims prevents them from getting the mental health intervention and social reinforcement that they need. Layer on being queer in a homophobic culture that demands hyper-masculinity from young men of color and feminine submission from young women of color (vis-à-vis heterosexual relationships, physical contact with males, caregiving, and life aspirations) and gender non-conforming youth of color are doubly and triply victimized.
Although many homeless youth have to resort to prostitution and survival sex, the issue is especially acute for women of color. Racist/sexist notions of black female hypersexuality and pure white womanhood influence the way black women are perceived in the dominant culture. As I argue throughout this book, women of color have never had the luxury of looking down on white women from pedestals or plantation houses. The legacy of the dirty rapacious black Jezebel or spicy “bitch in heat” Latina shapes the way young women of color are perceived as naturally sexual and hence born prostitutes. Lesbians of African descent are triply stigmatized by cultural demands for racial, sexual, and gender respectability. For all American girls, conventional gender mores emphasize sexual purity and unswerving allegiance to men. Narratives of home, hearth, and romance are supposed to enflame every girl’s desire. From an early age, girls of color are socialized with the heterosexist script that being desired by a man and having children should be their authentic destiny in life. Nowhere is this message more fiercely promoted than in the global toy industry. Shoehorning girls into dolls, domestication, and dress-up, the global toy industry rigidly polices gender roles, reinforcing heterosexual conformity. More insidiously, big box retailers and toy store conglomerates from Middle to urban America explode with princess merchandise. With its emphasis on dressing up, hooking up, melodrama, pink power, and pageantry, the rise of the Disney princess industry has made hyper-femininity (laced with token displays of “girlish” spunk and “independence”) the national creed for millions of girls. Consequently, there is little space in American culture for young queer women of color who are not perceived as “femme” or actively seeking male validation.
Talking openly about homophobia during a workshop facilitated by my Women’s Leadership Project and Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) students at Washington Prep High School, some of the male students pushed back when asked whether or not they had an obligation to defend a gay friend who was being harassed. Predictably, the football players in the group were the most vehement. They felt that there was a clear line between the way gay and straight males behaved. With its rigid culture of hyper-masculinity and big endorsement deals tied to alpha male and All-American girl superstardom, organized sports have long been a stronghold of anti-gay discrimination. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are virtually no active professional sports figures that are out[i]. So if a gay male was acting “gay” (i.e., flamboyant) at school then he was asking for a beat down. I don’t want to seem homophobic, one student said, but that’s not “natural.” Nature determined what was moral. “Gaydar” (being able to tell who was and was not gay largely based on stereotypes about gay male effeminacy) was a truism that even the most conscious students believed in. The girls in the GSA asked whether the ball players would feel the same if someone tried to jump them because they were black males. Would it be ok for racist police, white supremacists, or other men of color to target them for being while black? That’s different, some said, but others were silent, letting the analogy sink in. If we had had the space for debate most would’ve talked about the physical fact of their bodies, arguing that blackness is an indelible biological fact, a magnet for every storeowner, cop or teacher who views black youth as guilty until proven innocent. Pastors, community leaders, and other adults have drilled it into them that equating gayness and blackness is sacrilegious; a ruse manufactured by elite white gays to claim oppressed status and mooch off of African Americans’ civil rights legacy. As the students thought about their allegiances, a teacher who has been a leader on social justice issues at the school challenged them to speak out. He likened their moral complicity with homophobia to society’s indifference to the racism and sexism they experience every day. Several years ago the school was slapped with an anti-gay bias discrimination suit that led to a settlement.[ii] Since then district policy around bullying and harassment has become more stringent, mandating that teachers and administrators report bias incidents and attend anti-bullying trainings. Though important, mandates and anti-bullying trainings are ultimately band-aid correctives that don’t disrupt heterosexist American gender norms, identities, family structures, and cultures. Similarly, simply including Hughes, Bayard Rustin, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich or other LGBT literary and historical figures in a textbook without the cultural context of their struggles and vision is a variation on the charismatic great man/woman one trick pony. And setting untrained teachers adrift in the classroom without culturally responsive professional development makes these policies virtually worthless for affecting long term change in classroom pedagogy.
Because segregated post-industrial capitalist America allows few authentic cultural spaces in communities of color, churches are dubious sanctuaries at best. Some of the students in our GSA say that their churches accept everyone without judgment. But when we probe more deeply they cannot recall open embrace of LGBT families or relationships from the pulpit. Nationwide, gay African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be raising children in same-sex relationships.[iii] Thus, for many, “acceptance” means silence. In its article “Black Churches May Be More Friend than Foe to Gay Congregants,” the Center for American Progress challenges the dominant culture’s belief (amplified during California’s landmark 2008 anti-gay marriage initiative Proposition 8) that black communities and churches are more homophobic than their white counterparts.[iv] The article contends that gay folks’ “relationship with black churches in fact provides safe spaces and a steadfast social network that helps them deal with societal oppression at large.”[v] It quotes the Reverend Delman Coates of Maryland, “who…says he has seldom come upon the antigay vitriol that black churches are alleged to promote (and) that, at most, some churches may employ a code of silence around sexuality, but few actually preach division and hate from the pulpit.”[vi] But Coates’ distinction between explicit anti-gay sentiment and “benign” silence is a disingenuous one. Lesbian activist and writer Reverend Irene Monroe is critical of the view that the Black Church is a more welcoming space for queer and same-gender loving African Americans. Although a number of black pastors followed President Obama’s lead when he finally declared his support for same sex marriage in early 2012, Monroe points out that:
Church doctrine throughout African-American denominations hasn’t changed on the topic of homosexuality, keeping the church tethered to an outdated notion of human sexuality and a wrongheaded notion of what constitutes civil rights…Many African-American ministers still believe the institution of marriage, at least within the black family, is under assault, and that LGBTQ people further exacerbate the problem. For these ministers, some of whom support LGBTQ civil rights broadly but draw the line at same-sex marriage, espousing their opposition to same-sex marriage is a prophylactic measure to combat the epidemic of fatherlessness in black families. In scapegoating the LGBTQ community, these clerics are ignoring the social ills behind black fatherlessness, such as the systematic disenfranchisement of both African-American men and women, high unemployment, high incarceration, and poor education, to name a few.[vii]
Gay-friendly faith organizations dangle the promise that being queer, moral, and “good with God” are compatible. But like the original sin of sexual temptress Eve and other dirty reprobates soiled with the shit of the Fall, this goodness comes with caveats and conditions. Recently, I had a conversation with a local pastor who was struggling to address homophobia amongst his parishioners. Some of them were vehemently opposed to a lesbian couple who wanted their partnership blessed in a church ceremony. The pastor has expressed his acceptance of LGBT parishioners but was clearly shaken by the congregation’s response. Tolerant pastors always discover that it is one thing to be tolerant in word and another to be moral and just in deed; given the inhumanity of the Bible. Ultimately, to be part of the regime of Christian goodness there must be constant vigilance against the fundamentalist barbarians at the gate of Kumbaya who police whether or not “homos” get into heaven.
Believers who support same sex marriage and LGBT equality insist that this is a bootleg un-Christian version of god. Trust us, they say, to rescue God from the flat earth fundamentalists. Liberal Christians and spiritualists alike insist that the “real” god—their god—is a loving, kind, benevolent, New Testament friendly patriarch (or matriarch). Their god is a fount of inspiration, a benign spirit for good that moves and grooves within everyone and embraces all comers regardless of creed or deed. The good believers assure us that this is so. But they are always looking over their shoulders at the corrupt fire breathing believers nipping peskily at their heels like night of the living dead zombies. They are subject to the same gyrations and justifications as fundamentalists for why their version of god is good, just, and right; worthy of the prizefight and fitting of the title. In the 1970s Joyce Carol Oates short story “Shame” a pastor corrects a young woman who asks him about the certainty of religious authority figures: “You don’t have the right idea,” he says, “It isn’t non-believers who doubt, but believers.”[viii]
[i] As the Los Angeles Times reports, “Even though public opposition to same-sex marriage and gay rights is rapidly eroding, the locker rooms and clubhouses of the country’s four major sports leagues remain among the last bastions of homophobia in the U.S.” The article states that there have been no active professional sports players in the NFL, NHL or NBA that have come out during their careers. See Kevin Baxter, “In Pro Sports, Gay Athletes Still Feel Unwelcome,” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 2012. http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-sports-homophobia-20121230,0,5283191.story.
[ii] Among the charges were that LGBT students were being disciplined more harshly and bigoted religious condemnations were made toward out students and faculty.
[iii] See for example, Francine Ramsey, Marjorie Hill, et al, “Black Lesbians Matter: An Examination of the Unique Experiences, Perspectives and Priorities of the Black Lesbian Community,” The Zuna Institute, July 2010, pp. 5-6; Sabrina Tavernise, “Parenting By Gays More Common in the South, Census Shows,” New York Times, January 18, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/us/19gays.html. According to this article, childrearing in the South is more prevalent than in any region of the country and the majority of gay Southern parents are people of color. Black and Latino couples are “twice as likely as whites to be raising children.”
[iv] Aisha C. Moodie-Mills and Karen Miller, “Black Churches May Be More Friend than Foe to Gay Congregants,” Center for American Progress, October 30, 2012, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/news/2012/10/30/43299/black-churches-may-be-more-friend-than-foe-to-gay-congregants/.
[vii] Irene Monroe, “Will Obama’s Support of Marriage Equality Keep Some Blacks Home on Election Day?” The Huffington Post, September 25, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/irene-monroe/will-obamas-support-of-marriage-equality-keep-some-blacks-home-on-election-day_b_1895246.html.
[viii] Joyce Carol Oates’ “Shame,” The Wheel of Love, New York: Fawcett, 1970, p. 106.
[i]Mignon Moore, Invisible Families (Berkeley: UC Press, 2011), pp. 182, 206-207.
[ii]Ibid., p. 207.
[iii] David M. Barnes and Ilan H. Meyer, “Religious Affiliation, Internalized Homophobia, and Mental Health in Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Volume 82, Issue 4), October 2012, pp. 505-515. The study was conducted exclusively from 2004-2005 to New York city. Though the study was not exhaustive, the “results supported the general hypothesis that non-affirming religion was associated with higher internalized homophobia.”
[iv] It’s estimated that one in seven foster care youth become homeless. See “Hopes and Hurdles: California Foster Care Youth and College Financial Aid,” Report by The Institute for College Access and Success, 2009, p. 5.
[v] “No Way Home: Understanding the Needs and Experiences of Homeless Youth in Hollywood,” Report from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, 2010, pp. 18-19. The overrepresentation of African Americans is also reflected in the broader Los Angeles County homeless population.
[vi] Nicholas Ray, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness,” National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless, 2006, pp. 4-6. The report questions the granting of service provision funding to religious organizations that have historically viewed homosexuality and gay people as sinful. Under former president George W. Bush, faith based initiative subsidies were indiscriminately doled out to religious organizations with no accountability. Under the faith based initiative policy religious organizations can discriminate in hiring and service provision. Covenant House is a recipient of faith based funding and has only recently begun to adopt culturally responsive policies that allow trans youth to be considered as the gender they identified with, rather than their biological sex, and live in non-segregated quarters.
[vii] Covenant House Texas was accused by LGBT activists of “identifying its transgender clients according to the gender shown on birth certificates and…ignoring complaints of bullying and discrimination.” Josef Molnar, “Covenant House Opens up to Transgender Youth,” Out Smart, June 16, 2011, http://outsmartmagazine.com/2011/06/covenant-house-opens-up-to-transgender-youth-gender-preference-now-recognized-by-center.
[viii]Ibid.; See also, Ray, pp. 4-6.
[ix] Rachel Aviv, “Netherland,” The New Yorker, December 10, 2012, p. 65.
[xi] Tom Gallagher, “Helping Kids, One Bold Kindness at a Time,” National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2012, http://ncronline.org/news/people/helping-kids-one-bold-kindness-time.
[xii] Jerome Hunt and Aisha Moodie Mills, “The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth: An Overview of the Experiences of LGBT Youth in the Juvenile Justice System,” Center for American Progress, June 29, 2012, p. 1.
[xiii] The Institute for College Access and Success, p. 2.
[xiv] The bullying-related suicides of Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi elicited national coverage; prompting condemnation from president Obama and the creation of the “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign.