by Judith Weisenfeld
Numerous recent events have illuminated issues around sexuality in African American communities, including NBA star Kobe Bryant's shouting an anti-gay slur at an official during a game and the firestorm over a Psychology Today article declaring black women “less attractive than other women,” among others. But while the mainstream news media have recognized a largely unprecedented opportunity to ask questions about religion and black sexuality, the results have been largely predictable. Rather than examining these events in relation to the broader issues of race, sexuality and religion in America, most of the stories have emphasized the political and relied on the trope of religious African Americans as uniquely homophobic.
On the other hand, media coverage of the out-of-court settlement that anti-gay activist Bishop Eddie Long reached with four men who accused him of sexual coercion has been refreshingly straightforward, in contrast to the sensationalist tone that dominated coverage when the allegations first surfaced. Membership in Long's church has declined in the months since the suits were filed, and while he still has the support of most of his congregations, it is likely that his megachurch has been forever changed. The difficult situation involving Long, the young men and the church's former and current members presents an opportunity for sustained analysis of discourses about sexuality in black churches that reporters should pursue.
The media itself became the focus when CNN anchor Don Lemon came out as gay. Some commentators interpreted Lemon's decision as a cynical ploy to attract attention to his new autobiography; others saw it as a response to MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow's call for other gay news personalities to be open about their sexuality. Lemon, who has written about growing up Baptist and attending Catholic school, has not only talked of his sense of a general Christian opposition to homosexuality but has also traced the roots of an intractable black homophobia to black churches. Syndicated queer columnist Rev. Irene Monroe's response affirming Lemon's assessment represents one set of reactions, while other columnists in the black blogosphere have raised questions about Lemon's representation of African American attitudes toward homosexuality. Michael Arcenaux charged Lemon with “throwing blacks under the bus” and called for readers to situate homophobia in black religious circles in the broader context of American religious views on religion and sexuality.
Two events that received far less media attention had the potential to yield a more nuanced view of religious opposition to homosexuality in black communities. Both were “coming out” stories –of Pentecostal gospel singer DeJuaii Pace, who came out on the Oprah Winfrey Network series “Addicted to Food,” and former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan, who came out on ESPN. With Pace, viewers saw someone still uncertain about how to understand her sexuality in relation to her religious beliefs but who chose to come out to her mother and sister in a conversation that was at once painful and theologically rich. Sheridan spoke openly about his sexuality in order to encourage others to share their stories, but he also recounted a painful struggle with his father, whose religious objections to homosexuality moved him to break ties with his son. The two men eventually reconciled, with Sheridan's father attributing his ability to come to terms with his son's sexuality to “the power of prayer.”
Attending to stories like these about the lived experiences of families and religious communities in relation to race, gender and sexuality can provide richer sources for complex interpretation than the predictable turn to electoral politics or attitudes on “gay marriage.” Reporters should take heed.
Judith Weisenfeld is Professor of Religion and Associate Faculty in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author most recently of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (University of California Press, 2007).