By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson; originally published at Feminist Wire
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, and discrimination at school and in local neighborhoods often precipitate homelessness among 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 genderqueer 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 cisgender 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 hypermasculinity, 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]
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.[xxi]
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 among 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.’”[xxii]
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