Editors' Note: These posts were originally published in The Advocate in 2005 and in 2006, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Rev. Irene has agreed to let us reprint them on the third anniversary. It's sad to say that many of the points she made back then are still salient today.
Queers to blame for Hurricane Katrina? (September 3, 2005)
Right-wing Christians and doomsday theists have lately become some of our greatest "experts" in explaining natural disasters. As a people who revere God, and who detest those who engage in the blame game, their answer for Hurricane Katrina, the most catastrophic natural disaster of biblical proportions to ever hit the American shore, is none other than God.
The global climatic instability of late, according to them, is God's divine retribution for our unwashable sins. And as the beginning of an earthly ablution, the recent deluge is to cleanse America of its most sinful of citizens - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, as well as African Americans.
Just two days before New Orleans' annual queer Southern Decadence festival was to begin, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. While floods are a natural part of life in the lowlands of Louisiana, and hurricanes are regular occurrences all along the coastline, Michael Marcavage, director of Repent America, an evangelical organization calling for "a nation in rebellion toward God" to reverse itself, had this to say:
"We believe that God is in control of the weather. The day Bourbon Street and the French Quarter were flooded was the day that 125,000 homosexuals were going to be celebrating sin in the street. "We're calling it an act of God."
For these conservative religious groups, the flood is a prayer finally answered and a sin finally addressed.
But LGBTQ people are not the only ones to blame for God's wrath pounding the coastline. It's also African Americans, the ones who toil for minimum wages in the background of the tourist havens, and whose labor, along with the LGBTQ planners, makes the annual Southern Decadence festival possible.
In the online religion journal Belief.net, someone posted that Hurricane Katrina was simply due to "gays, gambling, and Negro jazz." And with such a belief, many ultra-conservatives would argue that a part of God's punishment was the slow relief effort. I guess that absolves FEMA and the Bush Administration for any incompetencies - God directed them to be incompetent.
The problem with this religious rhetoric of blame is that it obfuscates institutional structures of oppression that intentionally deflect attention and accountability from itself and onto disenfranchised groups on the margin - that is, it's the victim's fault.
However, one of the reasons why the relief effort in New Orleans was so slow was simply because it was fraught with glaring race and class biases that gave the world a raw and naked view of America's hidden inhospitality to a group of its own citizens. Called "refugees" in their homeland, African Americans were stranded in New Orleans' heat for four days without food and water. Hip-hop artist Kanye West, during an NBC concert/fundraiser, reflected the sentiment of most African Americans when he said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
As a purported born-again Christian, and a man of supposedly "compassionate conservatism," Bush overlooked one of the most compassionate scriptures in the Bible - Matthew 25:35-36, 40.
It reads: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me. ... Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me."
But the relief effort will soon show other fault lines - those of religion and heterosexism.
While seemingly invisible in this disaster, LGBTQ evacuees will face discrimination at many of the faith-based relief agencies because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or HIV status. And with most of the evacuees African American, they have already experienced discrimination from their communities prior to Hurricane Katrina.
"Tragedy does not discriminate and neither should relief agencies," stated Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, in a news release. "In our experience during the aftermath of Sept. 11, LGBT people face compounded difficulties because on top of the disaster they face discrimination when it comes to recognizing their relationships, leading to even more hardship at the worst moment imaginable."
With an administration that believes in less government involvement, and more participation of faith-based groups, Bush slashes needed government programs by calling on churches and faith-based agencies to provide essential social services that would also impact the lives and well being of its LGBTQ citizens. And with all of these faith-based agencies touting anti-gay religious vitriol, LGBTQ people will be denied help, services and needed medical care or be mistreated or denied shelter because of their sexual orientation.
Operation Blessing, for example, is one of FEMA's relief agencies for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. However, for LGBTQ evacuees it would certainly not serve as a blessing since it is affiliated with the Rev. Pat Robertson. Remember, Robertson along with the Rev. Jerry Falwell called the 9/11 terrorist attacks God's retribution for abortion, feminists, liberals, and homosexuals.
And with black churches becoming part of the relief effort, and unabashedly known for their homophobia, African-American LGBTQ evacuees have neither a chance nor a prayer for assistance.
But ultimately, and most unfortunately, the problem of characterizing natural disasters as God's retribution on a population is that it undermines our abilities and acts of human kindness. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we should be working toward helping our fellow human beings, not blaming one another for what is an unbiased act of God.
Katrina's queer victims: Still suffering (August 31, 2006)
It has been one year since Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans. Thankfully the waters have receded, as has much of the stench from the wreckage. What still lingers in the post-Katrina relief efforts is the odious fault lines of heterosexism and faith-based privilege.
While seemingly invisible in this disaster, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer evacuees and their families faced all kinds of discrimination at the hands of many of the faith-based relief agencies because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.
And with most of the evacuees being African-American, along with the fault lines of race and the fact that sexual orientation is on the "down-low" in much of the African-American community, many African-American LGBT evacuees experienced discrimination from both their communities and black faith-based institutions.
"The Superdome was no place to be an out black couple," said Jeremiah Leblanc, who now lives in Shreveport, La. "We got lots of stares and all kinds of looks. What were we thinking? But my partner and I were in a panic and didn't know what to do when we had to leave our home."
George W. Bush's faith-based organizations fronted themselves as "armies of compassion" on his behalf. But these organizations' caveat to LGBT people was, If you are gay, you ought to stay away.
And with black churches, many of which are known for their unabashed homophobia, conducting a large part of the relief effort, African-American LGBT evacuees and their families had neither a chance nor a prayer for assistance.
"When we were all forced to leave the dome, we were gathered like cattle into school buses," said Leblanc. "[My partner] Le Paul and I both needed our meds, clothes, and a way to find permanent shelter after the storm, but we knew to stay the hell away from the black churches offering help. We couldn't tell anyone we were sick and HIV-positive. And when we got to Houston, we saw the Salvation Army, but Le Paul and I knew to stay the hell away from that too."
The Salvation Army delivered no salvation to a lot LGBT families. On its Web site, the Salvation Army states: "Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage."
With an administration that believes that restoring a spiritual foundation to American public life has less to do with government involvement and more to do with the participation of faith-based groups, Bush slashed needed government programs by calling on churches and faith-based agencies, at taxpayers' expense, to provide essential social services that would also impact the lives and well-being of its LGBT citizens.
Many LGBTQ families worried about being separated from each other since Louisiana does not recognize same-sex unions. And some people associated with Bush's faith-based relief programs even blamed the wrath of Hurricane Katrina on LGBT people.
Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast just two days before Labor Day weekend, when New Orleans's annual queer Southern Decadence festival was to begin. While floods are a natural part of life in the lowlands of Louisiana, and hurricanes are regular occurrences all along the coastline, Michael Marcavage, director of Repent America, an evangelical organization calling for "a nation in rebellion toward God" to reverse itself, had this to say: "We believe that God is in control of the weather. The day Bourbon Street and the French Quarter were flooded was the day that 125,000 homosexuals were going to be celebrating sin in the street. We're calling it an act of God."
For these conservative religious groups, the flood was a prayer finally answered and a sin finally addressed. Never mind that neither Bourbon Street nor the French Quarter were ever flooded by the storm.
Not all churches or organizations of faith were unwelcoming to LGBT people. Some churches, albeit few, were opening and affirming parishes to LGBT people and their families before Katrina hit.
"I wasn't going to the Superdome," said Angelamia Bachemin, an African-American lesbian percussionist renowned throughout Boston's queer and music communities for her pioneering style of jazz hip-hop and a former professor of ethnomusicology at the Berklee School of Music before returning home to her native New Orleans. "When my partner and I and the children fled, it was not an issue for the folks at this Catholic church. The people at Epiphany Church just took us in, and we began rolling with the evangelists during the relief effort. They paid money for the materials for my roof. They have done more for me and my family than the government."
Bachemin is one of the lucky few LGBT families now in the long process of rebuilding their homes and lives in New Orleans.
Leblanc isn't. His partner, who was in the last stages of full-blown AIDS, died two weeks after Katrina.
Not legally married, Leblanc as a widower is not eligible for surviving-spouse Social Security benefits. And because he is gay, he is also not eligible for any of the faith-based relief assistance to help him get his life back in order.
While Katrina shamelessly showed the botched relief effort commanded by FEMA and the fault lines of race and class in this country, it did not show the hidden abuses of heterosexism and homophobia. Instead Bush's faith-based organizations did.
Consequently those at the margins of society became the center of the tragedy as Hurricane Katrina nakedly exposed how Bush neither sees nor wants his administration to be the primary source of assistance or compassion for Americans in crisis.