Editors' Note: Guest blogger Peter Montgomery is Vice President for Communications and Research at People For the American Way Foundation. His first foray into LGBT activism was on the DC local organizing committee for the 1987 March on Washington.
As California's very public debate over marriage equality heads to the November 4 showdown, a separate longer-term project to challenge homophobia in the Black Church and wider African American community began running radio ads across California urging African Americans to oppose anti-gay discrimination. And forums and workshops on marriage equality and homophobia in the black church sparked passionate conversation at the state NAACP convention last weekend.
The three ads in rotation on African American-oriented radio stations focus on a father proud of his daughter's marriage to the woman she loves, a person challenging claims from the anti-equality crowd that marriage equality is more of a threat to black families than concerns over the economy and health care, and an appeal to people hoping for positive change in the country not to leave anyone behind as old barriers come down. The ads drew on focus groups conducted with African American churchgoers in Los Angeles and Oakland in September.
The ads are sponsored by the African American Ministers Leadership Council, a project of People For the American Way Foundation, a nationwide organization that promotes full LGBT equality as part of its broader vision of an America in which everyone is treated equally under the law. The AAMLC is a network of religious leaders dedicated to identifying, training, and supporting the work of African American pastors who are willing to be strong public advocates for progressive values. Last year, the AAMLC created an Equal Justice Task Force and made a commitment to a multi-year effort to take on directly the issue of homophobia in the black church and communities.
The Rev. Kenneth Samuel, a pastor who preaches an inclusive gospel at Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, is heading up the project, and he spent last week in California speaking at public meetings and helping to lead workshops at the state NAACP convention. California's NAACP director Alice Huffman is a passionate advocate for full LGBT equality. The workshops on homophobia in the black church had participants dragging in colleagues and extra chairs for rousing conversation about homophobia, discrimination, love, equality, scripture, and politics. A People For Foundation-produced video documented right-wing efforts to co-opt the black church by embracing and lifting up the voices of anti-gay conservative black clergy. The conversation was so powerful that even clergy who aren't "there" yet on full equality said they were grateful for the discussion. Those who were motivated to be active left with toolkits to help them keep the conversation expanding.
One concrete outgrowth of the workshops: Rev. Gerald Johnson, the Individual Rights and Advocacy Vice Chair of the state NAACP, asked for volunteers to join the workshop resolution committee, and some previous critics of full equality who had experienced a change of heart helped to develop and submit a resolution that resolved to: "develop partnerships with African American civic and religious leaders to educate, train, and advocate for cultural competency and sensitivity in the greater African American community as it relates to gay and lesbian concerns."
Overcoming resistance in the Black Church, as in many other religious communities, is a long-term project that Rev. Samuel says will succeed by bringing "tough and loving" conversations into churches that haven't had them.
"African Americans are generally opposed to discrimination, but on marriage they need to sort out the distinctions between legal equality and religious belief," said Sharon Lettman, spokesman for People For the American Way Foundation. "Most people haven't had a chance to have that conversation. The workshops we did at the NAACP's California state convention last weekend make it clear that people are hungry for it."