Professional basketball player Jason Collins comes out

by Frederick Sparks

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

Jason-CollinsIn case you hadn’t heard, NBA journeyman center Jason Collins has declared to the world that he is a gay man.   Collins entered the NBA twelve years ago, along with his twin Jarron, after the two played collegiate basketball at Stanford.  He is being hailed as the first out active male athlete in a major professional team sport in the U.S. (though some may argue that late baseball player Glenn Burke was the first).

Collins says he was inspired to come out after his former college roommate, current Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy, marched in a Boston gay pride parade:

I’m seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy. I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. If I’d been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, “Me, too.”

The reaction across the twitter verse and blogsphere, with some exceptions, has been positive, with Kobe Bryant and other current and former players and coaches offering support.  ESPN analyst Chris Broussard, apparently troubled by Collins’ reference to his Christian upbringing and respect for Jesus Christ and how that fits into a viewpoint of tolerance and acceptance,  stated (on a sports show) that Jason couldn’t be a Christian and an “active” homosexual at the same time.  Also, some seem to believe that the fact that Jason’s twin Jarron is not gay means that homosexuality is a choice.

Collins is a free agent (meaning not under contract with any team), having done stints this season with both the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.  Now the question moves to whether his coming out will affect the decision making of team owners who would otherwise be interested in adding Collins to their rosters.   Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who works for an openly gay team President, felt the need to point out that he is a Christian man with a sense of right and wrong before saying that Collins would be welcome on his team “if he had game. If he could help this team”.

Beyond the reaction of people in the sports world, what intrigues (and annoys) me is the reaction of commentators who wonder why this is a big deal and throw out inane chestnuts about how straight people don’t announce that they are straight.  This is the blind spot of social privilege..not recognize that straight people quite often announce their sexuality in many ways (wearing wedding rings, referring to wives and husbands) that go unnoticed because it is the expected norm.  It also smacks of the sentiment that the problem is not with bias, but with discussing bias, and with discussing issues of identity that are related to bias.

Well Meaning but Tortuous Gay Biblical Apologetics

By Frederick Sparks

 

Matthew Vines is a gay Harvard student reared in a “loving Christian home” and church community in Kansas. After finally reconciling himself to his sexual orientation, Vines took a two-year leave of absence to research what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. In March of this year, Vines gave a speech at a Kansas United Methodist Church, giving an overview of the verses that have been traditionally viewed as condemning of homosexuality. Gay columnist Dan Savage has referred to the video of the speech as “brilliant”.

 
Vines is clearly a bright, thoughtful young man who values his faith and who cares deeply about the experiences of LGBT Christians in their church communities. The most compelling portion of the video comes at the end when Vines speaks directly to straight Christians about their interactions with their gay brothers and sisters. However, I did not find Vines arguments particularly unique or consistently persuasive. At one time I was a gay Christian trying to reconcile my sexual orientation with a belief that the Bible was a “good” book that expresses God’s love, and most of the alternative explanations here I’d heard (and said) before. And like the arguments often heard from African-American Christians about how the slavery seemingly endorsed in the bible wasn’t REALLY slavery, what I see here is a person making indefensible apologetics for oppressive dictates in order to hold on to a belief system that provides emotional sustenance in other ways.

 
Vines best arguments concern the prohibition against homosexuality associated with the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He convincingly demonstrates that taking this story as a general condemnation against homosexuality is unsubstantiated…both by looking at the context of the story itself and from other scriptural references that refer to Sodom’s chief sin as one of “discourtesy” to visitors (who also happen to be emissaries of the almighty). He as well makes easy work of the clumsy and presumptive translations of arsenokoites (abusers of themselves with mankind) and malokos (effeminate) which appear in 1 Corinthians. Vines rightfully dismisses later translations using “homosexual” as completely unsubstantiated, particularly given the ambiguity around the meaning of the greek words.

 

But he loses me in his disposition of the Leviticus injunction against “lying with mankind as with womankind’. Vines makes the standard Christian argument when dismissing the most odious of the Old Testaments moral precepts: this does not apply to the new covenant and is therefore inapplicable to Christians. This argument not only ignores the inconsistent statements regarding the continued applicability of OT laws, but also has the unintended consequence of maintaining the death penalty for gay Jews. And, Vines of course never addresses the morality of a god who would make gay sex a death penalty offense under ANY ‘covenants’ or circumstances.

 
The handling of the odd-even-by-biblical standards section of Romans also falls flat. Vines points out that the verses are rendered in a way to describe idolatrous believers being given over to desires, including same-sex behavior. He then inconsistently argues that this verse describes behavior that was against a “naturally heterosexual’ person’s normal orientation while at the same time asserting (correctly) that the ancients had no concept of sexual orientation. He also puts forth a rather binary viewpoint of sexuality as either heterosexual or homosexual. Does he agree that a primarily heterosexual person who has homosexual activity deserves to be condemned or criticized for that as a matter of course? Again the defensibility of condemning the sexual behavior even under those circumstances isn’t questioned.

 
More generally, throughout the talk Vines makes the common and cloying distinction between “loving, committed same sex relationships” and the type of licentious sexual relationships which he believes the relevant verses condemn. This implies that the writers would have made a similar distinction, which is an unsubstantiated assumption.

 
And as a secularist, my overall critique is against the impulse to reconcile homosexuality to a barbaric book of mythology. Of course my viewpoint is “who gives a damn what the bible says one way or another?” I also think the approach of changing minds about the morality of homosexuality by offering alternative biblical explanations gets the process backwards. As much as some claim that their morality comes from the bible, what seems to be the case to me is that changes in moral viewpoints of believers result more from cultural, political, and temporal factors and the degree to which relationships and identities are modeled in works of popular culture. The position is then “retrofitted” in a new look or take on scripture, so that the illusion that moral judgments come from the bible can be maintained.

 

But as a secularist interested in social justice issues, including the experiences of LGBT Christians, I have sympathy towards those working no matter how incrementally to push for progressive change within religious communities. At the same time I still see pointing out the fallacy of using this ancient text as a moral guideline as the more sensible and defensible approach.

The Curious Case of Gays in the Black Church

By Frederick Sparks

An oft repeated story in the black church and gospel music community involves 50s and 60s era gospel singing legend Mahalia Jackson making a cross country automobile trek with four male companions who were members of her singing troupe. The car suffers a flat and Jackson gets out of the car to change the tire. A passing highway patrolman stops to render aid, and asks Jackson why she didn’t have one of the men change the tire. Jackson replies “Baby, them ain’t men, them is sissies.”
Possible lack of historical verisimilitude notwithstanding, the story conveys one essential and undisputed truth: there is a long standing, well known presence of queer men in the black church. Even while African American Christians remain the group most opposed to marriage equality and most likely to believe in “literal” interpretation of scripture.
This dichotomy was recently clearly highlighted in the Eddie Long scandal, in which the anti-gay millionaire pastor of an Atlanta mega church was accused of sexual improprieties with teenage boys (Long settled with the young men after initially vowing to fight the charges). One of Long’s gay congregants, interviewed last year at the time the story broke, spoke of a large gay presence in Long’s congregation and a sort of don’t ask don’t tell policy which led the interviewee and his male partner to give different descriptions of their relationship to members of the church.
Nowhere is the gay male presence more prevalent than in the gospel church choir, or more generally what is known as the “music ministry”. Music sensation Billy Preston once quipped that the church choir was the first gay-straight alliance. The homosexuality of gospel great James Cleveland (known as the King of Gospel) was an open secret in the gospel community. After his death, widely believed to be from complication of AIDS but never officially declared so, Cleveland’s foster son alleged that the two had been involved in a sexual relationship which resulted in the young man also contracting HIV. The shroud of denial around Cleveland’s death was not an isolated incident; there was a deadly silence in the gospel community while choir stands in black churches across the country were being hit with AIDS related deaths.
So why do black gays stay in churches where homosexuality is condemned and they are kept from living their lives healthily and fully? Even when there are other choices of “affirming” churches that welcome the openly and actively homosexual? Northwestern professor and gospel music vocalist E. Patrick Johnson stated in a 2006 interview that ‘Those who are familiar with life in the Black church know that we are raised in this paradox; the church is a place we have known since the womb and, so, it is our first cultural experience in the Black community. And it is so much a fundamental part of our lives that even though we are in a place that is often very inhospitable to those who are LGBT, we remain, finding ways to exist within it.’ Johnson also believes that the choir in the Black church has always been a place where gay men could show off their virtuosity while exploring their sexuality, and that the more welcoming, liberal churches lack the “spirit” of the black church worship experience (translation: the music isn’t as good.).
In addition to that, I believe it is the perfect example of Christianity creating the problem (homosexuality is sinful) and providing the solution (God loves you, and can heal and forgive you). I also think the matriarchal presence looms large for many black gays, and mama and aunties and grandmother are all “in the church”. In addition, some actually earn money from the church because of their musical or other talents.
Given all those factors though, still seems to me like a baby worth throwing out with the bath water. The prototypical black church experience is antithetical to an LGBT person living a psychologically healthy life. And proceeding from the assumption that “this lifestyle is sinful” or that “one can be changed” presents a serious impediments for healthy same sex romantic relationships, which may partly explain why there have been so many predatory situations as described above. It has also been suggested that such attitudes lead to poorer choices in terms of sexual activity and disease transmission prevention.
If there is to be a secular/atheist movement among African Americans it must address head-on the issue of homophobia in the black community and in the black church in particular. And it must serve a community of black gays and lesbians that has too long compromised self respect for marginal benefits from the church experience.

The Burdens of a Heterosexual


By Sean Smith

As if it were yesterday I remember every time I would visit my father I was faced with the daunting task of answering his questions. These questions didn’t pertain to my recent academic progress but rather my perceived sexual orientation; “you ain’t gay is you boy?” Knowing the emotional turmoil I would cause if I honestly answered his questions, I abided by the heterosexual rule of always answering no. In an effort to fuel the believability of my answer, I would go as far as showing him photos of women I had in my phone. I was and still am his only son. The hetero-normative society we live in says it is my job to carry on the family name, to spread my seed, to procreate, to get married to a woman and provide for a family. That same society is responsible for countless LGBTQ Teen deaths, who so desperately try to ‘fit in’.

As I grew older I found myself in similar situations that I faced during my childhood–the constant plaguing questions about my sexual orientation, the ridicule for playing tennis instead of football, reading instead of rapping, and engaging in extracurricular school activities instead of chasing after the plethora of single women gracing the halls of my high school.

Adult men are faced with a unique challenge when it comes to protecting the sacredness of their heterosexuality; it becomes intertwined with protecting their ‘masculinity’. We start battling with other men mentally, physically, and, believe it or not, emotionally. Who has the more attractive girl, whose biceps and dick is the biggest (contradiction?), which one of us is making the most money, and drives the fancier car. Our obligations to heterosexuality are loaded with living up to the expectations of similar systems of oppression; patriarchy, capitalism, and being adept on the latest homophobic slur. As men there are levels of heterosexuality that you must prove yourself worthy of reaching, not only to other men, but to women as well. The expectations are more stringent, and the consequences of being labeled the ‘punk bitch’ are even more detrimental to the wellbeing of one’s manhood.

Do we truly enjoy living with every microscopic detail of our lives being sampled and weighed accordingly on the scale of heterosexuality? Are there not enough oppressive expectations we ritually battle, as we progress through life? It is our duty as humans to not only challenge that which many of us have been indoctrinated to believe, but to take an uncharted individually invented journey into the free world of sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation. It is time we stop allowing toys, placement and type of jewelry, colors, social activities, and our desire to follow the oppressive rules of procreation and hetero-normativity control our lives. It is time women end this search for the mirage of a ‘real man’, and for women to stop being criticized for not being ‘lady like’. It is time for men to cease the perpetuation of the unwinnable masculine battle. Our masculinity is not determined by anyone else but us. There are no authentic guides, books, or maps to manhood. It captures us at the least expected moments, and is supposed to leave us vulnerable to the unexpected. We should be elated when certain expressions and behaviors are characterized as feminine; then and only then will we escape the egregious label of the savage beast.

While learning to accept my sexual orientation, there were moments where I distanced myself safely away from anything remotely feminine. In distance I felt that I was safe from the stigmatization and ridicule that effeminate men were plastered with; from their more masculine counterparts. In reality I was scared, lonely, and lost; to my surprise it was the very type of person I distanced myself from, who helped me come to terms with who I am. The vibrant and carefree nature of this person was who I wanted to be, not the imprisoned ‘masculine’ and perceived heterosexual person I was. We learn from each other and respect each other when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable around each other. Will we as a society open the window to let in that same vibrant and carefree air, or will we continue to suffocate ourselves and our children, with the stale air of obligatory and burdensome gender expectations of heterosexuality? Progression doesn’t come at the hands of passing a few laws, and learning to accept those which are unlike you. Progression comes when we cohesively begin to challenge the rules and expectations of society to which we have been obligated to follow.

Sean Smith is pursuing a B.A in Sociology and Spanish at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA

Black Atheists and Reactionary Black Nationalism


By Norm R. Allen Jr.

Members of the Black Atheists of Atlanta are causing quite a stir on the Web with their provocative conception of Black atheism. They embrace a reactionary, African-centered worldview, from which they inevitably denounce homosexuality, Western civilization, and White people in general. In particular, they are all too willing to sacrifice the rights of LGBT people on the altar of African culture.

With so much conceptual confusion running through their minds, they are bound to experience much cognitive dissonance. For example, though they denounce Greek civilization and culture, they embrace the Greek term “atheist,” which means without a belief in God or gods. What is even more problematic is that many Afrocentrists, such as the late John Henrik Clarke, believe that atheism will never take root among people of African descent. Some Afrocentrists claim that atheism is so foreign to Africans that there is no word for atheism in any African language. The late Afrocentric scholar Asa G. Hilliard said that church/state separation is a concept that is totally foreign to Africans. How do reactionary, African-centered atheists deal with these problems?

To their credit, these reactionary Black atheists of Atlanta have learned well from the handbook of reactionary Black militancy. They poison the well by claiming that their critics are wrong because they are Whites, or Blacks that have been brainwashed by Whites. These dogmatic atheists are not above questioning the Blackness of their Black critics.

Ironically, the Blackness of reactionary nationalists is never questioned. Marcus Garvey formed an alliance with the KKK. Elijah Muhammad used Malcolm X to forge an alliance with George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party. Louis Farrakhan formed an alliance with Tom Metzger and the White Aryan Resistance. Moreover, the Nation of Islam (NOI) leader has served as an apologist for bigoted slave owners in Sudan. If ever there is a time to question one’s Blackness, it surely ought to be when that person joins forces with the sworn enemies and murderers of Black people. Yet in these cases, reactionary Black leaders were given a free pass, while their Black critics were viewed warily.

The reactionary members of the Black Atheists of Atlanta view antipathy toward homosexuality as an African virtue. Due to exposure to good scholarship, however, they have quietly retreated away from the absurd claim that homosexuality did not exist in Africa before it was introduced by White Westerners. Still, they claim that Africans did not approve of it.

In truth, laws against homosexuality were introduced into Africa by White Christians. Today opposition to same-sex relations is fueled by White missionaries and Eurocentric Christianity. The proposed “kill the gays bill” in Uganda was deeply influenced by White missionaries. White missionaries have also influenced widespread homophobia in Malawi and other nations.

The reactionary nationalists of the Black Atheists of Atlanta insist that homosexuality is unnatural; hence they are opposed to it. However, this rationalization is weak. After all, for millennia, oral sex was considered unnatural, but today there are no major efforts to oppose it. Furthermore, men and women engage in anal sex, which for them could also be considered “unnatural.” Again, where is the outrage against heterosexuals engaged in this alleged abomination?

Regardless of what one thinks about homosexuality, consenting adults should have the right to do what they please as long as they are not hurting anyone else. Such an idea might be considered un-African by some, but it is a cornerstone of liberty.

These Reactionary Black Nationalists have much in common with religious fanatics. Religious fanatics insist that they have the one, true God. Similarly, these Reactionary Black Nationalists insist that genuine African culture and values are perfect. Conversely, all ideas that are believed to emanate from White people are to be immediately deemed suspect.

It is obvious to Reactionary Black Nationalists that Whites can learn much from Blacks. But should true knowledge and wisdom be color-coded? Can Blacks not learn a great deal about humanity from Shakespeare, about freethought and liberty from Robert Ingersoll, about philosophy from Bertrand Russell, etc.? Surely it only makes sense to embrace important truths wherever they are to be found, regardless of their source. This is what critical thinking is all about.

As quietly as it’s kept, one can be African-centered and progressive. The great freethinker Hubert Henry Harrison was consistently progressive in his pursuit for justice for people of African descent. W.E.B. Du Bois, considered by many to be the father of Pan-Africanism, was progressive. Today Black freethinkers such as Gary C, Booker of Atlanta and Kwadwo Obeng of California via Ghana are progressive African-centered thinkers.

Black freethinkers must not succumb to the seductive rhetoric of Reactionary Black Nationalists. With enough humanity, originality, and creative intelligence, Black non-theists can come up with a progressive vision for society that can positively transform the world.

For 21 years, Norm R. Allen Jr. was the only full-time African American secular humanist activist traveling the world promoting secular humanism. He is the editor of two books, The Black Humanist Experience and African American Humanism.

Discretion: The “DL” Problem


By Dexter Smith

The “Down-Low”. A uniquely African-American slang term used in reference to an insidious subculture of deeply closeted African-American homosexual and/or bisexual men who, while carrying on their normal, day-to-day, public lives as heterosexual men, simultaneously lead secret lives engaged in sexual relations with other men. The meaning of the term, however, has expanded over the years to include all closeted African-American gay and/or bisexual men. Originally the typical “DL” man identified as “straight” despite his same sex attractions and liaisons. Today, many “DL” men accept that they are either homosexual or bisexual despite what they may tell the rest of the world.

Defined by its “cult of masculinity”, the “DL” lifestyle shuns the traditional trappings of LGBT culture for secrecy and discretion. Many “DL” men are deluded into believing that they can somehow remain in the closet forever, carrying on a double life in secrecy for as long as they like. This of course seldom, if ever, works. These things invariably have a way of being exposed eventually. The “DL” lifestyle itself is symptomatic of the shame, fear, and ignorance that plague the African-American LGBT community. The African-American community itself, overwhelmingly Christian and therefore bound hopelessly to patriarchal beliefs and behavior, is not very welcoming to homosexuality.

The struggle to “come out of the closet” is nothing new. It is a transition that every gay and or bisexual person, African-American or otherwise, will have to experience. However, there is something different about the experience in the African-American community. It seems that heterosexism is even more densely concentrated amongst black people than it is amongst our white counterparts. We’re deeply mired in a cult of hetero-normativity, devoted to a fallacy constructed by patriarchy. So much so that we’ve produced this dangerous “DL” subculture. A factor which has helped turn the African-American LGBT community into this backwards satellite of the wider mainstream LGBT community.

A friend once told me that sexuality is a “private thing”. That it was ok to be in the closet or “DL” because no one needed to know your sexual orientation. Especially since, as he saw it, being gay made things harder. The notion is not entirely without merit but it sets an unfair double standard. Why should my sexuality be private? After all, if you approached a heterosexual male or female and asked “Are you straight?” chances are they will respond honestly. If my sexuality is private, am I supposed to lie? Why should I advance heterosexism by keeping my sexuality “private”? After all, unless I indicate otherwise, most people would automatically assume that I’m heterosexual. I don’t want that. If you’re not free to be who you are then exactly how free are you?

Besides, how exactly are we to dispel the negative myths and stereotypes, eradicate the stigma and ignorance, and achieve equality by hiding? If we act like we have something to be ashamed of, people will treat us like we have something to be ashamed of. We must abandon the false notion that heterosexuality is superior. This is, in itself, the very root of many or our problems.

The plight of LGBT people has come a long way since June 28, 1969, when those brave pioneers of the gay rights movement stood up to this country’s institutionalized oppression of sexual minorities. On December 18, 2010, the discriminatory “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy which prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces was repealed. American society has become very open, welcoming and tolerant, and with each year that passes the excuses for hiding dwindle in number and significance. Its 2011 and you’re still so called on the “DL”? Excuse my use of common black vernacular but “Nigga please!” That is so last year.

I’m not hiding. I’m proud, I’m happy, and I’m free. Thank You.

Dexter Smith is a sophomore Political Science major at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.