How does it feel to be a stigma? – Religion, HIV, and the Black LGBTQ Experience
There are many reasons I always try to distinguish between religion and faith/spirituality. Growing up Catholic in Maryland, there are several lessons that I learned from my church. I greatly appreciated the power of a church congregation to foster a sense of community and belonging among Black-Americans. What I learned through church leaders and the Bible informed how I fashioned my own moral compass. However, I’ve forged my own spirituality and morality through a combination of lessons from Christianity with philosophical ideas from Buddhism, fictional literature, world travel, and academic courses in high school and Amherst.
I identify with the empowering way my church community enhanced my degree of faith and spirituality, but I still have trouble embracing organized religion as an institution. As a gay black man, I know that Christian communities are often not spaces designed for me to be visible and celebrated. If it ever is my space, that often means I must silence or repress an important part of myself in order to be a part of it.
One of the hardest things about watching the documentary “The New Black: LGBT Rights and African-American Communities” (2013) for my Black Sexualities course was the consistent invisibility of the intersection of the LGBTQ community and the black community. The possibility of queer black people’s existence was often ignored or denied. Sexuality is a taboo subject in the black community and homosexuality in particular is repudiated as a contagious “white man’s disease” (according to one pastor in the documentary) that infected the black community (this seemed eerily similar to how some Christian and political leaders in African nations imagine queerness as a Western cultural import).
It was disheartening to know that so many black religious leaders could ignore the impact of that their campaign against same-sex marriage could have on black children whose parents happen to be two men or two women. Many of the black leaders opposing same sex-marriage talked about how same-sex marriage would redefine a sacred institution and how the preservation of the institution would reduce additional damage to the (already broken) state of the black family. But how can you talk about looking out for the black family when you are preventing families from forming and denying them economic and legal equality? Haven’t black families been through so much already since slavery that the last thing we should do as a community is make life even harder for black queer parters and their children?
The entire documentary reminded me of a meme I shared on Facebook the other day that argued that if you are pro-black, but anti-gay, you are seeking privilege rather than equality. The black opponents of same sex-marriage believed that homosexuality was a choice, rather than an inherent, unchangeable characteristic like race and skin tone. In the documentary, this privileging of phenotypical identities over more abstract identities like sexuality in civil rights discourse sought to undermine the authenticity of black queer people’s experience. As one of the main organizers featured in the documentary asked her religious foster mother, why would one willingly choose to live under discrimination and marginalization?