Sharpton's new sermon: the Reverend Al Sharpton has a plan to combat homophobia among African-Americans and a personal stake in its success: his sister is a lesbian.
Celebrating all that is gay so publicly was a first for the preacher and civil rights activist, who sought the presidency of the United States in 2004. Under a merciless sun, Sharpton barreled down New York City's Fifth Avenue to historic Greenwich Village, looking every bit like a man on a mission. But the one thing he wasn't seeking that humid afternoon was votes. Sharpton, 51, a father of two, was starting his new campaign against homophobia, particularly among African-Americans. "I wanted to go last year, but I didn't want people to say I was going because I was running for president," he says of the parade.
The seeds of this effort were sown in the heat of that campaign. His staff had handed him statistics on HIV infection rates among African-Americans, who make up 47% of Americans with HIV. From 2000 to 2003 the infection rate for black women was 19 times that of white women and five times that of Hispanic women.
"I was outraged when the data was brought to me," Sharpton tells The Advocate. "I said, 'why aren't we saying more about it?' And the unsaid thing was homophobia," he says over breakfast at New York City's Regency Hotel, where power and money dine every morning. Homophobia is the reason that many black religious and political leaders aren't aggressively tackling HIV, he says between sips of coffee and handshakes with genuflecting political heavyweights. "In my interfacing and dialogue with them, I know how many of them feel," he says.
While on the campaign trail, at a time when civil rights for gays and lesbians were constantly under assault, the dapper preacher was outspoken in his support for full marriage equality for gays. That hurt him, he says now. During the contentious Democratic primary in South Carolina, one minister was caustic: "You were my leader until you said that. How can you say that?" Sharpton's response was, "How can we fight for civil rights and support constitutional bias at the same time?"
Sharpton then decided that to shed light on the HIV pandemic raging among blacks, he'd have to deal with the widely accepted antigay bias in the country's black churches. Marjorie Fields-Harris, a Sharpton associate, says, "We cannot address the problems of how it is affecting children, particularly those in foster care, until we get around to this discussion." So the staff at Sharpton's National Action Network, where Fields-Harris is executive director, began brainstorming, and an initiative was born this summer. The only solution, they concluded, was to do it "directly from the pulpit." "Having grown up in the church, I have known gays and lesbians in the church," Fields-Harris says, adding that the response from some blacks to President Bush's hard-line stance on marriage equality for gays is worrisome. "Now, all of a sudden, people want to step away and act like they've never known any of these gay members, rather than deal with the fact that we've always had gays and lesbians in the black church."
Sharpton agrees: "It's absurd to act like it's all right for us to be homophobic." He says he has known gays in the church for as long as he can remember, and one in particular is family: "My sister is gay. I understood the pain of having to lead a double life in the system [since] we grew up in church. She is gay, and she fought that perception in church while she embraced it in her private life."
The initiative's main component will be to have frank discussions and forums in black churches nationwide, coupled with public service announcements for black radio, all beginning this fall.
And Sharpton will publicly support gay leaders. To kick off his plan he accepted an invitation to join the contingent of an out gay candidate for public office in New York City during the pride march. Sharpton walked alongside Brian Ellner, a lawyer seeking to become the next president of the borough of Manhattan. On Sharpton's left was the current borough president, C. Virginia Fields, an African-American woman who is campaigning to make history as New York City's first female mayor. Soon afterward the city's politicos and public health officials gathered at the home of a longtime gay activist for a reception in honor of the initiative. The next stop was church.
As a youngster Sharpton got his start following in the civil rights footsteps of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. After King's death he worked on setting up the National Youth Movement and got instant support from King's gay aide and confidant Bayard Rustin. Sharpton says that Rustin wrote the first check and had told him how the FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, attempted to blackmail King for having Rustin in his ranks. King wouldn't distance himself from Rustin, however. Like many others, Sharpton maintains that Rustin didn't get the historic credit and stature he deserved.
Sharpton's speaking out will be crucial in finally getting the discussion going, says Clarence Patton, acting executive director of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. "Everybody always says you can't have church without gay people, and yet there is an invisibility among lesbian and gay people in the black church. That has really been quite destructive," says Patton, who attended black churches in Philadelphia and Nashville while growing up. "Any of us who are both black and gay are well aware that it's long past the time to have this conversation. It's during those discussions that folks in the black community can really begin to get to the place where we need to be. Our history doesn't lend itself to secrecy and denial."
The crusade might appear to be an uphill battle, but it is possible to fully participate in church and ultimately be supported by the clergy while being openly gay, says the Reverend John S. Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., and author of Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality. He made national headlines when he ordained an openly gay priest in 1989. "When I retired [in 2000] we had 35 out gay and lesbian priests," he says, as well as many out congregants. Spong, who has never met Sharpton, says gays are out and participate fully in the approximately 140 churches that make up the diocese. A good number of those worshippers are black. "We're in the last throes of that battle," he says. "The battle is always vigorous in the last throes. But you never resegregate the world; you never put homosexuals back in the closet once they've come out."
Soon after word of Sharpton's initiative spread, Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith program at the Washington, D.C.-based gay group Human Rights Campaign, flew to the Big Apple to strategize with Sharpton. "We're going to be among the financial sponsors, but we're also working to get him in touch with people doing similar things around the country," Knox says. And Sharpton's voice garners great attention. "We're glad he's raising it on our behalf," Knox says. HRC is contributing up to $5,000 of the initiative's projected $50,000 in start-up costs.
Other prominent black pastors have called for an end to the vitriolic condemnation of gays from churches that might have had the effect of inciting hate against gays. While gay supporters have compared the struggle to the epic civil rights battles that the United States endured in the 1960s, conservative religious leaders of Len disagree. Many of them rallied last year around the country to condemn marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Sharpton says, "It is biased, it is bigotry, and people in our community shouldn't feel ostracized if they are gay."
He's ready for the inevitable backlash. "If I believe in something, I'm willing to accept the flak, because some of us have got to sacrifice what may be popular for what is right. And it will soon be popular. But even if it isn't, it's still right."
Edozien is a reporter for the New York Post.