Will the Eddie Long Sex Scandal Force Black Churches to Confront Their Homophobia?
Atlanta megachurch Bishop Eddie Long faces four lawsuits from young men -- either members of his congregation or employed by his church -- who alleged that Long coerced them into sex. The news broke a few weeks ago and has caused a huge uproar within the black church community. But black lesbian, gay and transgendered folks as well as numerous civil rights leaders wonder if Long’s downfall could open the door for a long overdue conversation about homophobia in the black church. It also offers an opportunity for the black church to distinguish itself from the anti-gay rhetoric of white evangelicals and reclaim its historical place as being primarily about civil rights, as opposed to hate.
Long is accused of seducing at least four former parishioners or former employees at his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta. The men say he pushed them into having sex, using the scripture as justification for his behavior. The latest allegation comes from Spencer LeGrande, who joined the church in 2005 when he was 17 years old. LeGrande says he was seduced by Long shortly after joining.
"I wasn't free until I came out with it. That's when my life's been much better, this last week has been free," LeGrande said.
LeGrande said he decided to come forward after seeing that three other men had also sued Long for coercing them into sexual relationships as teens. Another man, 23-year-old Jamal Parris, called the virulently anti-gay crusading pastor a monster.
"I cannot forget the way he made me feel, the way he made me cry many nights when I drove in his car on the way home, not able to take enough showers to wipe the smell of him off of my body," Parris said.
On Tuesday, Long again addressed his 10,000-member congregation at New Birth Baptist Missionary Church. He refused to address the allegations against him but has claimed through his lawyer that the allegations are lies, attempts to extort money from him by men with serious credibility issues.
“I’ve been accused, I’m under attack. I want you to know, as I said earlier, that I am not a perfect man,” Long said. “But this thing, I’m going to fight.”
Just another self-loathing gay man of the cloth?
Long’s case comes on the heels of a host of other anti-gay religious and political leaders who have, while railing against gay rights, been embroiled in gay sex scandals. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, with the Catholic Church concealing and protecting pedophiles for generations. Through inaction or willful actions, the church enabled the continued abuse. Several years back, Ted Haggard, the anti-gay crusading evangelical, got caught in a hotel room with amphetamines and a male prostitute. George Rekers, the doctor who claimed homosexuality was a “gender disturbance" that he could cure, hired a male prostitute/escort to accompany him to Europe. Roy Ashburn, the Republican California state senator, was stopped by law enforcement leaving a gay bar in Sacramento with a male prostitute. The list goes on and on.
But there are several elements to this story that could potentially elevate it from just another train wreck personal crisis to an opportunity for heightened discourse about discrimination and civil rights. Within this uncomfortable moment for the black church, there is an opportunity to finally address the issue of homophobia.
Worshiping in silence
“We have a 'don’t ask, don’t tell' policy within the black community and the black church. As long as you don’t disclose your sexuality, you can be on the usher board, you can be in the pulpit, but don’t you dare talk about it,” said Darion Aaron, a black gay Christian, activist and author who lives in Atlanta. “And it’s killing us as a community, and it’s killing gay and lesbian members of the black church who have to go to church and listen to that mental abuse. We are more accepting of a rapist or a murderer than an unrepentant gay and lesbian.”
Aaron says the gay community in Atlanta has known for some time that Long was a hypocrite. He has personally seen the bishop on numerous occasions out at the mall with young, attractive men who were either gay or bisexual. The gay community in Atlanta is upset, he says, by the hypocrisy, but not surprised.
“When the news broke,” Aaron said. “It was like, ‘Oh, there it is.”
On the upside, Aaron says the accusations have touched off numerous conversations in Metro Atlanta about gay African Americans and their place in the black church. The black church has historically accepted gay folks as long as they kept silent about their sexuality. Many African American gays and lesbians have accepted these limited roles for the sake of having a place within the black community. You can walk into just about any black church in the country and find dozens of gay folks present. Gay men are leading the choir. They are ushering you to your seat. They are cooking the church’s Sunday dinner.
"Gay men and lesbians have always been present in the black church, actively engaged at that," said Joshua Altson in a Sept. 23 Newsweek.com article. "The prevalence of gay men in black church choirs and bands, for example, is accepted but not widely discussed. The unspoken agreement is that gay men get to act as seraphim, so long as they are willing to shout in agreement as they are being flagellated from the pulpit. It’s an indignity some gay men subject themselves to each and every Sunday. Why should they have to live this way?"
Alston recalled how another black pastor in Atlanta, Dennis Meredith, had gone from espousing anti-gay views to "preaching acceptance" once his own son came out as gay. While some parishioners left, rather than hear a message of love and acceptance for gays, they were replaced by new congregants looking for a church that would accept and affirm them.
"Long’s predicament is bringing back to the surface the endless debate over whether or not homosexuality is fundamentally moral or acceptable, a debate that preachers like Long have prolonged with their bigoted teachings," Alston wrote. "It’s about the black community on the whole and whether or not gay men and lesbians are going to be considered full citizens in it."
Ray Taliaferro, of the San Francisco Bay area, is just one of many longtime civil rights activists who have used the Long scandal as an opportunity to blast black homophobia.
"It is inhumane to do what black people do when they approach the issue of homosexuality," Taliaferro told the San Francisco Examiner. "Why is it that black people, my people, feel they got to get up in the pulpit and they have to condemn a very active segment of the population of our society who happen to be gay, who happen to be homosexual?"
Taliaferro is a former San Francisco NAACP president and has been a choir director for years at several churches in San Francisco.
Addressing the Eddie Long case, Taliaferro said, "That is just typical. You will have a black man and he will put on a robe and he'll address a large congregation, and man he'll rail against being gay and he'll rail against the sin of homosexuality and he'll rail against all that stuff and he can't wait until what God made him comes into play, and as soon as the sermon is over, he goes into the choir room and grabs one of the choir boys and they go off and have a wonderful time. When, oh when, are people in the black community going to stop preaching that crap? It is crap. It is inhumane to put down wonderful people because of their homosexuality."
Rev. Al Sharpton also spoke about the Long sex scandal. Over the weekend the NAACP, along with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, sponsored the One Nation Working Together rally on the National Mall. These may seem like minor accomplishments in the larger theme of things, but the reaction is drastically different than, say, in 2004 when the black church and many elderly members of the civil rights movement were used to support gay marriage bans in numerous statewide elections.
“It’s time that the black church and the African American community begin engaging in an open and frank conversation over the issue of homophobia. For far too long, we have dodged the bullet on this reality, and the end result has been catastrophic for all of us. Because of a massive stigma and fears of castigation, many live dual realities – on the one end pretending they are fathers and husbands, and on the other, living on the 'down-low,'" Sharpton said. “Not only has such an existence denied people the opportunity to live openly and freely as they choose, but it has greatly contributed to the skyrocketing number of HIV/AIDS cases among African American women who may be unaware of the activities of their husbands/boyfriends. As we continue discussing Pastor Long’s alleged crimes, we must ask ourselves, would this have been such a big issue if it were a heterosexual allegation?”
Black women are hugely, and disproportionately, affected by AIDS. Roughly 85 percent of African American women living with HIV may have been infected this way, and they account for nearly half of the country's female epidemic. While the science of how the “down low” factor plays into this statistic is largely unclear, what is true is that homophobia remains a huge issue when it comes to testing, the ability to negotiate safe sex practices and the reluctance some at-risk populations feel about getting tested.
“I’m so happy this Eddie Long thing happened because it’s forcing the church to have a long overdue conversation about homophobia and sexuality. We haven’t even figured out how to have a conversation about sexuality without condemning,” Aaron said, adding that he is not sure if this incident alone will be enough to rid the black church of homophobia. But he says, there is hope as congregations get younger.
“It’s gonna take the young people in the black church to initiate the conversation,” Aaron said. “I don’t think the older generation, I hate to say it, but I don’t think they are even capable. Even through all of this, a lot of Eddie Long’s members continue to have blinders on."
Capitalizing off bigotry
A while back Newt Gingrich's former wife made headlines when she recounted asking Gingrich how he could push “values” while engaging in adultery. He answered that it didn't matter what he did, it's what he said. Gingrich knows American bigotry and hypocrisy quite well. He knew he could ride that wave into political power, and he continues riding that same wave today.
The same is true for Long, who, like Gingrich, knows black bigotry and hypocrisy. He knows that some black folks, perhaps because we have been at the bottom rungs of society for a long time, have a peculiar weakness, a need, an insecurity perhaps -- some of us want another person or group to be below us.
That is the very basis of bigotry and every bigot is driven by that same insecurity, regardless of circumstance or race. It’s not that bigots believe others are somehow inferior to them; it’s that they want and need to believe someone else is inferior or wrong in order for them to feel right. Long, much like Gingrich, rode the wave of black bigotry right to the bank. Membership at his megachurch in Atlanta exploded after his infamous march against marriage equality. Despite the criticism, it continued to climb as he aligned himself with former President George W. Bush and the infamous Defense of Marriage Act. Oftentimes, it’s the anti-gay rhetoric that strikes the most vocal chord among many of these megachurch-goers.
Playing the anti-gay card proved quite profitable for Long. He built a religious empire over the last two decades, paying himself a reported $3 million a year salary. His New Birth Missionary Baptist Church includes a multimillion-dollar network of charities and businesses, a private school and the Samson’s Health and Fitness Center, where he holds court and pumps iron with young people. His membership has, according to the New York Times, swelled to about 25,000.
He lives in a 5,000-square-foot house with five bedrooms, which he bought in 2005 for $1.1 million. When he took over New Birth Church, it had only 300 members and a small building.
With the level of Christianity-backed homophobia, regardless of color, it makes you wonder why gay men like Aaron continue to embrace Christianity. To this question, Aaron has a very simple answer.
“My relationship is with God, not man, and certainly not the church, which is just a building,” Aaron said. “That’s something I had to learn for myself early on. It’s a good thing. I never take anything that any pastor says at face value. I don’t believe in leaving my brain at home when I go to church on Sundays. That’s a huge flaw of churchgoers, not just black churchgoers. They don’t know and they don’t read for themselves.”