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Will the Eddie Long Sex Scandal Force Black Churches to Confront Their Homophobia?

The sordid tale of megachurch Bishop Eddie Long may provide an opportunity for black churches to deal with their regressive attitudes toward gay men and lesbians.

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.”

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