Boston’s Gospelfest this year featured Rev. Donnie McClurkin, the poster boy for African American ex-gay ministries, who spews anti-gay religion-based vitriol at every public event he can get as part of his outreach ministries to gay youths. But at this event, McClurkin had to refrain from his usual homophobic diatribes. And it was not because the spirit moved him or because of public protest, but rather because the mayor’s office warned him. McClurkin’s folks knew if Donnie got on his anti-gay soap box that he would never sing in this town again at a city-sponsored gospelfest, but also no place else.
McClurkin is a classic example why homophobia is an ongoing problem in the African American community, and it must be challenged at every opportunity. However, the tactics and strategies must derive from the community itself in cooperation with other faith and activist communities in order for the challenge and protest to be both successful and sustainable.
When Don Gorton, organizer of Join the Impact – MA (JTIMA), a grassroots campaign to promote LGBTQ civil rights, contacted me offering his help in protesting McClurkin’s upcoming appearance, I thought the invitation was sincere.
“Great quotes in the Phoenix article. The Anti-Violence Project is on board with your call to action to protest Donnie McClurkin’s scheduled appearance at GospelFest. I also expect support from Join the Impact MA and Truth Wins Out,” Gorton wrote in an email to me.
When I made suggestions that Gorton needed to keep in mind racial, religious, cultural and community sensitivities, Wayne Besen, of “Truth Wins Out,” who withdrew from the protest shunned them.
Gorton wrote back stating, “FYI. I’m open to most any input on the M.O. for the protest, but determined to go forward despite the sensitivities we need to address.” And in another email he stated, “ I rejected a suggestion from a JTIMA member that we not carry signs—that would be tantamount to canceling the protest.”
But in putting on this protest with racial, religious, cultural and community sensitivities in mind the following things needed to be considered:
- The demographics of the protesters. An overwhelming number of white protesters will not effectively get the message across. And for African American churchgoers who think being gay is a white thing, an overwhelming number of white protesters will only corroborate their fallacious assumptions.
- Talking with a number of African American LGBTQ on a listserv from the community, several suggested a dialogue with community leaders and ministers — black and white — about this event, stating that since Mayor Menino isn’t showing up it would be a ripe time to do a follow-up and open dialogue.
- With the Bible having an iconic image and importance in the African American community, all signage must have biblical phrases or references that resonate in the Black Church and in black theology. Negative messages will not resonate. Messages about Jesus and M.L.King who talked about the Beloved Community asking why aren’t LGBTQ in the fold works.
- There is a movable middle of black ministers on LGBTQ issues. If messaging is ineffective and/or disrespectful it sets back the work many of us African American LGBTQ activists have been doing and are doing with these ministers. And these ministers are the gateway to reaching the community.
- While clearly City Hall Plaza is a public space, black Christians who will gather for Gospelfest see the moment as an open tent revival of the Black Church. The Black Church functions as a multiple site- private and public- and defines itself as a “nation within a nation.”
But Gorton felt that attacking McClurkin would not be attacking the Black Church.
Rev. Leslie Sterling, priest-in-charge of St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church in Cambridge — an African American ally to the LGBTQ community, and the only person of color to show up for the protest, but who took her collar off to not represent the church — wrote Gorton telling him his thinking was wrong and his approach could be deleterious.
“I simply do not think it is possible to single out McClurkin tomorrow as if he were separate from discriminatory attitudes in the gospel music community and the black church as a whole… if your protest is effective and noticed, it is likely to cause hard feelings among people in those two communities because either (a) they believe as he does and you disrupted their Sunday praise and worship with politics, almost as if you had brought protest signs into a church service, or (b) they do not believe as he does and if you had approached them differently they could possibly have been your allies, but by starting the conversation with a slap in the face you will get the relationship off on the wrong foot.”
One of the reasons California’s Proposition 8 passed is the continually recalcitrant and hubristic attitudes of some white LGBTQ activists who will not reach out to communities of color; thus, push their own agenda.
And Gorton proves he hasn’t learned that lesson.