Fifty years ago this summer, Bayard Rustin—a brilliant organizer, orator, nonviolent strategist, and also a gay man—was forced to resign his position at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because of his sexual orientation. Today, one sin of civil rights storytelling is that many who invoke Martin Luther King Jr. ignore Rustin. And yet the emergence of King as a nonviolent prophet is unintelligible without brother Rustin, who went on to do key (and partly uncredited) work organizing the 1963 March on Washington.
When we consider color, let us not ignore the stories of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as if the two issues were completely separate. They ought not to be conflated, and yet they are inextricably intertwined.
Far too often, black and brown youth who are gay or lesbian suffer from an unceasing stream of epithets, threats, and violence in the formative years of life. Consider the story of Sakia Gunn. Gunn, a 15-year-old lesbian and Newark native, was murdered in 2003 in her hometown while returning from a trip to New York. After refusing the advances of two men, she was stabbed to death. Homophobia also led to violence for Gregory Love, a Morehouse College student whom classmate Aaron Price merely suspected of being gay; Love received a fractured skull in 2002 when Price assaulted him with a baseball bat in the dormitory bathroom.
Violence directed against our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers—again, many of whom are black and brown—is immoral, illegal, and incompatible with those who follow the Prince of Peace.
When Tonéx, one of the most gifted gospel artists of the past quarter century, came out of the closet, many of his peers publicly threw him under the pews. The not-so-subtle message was twofold. First, a person is not allowed to be explicitly gay and publicly offer praise to God. Second—since everyone and their grandmama knows there are gay gospel artists—such artists must suffer in silence before God and church. This message is harmful, tacitly encouraging a culture of shame and clandestine sexuality.
Many evangelicals are beginning to acknowledge that there are Christian arguments for gay marriage, civil unions, and so forth. One may or may not be convinced, but let us be charitable enough to recognize that there are Jesus-loving and justice-seeking believers who have theological reasons to advocate for their approach to sexual orientation and for an open and affirming church.
The stone-cold truth, I suspect, is that more than a few progressive evangelicals are indifferent about GLBT issues. By God’s grace, I ashamedly—and yet gratefully—admit that I am slowly being delivered from this apathy. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us in The Insecurity of Freedom: “There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself ... The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.”
Gracious God of love and justice, deliver us from this ignoble indifference.
Andrew Wilkes is a former Sojourners policy and organizing fellow, a 2010-11 Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, and a recent graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.