When race, religion, and LGBT identity collide.
by Megan Smith
“LGBT rights are in their revolutionary stage right now. It’s frightening for some; it’s revolutioary for others. But what does that mean for black people who happen to be LGBT?” This is the question that launches us into director Yoruba Richen’s new documentary, The New Black, premiering on PBS’s Independent Lens this month.
In February 2012—to the applause of some and appalled gasps of others—the Maryland state legislature passed a law legalizing marriage equality in the state. At the time—post-Proposition 8 passage—only seven states allowed marriage rights for same-sex couples. The backlash in Maryland was immediate, with opponents vowing to gather enough signatures to put the issue before the voters with a ballot referendum.
And gather signatures they did—over 162,000 of them, more than twice the number needed. The referendum, which appeared on the November ballot as Question 6, became a definite reality.
In a state where nearly a third of voters are African-American, many immediately pointed fingers at this community, labeling them as opponents to equality, and ignoring the fact that many black individuals who happen to be LGBT or allies were at the forefront of the fight for marriage equality. Using the Maryland referendum as a backdrop, The New Black explores how black LGBT Americans are being forced to reconcile their multiple identities with their faith, their families, and how they are perceived by the outside world. “This is the unfinished business of black people being free,” Sharon Lettman-Hicks, National Black Justice Coalition executive director, says in the film.
The documentary focuses heavily on the role of the black church in the LGBT rights debate. Called the “epicenter to the black community,” the church continues to serve as a place where African-Americans gather for wisdom and guidance from faith and family. The battle for the hearts and minds of black voters is very much fought from the pulpit—by leaders who are divided on the topic of homosexuality. As Rev. Carlton Pearson, an ex-fundamentalist, says in the film, being gay is viewed by one faction of the African-American faith community as “a white man’s disease that got on them,” and that the black church “has not been able to grapple with” the idea of marriage equality.
The outside world, however, does not see the black community’s division on this issue, Rev. Eric P. Lee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles says in the film, but rather views African-Americans as a single entity with a single viewpoint. “The black community is not monolithic,” Lee says. Therefore, he believes that the attempts to win over African-American voters by framing marriage equality as a civil rights issue is a giant misstep.
But LGBT advocates within the African-American community approach the issue from a different angle. As the film discusses, speaking openly about sex of any kind remains taboo in the black community. So in order for more black voters to be converted into supporters of LGBT rights, there first needs to be a lot more education about LGBT issues within the community, Lettman-Hicks explains. “We’re ready to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the black community,” she says.
In November 2012, Maryland voters approved marriage equality by 52 percent, marking the first time that same-sex marriage was approved when put to a public vote. The New Black, which Richen created because “the black community had been pitted against the LGBT community here, and it just seemed unfair,” follows the evolution of the perception of LGBT rights within the black community—something that doesn’t end with the legalization of marriage equality.
Through the stories of activists, their families, and clergy on both sides of the debate, the film demonstrates that there’s so much more to this issue than checking a “For” or “Against” box on the ballot—it involves moral struggles, historical ideas of family, and the difficult task of understanding dual oppression. But as Bishop Yvette Flunder says in the film, “We fought, we won, we’re still winning.”
The New Black premieres in Houston on PBS’s Independent Lens on June 17 at 10 p.m.