It’s a story with everything: sex, secrets, religion, money, and an empire hanging in the balance. So it’s no surprise that the allegations against Atlanta Bishop Eddie Long have quickly sparked a media frenzy. (Three lawsuits filed in DeKalb County allege that the pastor used his “spiritual authority” to coerce male church members “into engaging in sexual acts and relationships for his own personal sexual gratification.”)
It doesn’t hurt that the allegations of improper conduct focus on the pastor of a 25,000-member megachurch who is one of the most outspoken homophobes in the black church. He galvanized his followers in 2004 to support an amendment to Georgia’s state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
As I am a member of Atlanta’s large black gay community, this story is also a personal one. It raises the question, why is the black church so hostile to gay men and women? Will we ever be accepted as we are?
Atlanta boasts, at least anecdotally, the nation’s largest black gay population. (The city is roughly 55 percent black, and according to The Advocate, the gayest city in America, so it’s not unreasonable to extrapolate.) This past Labor Day weekend, as is tradition, black gay men and women from around the country descended on the city to celebrate gay pride. But even here, there are spaces within the black community where we don’t feel welcome, and the church is chief among them. Gay men and lesbians have always been present in the black church, actively engaged at that. 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?
My hope is that these questions will be asked during the media frenzy around these lawsuits against Long.
According to the lawsuit, at least one of Long’s accusers was employed by the church as a “Spiritual Son.” He began spending time with the pastor between 2004 and 2005. During this time when the alleged abuse took place, Long would encourage the teen to call him “Daddy,” states the suit. Long’s accusers never allegedly worked for him in any official capacity, and if sexual activity did take place, it’s acknowledged that the young men were past the legal age of consent in Georgia when it happened. But the legality of Long’s actions seems not to be the issue. If Long’s accuser were a woman, even if her allegations were found to be true, I think he could weather the storm—everyone loves a story of a man’s redemption after a moment of relaxed vigilance allows Satan to find a toehold. 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.
I fear though, that this will become yet another sex scandal, and that people will get so bogged down on the specifics of Long’s case that the larger implications will be ignored. We watched the same thing play out last summer when Henry Louis Gates was arrested for breaking into his own Cambridge, Mass., home. America mired in the details—did Gates’s neighbor say he was black while calling 911? Did Gates really drop a “yo mama” insult on an officer?—such that the more interesting and more valuable dialogue over why incidents like this one take place to begin with fell by the wayside.
If Long did indeed use his influence, charisma, and biblical chicanery to bed impressionable young men whose spiritual development he was responsible for, that is truly reprehensible. But this is a conversation bigger than this case, this church, or this man. 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. I recently visited Tabernacle Baptist, a small church here in Atlanta. Dennis Meredith, the pastor there since 1994, went from railing against gays and lesbians to preaching acceptance of them after his son Micah came out to him. Since making that choice, Meredith has watched his congregation wax and wane, as parishioners choose to leave for other churches out of protest, and they’re replaced by gays and lesbians looking for safe haven after being shunned by churches like Long’s. It’s devastating that Meredith has had to choose between rejecting gays and lesbians and accepting membership attrition. There’s simply no excuse, no justification for black gay men and lesbians to be treated the way they’re treated in our houses of worship. As tempting as it is to get swept away by the tabloidy drama of the case against Eddie Long, it’s not the man that deserves all the scrutiny. It’s his message.