There's a gorgeous moment in Yoruba Richen's documentary The New Black, currently playing the film festival circuit, in which two young, black, lesbian activists canvass an inner-city black neighborhood to drum up support for the gay-marriage initiative that was on the ballot in Maryland's 2012 statewide election. The women approach a group of young men hanging out in front of an apartment building to talk to them about voting and — more specifically — supporting gay marriage.
“I ain't voting on that gay shit,” says the most vocal of the guys. “I ain't with that.”
What follows is an amazing back-and-forth. One of the young women succinctly breaks down how black people have to have each others' backs, how she has theirs and she needs them to have hers. It's not at all a volatile exchange, and the young women hang tough with their political stance. But what turns the conversational tide for them is when the chillest guy in the group — lounging on the stairs, his arms folded lightly across his chest — calmly asks the nearby naysayer, in particular, and homophobes in general, “Who are you to tell someone who they can be with?” Then, addressing the two women, he says simply, “I got you.”
It's a moment of unforced loveliness that encapsulates how homophobia plays out in the African-American community — and upends the outsider perception of that community as a hotbed of intolerance. Often the first and loudest to speak out on gay issues are those with the least enlightened attitudes. But they're not representative of the whole. More progressive voices — too often rendered invisible by mainstream media — jostle right alongside them.
The coda to this dialogue is even richer. Just before taking off, one of the women asks the group, “Y'all need community service hours?” As some of those gathered sheepishly admit they do, she tells them, “Y'all can always volunteer with us.” She adds with a laugh, “And we feed you.”
At that moment it becomes painfully obvious all that was lost — folks with knowledge of the subtleties and realities of the black community, and the ability to connect dots and issues for non-gay voters — when mainstream, largely white-led queer political groups failed to reach out to black LGBT folks and their black hetero allies to coordinate in the fight to secure gay marriage.
Homophobia is undoubtedly a serious issue in the community, with the church feeding and reinforcing bigotry. But The New Black is Richen's push-back against the widespread notion that black people are the reason gay marriage was for a time in danger of not being realized. The documentary's heroes and heroines are black. Richen weaves together stories of people coming out, of queer families formed without legal recognition or protections, of straight allies (clergy and lay persons alike) battling homophobia, and of the ways the institution of marriage either was historically denied to black people or failed to afford them real legal and political security. What emerges is a look at the ways race, specifically blackness, has been cynically portrayed by the mainstream media (including the so-called liberal press), right-wing politicians and religious leaders, and white queer activists.
By necessity she points out that the Mormon and Catholic churches were the real forces behind the push to thwart gay marriage — neither of those institutions having black powerbrokers in them. But the film stops short of stating the obvious: It's white people who are responsible for the delay in gay marriage being a right. They're the ones who have spent political capital to put anti-gay initiatives on ballots, who have conceived and executed controversial anti–gay marriage campaigns, who have spent countless millions to secure their bigoted goals and who have flocked to polling booths to vote against gay marriage.
If there's a flaw in Richen's film, it's her failure to dismantle, with data, lingering racist myths around California's 2008 Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which banned same-sex marriage. The Associated Press's infamous exit polls initially claimed that 70 percent of the state's African-American voters voted for Proposition 8 (later adjusted to 59 percent). But what neither the pollsters (whose methods have been roundly denounced as shoddy) nor those who cited (and still cite) those figures have acknowledged is that black Californians don't have the actual numbers to have affected the ballot outcome one way or the other.
Poll results released by the Public Policy Institute of California in December 2008 show that Proposition 8 received a total of 6.8 million votes, according to the California secretary of state's final tally, and reveal that, at most, about 900,000 of those votes came from African-Americans.
Analyzing the data, Justin Ewers wrote for USNews.com, “If black voters had voted the same way as whites — 50 percent for same-sex marriage and 50 percent opposed — the net gain for same-sex marriage supporters would have been slightly more than 500,000 votes. Proposition 8 passed by a margin of just under 600,000 votes.”
That didn't change the drumbeat of many who wanted to prove their progressiveness with their support of gay marriage but refused to check their figures or racial biases. That includes widely read columnists like Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, both writing for that great bastion of liberalism, The New York Times, who stuck to the meme, repeatedly citing the 70 percent figure and laying the blame for Proposition 8's passage at the feet of black voters.
The New Black is in conversation with three other films having to do with black homophobia — its realities and outsiders' perceptions of it — and its symbiotic relationship to whiteness. A black minister in Richen's film, speaking of behind-the-scenes clout wielded by white evangelicals in the modern black church, observes, “I knew that white people were using their influence to buy my influence to advance their anti-gay agenda, and [many of us] bought into it.”
Exploration of that same exploitive, bigoted dynamic is what drives two fantastic new documentaries about Uganda's deadly homophobia — Call Me Kuchu, co-directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, and recently reviewed here, and God Loves Uganda, directed by Academy Award–winner Roger Ross Williams — as well as Shaun Kadlec's and Deb Tullmann's Born This Way, about Cameroon's nascent LGBT movement and the deeply entrenched homophobia it's up against.
All three films locate the roots of African homophobia in laws left over from colonial rule. There is grim irony in the fact that so many homophobic Africans see themselves as protecting the sanctity of their culture from contamination by the West, while their bigotry is itself the full-blown disease of Western influence. Unfortunately, that disease is being spread by white American evangelicals who see Africa, particularly Uganda, as a fertile marketplace for their brand of homo hatred, especially as they lose political ground and influence in America.
The Christian missionary traveling the globe to spread the gospel has historically been a conduit for, if not agent of, all manner of violence — physical, cultural and spiritual. As these powerful documentaries make clear, that continues to be the case. In God Loves Uganda, American evangelical Lou Engle of the International House of Prayer is shown preaching to his mega-church congregation, telling them, “Jesus is saying, ‘Guys, we're not gonna put guns in your hands. You're not gonna take over the world with guns and knives and swords. You're gonna take over the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.'”
Those words, a self-satisfied mandate for new-school colonialism, make you wonder if these people have ever read a word of Christ's teachings.
Gay-supportive Ugandan minister Kapya Kaoma narrates God Loves Uganda; he now lives in the United States with his wife and children, and cannot return to Uganda under threat of violence for having challenged the power of American evangelicals there. Kaoma, who authored the Political Research Associates' 2012 report “Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. Christian Right Is Transforming Politics in Africa,” speaks these words as the film opens: “I love Uganda. It's a very loving country, a caring country. But something frightening is happening that has the potential to destroy Uganda. And it's coming from the outside. If we don't move fast, I foresee a lot of deaths. The fire has already been set.”
Conversations about homophobia almost inevitably circle back to conversations about race and culture. But whiteness as a race and culture, as an ideological practice, is rarely fingered as a culprit in the cultural wars raging over queer issues. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church clan crisscross the country spewing homophobic bile under the guise of Christian activism, and their whiteness is never commented on; if they were black, their homophobia would be painted by many as a function of blackness, period. In the Republican Party's 2012 presidential primaries, a slew of white hopefuls all put forth scathingly homophobic platforms yet never had their individual or collective bigotry attached to their race. Overseas, Vladimir Putin and other Russian politicians are enacting legislation that is medieval in its punitive approach to gay existence in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens (white Europeans) recently took to the streets in outrage over the passing of laws securing gay marriage. None of it is attached to the race of those legislating or rioting. Homophobia is never analyzed as a function and tool of hetero-normative, patriarchal, reactionary whiteness.
Collectively, through ample research, top-notch journalism and smartly deployed anecdotes, The New Black, Call Me Kuchu, God Loves Uganda and Born This Way illustrate the ways in which prerogatives of whiteness have always been a driving factor in shaping attitudes toward same-sex realities, not only in America but in countries and cultures around the world. They also illustrate how that continues to be the case, and how, if any substantive headway is going to be made in our collective slouch toward enlightenment on matters of queerness or equality, that simple fact has to be acknowledged.