John McWhorter

Bishop Long’s Opportunity for Redemption

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The accusations against Bishop Eddie Long are, in themselves, not a “black” story, of course. We are accustomed to the spectacle of superstar preachers opposed to homosexuality, such as Ted Haggard and George “Rentboy” Rekers, caught with their pants down with people who are not women.

However, the situation presents Long with an opportunity for true redemption, in that he could make a key statement to a black America behind the curve on the acceptance of homosexuality.

It has become, quite simply, an embarrassment. Yes, homophobia is not limited to the black community. However, it’s more of a problem: a recent Pew poll showed 65 percent of blacks thinking of homosexuality as wrong compared to 48 percent of whites.

This means a black community who played a disproportionate role in getting Proposition 8 passed. Meanwhile, the same community was celebrating how inspiring Barack Obama’s victory was, while today many of that community’s leaders and writers indignantly call for a Marshall Plan to rescue inner-city blacks and muse glumly over why Obama does not create a black agenda. This is not the best we can do.

This means basing the opposition to gays on passages in the Biblethe same Bible that was once used to justify the enslavement of black people. The very notion of prosperity-gospel churches like Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist that teach that Jesus was all about getting rich is, itself, a decidedly creative take on the teachings in Matthew and elsewhere. Clearly blackness can encompass a dynamic relationship to the Bible. Refusing to do so as a mere cloak for a visceral repulsion is not the best we can do.

This means the way some black people finesse this by saying that gay people should just keep quiet about their private life. The prototype example is the swishy black choir director; everybody knows he “has some sugar in his shoes” and won’t be getting married, but nobody talks about it. Rightso for black people gay men should be satisfied with the status of character actors like Franklin Pangborn in old movies, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is progressive. This is not the best we can do.

This means that even though we saw the gay bar scene in Far From Heaven, where the male protagonist has to go to some seedy basement to meet others like him, as grimly and thankfully antique way back in 2002, there is still the Down Low phenomenon in the black community. To the anticipated objection: there are nominally straight white men with secret gay lives too (refer back to Haggard and Rekers, or the famous snippet in The Wire of Lieutenant Rawls’s surprise secret). However, the Down Low phenomenon is especially entrenched and commodified in the black American worldnow even a staple in literature and dramabecause the stigma against coming out is so much stronger on all class levels. This is not the best we can do.

I think of an achingly attractive black woman I found I couldn’t have a relationship with 20 years ago partly because she, even with a college education, found homosexuality so alien that she couldn’t make peace with the fact that I, as someone who did a lot of theater at the time, had some gay male and female friends.

Or the working-class black man I know who was given such a hard time by black kids in his neighborhood for effeminacy that he sheltered himself in a deeply conservative religion he wasn’t even raised withwhich, because it condemns homosexuality, has left him with no choice but to either leave a religious community that provides him with most of his social life or to be a lifelong celibate. He has made the latter choice, and feels eternally stalled and lonely.

No, no, nothis will not do.

So often it’s the ones ranting against homosexuality (or any number of other things) who turn out to be working out for themselves a predilection for same (The Root has a piece on this). I’ll never forget a guy in college who seemed almost fixated on claims that every second man we all knew was secretly gayand wouldn’t you know he was the one who fell in love with a man in grad school to the fury of the woman he was engaged to.

Long, one highly suspects, is guilty. And there is so much more. That there are four accusers instead of one is just the beginning. His announcement last Sunday that he intends to fight the charges was tellingly vague: “I’m not a perfect man,” he repeated. Well, why that little qualifier? “But this ... I’m gon’ fight” he saida little hazy, that this. You couldn’t miss also the unsteady gaze.

At this point, whatever “fight” Long comes up withthe best possible outcome imaginable is that he tries to get by with some kind of “I’m not really gay” explanation based on, shall we say, “Tis better to give than to receive”these revelations will stick to him forever. They will be his legacy, in the same way that Larry Craig will always be known for the bathroom episode despite his clunky denials (not just the wide stance thing, but “I don’t do things like that,” betraying a certain preset consciousness of the “things” in question).

Eddie Long would do himself and his own race a massive favor if he, shall we say, had a conversion here. “Got the call,” to put it in language familiar in his realm. He should openly admit what he did, disavow his antigay positions, and serve as a beacon to a black community that needs to get beyond an unthinking prejudice especially unseemly in a group positioning itself as a standard-bearer of America’s moral advancement.

He should get with the timesas the NAACP has, with Benjamin Jealous announcing an upcoming “One Nation Working Together” march with gay and transgender groups. America becomes ever more open to gay marriages. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is doing a slow fade. Ever more celebrities are coming out with no detriment to their careers. Call it a new kind of New Birth.

Long likely fears how many parishioners would desert him. Plenty would. However, let’s face it – these people would be the equivalents to the hold-outs against Civil Rights, the people on the sidelines in the photos of Little Rock, the people on Mad Men making casually dismissive comments about the Freedom struggle. Perhaps Long could think about what he would leave behindor about his afterlife. People change. Leaders help them do it.

Eddie Long could, right now, become a great man. It would be a small thing indeed for him to cave in and “fight” rather than seek the higher wisdom of acceptanceof himself and so very many other souls.

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