Captive Audience

Commentary: Center Field

by Richard J. Rosendall
Published on May 28, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

On Sunday evening of DC Black Pride weekend, African-American Collective Theater (ACT) presented a sneak peek at Play Ball, a new play by director/writer Alan Sharpe. This was Sharpe's and ACT's 11th annual Memorial Day Weekend showcase of black LGBT theater. Sharpe and a talented cast brought spirit and insight to a painful yet timely topic -- the suicide of a black youth targeted by anti-gay bullying.

The play's prologue has this instruction: ''TRAVIS is seated in the living room, writing something. He folds the piece of paper carefully, writes something on the outside and places it downstage. Returning to the sofa, he retrieves a brown paper bag and EXITS UPSTAGE into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. After a moment, a single GUNSHOT is heard. The room FADES TO BLACK -- except for a SPOTLIGHT on his suicide note.''

Last month, after I wrote about two real incidents of children committing suicide in response to anti-gay bullying, I wondered whether the fact that both boys were African American was a coincidence. Several black friends told me that peer pressure is rougher on black kids.

The evidence is not merely anecdotal. According to a report released in January by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, ''LGBT students of color face unique and diverse challenges regarding victimization at school.'' The report, titled Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation's Schools, was based on a survey of 2,000 LGBT middle and high school students of color in 2007.

More than four out of five of the surveyed students had been verbally harassed due to sexual orientation, and two-thirds due to gender expression. At least a third in each racial/ethnic group had been targets of physical violence due to sexual orientation. A fourth of black and Asian/Pacific-Islander students had missed school days out of fear for their safety. Less than half had reported incidents of harassment or assaults to school officials, and less than half of those who did so thought the officials' responses were effective.

Adults too often are part of the problem. On May 16, at a meeting of D.C.'s Ward 8 Democrats, Rev. Patrick J. Walker demanded a referendum on the recent vote by the D.C. City Council recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. He declared, ''13 people should not set the moral compass of this city.'' He said of the Missionary Baptist Ministers' Conference of DC and Vicinity, which he serves as second vice president, ''We are not homophobic. We are not hate-mongers. We love everybody.'' He was asked if he would support efforts to make gay people in Ward 8 feel safer. He declined, saying he did not want to encourage homosexuality, which he considers a choice.

On May 18, Walker's group -- which excludes women ministers on biblical grounds -- showed their love by packing a meeting of Ward 5 Democrats with what a gay resident named Brian described as ''an openly hostile crowd marked by outrageous homophobic remarks, catcalls and religious-based bigotry.''

Most D.C. ministers, it must be stressed, have avoided the anti-gay demonstrations. Indeed, a group of gay-affirming ministers, most of them black, recently met at the Howard University School of Divinity, and are preparing a statement in support of marriage equality. Also, the anti-gay ministers have a spotty political record. They thundered uselessly against domestic partnerships and sodomy-law repeal in the early 1990s.

This isn't about who will win the D.C. marriage fight. I am concerned about the sexual-minority youth in the anti-gay ministers' congregations and neighborhoods. They will bear the brunt of the intolerance that Rev. Walker and his cohorts are preaching.

ABC News recently reported on openly gay high schooler Conrad Honicker of Knoxville, Tenn., who endured teasing that escalated to threats and rock-throwing. The verbal abuse, he said, was done in a ''sexualized, gratuitous way.'' But Honicker's parents were supportive. He founded a gay-straight alliance. What about the kid from a broken home whose mother believes a pastor's poisonous words?

The epilogue of Sharpe's play includes lines for a neighboring boy named DeAndre, whom Travis had befriended: ''His mother came upstairs and gave me his brand new iPod, his PlayStation, boxing gloves, a basketball, a softball and a football. And all them joints looked brand new! They never even been used. Is that crazy or what?''

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist whose work has appeared on Salon.com and the Independent Gay Forum. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.


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