The big picture is a family portrait. It’s a picture of the African-American community coming together to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March with the further-reaching Millions More Movement. Rev. Al Sharpton, the 2004 Democratic presidential primary candidate — one of the few to support same-sex marriage — is onboard. So is the controversial Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam; writer and economist, Julianne Malveaux; Rev. Jesse Jackson; civil-rights leader Dorothy Height, and so many others. This family portrait, on its surface, is a picture of inclusiveness, an effort to pull the community together to tackle problems of education, poverty, AIDS, crime and more.
But while so many of this nation’s black leaders — religious, political, cultural, entrepreneurial — are coming together in an effort to right the wrongs that continue to plague this community, division has crept in. At first subtle, this schism recently rushed to the fore.
The subtle beginning was silence. Local black GLBT activists say that Rev. Willie Wilson, national executive director of the Millions More Movement (MMM) commemoration event, invited them to take part in MMM events scheduled for Oct. 14-16 in Washington. This was not surprising. After all, Wilson was among the first African-American clergy to start a dialogue addressing homophobia in the church.
MMM organizer Farrakhan also promised GLBT inclusion in the movement, say gay activists.
Then came May 2, and the MMM organizers’ official announcement of the commemoration event. The National Black Justice Coalition, the one organization in the country advocating exclusively for GLBT African Americans, was not there.
”When the organizers of the march had their initial press release and we weren’t invited, and we sent letters to Rev. Wilson and other organizers and didn’t get a response, then we decided to have a pre-march rally,” says NBJC Communications Director Ray T. Daniels. Whether this rally will be a celebration or a protest remains to be seen. What is certain is that while MMM events fill the National Mall, a black GLBT presence will fill Freedom Plaza.
At the local level, black GLBT activists had been reviving the D.C. Coalition. The group, initially formed in 1978, had fallen into a period of inactivity. The MMM provided impetus to revitalize the organization, which has been meeting regularly for the past six months or so. Officially, however, the group remains ad hoc until elections take place. Elections or not, having longtime GLBT leaders such as Carlene Cheatam and Philip Pannell in the mix means the Coalition has a voice that will be heard — even if Wilson may not be listening. Like the NBJC, the Coalition has complained that Wilson has ”been completely unresponsive for six months” to their attempts to gain GLBT participation on the MMM steering committee.
This unresponsiveness raised suspicions among members of the black GLBT community. People wondered why they were apparently getting a cold shoulder. Things heated up July 3, when Wilson delivered a sermon at his Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia. Pannell got a recording of that sermon and delivered it first to the Washington Blade on July 13, then to the Washington Post shortly thereafter. The city has been talking about the sermon ever since the Blade story, published July 15.
”That’s one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbian,” Wilson told his congregation, pointing to women who earn more than their husbands. ”You’ve got to be careful when you say you don’t need no man…. If you don’t need a man, what’s left? Lesbianism is about to take over our community….
”I ain’t homophobic because everybody in here got something wrong with him…. But when you get down to this thing, woman falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something — it ain’t real…. It ain’t natural. Anytime somebody got to slap some grease on your behind to stick something in you, there’s something wrong with that. Your butt ain’t made for that…. It’s destroying us.”
The morning the story broke, Pannell was a guest on the Joe Madison radio show on WOL. ”I was really shocked,” Pannell said of the sermon. ”It was not the Rev. Wilson I know, love and respect.” He described the sermon as ”overly graphic, venomous and vitriolic.” Of assurances that GLBT voices would be part of the MMM event, Pannell added, ”Obviously, every invitation is not a welcome.”
Wilson’s sermon turned a cold shoulder into something far more overt and offensive. And if Madison’s radio show is any indication, it may do more to isolate Wilson than the gay community.
”It’s obviously insulting,” Madison told his audience, saying that Wilson should apologize. ”This is beyond name-calling. It isn’t even logical…. It’s absurd…. Willie Wilson does not speak for me.” Callers to the show, for the most part, seemed to agree with Madison.
A day later, July 16, Wilson got his chance to apologize during a citywide meeting of the MMM at Scripture Cathedral at Eighth and O streets, NW. He was joined onstage by MMM supporters such as Malveaux, Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5), and Malik Zulu Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party. Children filled the stage singing hymns as about 250 attendees slowly filled a portion of the pews that early Saturday evening.
Rev. Barbara Skinner, one of the first to speak, set a tone in keeping with the MMM themes of unity. ”How many of you believe that it’s time for us as a people to come together? To break down every barrier between our people?” she asked. ”You have as much right as everybody else on the planet to be respected. I don’t have to agree with you to respect you.”
Orange echoed Skinner, emphasizing, ”Together we stand, divided we fall.”
Wilson, greeted with much applause, did not, however, use this opportunity to apologize.
”A blessed moment it is, brothers and sisters, to dwell together in unity…. That’s what we’re all about,” Wilson began, seeming to take pages from the Books of Skinner and Orange. He read a list of attending organizations, including the D.C. Coalition. ”This is a diverse effort we’re putting together here…. We’ve got to bring in everybody.”
It was not long before Wilson’s address turned. He was saving his most passionate rhetoric to lash out at ”negro spies,” presumably Pannell.
”If you’ve got a problem with me, come talk to me!” Wilson shouted, complaining of calls from the press the day before. ”What happens in this house, stays in this house…. I don’t like being talked about, being lied on. But the cause is greater than the pain…. I ain’t your enemy. I ain’t done nothing to you…. I’m asking all of us, come together. We need to make a covenant with each other…. I’m not going to be the one to betray the covenant.”
Pannell and others insist they have tried to talk to Wilson about his comments, to no avail. At a Sunday meeting of the local, black GLBT community to discuss MMM, Cheatam offered that she alone has planned a meeting with Wilson, after giving him her card at the end of the Saturday meeting, which she said brought her to tears.
”He called me, and I’ll be speaking to him sometime this week,” Cheatam told the group at the Sunday meeting, while some argued that there should be no closed-door meetings with Wilson. ”It’s my plan to go alone…. I’m not going to be co-opted. I’m not going to go in there and just roll over.”
Others who were at the Saturday MMM event shared their perceptions with the group. ”I was at Scripture Cathedral yesterday,” offered longtime HIV/AIDS activist and performance artist Michael Sainte-Andress, at times choking back tears of his own. ”I really just wanted to spit in the face of Rev. Wilson. My heart was being broken over and over and over again…. This man was hateful. He was mean. And he was nasty.”
Sainte-Andress had supported Wilson’s successful 2000 bid to join the board of the University of the District of Columbia.
While it seemed that attendees of the Sunday meeting could have spoken into the wee hours about this conflict, Cheatam kept the meeting on track. Necessity demanded that much be accomplished that night, considering the start of the meeting was interrupted by an interview with Pannell taped earlier by WJLA. A second interruption came before the meeting’s end when WTTG called the meeting site, Freedom Fellowship Christian Church in Northeast, seeking a comment from the group — within 20 minutes — about the Wilson affair.
From this fast-paced meeting, the ad-hoc group of activists pulled together a list of four ”requests”: a public apology by Wilson, as well as his immediate resignation as executive director of the MMM; two speakers, a female and a male, to represent the GLBT community at the MMM commemoration; a MMM steering committee seat for the NBJC; and acknowledgement of the group’s meetings as official components of the MMM Local Organizing Committee.
The group’s July 17 statement also called for the mayor, city council, gay-affirming religious groups, women’s groups and ”other national civil rights organizations” to denounce Wilson’s statements.
That statement came on the heels of Wilson’s Sunday morning sermon, in which he said his seemingly homophobic comments were taken out of context, the Washington Post reported Monday. Wilson did not return a Metro Weekly request for comment.
Other groups and individuals have begun rallying in response to the statement issued July 17 by the African-American GLBT community group.
”Rev. Wilson has abandoned the truth,” said Donna Payne in a July 18 statement from the Human Rights Campaign. Payne is HRC’s senior diversity organizer, as well as the vice president of the NBJC. ”Just five years ago, the reverend held a service to bring the black community together over gay issues. He called for the church not to be ‘religious haters but people who know how to extend love.’ Now he’s using the pulpit to rip apart a divided community. It’s shameful.”
Adds Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: ”When I read the comments, I couldn’t believe them…. I was deeply shocked and appalled…and strongly support the [activist group’s] demands. We’ll provide whatever help we can.”
Vincent Morris, director of communications for Mayor Anthony Williams, offered: ”The mayor has a long history of strong support for the gay and lesbian community. That support will continue.”
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) declined to comment, as he is slated to meet on July 19, after Metro Weekly deadline, with members of the GLBT African-American community to discuss the issue.
Alan Heymann, director of communications for Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), says that Graham is trying to arrange a meeting with Wilson. Graham also issued a statement: “As an openly gay council member, I am troubled by remarks made by the Rev. Willie Wilson on July 3. I believe that we should do all we can to respect all of the diversities that make up the District of Columbia. From mutual respect, we find common ground that makes for a better quality of life for everyone. Rev. Wilson, as one of this city’s leaders, can really contribute to that objective. I am optimistic in that regard because my past interactions with Rev. Wilson have been positive.”
Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), the only council member to vote against Wilson joining the UDC board in 2000, said at the time that a vote for Wilson was a vote for ”intolerance and divisiveness.”
Today, says Schwartz, ”Rev. Wilson’s belittlement of various communities continues, and that saddens me. Leaders need to bring people together, and not be divisive. Or they shouldn’t be leaders.”
Alexander Robinson, executive director of NBJC, hopes that the GLBT African American community’s efforts for inclusion in the MMM events will be successful.
”We’ll have hundreds, if not thousands, of same-gender-loving gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer African Americans who are standing tall, standing proud, speaking our truth, demanding respect and attention — not only from the African-American community, but the community at large,” he says. “It’s way past time. We’re way overdue. Black gay and lesbian folks have been involved in the black civil rights movement from the beginning.”
The D.C. Coalition can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The National Black Justice Coalition is online at www.nbjcoalition.org. The Millions More Movement is online at www.millionsmoremovement.com.