First, in the realm of activism, there is the stubborn idea that race and sexuality are competing or mutually exclusive. And it is certainly true that lobbyists against gay marriage (mostly white and from the right) have tried to reinforce a vision of gay rights and (presumably black) civil rights as inherently at odds with one another. But many black Christians are now having more nuanced conversations about the significance of sexual identity and expression in determining the measure of full citizenship. Some black churches are seeing shared commitments with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists, even as these churches affirm that the African American struggles of the 1960s were unique.
Given these conversations, a number of black Christians openly support the full and equal protection of all citizens, including gays and lesbians. It is not such a leap, when churches emphasize their commitment to social justice (explicit in the disputes over the term “civil rights”) and when activists focus on specific legal “privileges” like hospital visitation rights, inheritance, and nondiscrimination in employment and housing.
Second, in the realm of theology, we see an evolving understanding of the relationship between religious beliefs and politics. That problematic old distinction of race vs. sexuality obviously falls short of the notion that same-gender-loving persons might be created in the image of God, just as their heterosexual brothers and sisters are.
To be clear, there are black churches — a small minority, as is also the case across lines of race and ethnicity — that endorse this belief, based on a Gospel that affirms everyone unconditionally and unequivocally. But even among those Christians whose theology embraces gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, there is an array of postures on issues like same-sex marriage. One on hand, some clergy now affirm marriage equality even while vociferously defending a Bible-informed view of homosexuality as sin. On the other hand, some religious leaders publicly insist that special efforts must be made to protect the most vulnerable in our society, through measures like anti-bullying campaigns and hate-crime legislation. The basic logic here is that churches, as they work out their theologies — say, a definition of “sin” adequate for the 21st century — should not have the final say in matters of citizenship and equal rights.
The growing momentum of marriage equality suggests that gender and sexuality norms are changing dramatically and opening space for new conversations. Perhaps these developments will force American society, including its churches, to mature in deliberations concerning sexual difference — a maturity we have not yet seen in discussions of race.
Josef Sorett is an assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University.