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Project examines Black, LGBT struggles
by William Burks
2009-11-18

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Marilyn Bennett and the Rev. Gil Caldwell see the dialogue between the LGBT and African-American Christian communities as a challenging one.

Caldwell is a 75-year-old heterosexual African-American clergyman, and Bennett is a 47-year-old white lesbian. The two are collaborating in a multimedia endeavor they call "Truth in Progress," covering the history of the LGBT and Black civil-rights movements, particularly as they experienced them in working together for LGBT equality in the United Methodist Church ( UMC ) .

Their shared history extends back a decade, when they found themselves on the same side of the fight within the UMC to extend full rights to members of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Once their paths converged, they shared conversations, meetings and marches in support of their goal. They were arrested twice at the 2000 General Conference of the UMC for their peaceful disruption of the proceedings. Yet, the church did not offer full equality to its LGBT members: non-celibate gay or lesbian Methodists cannot become ministers in the UMC.

Caldwell, whose activism in the civil-rights movement extends to the 1963 March on Washington and Selma and Montgomery marches of 1965, co-founded United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church—advocating full inclusion of LGBT members—in 2000. He was also recently named to the national board of Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays ( PFLAG ) . Bennett, who has spent much of her career in LGBT advocacy, served for five years as executive director of the Chicago-based Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization of LGBT-supportive UMC churches. Caldwell remains a UMC minister, now retired, while Bennett has left the church.

"Truth in Progress" tells the story of a unique friendship, forged in their shared advocacy, with an almost family intimacy—they affectionately term one another "elder brother" and "little sister." Conceived as a multimedia project including print, video and Web-based materials, it will provide a history of two movements that have often been compared yet been at odds with the other. They two have also begun a blog at truthinprogress.wordpress.com/, where others can comment on and add to their reflections.

The authors hope that both African Americans and LGBT communities will discover elements of a shared struggle as well as appreciation of the differences between the two movements. "Maybe there can be a conversation within, that maybe our project will help diffuse some of the tension by saying, 'This isn't the same struggle. These are different histories. These are difference experiences. But the fight for civil rights and acknowledging equal [ LGBT ] rights is the same thing,'" Bennett said.

Caldwell said he hopes the two "can kind of be the tip of the arrow in terms of our individual conversations, that say what other folk don't say, whether they're African-American or whether they are white and gay."

Bennett noted one of the differences in the two struggles, as, over a period of years, she and Caldwell attended church meetings and conferences on LGBT inclusion. At a hearing before a national church commission about homosexuality in 2002, she remembered how Caldwell summed up some of her feelings: "By then I'd found these presentations rather distasteful as they often turned out to be a way for church people to think that the church is doing something to solve the 'divisive issue of homosexuality' by having both sides ( 'pro' and 'anti' gay ) talk in the same venue. This formal hearing to 'engage in healthy dialogue' was merely a way for church folks to feel like both sides had been heard without acknowledging the damage done to sexual minorities.

"At the hearing Gil tried to speak to the absurdity of these conversations by using an example of race as the 'issue.' [ He said, ] a 'dialogue' of this kind would be like presenting 'both sides' of racism ( pro and con ) without ever stating that racism is wrong. The church does not move towards change, only towards an eased conscience."

She added her hope that the project helps makes people aware of the power they hold over others: "We all have different power plays, you know, white majority, and then, in African American communities there is the power of the vote, to vote against same-gender marriage, or within the church against ordination of gays, so that everyone is aware of the ways they can affect another person for good—or for bad."

In written selections from the print version of their work in the form of letters between the two, Caldwell and Bennett's discussions range from the deeply personal to the general and theoretical, on such issues as being invisible as African American or LGBT persons, the meaning of "passing" as white or as heterosexual, issues of white privilege and unconscious racism or homophobia, and African American clergy who speak to or about LGBT persons as though Black LGBTs do not exist.

Caldwell related the experience of LGBT people who "pass" as heterosexual to experiences in his own family, who, he said, were fearful of being present "with someone 'dark' because they are fearful of their friends if they are seen with me then they will be found out, they will be 'outed.' That's another kind of thing. Whether there are comparable kinds of experiences, is one" of the issues the project is designed to address, he said.

"I happened to be looking at Cornell West's book, Race Matters" Caldwell said, "and I just wanted to see if this plays in terms of gayness: Cornell West in his chapter about sexuality, said this one sentence, 'White fear of Black sexuality is a basic ingredient of white racism.' I wonder if you could say, 'Straight fear of gay sexuality is a basic ingredient of heterosexism.'? Here's a topic we don't talk about. And, in a sense, I tend to talk of same-gender couples rather than same-sexual, both because I think it's accurate but also because I think of the taboo around sexuality in our society, in our church society."

Talking about some of the uncomfortable taboos that exist between two communities struggling for equality—with honesty and compassion—is at the heart of "Truth in Progress."


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