By Brent Dorian Carpenter
ROCHESTER – Oakland University’s Auburn Hills campus played host to a panel discussion, “Are gay rights civil rights?” that set out to examine the rift between the black community and the gay community. The Feb. 8 event took place was moderated by Jeff Montgomery, Executive Director of Triangle Foundation. The mostly African American panel included Rev. Darren McCarroll, Pastor of Unity Fellowship Church of Ferndale, Leon Golson, Michigan AIDS Prevention Project Program Director, and OU students.
Acknowledging his activist roots, Montgomery jokingly described his role at the podium as very difficult. “For a change I will not be the activator but the moderator.”
About 60 students and LGBT activists, mostly-white, made up the audience. The topics ranged from separation of church and state, clashing Bible passage interpretations, and the debate whether Dr. King would support equal rights for LGBTs.
Reading a question from an audience member, Montgomery summarized the overarching theme of the event.
“What is the dynamic that makes references to incorporating of the gay movement into the larger civil rights movement so volatile to some segments of the black community? The sense that there are only so many civil rights to go around, and that gays will somehow get more than blacks? Is it the sense that blacks in America have suffered such a long and harrowing history of oppression beginning with slavery [as opposed to gays]? Is it entrenched homophobia or heterosexism that makes it difficult to accept LGBT people as defined by anything other than some perceived conduct?”
Panelist Dr. Tim Larrabee, Asst. Prof. in Teacher Development and Educational Studies, drew the battle lines with his opening statement.
“I believe that homosexuality is a natural human state. That I, as an American citizen paying my taxes, have every right to every protection and every responsibility that every other American citizen has. And it is discriminatory to set up laws that blocks access” to those rights, Larrabee said. He noted that his partner of 17 years was present in the auditorium.
Student panelist Charity Jones, a fourth year political science major and self-described College Republican, found herself outnumbered as the sole conservative voice on the dais.
“By being Christian, I adhere to the principles and the Word, and if the Bible tells me that homosexuality is wrong, I have to accept that as true,” said Jones. “And just because I accept it doesn’t mean I’m homophobic. It means I have a different view. And if you want us to be accepting of you, then you must be accepting of a difference of opinion. Because as long as we attack each other because we don’t agree, then no one will ever get anywhere.”
Jones reiterated several times that her religious beliefs made her insist that homosexuality was a choice and drew fire from much of the audience, the rest of the panel, and even Montgomery, in the form of continued prodding at her facts. Much of the evening’s contention came when she was challenged repeatedly about her fundamentalist interpretation of Leviticus and other Bible passages she deemed condemnatory of homosexuals. In a show of reconciliation at the end, she was congratulated several times for her poise and articulateness before an audience largely hostile to her position.
Applause interrupted the forum several times, much of it going to Rev. McCarroll.
Evoking Dr. King’s famous jailhouse letter to his fellow pastors, written at a time before the civil rights leader became popular, McCarroll said, “It’s difficult for any person to go against the status quo, but I think those of us who advocate for human rights, we often find ourselves at odds with people who resist change, people who, because there’s a system in place, say, ‘We’ve always discriminated, so it must be right.'”
Golson, who is HIV-positive and a former counselor and tester for HIV for the Detroit Dept. of Health, brought the AIDS perspective to the widening dialogue.
“As a black gay man, I’m a part of both struggles,” said Golson. “I know what discrimination feels like from both ends, and I know it feels the same way when I’m discriminated against as a black man as when I’m discriminated against as a gay man.”
Addressing the central root of the question regarding the black community’s largely icy relationship with the LGBT community, McCarroll summed his beliefs up this way:
“The black community wants to separate itself from the lesbian, gay, bi and trans community because they believe…that there is something immoral about us, and that somehow that will taint the sanctity of the civil rights movement.”
In Fall, 2005, Oakland University is opening its Gender and Sexuality Center to focus on LGBT studies.