Merlene Davis: Black gays seeking more visibility to counteract anti-gay traditions

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 15, 2014 

As I listened to Mark A. Johnson talking about his life, I wondered why the man has not caved under the stress of being gay in our society.

Johnson, a health equity and gay rights advocate, recalled having a crush on a male classmate in elementary school and sending love notes to him.

"I knew I was different when I was in elementary school," he said. "I just never called it gay."

He preferred reading a book to playing sports, which was not what society expected of a boy. The name-calling started as did Johnson's many failed attempts to appear "normal."

"All I wanted to do was read," he said. "But the rumors started. I was effeminate, still am. People started saying I had sugar in my knees and calling me a sissy."

He tried his hand at a couple of sports but failed, finally settling on playing in the school band, where he found refuge.

Still though, his voice was high-pitched and he was attracted to boys. No matter what roles he tried to play, those characteristics never changed and it was tiresome and stressful trying to be something he was not.

That may have been one reason Michael Sam, the former University of Missouri football star, publicly announced he is gay prior to the upcoming NFL Draft. Maybe he was just tired of hiding who he is. Maintaining a facade is draining.

Some in sports think Sam's honesty will be detrimental to his future in sports. Others say it won't.

"I hope and pray he gets in the NFL," Johnson said softly.

Many gays are forced to hide their sexuality fearing negative reactions from friends, family and others.

"During high school," Johnson said, "I had to play the role. I had girlfriends. I never had sex, but I kissed a few. It was like kissing a wet rag because I had no emotions, no feelings behind it. I felt I had to do the same thing everybody else did."

A lot of pressure to conform comes from religious factions, especially in the black community.

As often as religion is given as the reason behind or the credit for laws that legally discriminate against gays, you'd think another's sexual orientation is the only thing blocking the world's entry into heaven.

At least 36 of 55 countries in Africa have made same-sex relationships illegal because of that country's religious and cultural beliefs.

And last week, the House of Representatives in Kansas passed a bill that would allow individuals and businesses, because of their religious beliefs, to refuse service to same-sex couples. The measure now goes to the Senate.

None of that is surprising to Johnson. He and his partner of 17 years, John Moses, were made to feel so uncomfortable in a church service on Mother's Day, they had to leave.

"I still have not gone back and spoken with that minister about gays," Johnson said. "I've done that before and we do have some progressive ministers. I think we ought to invite all people into the church. That's what Jesus would do. Then, when they listen to your sermon they can figure out their own relationship with God."

There are signs of positive change, however, even in Kentucky.

Wednesday, a federal judge said Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, overturning a portion of a 1998 state law and a 2004 state constitutional amendment. And on Friday, two gay couples sued the state hoping to have Kentucky issue same-sex marriage licenses.

"We are making strides forward," Johnson said. "Itty-bitty steps, but we have a long way to go."

The black community has a reputation for being more anti-gay than other cultures because of religion, and a new documentary explores the validity of that claim.

The New Black, a 2013 documentary written, directed and produced by Yoruba Richen, explores how the black community and black churches are addressing gay rights. Richen said the film will be shown on the Public Broadcasting System in coming months.

In an interview, Richen said the traditional black church was a refuge from racism during the civil rights movement.

"The traditional black church still has that moral sway among us," she said. "It is the repository for the civil rights movement."

The film shows, however, how diverse the black community is and how families there are grappling with ways to meld the church and gay rights.

Johnson said tradition and a strong sense of masculinity in the minority community also play roles in how gays are treated. That aura pushes some married men to secretly have sexual relationships with gay men, Johnson said. The term is called on the down low or DL.

"Men are on the DL because they don't feel free to be who they are," he said. "In some focus groups I've conducted, they don't even think they are cheating. They don't think they are gay even though they have sex with a man."

Were it not for his spiritual belief, his mother, siblings and his partner, Johnson said he doesn't know what he would have done.

"My rock has been my faith and my mom," he said. "I get emotional when I talk about that."

He recognizes, however, that other gays in Lexington may need support as well.

Johnson and more than a dozen others including lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender residents have formed Bluegrass Black Pride, an advocacy group that is trying to unite the black LBGT community through a series of educational and entertainment events.

"We are tired of being invisible," Johnson said. "We have contributed a lot to society and we do a lot for society. People take us for granted."

Johnson said the group will be hosting an event at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center during the Roots & Heritage Festival in September. Mandy Carter, a founding member of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering black LGBT people to end racism and homophobia, will speak, and the 2003 documentary Brother Outsider: the Life of Bayard Rustin, will be shown.

Rustin was an openly gay strategist, activist, mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., and the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, who remained in the background for the sake of the movement.

Johnson believes it's time to come out of the shadows.

"If we keep it quiet, they love you," he said. "But when you start advocating for yourself and for your community, then it is over."

I hope not. Surely by now we know speaking out for fairness cannot be silenced.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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