In 2012, the state of Maryland — home to the nation’s fourth largest African American population — faced a ballot measure that would legalize same-sex marriage known as Question 6. The bill created a deep rift in the Black community, particularly because of the strong roots and pervasive influence of the Black church, a body mostly made up of socially conservative Democrats. As the controversy over Question 6 raged throughout the state, a larger question emerged: could the fight for gay marriage be framed within America’s historic Civil Rights Movement?
Yoruba Richen’s documentary, The New Black, follows the work of gay-rights advocates, organizers, pastors, churchgoers and queer families in their trajectory to the ballot box. Through this exploration, the film deftly presents the difficulties in the practice and understanding of intersectionality, a notion popularized by writers/activists like bell hooks and Angela Davis that claims we cannot speak about each of our identities in isolation. In this case, the film suggests the ways in which racism ties to homophobia, sexism and religion. Intersectionality is a holistic approach toward equality and thus one that is infinitely more powerful. However, it relies on our ability to navigate our complex backgrounds and how those influence our roles within social justice movements.
In considering some key thematic questions – can one be deeply devout and still be gay? Can one be gay without undermining the traditional gender roles affirmed by the church? The New Black makes a concerted effort to present all sides of the issue and to contextualize the beliefs entrenched in those sides. Most notably, the film depicts households comprised of both the pious and the straight-up gay — basically, not unlike any contemporary family — and how these issues don’t resolve themselves but rather evolve in perpetuity. Myself being Colombian, queer and a heathen in a deeply religious family, I was struck by the frank yet heartfelt conversations in the film, which mirror many I’ve had myself, and the sense that I am not alone in not feeling completely at home within any of the communities to which I belong. Though Yoruba’s film relates specifically to the very unique African American experience, it is one from which I find much inspiration. Here’s our conversation.
Mary Angélica Molina: I really loved the film. First of all, I loved that you decided to tell that story because I think it requires a certain amount of guts to turn the lens...
Yoruba Richen: …Onto my own community.
YR: Thank you.
MAM: There’s this great quote from Sharon [CEO, National Black Justice Coalition] at the opening of the film: "This is the unfinished business of Black people being free." Is there a connection between internalized racism and internalized homophobia?
YR: I think that, yes, there is a connection between internalized racism, homophobia and sexism. Because our [African American’s] sexuality and our right to have family have been historically mediated by the state, there is a strain that wants to be normal. You know, we weren't allowed to get married and we fought to get married between a man and woman. We fought to have a normal family; we fought to keep our kids through slavery, so this gay thing of like, being abnormal, why would you? As a Black lesbian, my rights are constantly being voted on or debated.
MAM: One of the characters says, "Heterosexual culture is so prevalent, you would really have to beat homosexuality over a kid's head to make them gay.”
YR: Yeah. But of course they want to say that gay culture has a big influence.
MAM: I would say that about White culture: it's so prevalent.
YR: Of course.
MAM: That’s what I’m trying to get at as a filmmaker: the internal, not the external. We're living in this world where it's okay to be gay… But is it really?
YR: But also internally within our own community. When I started the film, I actually thought I was going to focus much more on White racism within the LGBT community and look at Prop 8 and how Blacks were blamed for the passage of Prop 8. How these White, mainstream, LGBT, male-led movements did not work with people of color, and then turned around and blamed them. That was really my initial motivation or thinking on it. But then when I met Sharon and started delving into the issue and understanding it, she was like, "Yes, that may all be true but we have work that we have to do within the Black community, internally, in terms of the church being one of our own main arbiters of what's right and wrong. We have to look at what's going on there." And that's what led me down the path that it led me, in terms of the film.
MAM: Prop 8 was blamed on Black people?
YR: It was election night 2008, I actually happened to be in California. So I was there at the ground zero when Obama was elected the first time and Prop 8 was passed. And immediately, almost the next day, they started blaming African Americans for the passage. And it was like, shocking! It was based on this erroneous poll that came out that was never really corrected that said some huge number of Black people voted for Prop 8. Turns out it wasn't true, but that narrative stuck. And I wanted to look at why these two groups were being pitted against each other, you know, what that was about. And that was the motivation and really, my initial thoughts emotionally about it were, “How dare these White gay people assume that we're going to support gay marriage?” Like, my Black side came out before my gay side. Especially because I was in California in the nineties during all the fights around affirmative action—there was Proposition 209 against affirmative action and another proposition against the undocumented, and these were big fights that we were fighting as activists. And I was like, "I didn't see the gay community out there, working. I didn't see the gay, White, male-led community." So that was my first, initial reaction.
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, CEO, National Black Justice Coalition. Photo credit: Jen Lemen
Karess and Sam. Photo credit: Jen Lemen
MAM: Another quote by Sharon: "Do we understand the concept of dual oppression?” Often times we’re asked to classify ourselves and prioritize. What are your classifications and how do you prioritize them?
YR: Well, I remember I took a class with Angela Davis in graduate school and we really delved into this intersectionality of oppression. And also in college thinking about…you can't hierarchize who's oppressed more. Though my girlfriend would be like, "But Black people are oppressed most!" Like, point blank. [Laughs.] How I like to think of it is that, obviously, [being] brought here as slaves and the unique history and laws that permitted us to be full citizens, embedded in the Constitution, that that's a very specific, unique history of oppression. Ultimately, I can walk down the street and people don't know I'm gay but they know I'm Black. That's the bottom line. And I think most Black people feel that way, to be honest, most gay Black people. However, that may not be true for all gay Black people.
MAM: So you identify first as Black?
YR: If I'm forced to. And I remember thinking about this as a kid, actually, when sexuality wasn't even a part of it, where I'd be like, "Okay, if there is a war and you had to take sides between being Black or being a woman, which would I choose?" And it was always Black.
MAM: Yeah, there's nothing like a catastrophic situation to get you to prioritize.
YR: Like, if someone put a gun to your head...
MAM: Exactly. "Now I can identify. Before I was exploring all this queer theory. Now? Not so much."
MAM: There was another thing in the film that I thought was so fascinating, and it's the fact that the people on the right, the conservative side, are mostly Black males. Why do you think that is? Does the Black male identity regulate religion?
YR: I do think that there is a very specific issue around masculinity in the Black community, which we tried to get at a little bit. And there's patriarchy, too, that has to do with the homophobia and the sexism that's in the church. There is major patriarchy within the Black church, broadly speaking. I mean, there's patriarchy in all religions, right? So I think there's a hierarchy in terms of power within the church and of course, at the same time, as they talk about in the film, you have the church choir director who is...
YR: Exactly. But definitely the institution is a male-dominated institution. Now there are exceptions and it's not all churches and there are women ministers. But institutionally it's a patriarchal system.
MAM: How does the onus of responsibility differ for a Black male pastor to a White male pastor?
YR: Well, I would say that there is a historical onus that the church holds, which I try to show in the film, in terms of being the site the freedom struggle. And there's also the historical onus of like, your pastor is the one who you have over to Sunday dinner after. The women are the ones who are [part of] the inner workings of the church, giving tiding. I mean, if you look at a lot of churches, it's mostly women in there and a man is head. So again there are those institutional roles that I think are still prevalent.
MAM: Of being a leader?
YR: Of being a leader, of being the moral arbiter.
MAM: Do you think the stakes are higher for Black men?
YR: I think the stakes are higher for Black men anywhere — in the church. Wherever.
MAM: Do you think there's a connection between homophobia and sexism within the church?
YR: Yeah, I think there is. I think the connection is this rigid idea of what masculinity and femininity are. And when you don't adhere to that, then you're marginalized and you're oppressed.
MAM: But what's the worst that could happen? What would happen, speaking from a pastor’s perspective, if we were to accept homosexuality?
YR: A lot of what I heard is, “This threatens the family, this leads to the breakup of the Black family [that] already has enough to deal with, with high rates of single motherhood. And this is another thing that threatens the Black family." That's a lot of it. And that this is God's law. God said between a man and a woman.
MAM: What's at risk? What are they afraid of?
YR: I'm trying to think of it like, where does White racism come from, right? If you look at the arguments that were made back in the day against miscegenation, Black and White marriage, what are they so afraid of, right? And besides that whole thing of mongrelization of the race and all of that, it must be that when you are steeped in something and taught something and believe something, and for that to be turned around, for that to be shaken up, is such a hard, unbelievable thing. Like, the whole way I thought about the world is wrong. I think that's why a lot of White people can't accept racism. I would find it very hard if I was White to be like, "Oh, all this privilege that I just thought was my natural born right, there were laws put in place that allowed it, there was violence to maintain this." That would be very hard, which is why I think most people can't deal with it.
MAM: Is there a corollary between the origins of Christianity in the Black community, its implementation and growth, and how Black folks experience it today?
YR: Another reason why I chose the lens of the church is, even for those of us who aren't particularly religious, didn't grow up in the church, the Black church still has sort of the moral say-so over the community. Because it's the repository of the Civil Rights Movement, it still has this moral suasion. Even today, even if you're not particularly religious as a Black person, you still are attuned to what the Black church says. And because it is the repository of the Civil Rights struggle, for me it was important to look at what was going on in the church and how people were relating, were struggling with the sexuality issue.
MAM: But there's a certain irony, for me at least, when I was watching the film, in understanding how Christianity became so entrenched within the Black community.
YR: Of course, how Christianity was used as a way to mitigate slavery. At the same time, there is a whole strain of the church that was about liberation. And a lot of our greatest liberators came from the church. Same thing in Latin America: liberation through theology.
MAM: There was a point in the film when a woman gets up and says, "I did not choose to be Black and female." There's this whole ongoing argument about nurture versus nature that informs whether or not this is the new Civil Rights Movement or not.
YR: Before this film I was like, "Uhm, why can't people make the choice to be gay if that's what they want?" I was like, "I know people who make the choice to be straight." People make the choice to sleep with who they want to sleep with all the time. However, I understand this whole thing of “being gay is not a choice,” because then it does make it easier, I guess, or more palatable to be who you are because you can't help it. It's not an argument that I particularly engage in, but in the film, I let people express that. I think, quite honestly, most of us fall on the Kinsey scale, somewhere in between. And I say that because I don't think we've had in this country, and certainly within the Black community, a real discussion. We don't have real discussions around sexuality in general. So of course we're not going to understand the scope of human sexuality.
MAM: But then should it even matter whether or not this is a civil rights issue?
YR: I think it matters because that's how we politically, in this country, define people getting rights—if you have a right to this right. That's the way politics works in this country. I understand that there has been a resistance in the Black community to calling it a civil rights issue. I think that comes from our unique history of slavery, of oppression. That's a unique history that no one else has experienced. It was put in the Constitution. Our fight for freedom was deemed a civil rights struggle so when another group comes along and uses that term, and a group that hasn't necessarily aligned itself with our fights before, I think there was and can be resentment. But I also think that there is a greater understanding, that we are not the only people who deserve civil rights, that civil rights are granted to you by the state and thus the fight for LGBT equality is also a civil rights fight.
Mary Angelica Molina is a writer, director and editor. Her films include OH BABY, I LOVE YOU! which won the prestigious cinematography award at Cameraimage in Poland (2009) and is available online via iThentic.com; and LA ROSA Y EL GATO (2006), which won the audience award at the Santa Ana Film Festival and is currently available via iTunes. Mary is currently developing her feature directorial debut DOLORES, MI AMOR, a surrealist story about a woman who has the voice of a man. At present she is also editing the feature documentary THE STATE OF ARIZONA for Camino Bluff Productions (FARMINGVILLE, Sundance, 2002) about Arizona's controversial anti-immigration law SB1070. Mary received her masters degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. She was born in Barranquilla, Colombia and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.