Obama’s gospel mistake

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Politics have provided gay Americans like myself with no end of schadenfreude in recent years, what with the antics of Mark Foley, Larry Craig and other I’m-not-gay Republicans. But last weekend, a competing Democratic farce debuted: Barack Obama’s three “Embrace the Change” concerts featuring Grammy-winning “ex-gay” gospel singer Donnie McClurkin.

All the characters in this melodrama played their roles to the hilt. Gay-rights organizations demanded that McClurkin be dropped. Numerous bloggers cast doubt on the fullness of McClurkin’s “recovery.” Obama’s campaign staff hastily added a gay minister to give an opening prayer. But it was McClurkin who dominated the event, claiming before an audience of about 2,000 Sunday in Columbia, S.C.: “I don’t speak against the homosexuals. I tell you that God delivered me from homosexuality. No matter what blog you read, let me tell you, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature!” (For all of McClurkin’s religious talk, biblical scholars remind us that Jesus had not a word to say on the subject.)

Obama and gays: An article on Wednesday’s Opinion page about Barack Obama’s campaign and the gay community stated that gospel singer Byron Cage is a member of the group Mighty Clouds of Joy. He is a solo artist.

Adding fuel to this fire was Obama’s reply to questions about the concert. He haughtily told a reporter from the gay news magazine the Advocate, “If there’s somebody out there who’s been more consistent in including LGBT Americans in his or her vision of what America should be, then I would be interested in knowing who that person is.” (The answer, of course, is Dennis Kucinich.)

But what’s really on Obama’s mind isn’t LBGT Americans. It’s black voters. With so much of the African American vote snugly in Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit pocket, the Illinois senator clearly is hoping to make inroads before South Carolina’s crucial 2008 primary.


The offspring of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, Obama was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia without much churchgoing until he grew up and ran for office. So he is not only a generation but a world away from the political leadership most of us African Americans have come to know. Putting on Baptist drag and staging a gospel music show is precisely the sort of pandering Obama had scrupulously avoided. Until now.

He’d also previously managed to sidestep -- or stand astride -- the gay-straight schism in the black community. In 2004, during his U.S. Senate run, Obama campaigned at Chicago’s Salem Baptist Church, whose leader, Rev. James Meeks, called same-sexuality “an evil sickness.” That was quickly forgotten, overshadowed by Obama’s eloquent speeches on hard-core Democratic issues, gay rights included, to turn-away crowds that treated him, as more than one commentator has noted, “like a rock star.”

Now a gospel star may have driven a wedge between Obama and his gay supporters and roiled others as well. For, by putting McClurkin in the spotlight, Obama has broken black America’s 11th Commandment: “Don’t talk about it in front of the white people!”

Black churches are so much at the center of African American public life, and so much in denial about the gays and lesbians in their pews and choir stalls. As the late Marlon Riggs said in “Tongues Untied,” his acclaimed 1990 documentary about gay blacks and AIDS, “How many choir directors have to die before we know who we are?” The “Embrace the Change” lineup reflects how this struggle is far from over. McClurkin, who is a minister at an evangelical church in New York, calls homosexuality a “choice” -- needless to say the wrong one. The duo Mary Mary claims to love gays in a love-the-sinner kind of way, equating us with murderers or prostitutes. It is only Byron Cage of the Mighty Clouds of Joy who has been actively working to heal the gay-straight divide.

Gays played pivotal roles in African American history, but the community continues to wish away their sexuality. Blues legends Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters all took female lovers. (Impresario Leonard Reed once said Waters was “so mean she married her second husband to spite her girlfriend when she found out she was sleeping with him.”) Gay composer Billy Strayhorn gave the Duke Ellington Orchestra its sound, including its theme song, “Take the A Train.” The fabled Harlem Renaissance was, frankly, a gay and lesbian movement led by the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Bruce Nugent and Langston Hughes.

Over and above all these towers James Baldwin, the novelist and essayist whose accounts of the civil rights movement are without peer, and Bayard Rustin, the most important civil rights figure after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin conceived of the 1963 March on Washington, but thanks to a vice arrest in Pasadena a decade earlier, he was forced to take a back seat during the unveiling of his masterpiece.


Coretta Scott King never forgot Rustin’s sacrifice and went on to support the gay-rights movement. Her daughter, however, the Rev. Bernice King, joined a 2004 march against same-sex marriage.

And so we now find Obama trying, as it were, to court both branches of the King family. It won’t work. And his continued relevance to gay and lesbian African Americans is over.

David Ehrenstein writes on Hollywood and politics at