Yoruba Richen talks about the black church, civil rights and gay marriage

In 2008, The Advocate published "Is Gay the New Black?," an article comparing the gay rights struggle to the civil rights movement. The story unleashed a fury of critique: How could people compare the fight for gay marriage to the abolition of Jim Crow and segregation? But as a string of marriage-equality initiatives failed, many white, mainstream LGBT activists blamed the black community, erasing the experiences of LGBT African-American activists. Yoruba Richen experienced these conflicts on the front lines of the marriage-equality debate, which led her to direct the documentary The New Black, which will be screening Tuesday night at the SIE FilmCenter. In advance of that showing, Westword spoke with Richen about her film.

See also: The New Black and other docs ask, "Why has black been made the face of homophobia?"

Westword: Talk about The New Black.

Yoruba Richen: The New Black is a documentary that looks at how the African-American community is grappling with the gay-rights issue in light of the marriage-equality movement and the hype over the meaning of the civil rights legacy. The film looks at the marriage ballot initiative in Maryland and follows activists for it and opponents against it as they fight and try to win votes for this initiative in the 2012 election.

Through that, the film examines larger issues around homophobia in the black church, how the Christian right has worked with powerful black church figures to promote the anti-gay agenda, and also the issue of looking at how these politics are effecting the people personally in the film.

Talk about the collaboration between the Christian right and the black church.

In the mid-'90s, we started to see national gay rights legislation coming to the fore. The film looks at particularly what happened in Cincinnati, Ohio, where there was this gay-rights legislation that people were fighting to pass around sexual orientation. The local Christian right organization teamed up with the local black church leader to defeat the legislation. It was one of these examples we saw of this alliance that was made.

But this also happens with Bush in 2004. We saw this alliance of more conservative black church leaders working with Bush administration officials to accept this big state initiative funding. That was also a year when there were a lot of anti-gay marriage ballots in many states and a lot of the opposition to those were figures in the black church.

It is an alliance that started in the '90s and came through the 2000s. We saw that in Maryland as well. Some documents were found that showed that the National Organization for Marriage, the anti-marriage equality organization, was specifically targeting black ministers to speak out against the legislation.

How does the title The New Black relate to The Advocate article and the way that mainstream, white gay culture has appropriated civil rights struggles? Talk about where that title comes from and also the film's relationship to those issues.

That article came out in 2008 in The Advocate, and pissed off a lot of people because of this sense that the civil rights movement is over and done, and now it's the gay rights movement which is the thing that's ascendant. That definitely caused a lot of anger in folks.

There's this assumption in mainstream, white, LGBT community that this was a civil rights issue and that black people should automatically just vote for it, without doing the real work that was needed to build alliances with the community. I chose that title because of its provocative nature.

Ultimately, what the title means to me and what I think it represents is the new conversation that's happening in the black community around this issue and the young activists who are profiled in the film that are pushing this in their communities and in their churches. They are pushing a conversation that we haven't had in our community before.

Continue on for more from Yoruba Richen.

Did you come from a religious community?

I actually did not come from a religious background. The lens of the black church is important, because even if you're not particularly religious, as a black person it holds the legacy of the civil rights movement for our people, historically. Looking through that lens, here is this haven. It's historically been a haven for black people, a place of progress and of fighting for civil rights. But now, in some ways, some leaders are taking a stand against other people's rights.

I did not personally come from a religious background, but the reason why I started to make the film was because of my experience in the election of 2008, when I was in California at the time, and Barack Obama was elected president, and at the same time, Proposition 8 was passed. Black people were blamed for it.

The media created this narrative that said blacks were more homophobic than other populations. In that, the black LGBT community was completely silenced. I wanted to look at why these two communities were being pitted against each other.

I had a sense that this LGBT issue was becoming the political issue of the day. How were we as African Americans and as African American LGBT people fitting into this debate?

What are your thoughts about this narrative that the black church is an homogenous entity, being that black churches have a diversity of theologies? Does it even make sense to talk about a black church?

That's a really good question. One of the early lines in the film is: "The black church is not homogenous." Absolutely. It's not homogenous. It's very diverse. In terms of the film, I am looking at the traditional Baptist, black church that has had, historically, a very prominent role in the civil rights movement. That's the kind of the church that I'm looking at. In the film, you also see a diversity of black churches, too. Some of them have come out for marriage equality. The person who is leading the opposition against marriage equality is also a black minister.

It often seems as though black identity and LGBT identities are viewed as exclusive, in two different silos. Can you address that more?

I think that's the problem. The film has been out since last June. We have been having screenings all over the world. Showing it, that's definitely what people talk about at the screenings. You're this black, LGBT person unable to bring your whole self to the table. I think that that's what this conversation is about. It's about being able to come to the table with your whole self. Rocky Mountain PBS presents a free screening of The New Black at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 20 at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. For more information, go to rmpbs.org/cinema or call 303-620-5715.

Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris

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