Is Anti-Gay Pastor’s Homophobia A Smokescreen?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday September 28, 2010

Speculation that anti-gay megachurch pastor Eddie Long's outspoken anti-gay views have served as a smokescreen has grown in the wake of four young men coming forward to claim that Long coerced them into gay sexual encounters.

Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson recounted in a Sept. 28 story that was re-posted at the Argus Leader that Long has spoken out against GLBT equality and family parity, even leading a march through Atlanta to the grave of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 2004 in support of an anti-gay amendment to the Georgia Constitution. But Robinson also noted that the accounts of the four young men who say that Long coerced them are remarkably consistent with one another, detailing how Long took the youths on trips and claiming that the pastor cited Biblical authority in coaxing them to participate in gay sex.

Dismissing as "self-pitying" Long's Sept. 26 sermon in which he compared himself to David facing down the giant Goliath, Robinson wrote, "Let's see, on one side we have one of the most influential clerics in the country, the pastor of a suburban Atlanta megachurch that claims 25,000 members. On the other, we have four young men who claim in lawsuits that Long abused his authority to lure and coerce them into having sex with him. Unlike the bishop, as far as I know, none of the accusers is driven around in a Bentley. Or is constantly attended by a retinue of aides and bodyguards. Or cultivates first-name relationships with famous politicians, athletes and entertainers.

"I'm pretty sure the preacher has that whole David-Goliath thing backward," added Robinson.

Meantime, Atlanta residents were asking whether the cleric's vociferous anti-gay stance was a cover for hypocritical behavior, reported CBS Atlanta.com on Sept. 27. "Why would anyone spend so much time and energy fighting gays? Why is it so important to them?" gay bookstore owner Philip Rafshoon queried. "Perhaps they have something they're trying to hide."

A shopper at Rafshoon's establishment cited the photos that Long took of himself in body-hugging clothing and posted online. "Why would you send those to people? Why would you take those and send those to people when you have 25,000 people in your congregation who believe in what you say and they hold you to this high moral standard?"

Comparisons to Ted Haggard, the Colorado Springs megachurch pastor who became embroiled in a gay sex and drugs scandal in 2006, inevitably came up. "[Haggard] said, 'Well, I've seen the light, and I went for treatment, and I prayed the gay out,' or whatever that might be, and he still has his followers," Vasquez noted.

To be sure, Long was greeted enthusiastically by his supportive flock when he took to the pulpit on Sept. 26 to denounce the portrait of himself that had been painted in the media in the wake of the allegations. "There have been allegations and attacks made on me," Long told a cheering throng of nearly 10,000 congregants. "I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that's being portrayed on the television. That's not me. That is not me."

Homophobia-and Change?

But while some wondered whether Long's anti-gay rhetoric masked very different sexual conduct, others posited that the scandal might create an opportunity for change in a religious culture widely seen as deeply anti-gay.

Author and Tulane University professor of sociology Shayne Lee wrote in an essay for CNN.com that the Long scandal shone "light on a church culture that often requires biblical leaders to vigorously and rigorously uphold biblical injunctions against homosexuality, despite the inherent visceral conflicts such a position might present.

"It's no secret that a large majority of African-American Christians are theologically conservative," Lee continued, adding, "As long as African-American Christians adhere to biblical mandates as authoritative prescriptions from God, they won't be easily dissuaded from rejecting same-sex lifestyles as viable alternatives to heterosexual norms." Lee also cited Haggard, calling that pastor's experience proof that murder is a more easily forgiven sin in some circles than the "sin" of homosexuality.

"Gay men and lesbians have always been present in the black church, actively engaged at that," noted Joshua Alton in a Sept. 23 Newsweek.com article. "The prevalence of gay men in black church choirs and bands, for example, is accepted but not widely discussed. The unspoken agreement is that gay men get to act as Seraphim, so long as they are willing to shout in agreement as they are being flagellated from the pulpit. It's an indignity some gay men subject themselves to each and every Sunday. Why should they have to live this way?"

Alston went on to write that the three young men were of the legal age of consent when the alleged sexual encounters took place, and to opine that the story would be touted and received much differently if Long's supposed victims were young women.

In a Sept. 27 Christian Science Monitor article, contributor Patrik Jonsson addressed the phenomenon of homophobia in black churches as part of a wider culture that refuses to discuss, or acknowledge, human sexuality in general in a religious context.

"It's a situation that leads many blacks, by force of culture, religion and tradition, to live double lives: one in the church, and one at home," wrote Jonsson.

"The true tragedy is the black church and its persistent inability to deal openly and frankly with matters of sexuality before [a scandal] where what comes to the surface is that which is underneath," author Kelly Brown Douglas told the Christian Science Monitor. "We have to ask ourselves, what are the structures, the systems, that create these kinds of inhibitions that prevent people from being able to express who they are openly and feel comfortable about it in the black community?"

The article recollected that the 2006 funeral for the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott-King took place at Long's church. The fact that Scott King was a proponent of GLBT equality, and Long took the opposite stance, drew criticism from those who saw the venue as inappropriate for the service, among them Georgia politician and then-head of the NAACP Julian Bond.

"It's sad to say, but if the charges against Bishop Long are true, it's going to be a victory for gay rights in black America," Bond told the Christian Science Monitor. "A sad victory."

At Praise Indy.com, a Sept. 27 run-down of anti-gay religious figures who were hoist on the petard of gay sex scandals listed George Rekers, who professed to be an expert in gay issues and promoted so-called "reparative therapy," which promises to "cure" gays and "convert" them to heterosexuality. Rekers, who co-founded anti-gay group the Family Research Council, was at the center of a firestorm earlier this year when news broke that he had hired a 20-year-old male escort to accompany him on a European vacation.

Rekers hired the escort through RentBoy.com, but claimed that he had taken the young man into his employ because he needed a valet to lift his luggage. Rekers also claimed that he knew the young man was gay, and was "counseling" him around his sexuality. The escort, however, told the media that his duties did not include carrying luggage--through they did involve administering erotic massage to Rekers on a daily basis.

The list also included Ted Haggard and Eddie Long, along with Trinity Broadcasting Network founder and televangelist Paul Crouch, who settled out of court with a male employee after being accused of sexual harassment. Also on the list was John Geoghan, a Catholic priest who was killed in prison while serving time after being convicted of molesting a young boy. Geoghan had also been accused of sexually assaulting a total of 130 children.

A CNN appearance by pro-GLBT black clergyman Carlton Pearson drew a sharp contrast between homophobic orthodoxy in black churches and a more open, affirming approach. News Busters.org reported on Pearson's appearance, during which Pearson discussed the Long scandal with host Kyra Phillips, in a Sept. 27 article.

Phillips introduced Pearson as a "close friend of Eddie Long's," and noted that Pearson "lost a lot of his flock when he began preaching that everyone has a place in heaven, including gay people."

During the course of the interview, Pearson told Phillips that he knew a number of clergy who were gay themselves, but who felt they could not be honest about it. "There are people who've come to me and say, 'I embraced your gospel of inclusion, Bishop, but I can't [come out of the closet]. It's not a theological issue with me. It's a business decision. I'll lose my flock. I'll lose my money. I'll lose my parishioners. I'll lose myself. I can't love everybody. I can't even love me,' he would say."

Pearson went on to say that, "this issue of human sexuality and homosexuality... is not going away," and declared that, "if every gay person in our church just left or those who have an orientation or preference or an inclination, or a fantasy, if everyone left, we wouldn't have a church."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.