GLBT Coverage: It Could Be Better

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

October 11th, 2010
by Judith Weisenfeld

If the recent cluster of suicides of young gay men weren’t enough to draw our attention to the under-reported consequences of homophobia in our culture, we also have the brutal attacks in the Bronx and the antediluvian remarks of New York’s GOP gubernatorial candidate to remind us that the self-righteous facade of anti-gay sentiment often masks a deep and disturbing tendency toward violence.

The news that homophobic intimidation had driven Tyler Clementi and Justin Aaberg to take their own lives moved relationship- and sex-columnist Dan Savage to inaugurate the “It Gets Better” project.  Savage began by producing a short video with his husband in support of teens who are bullied because they are or are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. He then invited others to contribute to the project, which now features hundreds of videos, including many by celebrities. Most compelling, however, are those by average GLBT adults talking about their lives and showing the possibility of happy futures for young people who might feel hopeless.

The frequency with which contributors raise the issue of religious attitudes about sexuality is striking and, while the story that emerges is often of rejection by religious parents or leaders, the nuance with which the amateur videographers address these questions is remarkable. Indeed, these videos prove much better at illuminating the complexities of life for religious GLBT people than, for example, the recent press coverage of the accusation that Bishop Eddie L. Long, pastor of the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and outspoken anti-gay crusader, had coerced four young men from his Longfellows Youth Academy into having sex with him.

The Eddie Long story is a tangled one, with threads that include complex stances on sexuality within black churches, the profligacy of prosperity preachers and, most important, clerical abuse of parishioners’ trust. Insofar as Long has preached that those who violate divinely-ordained gender roles, including gay men and lesbians, deserve death, charges that he may have engaged in activities he has vilified is noteworthy. The men’s contention that Long used church funds to pay for jewelry, lavish trips in a private jet and other gifts raises important questions about the nonprofit status of his church. And the claim that Long abused his spiritual authority by telling the young men that their particular sexual relationships were “justified by the Holy Scripture and ordained by God” also deserves closer examination.

Unfortunately, media coverage has been quick to sensationalize the same-sex element of the story, sometimes conflating homosexuality with sexual abuse or pedophilia and relying on simplistic tropes about the uniform homophobia of black church members and leaders. This is not to say that black churches have not been hostile and sometimes damaging arenas for GLBT people. Still, the approach in some of the coverage of the charges against Eddie Long is reminiscent of the media’s failure to provide a complex analysis of the role that religious African-Americans played in the 2008 vote on Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage ballot initiative.

If the allegations against Eddie Long turn out to be true, there may, indeed, be great drama in the fall of such a problematic figure. In any case, the sensationalized coverage continues to position homosexuality rather than homophobia as the cause of the problem and does little to provide careful analysis of the complicated place of religion in the lives of many GLBT people. Especially in light of the recent suicides and brutal attacks on GLBT people, which only underscore how high the stakes are, we must do better. The moving video messages submitted to the “It Gets Better” project provide an obvious starting point.