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.
The New Black Yoruba Richen's The New Black chronicles conversations about gay marriage equality in the African American community.
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.