A couple months ago, I went to a special screening of the film Dear White People. I was particularly excited about this screening because it was for college students, and as a film professor, I am always eager to find out what millenials think about issues related to race. The majority of students in the room were African American, with a few Latino students sprinkled in between. Being that the university hosting the event was a predominantly white institution, I was curious to see how this particular demographic of students would respond to the film. From the very beginning, the crowd was quite responsive, cheering and clapping during the parts that resonated with their own experiences of being minorities on campus. I recently have had several conversations with colleagues and friends about the current generation's views on race, so it was refreshing to see that students were, in fact, aware of and vocal about the challenges and disparities that still exist when it comes to race in America.
What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the reaction of the crowd when the character, Lionel Higgins (played by Tyler James Williams), a socially awkward student writer, was hit on by the editor of his school newspaper. As he leaned in for a kiss, the group reaction turned from collective affirmation of identity to a collective "Nooooooo!" I was pulled out of the movie for a moment, and I couldn’t help but think to myself -- “Is this still the reaction to homosexuality in 2014?"
I thought we were at least somewhat past this by now. Particularly in California and particularly at an art school. Was the crowd's disapproval because they had not let go of the idea that Williams had grown up, that he was no longer the young Chris Rock in the sitcom Everybody Hates Chris? Or was it because the editor was white and they weren't keen on this interracial union? There could have been many reasons for the outcry, but I couldn’t help but wonder if their reaction was because Lionel was gay, and the kiss had just made that reality visible. The crowd could talk about race, but a man's sexuality would have to stay out of the conversation.
For me, their reactions were simply a symbol of the ways in which my particular faith community has maintained a level of ambivalence toward the LGBTQ dialogue and how that might be affected by race. I once read a quote that "The church might be the most homophobic and most homotolerant of any institution in the black community." I have seen this play out in my own church context. Having grown up in the black church, I remember seeing gay men sing and lead choirs in church. Their talents were celebrated, however, their sexuality was rarely, if ever, acknowledged, let alone accepted. My naive mind would want to believe that their omission was an indication that all people were accepted and loved regardless of their orientation. Many black church denominations were founded on principles of social justice and equality, so it seems that even gender discrimination would not be tolerated. But all too often, the silence has been more an act of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
As I make my foray back into the black church as an adult, I realize that even in 2014 the conversation still seems to be missing and I’m having a hard time reconciling my interest in bridging the communication gap between the faith community and the LGBTQ community, and respecting the legacy of the black church. For people like Lionel in the film, what does it mean to be a black, gay man on a predominantly white campus? And how can the black church speak to that context in a way that brings healing? While I don’t have the answer to those questions, I would love to see more theology that digs even deeper into the complexities of faith, gender and sexuality, while still including conversations that wrestle through a hermeneutic centered in a racial and ethnic identity.
Safe spaces for dialogue need not only be in select circles. They are just as necessary in a movie theater as they are in a community of believers.