It has been about 6 weeks since Rev. Willie F. Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, DC, gave a sermon where he hysterically claimed that (essentially) lesbianism is “about to take over our community.” And every single progressive (or gay/bi/lesbian) person in this city who has heard of this mess has been up in arms over Rev. Wilson’s rampant homophobia. Given that he has been one of the few black ministers to have, in the past, opened up his church to same gender loving individuals, his “turn around” hit the community pretty hard.
And understandably so, we must now as a community, interrogate Rev. Wilson’s behavior. Are these comments an indication of some latent homophobia? Has past inclusive behavior served us any good? Was it offered to same gender loving individuals as a way to heighten Rev. Wilson’s stature in DC? Have we become, yet again, political pawns?
These are important questions. Ones no one has seemed willing to ask in the media. As usual, it’s been a lot of name-calling, a lot of threats and a lot of hurt and angry feelings. And through all of this, after 6 weeks, I have not heard one person talk about what Rev. Wilson’s comments really meant.
His statements have almost nothing to do with a hatred of homosexuality, and everything to do with hatred of women.
No one has mentioned, even in passing, that his comments are far more femiphobic — defined here as hatred and fear of women as independent people — than they are homophobic. Or rather, that his hatred of women fuels the homophobic sentiment.
Black folks have a hard time talking about and acknowledging rampant patriarchy and femiphobia in our culture. Sure, we love to castigate rappers for objectifying women but we have a hard time talking about the black culture underlying hip-hop culture that devalues, hates, black women. That would mean we would all have to be held accountable.
Rev. Wilson’s language is steeped in the rhetoric of the black power movement, a movement that put forth the idea that black self-determination for the race was achieved through male autonomy. Leaders of the movement felt that women should be subservient, that true equality in America would happen when black men could have the access to power and money that white men had. As such, any deviation from ideals of male primacy was made synonymous with race disloyalty. Homosexuals then were infected by the white man’s perversions and black female (and male) feminists, working to end gender inequality, were in league with the white man to keep the black man down.
Rev. Wilson’s statements are more clearly anti-woman than anti-homosexual primarily because he focuses solely on lesbianism, alluding to a strain of intellectual thought that says that, unlike male homosexuality, lesbianism is a choice that women make to escape men and male oppression.
This perversion of the legitimacy of lesbianism as having a (possible) biological determinant is just a way for patriarchal men and women to continue to put the male at the center.
One need only look at Wilson’s sermon to see how patriarchal his thinking really is. The concern and worry that he has for the black family is focused solely on the plight of black men. He says, “We live in a time when our brothers have been so put down, can’t get a job, lot of the sisters making more money than brothers.” Here we have the assumption that only men can make money and for a woman to make money is to emasculate the man. Note the next sentence: “And it’s creating problems in families.”
This is the framework in which Wilson’s statements exist. His statements have almost nothing to do with homosexuality at all, not directly. He’s talking about heterosexual marriage and its problems when women “step out of (their) place.”
He makes a wide leap from all this heterosexual “dysfunction” to wildly suggest, “And that’s one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbians.” Where did this come from? A woman can’t get respect for earning her own money and so she must turn to another woman? This is the implication, is it not?
What Rev. Wilson does here is lock black men and black women into roles so limiting and constrictive; they have no choice but to reject them. It would be outside his capability as a patriarchal man to encourage black men to redefine what it means when a woman makes more money than he does. It would have been out of the question for him to discuss the realities that yes, black men and women are fighting but what they are fighting about is the shifting of gender roles (what they are, what they have been, what they can be) and what that shift can mean in black life. He makes it seem like black women exacerbate family strife solely by abdicating their “responsibilities” and taking up with other women.
These statements are the hysterical ravings of a black male patriarch who sees the black family falling apart and decides to blame the black woman. One might say this is new, what with all the whining and moaning that black men aren’t in the home…why not blame women now a bit? Right?
Not so much.
When black men aren’t there, the underlying assumption is (oftentimes) that the black woman can’t keep a black man. So not only are women the reason families are falling apart when a man is there, but when a man leaves or doesn’t stick around, it’s her fault as well. No wonder women are running to lesbianism, they can’t win!
Rev. Wilson goes on to castigate women who say they don’t need a man. Here he might have made a very nice point by saying that we all need each other; that black women, independent of their sexual proclivities, should love and care about, for, with black men. But he does not do this; his statements – “Well if you don’t need a man, what’s left?” – again make the situation for black women an either/or deal. He says, essentially, that to not “need a man” (the implication is romantic need) is to automatically “need a woman.” This simplifies a complex situation nicely doesn’t it?
Too bad it isn’t remotely accurate.
The rest of the sermon focused on lesbianism is the kind of heterosexist shit that has been quoted ad nauseam in the media. This sermon is a hysterical rant that men are being left behind. It’s why he talks about his son and his inability to get a date because girls are lesbians. Even if such a claim weren’t disproved in the most recent Washington City Paper as being totally made up, its truth is not the issue here. It’s the way in which he characterizes women that displays his overzealous need to show how antiquated his notions of gender are.
Note that his worry for his son is not that there aren’t any straight females. It’s that there are only two. Because a man needs to have plenty of choices. Obviously.
Women become ciphers in this part of the sermon. It’s like those old sex ed Super 8 reels where they show a silhouette of a man and then they populate silhouettes of a bunch of women around him, one-by-one; man at center, women there merely to be chosen at random (what happens to those not chosen is not considered).
Furthermore, he states that the two straight black women left for his son to choose from are ugly. Here it gets quite complicated. Obviously women are not only ciphers and have no agency or will of their own, they must also be pretty for a man. Would he be so upset about lesbianism’s “supposed” sweep of Black America if the straight black women left for his son were beautiful?
From there he goes on to say the usual stuff about how men and women belong together and it’s natural, blah blah blah. Two points in this part of the sermon are worth noting. One, his disgust at strap-ons and two, his insistence in equating making a connection with intercourse (“You can’t make a connection with two screws. It takes a screw and a nut!”).
The strap-on reference is just Rev. Wilson reaching for a way to characterize lesbianism. He clearly doesn’t know anything about it. Penetration is of no interest to many lesbians. In many ways, penetration becomes very hard for lesbians because it very much puts them into the dominant/submissive role characterized by heterosexist roles. They often repudiate such things. This is not always the case however; use of a strap-on or a dildo can be very much about subverting (at least in their own mind) gender roles (i.e. women get to do the penetrating).
Penetration then, is really the focus for patriarchal men like Rev. Wilson. The idea of any sex or “connection” existing without it is impossible for patriarchal men. It’s classic over-identification with the penis. His “screws” analogy only makes sense if one accepts the idea that connections can only be made if someone is penetrated.
What is sad about people like this is that they are far too common and we, the same gender loving black community, have not developed a sophisticated enough way to call this swill what it is: femiphobic hatemongering. Rev. Wilson is not concerned with homosexuality, not really; it’s why he can say so convincingly in his quasi-apologetic statement that he’s not homophobic. He probably can rationalize male homosexuality, what with men being at the center, lots of penetration and heterosexist dynamics like dominant/submissive, top/bottom all over the place.
He truly believes women should have no agency; their sole purpose is to be fucked and pop out babies. That some women “choose” to break from this limiting role (in Rev. Wilson’s view) through lesbianism is infuriating. He could not have gotten all the whoops and hollers and applause from his congregation if he had put forth the idea that women getting a job and not having babies were the real problem. He had to reach for something that the black women in his audience would accept. They could ignore their (possible) guilt at being successful by refocusing it on hatred of lesbianism.
All of this really means that what we need is a more complex discussion in Black America about gender and sexuality. Simple acceptance of homosexuality on the surface clearly doesn’t help. For many black men and women, black lesbianism is race disloyalty; in their minds, the sexuality is not the issue at all.
Originally written on August 14, 2005