Reflecting on the legacy of Matthew Shepard, I can’t help but be reminded of Rev. Harry Jackson’s 2007 attacks on the Matthew Shepard Act. The act would have provided much-needed hate crime protections for the LGBT community – but Jackson and other like-minded faith leaders stood in opposition of these critical protections on what they deemed “religious grounds.”
Shortly after Jackson and his High Impact Leadership Coalition launched their ad campaign attacking the proposed Act, Rev. Irene Monroe, a religion columnist, public theologian and speaker, made a compelling argument for why Jackson’s comments were inaccurate, manipulative and emblematic of what she calls an outspoken and fading group of anti-gay faith leaders in black churches:
"The tide is turning in the American-African community toward acceptance of LGBTQ people. And if black churches and faith-based organizations like High Impact continue to not accept us, it looks like the rest of the community will."
Monroe is right to highlight the growing acceptance of LGBT people. While Jackson implies he is carrying the mantle for the black community, the views and beliefs of African Americans are too diverse to be represented by any single individual.
In a recent New York Times letter regarding race and marriage for same-sex couples, Alice Huffman of the NAACP had it right when she pointed out that any attempt by the media to frame the African American community as “monolithically homophobic” is errant:
"I have worked closely with many African-American community leaders and supporters of full rights for gay men and lesbians, including the right to marry in California. … Both blacks and whites have been divided on the issue, and race appears to be less of a determinant than age, gender and party affiliation on black voters' views on marriage equality."
I would heartily agree it is unfair to portray religious communities as monolithically anti-gay. Churches across America are actually moving to the forefront in promoting LGBT equality and ending violence toward LGBT people. Even denominations that do not allow ordination of LGBT people, such as the United Methodist Church, have adopted policies to curb homophobia.
We have many reasons to be proud of the strides our churches have made in the 10 years since the death of Matthew Shepard. There are many faith leaders who recognize the power of their words to either prevent the spread of LGBT discrimination or, sadly, to justify violence toward LGBT people.
When the Matthew Shepard Act was meeting resistance from organizations like High Impact, faith groups like the Presbyterian Church, Episcopal Church, and the Interfaith Alliance were advocating for the bill's swift passage.
That's why it is so important that the media continue highlighting the role religious leaders play in advocating for hate crime protections and stemming violence toward the LGBT community.