At a gathering last week at the West Village apartment of a gay rights activist, Allen Roskoff, the Reverend Al Sharpton took to the floor and launched an initiative likely to make some of his most loyal supporters uncomfortable.
Rev. Sharpton has pledged to jumpstart a grassroots movement that would address the issue of homophobia in the black community. That problem has undoubtedly contributed to the epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS cases among African-Americans, particularly black women.
Rev. Sharpton's strongest detractors, to be sure, will be black preachers who remain in denial, even as the deadly disease claims the lives of those who sit in their pews week after week.
The failure by the black religious community to tackle homophobia within its ranks has been a travesty and has further undermined the black clergy's efforts to become leading moral voices when it comes to eliminating "isms." Black clerics must stop ignoring the reality that the black community they claim to represent includes gay men and lesbians, many of whom spend years in hiding because they fear their lifestyle will be considered morally and socially unacceptable.
"There is latent homophobia in our community," Rev. Sharpton said.
Al Sharpton was the only presidential candidate last year who unapologetically supported gay marriage, surprising critics who have tried to label him as a one-issue activist.
He forcefully spoke out against the Bush administration - in alliance with some black preachers - when it threatened last year to support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
"They tried to say that being gay is a sin, and I said that adultery is a sin," Rev. Sharpton said. "Adultery is responsible for breaking up more marriages, but do we put that in the Constitution? It's absurd."
All the talk about preventing gay people from being able to marry one another had the effect of bolstering homophobic views. Tragically, the discourse failed to deal with the staggering HIV/AIDS infection rates in the black community, which have gone unnoticed and unaddressed by the general public.
Rev. Sharpton's initiative is being coordinated by his associate Marjorie Fields-Harris, executive director of the National Action Network - the civil rights organization founded in 1991 by Rev. Sharpton. It will include forums at public schools and churches aimed at educating the black community about AIDS and the dangers of homophobia. Rev. Sharpton said he plans to launch public-service announcements on black radio and to make the issue central to his civil-rights work in the upcoming year.
For Rev. Sharpton, the issue is a personal one.
His mentor, Bayard Rustin, a leading figure in the civil rights movement, was targeted by the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover because he was gay. Time after time, Hoover threatened to "out" the leader who was one of the coordinators of the 1963 March on Washington and a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.
King maintained an alliance and friendship with Rustin, though other black ministers in King's camp urged that Rustin be kicked out of the movement.
Rev. Sharpton, who marched in the Gay Pride Parade this year for the first time, is perhaps the very person who can make a dent in the rampant homophobic views so entrenched in the African-American community. Over the past 20 years, he has emerged as a credible civil rights leader who has a track record of bringing African-Americans together.
"I think that Rev. Sharpton is an ideal candidate to be talking about these issues," the executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, Phil Wilson, said. The institute is the country's first black HIV/AIDS policy center dedicated to reducing HIV/AIDS health disparities by mobilizing black institutions and individuals in efforts to confront the epidemic.
"He has been outspoken on issues that impact marginalized people for a long time," Mr. Wilson said, adding that other preachers should follow Rev. Sharpton's lead.
"Historically, the black church has been a sanctuary for black people," Mr. Wilson said. "But sadly, black churches have not stepped up to the plate on HIV as they have historically stepped up to the plate on other issues."
The failure to act has meant new cases of HIV/AIDS, the likes of which we have never seen before, and a callous attitude among some in the African-American community who are unable to see the humanity of their black gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
"We should be celebrating the humanity in all of us, rather than diminishing the humanity in some of us," Mr. Wilson said.
I say amen to that.
Mr. Watson is the executive editor of the New York Amsterdam News. He can be reached at [email protected].