Why Charleston matters to the LGBTQ community

  • by Jim Mitulski
  • Wednesday June 24, 2015
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On Wednesday night, June 17, a white gunman spent an hour in Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He then brutally shot and killed nine black participants, including the church's pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. The gunman's actions were cruel, vile, violent, and motivated by racism. A lone gunman giving expression to systemic racism, reflecting the culture in which he was raised, fed by a deeply rooted and ubiquitous racist ideology, confirmed by symbols like the Confederate flag, which can be found throughout the South. But this is not just about the South; that same racism can be found all across the country – even in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This attack on Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, was not the first one on a house of worship in recent years. Black churches historically have been the subject of white racist terrorist attacks. Synagogues, Sikh temples, and Islamic centers have also been targeted. This year has already seen numerous racially motivated attacks by whites on blacks – from McKinney, Texas to Baltimore and beyond. The attack in Charleston resonates in particular with the history of the African American civil rights movement: on September 15, 1963, four little girls gathering for a Bible study lesson on "A Love that Forgives" were killed by four white bombers with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, an early American terrorist group that still continues to function.

The murders in Charleston are about unchecked, rampant, lethal racism. And about the ready and unnecessary availability of guns. In Colorado where I now work, the memory of other attacks by young white men with guns at Columbine High School and the Aurora movie theater are still fresh. It is time for the LGBTQ community to care deeply about both racism and the availability of guns to the same extent that we care about equal marriage.

We should care because LGBTQ includes African Americans. We should care because of the particular tragedy on its own terms. We should care because our LGBTQ liberation movement has its roots in both the women's and civil rights movements. We should care to the extent that as we celebrate Stonewall, no observance takes place that does not also acknowledge what happened in Charleston. We should care because the new "Gay Agenda" from this moment forward has no more important goal than to end racism. We, as a movement, can bring to bear what we have learned from years of surviving HIV/AIDS and determine to bring an end to racism in our lifetimes. We should care and bring our environmental activism skills to effect a social climate change where racism has no place.

I remember how it felt 25 years ago when Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco and the gay synagogue that shared our building on Eureka Street, Congregation Ahavat Shalom, were fire-bombed by a white supremacist group that had also firebombed several other synagogues in the Bay Area. I'll never forget the flames and smoke from the building – mercifully empty at the time of the bombing – and how it felt for months afterwards to have the vulnerable feeling that we who were in our sanctuary, our safe place, could have lost our lives. I applaud the bravery and the determination to the congregation at Emanuel who gathered this past Sunday to reclaim their space. I can only imagine how it will feel to gather there this week for the many funerals about to take place. I am haunted, still, by the unrelenting, inconsolable wailing of an African American woman who is a member of our church as we gathered last Thursday evening in Denver for a prayer service in solidarity with Mother Emanuel AME.

Audre Lorde's poem "A Litany for Survival" contains the haunting refrain particular to her lesbian, black experience: It is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.

But it is important to note that "Emanuel" means "God is here." So with a reminder of our humanity combined with the knowledge that God is with us, now is the time for the LGBTQ community to rise up – to be here for each other and to do whatever it takes to end racism in ourselves, among each other in our community, within our society.

For myself and for the work I do, I pledge not to let a Sunday go by that we do not include some acknowledgment of the ongoing reality of racism and what we can do about it. Otherwise I am not doing my job.

What will you do?

Here is a simple, concrete list of where to start:

Watch Spike Lee's film Four Little Girls for background on the 1963 church bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in which Carol Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson were killed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4_Little_Girls).

Read and discuss Oakland-based theologian and activist Sandhya Rani Jha's new book Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Line (Chalice Press, 2015).

Act every day to challenge racism wherever it is found in large or small ways. Join a group that makes a difference in a tangible way. Put your body with your intention in protest, in coalition, in voting and by supporting the voting rights of all, and by supporting actions promoted through #sayhername and #blacklivesmatter, to name a couple of sources.

Pray, whether or not it is your normal practice, in solidarity with the slain and living members of Emanuel AME Church because Black Churches Matter: "God/Goddess of my understanding, help me see today what I can do to end racism in my lifetime." Intentional repeated and reverent recitation of the names of the Mother Emmanuel Nine is a kind of prayer: the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, pastor, state senator, and father; Tywanza Sanders, recent college graduate; Cynthia Hurd, librarian with 31 years of service; the Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, pastor, high school track coach, and mother; Myra Thompson, wife of a local pastor; Ethel Lance, church employee for 30 years; the Reverend Daniel L. Simmons, member of ministerial staff; the Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, counselor at Southern Wesleyan; Susie Jackson, age 87.

Give because the immediate trauma of what has happened at Mother Emanuel Church cannot allow the building or the community to falter. Give generously as an expression of condolence and of commitment to that church's future: Mother Emanuel Hope Fund c/o City of Charleston, P.O. Box 304, Charleston, SC 29402 or visit http://www.charleston-sc.gov/index.aspx?NID=1330.

No matter what happens when the Supreme Court rules on equal marriage this week – whether the news evokes celebration or outrage – we as the LGBTQ movement cannot forget or be distracted from the unfolding and unending story of what happened in Charleston a week ago Wednesday. Let's not let hate win.


The Reverend Jim Mitulski is the interim pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies in Denver, Colorado, one of the oldest LGBT churches in the country. For more information, visit www.mccrockies.org or contact Mitulski at [email protected] or via Twitter at @revmitulski or @mccrockies.