Sunday, August 28, 2005


Inland Empire

By Chris Levister

"There is latent homophobia in our community," says the Reverend Al
Sharpton. In classic Sharpton style the outspoken civil rights
activist is pointing the finger directly at what historically has
been a sanctuary for Black people: 'the church'.

"Black churches have not stepped up to the plate o­n HIV. Black
preachers walked arm in arm from Selma to Montgomery. Arm in arm we
were beaten, jailed, humiliated and dehumanized." Sharpton says,
sadly, o­n the issue of HIV many Black ministers have become the
oppressor." Sharpton accused some Black preachers of using their
pulpits to diminish the humanity of some rather than celebrate the
humanity of all.

"I'm going to challenge the homophobia in our own backyard," said
Sharpton. Alarmed by the staggering number of new cases of HIV/AIDS
in the African-American community, Rev. Sharpton is set to launch a
grassroots initiative designed to take the gloves off homophobia, a
problem, he says, has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of HIV
among Blacks.

Sharpton's national campaign is aimed at educating the public about
HIV/AIDS, while using his bully pulpit to caution against
discriminating against gays and lesbians. "We've turned our backs o­n
many of the very folks early civil rights activists fought and died

Sharpton plans to begin airing public service announcements o­n BET
and radio stations with predominately Black audiences that will train
a spotlight o­n the epidemic, a leading cause of death among African-
Americans, especially Black women. "I'm calling o­n Black preachers to
step to the line in confronting the issue of homophobia among African-
Americans." A topic long considered taboo, especially in the Black
religious community.

"This is an enormous leap for the Reverend to take," said Allen
Roskoff, a gay rights activist. Roskoff has known and worked with
Sharpton for more than 20 years. "It's high time that we all stand
together to fight bigotry and homophobia." He said Sharpton's
decision o­n the HIV issue will generate national attention to the
epidemic and save lives in the long-term.

Over the next year, the civil rights activist will conduct public
forums at churches and schools addressing the stigma that has long
surrounded the disease.

Sharpton's challenge is welcome news to Rev. Dr. Robert L. Fairley,
pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. Earlier this year
Fairley ruffled feathers in the wider church community when he
publicly threw his support behind the use of latex condoms, safe sex
education, personal responsibility and greater church leadership to
stem the spread of AIDS. In June, Rev. Fairley, HIV/AIDS activists,
public health, and community leaders celebrated the opening of the
San Bernardino HIV/AIDS Resource Center housed in the New Hope Life

"Rev. Sharpton's national challenge encourages his peers to speak
out," says 32 year old Marcy Craig of San Bernardino. Craig was
diagnosed with HIV in 2003. Her husband of 8 years died of AIDS in
2004. Craig believes Sharpton's initiative will turn the spotlight o­n
pastors who preach homophobia.

"It's painful to sit in church and hear a pastor preach that HIV is
a "consequence of sinful behavior." Craig said, such uncompassionate
ministry encourages many African-American gays and lesbians, to hide
their sexual identity for fear of being rejected."

Marjorie Fields-Harris, the executive director of Sharpton's National
Action Network, will spearhead the fight homophobia initiative.

"It's a lot larger than preaching biblical doctrine and passing out
condoms," said Harris. "We have to address the social factors. We
intend to go into the churches and the community to address this
issue from a grassroots perspective."

During his presidential race last year, Sharpton was o­ne of the o­nly
candidates who publicly supported gay marriage, and earlier this year
at the request of Brian Ellner, an openly gay candidate running for
New York's Manhattan borough president, Sharpton marched in the
city's Gay Pride Parade.

"Rev. Sharpton can do enormous good o­n this issue." said Ellner "When
the Reverend speaks people listen. We need to get past the myths and
phobias. We are faced with the African-American community's greatest
challenge: Survival."

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