Is the black church shifting on gay marriage?: Q&A with filmmaker Yoruba Richen

Yoruba Richen is director of “The New Black," a documentary that explores the intersection of faith, race and sexuality.

(RNS) Yoruba Richen’s documentary “The New Black” airs this month online and on television through the PBS series “Independent Lens.” The film, which explores the intersection of race, religion and sexuality, also has been screened at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and New York’s Union Theological Seminary. An African-American lesbian, Richen talked to Religion News Service about the new openness she sees in black churches around the issue of same-sex marriage.

Yoruba Richen is director of “The New Black," a documentary that explores the intersection of faith, race and sexuality.

RNS photo courtesy Luke Ratray via Independent Lens/PBS

Yoruba Richen is director of “The New Black,” a documentary that explores the intersection of faith, race and sexuality.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: How would you sum up the recent shifts you have seen in the black church over same-sex marriage?

A: What’s happening within the black church — and in the black community as a whole — is reflective of what’s happening in the country as a whole in terms of an opening to talking about sexuality and to supporting same-sex marriage. I think that new conversations are happening within the church. There are pockets that are open and are working on increasing acceptance of LGBT issues and people and then there are other pockets that are more resistant to it.

There’s still plenty of work that needs to be done within religious institutions but we’re seeing an opening and a conversation that we haven’t seen before.

Q: You have spoken of how the African-American community was blamed for passage of California’s Prop 8. Do you see the black religious community playing a role in the changes in opinion about same-sex marriage since that time?

A: I do. I think a few things happened: Barack Obama came out for same-sex marriage, which I think affected a lot of people’s willingness to be open to the idea of same-sex marriage. The NAACP came out after Barack Obama. Many black churches and leaders of black churches started to come out and support marriage equality, many of whom have a national presence.

Sharon Lettman-Hicks, and her husband, Alvin, are featured in Richen's documentary. Lettman-Hicks is the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition and is one of the activists who is challenging homophobia in the black church.

RNS photo courtesy Jen Lemen, via Independent Lens/PBS

Sharon Lettman-Hicks and her husband, Alvin, are featured in Richen’s documentary. Lettman-Hicks is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition and is one of the activists who is challenging the black church to be more accepting of LGBT people.

Q: For many years, some religious leaders, including African-Americans, have criticized the notion that the gay rights movement can be considered a civil rights movement. How do you respond to that claim?

A. Whether you call it a civil rights movement or a freedom struggle doesn’t really matter. It’s the quest for rights and for equality. Some people, like (National Black Justice Coalition Executive Director) Sharon Lettman-Hicks, who is in my film, will say it is a civil rights struggle. Other people will say it can’t be compared to the civil rights struggle.

Q: Are you confronting that issue directly with the “Freedom Summer Tour,” where your documentary is being shown as the 50th anniversary of that voting rights effort is marked?

A. We actually haven’t. When we tell people about the tour, there’s a complete understanding of the connection between the importance of the black vote, how we fought for freedom and equality, and the work continuing after it. It’s all a continuum. I think a lot of people get that.

Q: There are some groups, such as Many Voices, trying to increase dialogue about blacks and gays within the church. What difference are they making?

A: The more voices that you hear about this issue, the more people feel that they can come out and that they can be who they are and they can fight for justice and equality in their own community.

Q: Do you have a religious affiliation?

A: I’m not religious at all but, for the film, I thought the lens of the black church was important to understand because of the history of the civil rights movement as being based in the church and the repository of the movement. The black church has been a big influencer on our community.

Q: Has the fact that you are not a person of faith played a role in your activism on gay rights? Have you been upset about religious folks taking a stand that you didn’t agree with?

A: I’m a filmmaker, not an activist. This isn’t something that I’ve been active in in an “activist” way. From a personal standpoint, I am incensed when religion is used to take away or deny anybody rights.


About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


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  • If u shift “that way” on gay marriage. You might as well on polygamy too.

    And group marriage.
    And expiratory marriage.
    And legal entity + real person marriage.

  • What is wrong with expiratory marriage?
    Has anyone actually lobbied for that?

    Of course bad analogy is always the last resort to people who have no arguments based on the facts of a given subject.

  • Anti-gays have claimed for many years that all African Americans are anti-gay, but that nonsense was debunked, once and for all, last November in Maryland. Twice as many AA Maryland voters voted FOR marriage equality than voted to hurt same gender Maryland couples.

    This all started in 2008, when an exit pollster in California announced the evening of the election that a large percentage of AA California voters had voted to hurt same gender California couples. No other exit polling firm had such figures, and this one polling firm corrected their mistake the next morning.

    Anti-gays try to fight the obvious comparison between racial discrimination and homophobia, but their lies about that have also been debunked. Science has proven sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable. Several US federal and several US State High Courts have examined that evidence and ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is similarly unconstitutional as discrimination based on race because BOTH are IMMUTABLE characteristics. That’s where the similarity ends, but it means it’s just as UNCONSTITUTIONAL and WRONG to try to HURT LGBT Americans with these dirty anti-gay Hate Votes as Jim Crow laws were.

  • The 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals revoked anti-gay Hate Votes in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. New Mexico is also in the 10th Curcuit, but they never had an anti-gay Hate Vote, and they established marriage equality previously.

    A federal court revoked Indiana’s anti-gay Hate Law, and marriages are being performed now.

  • Haven’t you heard Larry? There is no god, soabsolutely nothing is wrong with it!

    “Wrong” is relative only to the perception of what is “right”. Wrong cannot exist without the existence of right, and vice versa. One would then think the two are mutually exclusive events, thus reduceable to actual probability theory and thus mathematical set notation…but that is arrogant. As any good lib-hole will tell you gray areas abound…and “narrow mindedness” is the battlecry against the oppressive structure of pure human logic.

    He/she/it who screams loudest that their who-who hurts….usually wins!

  • “Immutable” huh? Meaning unchangeable.

    I knew a few guys who got married to a female, successfully had kids with them, then one day switched teams and are now openly gay. Didn’t they “change”?

    Couldn’t they change back? Since its obvious they were once hetero before? Or is going gay like joining the mafia and you can’t go back once you’ve wrapped you leather thonged booty in a rainbow flag parade?

    Could they not change daily according to how they feel?

  • Wierd huh? If only one type of vote is acceptable from the plebeians on a particular subject due toconconstitutional reasons, which sometimes we follow and sometimes we don’t….why don’t we just legally clear the issue before the vote?

    Why the pretense? Why waste the time of multi millions of people?

  • Unfortunately, Yoruba Richen is correct. The black church has shifted. (For the worse, that is.)

    After Barack Obama betrayed Christian voters by reneging on his 2008 support of traditional marriage, many black churches placed their color above their Christian faith (out of loyalty to Obama). Which meant that they wound up supporting legalized gay marriage, effectively betraying their own Bibles.

    The NAACP went completely turncoat, totally enslaving themselves to the Gay Marriage Plantation. A prominent NAACP leader who disagreed with legalized gay marriage, had no choice but to resign.

    Meanwhile, the black churches and clergy supported Obama’s 2012 re-election even though Obama had publicly announced his intentions to kill the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which effectively legalizes gay marriage in America, one court ruling at a time.)

    This is why the homosexual activists supported Obama. They knew that if they could break HIM and cause him to support legalized gay marriage, many black churches would do the same, just out of racial loyalty to Obama. Those black churchs would simply focus on “black” and forget that they were “church.” And the gay activists were correct, so very correct.

    (And no, this is not racist talk. I’m black too. I’m just saying what’s going on.)

    So what’s the prognosis? I honestly don’t know. Things have changed, for the worse, and they won’t be fixed anytime soon. DOMA is dead. America’s altimeter is spinning downward fast. Black Christians and churches are divided and compromised, facing an uncertain future.

  • “Science has proven sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable.”

    Really? Exactly where’s your proof on that one?

  • The ATLAH Worldwide Missionary Church in Harlem recently made headlines with a sign that read:


    So, I think the answer to the question posed in the headline is, “Maybe not.”

  • Science has proven sexuality is fluid. So there-goes the born that way argument just like all the other fallacious assertions..

  • You are not getting the question.

    What is rationally wrong with the idea of expiratory marriage?
    Why should it be considered a bad thing?
    Has anyone actually lobbied for it?

    I have never heard of it being proposed.

    “There is no god, soabsolutely nothing is wrong with it!”

    Well if you can’t come up with a rational or secular reason against it, then there IS absolutely nothing wrong with it. 🙂

    If your sole reason against something is “god tells you so” it is not good enough for our laws. Your version of what God tells you will be different from what God told someone else. If we chose one instead of the other, we oppress them.

    If you can’t come up with why something wrong in any way other than “God says so” GOD HELP US ALL!!

    That is just admitting you are a psychopath on a divine leash. Unlike the rest of humanity, you are admitting to being bereft of empathy, understanding of fellow people and lacking a conscience. That without divine instruction or authority you would run amok and look to harm others.

    There is nothing more relative than “religious based morality”. As long as you think God approves, any act no matter how malicious or harmful is allowed. No consideration of reason or personal responsibility whatsoever.

  • Anyone who says they “decided” to become straight is gay but hiding.

    As for Lles’s example, they called it “the closet” for a reason. A lot of gays, especially from the Baby Boomer generation hid their orientation for various reasons and played the part of being straight. For a while being gay could lead to loss of job, housing, family and even prison in some places. To be openly gay anywhere prior to the mid 70’s was outright hazardous. It was not so much a switch as it was feeling safe to be themselves.

    Nowadays, outside of the occasional person from an ultra-religious background, you just don’t see that sort of thing very often anymore.

  • “why don’t we just legally clear the issue before the vote?”

    The problem has to do with the mechanics of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is not allowed to issue advisory opinions. There has to be a conflict between people to be resolved in order to have a decisions. So we have to have the vote first and the law on the books before it can be “legally cleared”.

    Also in general we don’t subject civil liberties to a vote in most cases. A compelling reason for that is the existence of constitutionally protected freedoms. Every discriminatory law is passed by a majority vote. So it is not the be-all or end all. Our system is specifically designed to put curbs on what can be voted for.

    Civil liberties are there to keep people from:
    1. Voting away their essential freedoms
    2. Voting away the essential freedoms of others.

  • Sad to say, the anti-gay poster who asked for evidence that sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable has seen the evidence, he’s simply unable to accept facts. Psychologists report that the most commonly observed symptom of the mental disorder homophobia is cognitive dissonance, an inability of those so afflicted to accept documentation that contradicts their deep-seated phobia and hatred of LGBT Americans.

    Sexual orientation, whether gay, bisexual or non-gay, has been shown by science to be inborn and unchangeable, and psychologists have shown being gay or lesbian is just as healthy and “normal” as being non-gay. Here are just 15 of tens of thousands of respected websites (and a citation from Fox News for the doubters) that document this:,2933,155990,00.html


  • Isn’t it amazing how anti-gays are always telling us they have “gay friends”?

    The person you describe is probably a bisexual.

    “you’ve wrapped you leather thonged booty in a rainbow flag parade”

    How much time a day do you fantasize about that? Readers who would like to see the scientific evidence for why that anti-gay poster is so obsessed with what he IMAGINES same gender couples do in private should Google “Homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.”

  • As a white evangelical I’ve asked black Christians how they can vote for liberal candidates when their positions are so clearly wrong on abortion and homosexuality. The answers always involved things like incarceration, affirmative action, policing, and government benefits. In other words, they placed priority on things having to do with earthly standards of living – MAMMON! Holiness took second place. They should have been the natural allies of Evangelicals in the culture wars but instead they checked Biblical morality at the door of the voting booth and compromise their faith. Now having done the devil’s work with their votes they’re seeing the result. Persecution of Christians in America has already begun in part because of the black church’s voting for liberal candidates. Congratulations.