Author and activist Keith Boykin on Wednesday blamed the black church for what he described as high levels of homophobia in the African American community.
Speaking to a packed crowd UNC Charlotte, Boykin said gays in the black community often fear speaking out because they risk social and religious isolation.
“It’s taboo in the black community to be gay because of the church and religion,” he said. “Even though there are churches who are both homophobic and homotolerant, it’s still difficult for people.”
Boykin, author of the book “One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America,” began his activism in high school, working on political campaigns. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and served in the White House as special assistant to President Bill Clinton. He was appointed in 1997, along with Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to the U.S. presidential trade delegation to Zimbabwe.
Boykin has written three books, each nominated for a Lambda Literary award and named to the New York Times best seller list. He won the Lambda award for his second book, “Respecting the Soul.”
He is editor of The Daily Voice and makes regular appearances on television shows such as CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” “The O’Reilly Factor” and the syndicated “Tyra Banks Show.”
Boykin, who is gay, said his “traditional, religious” grandmother was the least accepting of his lifestyle. He said she approached him about his sexuality during a critical time in his life — after his graduation from Harvard Law School.
“We had a heated discussion…,” he recalled to an audience estimated at more then 400, “and it was apparent that she thought my ‘alternative lifestyle’ wasn’t acceptable behavior. She even asked my partner for his mother’s phone number so she could tell her what was going on.”
Boykin said the black church has a large influence over the African American community, and that people often feel they need acceptance by the mainstream — in this case, the church.
“Anything that makes them fall from grace of the mainstream society is looked down upon,” Boykin said. “Most people don’t want to take on that extra burden.”
Boykin was invited to the campus by OUTSpoken, a group that supports and encourages the LBGTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community.
Boykin said that even though his grandmother disagreed with him for many years, she was present at his first book signing, and brought several members from her church. “I couldn’t believe that she was openly supporting her gay grandson,” he said.
Boykin said his grandmother’s conversion showed him that people can grow, which helped him develop his own set of religious beliefs.
Boykin said he prescribes to a “radical set if beliefs.” He said he believes in the power of love and acceptance, much as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.
“Many Christians believe that if you abstain from doing certain things, you can consider yourself holier than thou,” he said. “But it’s not just about abstaining. It’s also about being active and doing something. It’s about love.
“I believe in love,” he said. “The most important commandment is love. You should embrace the love with which you were born.”