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To be black and gay in America is difficult enough. But to be a gay black clergyman seeking official sanction from one of the spiritual cornerstones of African-American life is beyond difficult. As Rev. Tommie Watkins discovered recently, it's impossible -- at least for now.
Watkins preaches at the Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,where he leads a gay and lesbian congregation he calls the Ministry of Reconciliation. He made his disappointing discovery October 3 in Melbourne, where he traveled in hopes the 213-year-old religious institution's South Florida chapter would ordain him as a deacon at its annual conference. If ordained Watkins would become the first openly gay member of the AME hierarchy.
He arrived at Melbourne's Greater Allen Chapel AME Church during a break in a heavy downpour. Inside the sanctuary elegantly dressed women cooled themselves with fans that advertised a local funeral home, while men in dark suits shook hands and joked with one another. As the air conditioning quietly succumbed to the heat and humidity rising from the crowd, elderly ladies wearing white gloves busily set up folding chairs in the narrow aisles and urged those sitting in the pews to make room for late arrivals.
All were gathered for the AME's Eleventh Episcopal District annual conference, at which hundreds of congregants, from Melbourne to Key West, would set policy, select new leaders, and chart a course for the coming year. Though few realized it, this year's conference held the possibility of marking a new era for the historic church, which was established in Philadelphia in 1787 by freed slaves who'd been prohibited from worshipping in white churches.
The supreme leader of Florida's six AME regions, Bishop John Hurst Adams, told the assembly to prepare for a socially progressive millennium. The church already had broken tradition earlier this year, when Rev. Vashti Murphy McKenzie was ordained as its first female bishop. “We're going to be sensitive to issues and calls of support before us,” Bishop Adams declared from a table in front of the altar. “Leadership is expanding the definition of what is possible where issues like justice, fairness, and opportunity are concerned.”
Behind a pulpit to the bishop's left, about fifteen church elders were gathered. One by one they approached a microphone and read the names and brief biographies of those who would lead the church into the 21st Century. New officers with titles such as licentiates, deacons, and elders were nominated for Bishop Adams's approval.
Squeezing into the last row of pews, Watkins sat expectantly. Two years of ecumenical study, which he completed this past summer, had qualified him for ordination as a deacon, and finally, almost two hours into the seemingly interminable roll call, his name was due to be announced. But the elders' alphabetical list jumped from “Thomas” to “Williams.” Watkins got up and quietly walked out of the church.
Bishop Adams's pronouncement that the AME Church was ready to break new ground evidently contained unspoken limits. Watkins and his gay and lesbian brethren, it seemed, stood outside those limits. Though crestfallen, Watkins claimed he wasn't really surprised. “This tells me it's just going to take some time,” he conceded shortly after the meeting. His personal struggle to forge a new path for the church would continue, though as this official rejection made obvious, it was not going to be easy. But then, doing the easy thing has not been the 25-year-old minister's style.
Since coming out of the closet three years ago, Watkins has waged several battles, publicly and privately, against homophobia. He was pressured to resign from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1997, when a fellow midshipman with whom he claims to have had a relationship accused him of sexual harassment. (Watkins has denied the harassment allegation.) He sued the navy this past June after the service sought to charge him nearly $90,000 in tuition for the three years Watkins attended the academy. (The navy seeks such reimbursement when a midshipman leaves the academy voluntarily or because of misconduct. Watkins claims he was unfairly forced to resign. His lawsuit is pending before a federal judge in Baltimore.)
Following his breach with the navy, Watkins finished his degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach and then moved to Miami in 1998. The following year he began teaching mathematics at Christopher Columbus High, a private Catholic school. This past June Watkins filed a complaint under the county's human-rights ordinance after the school declined to renew his contract following publication of an article in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentineldescribing his gay and lesbian ministry at Greater Bethel, located at 245 NW Eighth St. (After an investigation the county closed the case, because the human-rights ordinance does not apply to religious organizations.)
These public conflicts, however, do not compare with his most personal one. Watkins's parents, devout Southern Baptists from Birmingham, Alabama, have distanced themselves from their son since he revealed his sexuality. He hasn't spoken with them since he filed the lawsuit against the navy.
The family ostracism, he says today, has only strengthened his religious faith and motivated him to help others who are rebuffed because they are gay. His Ministry of Reconciliation strives to aid in healing the emotional wounds suffered by those whose sexual orientation has led to them being abandoned by church and family. “If certain people can't come to God's house and serve, where are they going to go?” Watkins asks.