Between a Frock and a Hard Place

Private opinions about gayness override civil-rights beliefs among some black clergy

Take Back Miami-Dade's crusade to take back Miami-Dade from "homosexualist extremists" is officially doing a number on harmonious community relations. Rev. Willie Sims, for one, is in a pinch again. As a member of the county's Community Relations Board, his mission is to preach tolerance and understanding. But as president of the African American Council of Christian Clergy, he is opposing a law that protects certain individuals from discrimination.

The AACCC, with a membership of 300 mostly Baptist ministers, is working with Take Back to repeal a 1998 ordinance that added the words "sexual orientation" to the county's human-rights law. The law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, marital status, and familial status. After a Take Back-led petition drive, still the subject of a fraud investigation, county commissioners voted to put an item on the September 10 ballot asking whether the sexual-orientation language should be revoked.

Sims is currently the CRB's director of special projects and crisis response. When New Times phoned him at the Stephen P. Clarke Government Center he said he couldn't comment on the repeal effort. Someone had instructed him not to discuss the matter while on county time. "I'm working some things out with my attorney," he explained. "Somebody who decided I was too vocal on the issue wanted to make an issue of who I represent. Somebody said, 'Well, you know, you represent the CRB at all times.' And I say that's bullshit.

Discarding historical tensions with Cubans, Reverend Bennett has forged a holy alliance bent on crushing an anti-discrimination law
Steve Satterwhite
Discarding historical tensions with Cubans, Reverend Bennett has forged a holy alliance bent on crushing an anti-discrimination law

"It look like somebody's pulling punches," he continued, but declined to speculate on exactly who. "Some strings have been pulled."

CRB executive director Larry Capp, a 49-year-old black Miamian, affirmed that last week he reminded Sims and other board members that under county law they cannot speak publicly on ballot items. "I've directed him that if he's wearing his cap as a county staff person, he is not to comment," Capp disclosed.

Because of his different caps, Sims has been a strange bedfellow with himself before. As a CRB member in early 1991, he was quoted in the Miami Herald telling his congregation at Greater New Faith Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City he was tired of having to deal with Spanish-speakers. At the time he was also beseeching his flock to boycott unfriendly Cuban businesses in retaliation for the snubbing six months earlier of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela by then-Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez and other Cuban-American municipal officials. (Mandela had sinned by thanking Castro for his support.) In that context Sims had once termed Suarez "an idiot." When his CRB bosses suspended him for three days for being "divisive," he alleged his right of free speech had been violated and sued the county for $500,000. The case died after federal appeals court Judge Bailey Brown wrote: "The First Amendment does not require that Sims be allowed to continue his weekday employment drenching the fires of racial animosity for the [CRB], while he fans those flames during his weekend sermons."

In April 2000 the reverend's CRB bosses suspended him again as the hysteria of the Elian affair was peaking. At a tense CRB meeting to discuss the board's crisis strategy Sims had told former chairman Raul Diaz to kiss his ass. A few days later Elian was back with his dad and Sims back at the CRB. But the Sims-Diaz flap was another sign of the county's old and painful animosity between blacks and Cubans.

As a sign of just how far the county has come since the Elian affair, Sims is now allied with a group of Cuban Americans who back then would surely have called him an idiot. And rather than fulminate, he politely referred New Times to Rev. Richard Bennett, Jr., the AACCC's executive director. The 45-year-old is one of fourteen ministers at New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

So New Times put the vexing question to Bennett: How could an association of black clergy, who have so fervently struggled against discrimination wrought by white racists, not oppose another kind of discrimination?

"The executive board did not see this as an issue of discrimination," Bennett replied. "We think it's [about] special privileges instead of discrimination."

What kind of privileges?

"In my situation I'm an African-American male," Bennett continued. "It was not my decision to come out black, but I am. But if I choose a life of homosexuality, that's my choice. You can't compare this. I guess that's the biggest problem that I'm having with the whole issue. You choose that lifestyle, and we have to stand on the word of God. And we have to stick with what we believe in."

And what about the many gays who say they were born gay? "No sir," Bennett declared. "That's the biggest -- I think that's something that one has chosen, to live that lifestyle."

Bennett estimated that about 25 percent of the AACCC disagree with the executive board and believe the repeal of an anti-discrimination law is indeed a discrimination issue. He reiterated that he doesn't, then took a stab at an analogy. "But if I'm an apartment owner, I should have the right to rent to who I choose to. If I'm an apartment owner and it says in my thing that no dogs can live in my complex, I'm discriminating against the dogs, I guess, huh? But, in other words, I'm saying these are rules that one has set."

The minister offered a paraphrase from one section of the rule book, Romans 1:18: "Mankind should not lay with mankind. And womankind should not lay with womankind. It's an abomination."

But isn't there also Scripture beseeching God's children to accept even men who like men and women who like women?

"Listen, as a Christian individual, we love 'em," the reverend exclaimed. "I love the homosexual. But I just don't like their lifestyle, because it goes against the principle of God. If one wanted to change their life -- listen, if the homosexuals wanted to come and join my church they're welcome to come join, but I'm not going to change my teaching. And I hope that they'd be convicted by their heart and change their life. Just like an alcoholic or a drug dealer."

And then, Bennett noted, there are the children. "I have a daughter nine years old and I wouldn't want my daughter to come outside one day and my next-door neighbor's child is outside too and tells her, 'I have two daddies' or 'I have mommies.' That's confusing. Really, I'm serious. I'm so wholehearted serious. I don't think it's a discrimination issue. And I don't want to sound redundant. I just think it's a special privilege that they want.

"They want the rights to say, 'Hey listen. Just because of my lifestyle, I don't want to be refused a job, or [be] refused living in certain areas, or ... a certain complex,'" Bennett explained. In other words, the special privilege of not being discriminated against.

The AACCC's "special privileges" lingo comes from Take Back Miami-Dade's 45-year-old communications director Eladio José Armesto. It is featured on a campaign flyer proclaiming that Martin Luther King, Jr., would be "OUTRAGED!" if he knew that "homosexualist extremists" opposing repeal were invoking his name in the current battle.

"I was quoted in the back of there saying that we are upset about it because they compare this against civil rights," Bennett pointed out. His quote: "To compare the 'sexual preference' amendment to the civil-rights movement is embarrassing. It's nothing but a smoke screen. Our forefathers fought for us to ride the bus, be able to go to restaurants. The civil-rights movement has nothing to do with homosexuality."

A rival flyer, however, includes this quote from the slain civil-rights leader's widow, Coretta Scott King: "If the basic rights of one group can be denied, all groups become vulnerable." And the CRB's Larry Capp found Bennett's reasoning "very convoluted and illogical."

"I mean, you can't get a little bit pregnant. Either you're opposed to discrimination or you're not," he observed, putting on his private-citizen's cap. "When you start making exceptions it's a very dangerous and slippery slope, in my opinion." Moreover, he said, Take Back Miami-Dade is acting like it has special privileges over the King legacy. "When did any one group copyright that strategy?" Capp wondered.

With his executive-director cap back on, Capp said the CRB is going to encourage people on both sides of the campaign to "play fair and be accurate" and "to stay away from slanderous and hurtful and insulting statements."

Bennett and his AACCC associates are pressing ahead with their MLK-Outraged strategy, with more leaflets courtesy of the Take Back Miami-Dade leadership: "We're trying to get out like 50,000 flyers to the churches, and I'm contacting the pastors asking them to make an announcement from their church pulpit on the repeal and ask the congregation to vote 'Yes' on the repeal."

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