The "Masculine Journey" of Bishop Eddie Long

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Mr. Mount is a teaching assistant at San Diego State University and a HNN intern.

Editor’s Note: Eddie Long is the bishop of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, a megachurch in DeKalb County, GA.  On September 22, 2010, three men filed separate lawsuits against Long alleging that the bishop “coerced” them into sexual relations. As of December 9, Long is reportedly seeking to settle the case out-of-court.

In an effort to establish his “potency” via the Word of God, Bishop Eddie Long once told his congregation that it was “the job of the preacher to bring fresh sperm.”  For many observers this came as no surprise, as the bishop is widely known for asserting his masculinity through these kinds of sexually-charged analogies.  In the same sermon the bishop denigrated lesser preachers calling them impotent “dead sperm” disseminators and glorified a God that begets “widespread [spiritual] pregnancies.”  He has subsequently made blanket statements referring to homosexuality as a form of “spiritual abortion.”

While the merging of the sacred and the profane is a centuries-old practice among African Americans, these statements have taken on an entirely new meaning in light of the current allegations made by four male church members against the bishop.  The four men, in their civil lawsuits, claim that the Bishop Eddie Long induced them with lavish gifts and romantic trips in return for sexual favors and manly fellowship.  The complaints essentially describe an all-male harem operating within the Bishop’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.  Promising a “Longfellows Masculine Journey,” this now suspiciously titled “Longfellows Academy” was a youth ministry program that found the bishop allegedly ‘initiating’ young boys like a Greek aristocrat while performing elaborate cult-like marriage ceremonies between himself and his “Spiritual Sons.”

Inadvertently, the bishop may have in fact introduced some “fresh sperm” into a decades-old process that has been quietly reshaping black religious life in America.  Although this particular germination was clearly not what the bishop had in mind, his case has dramatically brought issues of gender and sexuality to the center of the discussion taking place around black religious reform and spiritual leadership.  While the final impact of the bishop’s plight is still unknown, it seems clear that his case will mark a significant turning point in African American religious history, especially as it relates to black sexuality and masculinity.  It may also open up a much wider discussion about black religious belief in general and its intersection with contemporary cultural politics.  As Syracuse University Professor Boyce Watkins wrote in a recent article for BlackVoices, these allegations have the potential to “change the black church forever.”

The Performance of Religious Manhood

In the bishop’s defense, he really did do everything in his power to keep the lie alive.  The extreme effort that the bishop exerted in order to demonstrate that he might single-handedly hold the cipher of black manhood was remarkable to the point of comical.  His dogmatic performances continue to this day, as unlike other preachers whose private sex lives have been exposed, the bishop has decided to take the most unheard of (and masculine) of all positions; he’s fighting the charges.  The elaborate pageantry was on full display in the bishop’s first public address regarding the allegations and was held on Sunday morning after the allegations broke in front of his New Birth “family.”

Beaming with charm and confidence the bishop started off by bending the truth.  He told his congregation that he had waited to address the world until this moment because “[m]y first responsibility was to my family.  Then my next responsibility is not to address the world before I address my family at New Birth.”  This met with great applause from his congregation despite the fact that earlier in the week the bishop’s attorney appeared on the Tom Joyner show in the bishop’s stead, saying that that the bishop’s true desire was to address the world and the media first but that he, as his attorney, had to talk the bishop out of it.  Where the bishop’s true desire really lies we may never know.  What we do know is that the bishop vowed to fight the charges while pitting himself as David against Goliath.  Continuing the analogy the bishop threatened all those who might doubt him, saying “I’ve got five rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet.”  The bishop did however throw down his mic, snatched his wife, and left the stage leaving us all to wonder what he has in store for the world.  Throughout the sermon Long admitted that he was not “a perfect man” and refused to deny that he had sex with other imperfect men.  Although he said:  “this thing, I’m gonna fight” we don’t yet know if “this thing” is a sexual orientation that he will later admit to and attempt to exorcise.

Not surprisingly, the performance met with overwhelming approval from the majority of Long’s supporters.  Gabrielle A. Richards, a New Birth church member, told CNN that she “was so proud of him the way that he came out with his head high up and with his fabulous wife and he showed the strength that I’m accustomed to.  And this is the Bishop Long that I know.”  The bishop’s confidence and “fabulous” yet silent wife meant for Ms. Richards that their might still be hope that the nuclear black family rooted in heterosexual patriarchy might weather the storm.  Ultimately it was the notion that nothing had changed which proved so comforting to her as “Bishop Long did a great job assuring us that he’s still Bishop Long.”  Of course the implication was that Bishop Long could not be Bishop Long if he turns out to be the gay Bishop Long.

Others had a different assessment.  The Reverend Carlton Pearson, Senior Pastor of Christ Universal Temple which openly welcomes and accepts LGBT members, commented on CNN regarding the same sermon saying that “the people rejoiced Sunday because he didn’t admit to anything.  They didn’t want him to.”  Apparently Bishop Long is a man who knows what his flock can handle and what they want to hear.  Rev. Person, who is one of the leading advocates of the Gospel of Inclusion, told the nation prophetically that “Bishop Eddie Long is just the tip of the iceberg.”  Gospel music and the black church are overflowing with LGBT members, according to Rev. Person, and without them “we wouldn’t have a church.”

Voices on the Ground

The entire dance reveals deep cuts in the symbolic world of African Americans throughout the nation.  As Rev. Pearson joked to a white reporter regarding gay sex in the black community “That’s for white folks.  See, ya’ll supposed to do all that kinda stuff.  We don’t do that kinda stuff.  [Laughter] We real men!”  These widely held beliefs that LGBT lifestyles and identities are inherently white cultural products are now being exposed as erroneous.  Yet, in many ways, African American communities are still developing the vocabulary to address LGBT issues within the context of the African diaspora.  The entire affair simply does not register.  It doesn’t compute.  It’s like dividing by zero.

This became clearly evident when Fox News Atlanta interviewed Antonio Makins, the best friend of one of the accusers Jamal Parris.  Makins spoke in disgust towards Bishop Long and instinctually believed his friend’s side of the story saying “nobody’s going to lie” about something as taboo as African American gay sex.  Anyone who would lie about something so apparently heinous would be “a complete idiot” according to Makins, knowing the consequences that such a confession would entail.  Clearly Makins was having trouble understanding how his friend could willingly submit to sex with the bishop and saw no other recourse than to paint the bishop as a ‘monster’ and a pervert, a strategy which has become the standard mantra for those critical of the bishop.  Makins expressed the widespread sentiments of many African Americans when he said:  “Grown men? You sending pictures of yourself flexing and posing in spandex for… grown men?  It doesn’t make any sense.”  Indeed “grown men” in the black community are expected to meet a very narrowly construed performance standard.  When they do not conform to such a standard, by engaging in same-sex relationships or bending gender norms, it makes “no sense” especially in a religious context.

This predicament finds otherwise loquacious pastors thoroughly tongue tied.  Rev. Timothy McDonald, III, senior pastor of the First Iconic Baptist Church was loath to discuss “even the accusations of the particulars and the specifics, I personally don’t want to get into that.”  Rev. McDonald finished his statement with a subtle smirk as if he were somehow both amused and embarrassed at the thought of potentially having to discuss the gay sex life of one of his fellow pastors.  It seems everyone suspects that the allegations are true but would rather not deal with them in any detail or examine them with any real probity.  Better to just get it all out in the open, put it to rest, and go back to business as usually.  To watch black clergy men walking such a fine line between providing good Christian support to the bishop on the one hand and waiting to throw him under the bus at the appropriate time on the other, means that the strategy being taken is ultimately to weather the storm so that things can return to business as usual as quickly as possible.  These conflicted sentiments which hope that the allegations are not true, while sensing that they are, were echoed by Maurice E., a neighbor of Bishop Long.  Maurice told a local news reporter that “you don’t want any man to go through things like this, especially if they untrue.  But just come out and say it and be done with it.”  The problem, of course with Maurice’s solution and the black clergymen’s current strategy (beyond the self-delusion) is that the intersection of human sexuality and religion is not something that humanity will ever be ‘done with.’

Marc Lemont Hill from Columbia University has offered some of the most useful insight on this issue to date.  Hill said that B.J. Bernstein, the lead attorney for the accusers, is trying to position the case whereas “these boys were ordinary straight boys that tried to have girl friends and Eddie Long wouldn’t let them.”  Hill went on to explain that Bernstein knows that the real crime will be perceived as one where a gay minister was preying upon straight boys and turning them gay.  In the court of public opinion this would be much more incriminating than if the young men were simply gay church members who had sex with their gay pastor.  Hill pointed out that because Bernstein is well aware of this predicament and that as a result she is playing up the idea of the gay male rapist pedophile who uses his influence to turn straight boys gay.

In fact, the most homophobic element of this entire case might be the lawsuits themselves.  Bernstein, who is a white woman, is unapologetically fanning the fire of hatred and appealing to the lowest sexual fears of her potential juty pool in a way that would never happen had the bishop seduced four consenting black women with his wealth, status, and charm.  The lawsuit claims that the young men deserve to be compensated because they were subjected to “public scorn and ridicule.”  In other words, because gay sex is generally looked down upon in America anyone who engages in gay sex should be sued by their partner for damages despite the fact that no such parallel would exist in heterosexual relationships.  By further alleging that the boys suffered “physical” harm as a result of the sexual relationship, the lawsuit plays upon the widely held belief that gay sex is intrinsicly more dangerous, damaging, deviant, and hurtful.  No one is alleging rape in this case, so what physical pain could these boys be talking about that they did not clearly consent to?  Part of the lawsuit also claims that the Bishop is liable for fraud by lying to the young men when he told them that same-sex relationships were “a healthy component” of their “worship and affiliation with the church.”  This implies, of course, that homosexuality and spirituality are mutually exclusive and that any preacher who is gay, unconditionally welcomed LGBT members into their church, or encouraged homoerotic sex acts would be guilty of fraud against their congregation.  By painting the accusers as ‘victims,’ the lawsuit ultimately reinforces the social myth that gay sex is prima facie harmful to those who engage in it and incompatible with religious expressions of spirituality.

When these lawsuits are unearthed fifty years from now, historians will certainly laugh at a society which permitted this kind of openly anti-gay litigation to even be contemplated as a possibility.  This is because the bishop’s case ultimately rests on its appleal to the prejudices of an American society that completely precludes the possibility that two well-adjusted black men may have found a physical and spiritual connection with one another and would chose to express such feelings in a loving sexual relationship of mutual consent and enjoyment.  The only way that our society can currently register this case, and purify itself from its challenges, is to demonize the bishop as a transgressor of social norms who damaged young men by introducing them to the queer world of gay sex.  It is culturally inconceivable that two (or in this case five or more) churchgoing African American men would mutally consent to experiment with one another sexually when so many good black women are out there single and anxious to find a loving partner.  Via this logic, Long’s crime is a crime against humanity.  It is a crime against the traditional black family.  It is crime against the patriarchal order.  And it is crime againt the gender roles that such an order prescribes. 

Hip-Hop to the Rescue? (!)

Despite the criticism that is frequently levied on the hip-hop community, one particular event, which parallels the Bishop’s case, may serve as a hopeful sign that change is on the horizon.  In 2006, a photo emerged of rap superstars Lil’ Wayne and Birdman kissing each other on the lips.  This sent the blogosphere jumping and revealed that the two men had committed a similar act of affection in a hard to see frame of Lil’ Wayne’s video “Everything” in 2000.  Were these two pillars of aggressive black manhood secretly/openly gay?

Rather than deny the public display of affection or claim that the picture was Photoshopped, Birdman gave a remarkable set of interviews where he unabashedly defended his actions saying:  “That’s my son, man.  I’d do it again, do it tomorrow.  I’ll kill for him, ride for him, and die for him.”  In a separate interview Birdman elaborated saying:  “Wayne for me is my son, my firstborn son and that’s what it do for me.  That’s my life.  That’s my love.  And that’s my thing.  That’s my little son, ya heard? I love him to death.”  Although no further photos of the men kissing have emerged and Birdman denied being part of what many hoped would have been hip-hop’s first openly gay super couple, the point was well taken.  It’s okay for grown black men to kiss each other on the lips and display their love for each other physically.  Questions remain if this logic would have applied had the two men engaged in a more erotic or sexual act of affection but one would hope that Birdman’s reply would have remained the same.   

For Bishop Eddie Long, the heroic move today would be to follow Birdman’s lead and openly profess his love for his “spiritual sons” and reveal the Christian theology that he supposedly used to justify the same-sex relationships with them.  Certainly, his church would believe him.  Knowing that this prayer may go unanswered, at the very least this chain of events will serve to complicate the prevailing images of black male sexuality while calling into question the patriarchy that governs much of black religious life today.  “If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him,” according to the pop wisdom imparted by Mickey Rourke’s character in Iron Man 2.  With Long now bleeding, will black America cease to believe in charismatic preachers and demand a more progressive theology or will it simply ignore the blood running in the streets and continue to put their trust in a Gospel that supports homophobia and sexism?  Either way, it seems that the age of the superhero ‘iron man’ preacher may be gone forever.  It’s been a long time coming.

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More Comments:

Fred telma daphne - 1/5/2011

That article you wrote missed the entire point. Whether they are gay or straight doesn't matter. THEY WERE MINORS!!!!!! THAT'S ALL THAT MATTERS!!!! To make it an issue of their sexuality is you trying to push an agenda. You are gay aren't you? Don't make it about you!

Son Ofbaldwin - 12/19/2010

What a remarkably unique and insightful look at the subject matter. Bravo!

Taylor Siluwe - 12/19/2010

Of all the Eddie Long articles I've read, this is a fresh perspective. I never flipped the script and realized that this would not be the black-church-rocking scandal without homo-hate in society.

However if the married Bishop had done this with a harem of 17 yr old girls that he'd groomed and mentored as his 'spiritual daughters', it would still be a story. Not so shocking, but still newsworthy and Bernstein would still find a way to sue him.

Still, the hypocrisy of a rabidly anti-gay Bishop 'secretly' sanctioning gay sex with his harem of spiritual sons adds an extra layer of repugnant to anyone who ever trusted him at his word. The hypocrisy, not the gay sex, is what's foul here. And everyone knows it.

But what can you expect from Bishop with 100k worth of bling in his church office? Honesty?

The Black Church will have to change. With the repeal of DADT (and government sanctioned bigotry), all other obstacles to full equality are further weakened and will soon come crumbling down. There are gay marines. How can the church continue to preach its a sign of weakness.

The Church should take that as prophesy and get out of the way of change or be crushed by it. Especially since many can already take it or leave it.