On Wednesday, the White House will screen the BET.com documentary "Holler If You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church," in what the film's director calls "the embodiment of the success of the Obama administration."
BET entertainment editor Clay Cane, who shot the film in the Atlanta area last spring, does not come from a religious background himself, but as gay black man, "You can't avoid religion. It's a constant part of the conversation," he told MSNBC on Tuesday. Because of the black church's role as a place of both refuge and a source of revolution during slavery, Jim Crow and civil rights movement, the African-American community enjoy a unique relationship with its houses of worship. But for black LGBT people, according to the film, the church has become "a space of oppression."
The one-hour film looks at couples "shunned" by their families, as well as clergy members marginalized and youth abandoned all because of their sexual orientation. The rationale behind all of the intolerance is almost always religion, but in the black community paranoia about perceived threats to traditional masculinity plays a role as well. As one openly gay choir director says in the film, you can be "anything but gay" in the black community.
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The White House's decision to screen this film for Black History Month speaks to the president's evolution on gay rights. Obama has shifted from a candidate who staunchly opposed same-sex marriage to a sitting president who openly embraced it prior to his re-election in 2012. His decision to back marriage equality has been credited with shifting the needle on public approval. The majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, and while numbers in the black community still lag behind the national average, they did begin to tick up after Obama's endorsement.
"I will tell you ... that African-Americans thought differently," said Cane, who also cited first lady Michelle Obama's DNC speech in 2012 — when she told the audience that her husband wants opportunity for all, no matter "who we love" — as a crucial moment for LGBT black Americans. "I wouldn't be there under any other administration," added Cane about his upcoming White House visit. "This shows the inclusiveness of the Obama administration."
Besides his support for anti-hate crime legislation and his role in ending "don't ask, don't tell," Obama has taken his pro-gay rights message directly to communities of color here and internationally as well. In 2013, he clashed publicly with the president of Senegal over the homophobic policies of his government, and he has also condemned anti-gay Ugandan laws. The president has also made more subtle gestures, like honoring the late, great, openly gay civil rights icon Bayard Rustin that same year and paying homage to the first openly gay NFL athlete, Michael Sam, in 2014.
"He had to undo the sins of the Clinton administration to make some great gains for the LGBT community," said Cane.
Still, despite undeniable progress under Obama, "Holler If You Hear Me" powerfully portrays the uphill battle so many black LGBT people face when they are forced to choose between their faith and "living an authentic life."
"If you want to meet a whole bunch of black gay folks just go to the black church," jokes Cane, referring to his belief that many LGBT African-Americans not only stay closeted but sit idly by while their pastors and fellow parishioners denigrate them and refuse to affirm their relationships. Cane said that while making the film he learned to be a lot less judgmental of people who make that choice because for them "walking away from your church is like walking away from [your] family." And while gay people have been serving in black congregations for years, they simply want the "right to exist" within their communities of faith.
According to Cane, BET, where he has worked for eight years, has been nothing but supportive in his endeavor. The network backed the project from the beginning both philosophically and financially, and Cane remains "very optimistic" about future projects and the cause of gay rights. Case in point: One of the most stirring moments of the film features an encounter between Cane, who is openly gay, and a devout woman who refuses to approve of her daughter's marriage to another female. Cane says that although some audiences have recoiled at the woman's position, the fact that she even spoke to him on camera is a small ray of hope.
"I‘m more concerned about people living on the fringe of society like I was," said Cane, who promises that his next film project will "shake up and disturb as many people as possible."