Pastor Dennis Meredith is a Pastor at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He discusses mainstream Evangelical Christian views on homosexuality and the power of the preacher in the African-American community.
For those in the know in the African American community it’s called ‘living on the down low’, and it’s not something you’d expect to find at the heart of a documentary about one of the South’s most prominent and publicly heterosexual church leaders.
But being ‘on the DL’ – or having a secret gay sex life, while appearing for all intents and purposes as aggressively heterosexual – is allegedly the driving force behind what is shaping up to be the most salacious sex scandal ever to come out of the black Baptist community.
The story begins with a huge figure in Atlanta’s Baptist community, Bishop Eddie Long. He’s part old school bible-thumper, part New Age guru, but whatever you call him you’d have describe him as wildly successful, having taken his New Birth Baptist Missionary Church from 300 members less than 25 years ago to a congregation today of 25,000-strong.
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All you have to do is go to the Church’s website (http://www.newbirth.org/) to see a religious juggernaut that does everything from ministering to the spiritual needs of its flock, to providing recreational services at its sprawling campus in the north end of Atlanta, to putting on financial planning seminars. And at the centre of the House that Eddie Built is a bedrock belief in the sanctity of the traditional family.
In fact, so strident is Eddie Long’s form of ‘family values’ philosophy that a 2007 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama described him as “one of the most virulently homophobic black leaders in the religiously based anti-gay movement.”
Shocking then, when this past fall four young men came forward alleging they had all been effectively coerced into longterm homosexual relationships with Bishop Long – and that they were coming forward to expose him before he could do it again. In one of only two interviews by his accusers, early in the aftermath of the charges going public, former New Birth member Jamal Parris painted a very different picture from the Eddie Long of public record.
Equally shocking were the statements of claim from Long’s accusers which outlined years of manipulation and abuse of power, ultimately culminating in sexual relations that included oral sex, ‘oral sodomy’, and frequent and secretive trysts in a variety of Church-owned properties and hotels all over the US and overseas.
Could this be the same Eddie Long who was widely seen to be championing the anti-gay movement shortly after a nation-wide vote denying same-sex rights back in 2004? The same man with a penchant for weight-lifting, muscle shirts, and all things masculine and family-oriented?
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Well the answer is a definite maybe. And that’s where being on the DL comes into play.
The phenomenon of living life on the DL was first reported in the mainstream white media back in the early 2000s, but as a social phenomenon in the African American community it’s roots go back at least a decade earlier. When I first starting researching the documentary I’d heard that the African American community has historically been accused of being particularly homophobic, but I’d never heard about life on the DL until I ran across a couple of articles on the internet referred to it in passing. Following up, I soon found that there was a wealth of articles and academic writings on gay politics in the black community on the internet, and many of them focused on being on the DL.
What I found there were accounts of a growing phenomenon among a certain segment of African American men of engaging in what could be described as a variation on the white gay male practice in the ’70 and ‘80s of ‘cruising’, or anonymous sex.
But as similar to cruising as being on the DL appears on the surface, it also has some fundamental differences. And the biggest one is that men on the DL don’t necessarily identify themselves as gay. For them, it’s strictly a no-strings-attached sexual practice that doesn’t define their inherent sexuality. Many of these men maintain primary heterosexual relationships at the same time and cringe at the thought of being associated with an effeminate gay lifestyle. In a 2003 New York Times Magazine article called ‘Double Lives on the Down Low’ , the writer describes a world in which the contradiction of men self-identifying as heterosexual, while simultaneously having random sex with other men, is glossed over as an almost boyish yearning for a little meaningless hanky panky with your buddies.
I ask them what the difference is between being on the DL and being in the closet. “Being on the DL is about having fun,” William tells me. “Being who you are, but keeping your business to yourself. The closet isn’t fun. In the closet, you’re lonely.”
And since most men living on the DL see it more as a lifestyle choice, and absolutely not a definition of their sexual orientation, they are free to maintain it indefinitely, and guilt free.
“… black men on the DL typically say they’re on the DL for life. Since they generally don’t see themselves as gay, there is nothing to “come out” to, there is no next step.”
Which brings us back to the subject of our documentary: Bishop Eddie Long.
When the charges of his sexual activity first broke back in September, 2010, the Bishop was quick to say that he was not the man the media was depicting, that he never claimed he was perfect… but he didn’t specifically deny the allegations.
He said he refused to try the case in the media… but he didn’t say he refute the claims that he had sexual relations with his four accusers.
But what he did say to more 8,000 cheering members of his congregation – very much taking his time to great dramatic effect – was that “this thing, I’m gonna fight… I feel like David against Goliath and I have five rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet”.
Strange then that only a few short months after his very public display of righteous indignation and fighting spirit in front of the assembled masses at New Birth, Bishop Long soon put his rocks back in the pile. In fact, it turned out that he and his legal team were now working hard at hammering out an out-of-court settlement with his accusers. And just like that, a cloak of secrecy was thrown over the both Long’s explanation of what really happened, and his accuser’s allegations, as both sides refused any further comment, pending the outcome of the settlement discussions.
But even as the lawyers were having their private meetings, the public furor over the accusations was growing. Soon even members of the Baptist community itself were breaking ranks and calling for Bishop Long to clear the air. And no one was more adamant in calling for full disclosure from Bishop Long than Pastor Dennis Meredith, the reverend at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta, and an openly gay African American.
So now you have Eddie Long, one of the most powerful men in the African American community in the South living under a cloud of suspicion; you have the issue of Long’s alleged sexual misdeeds, and even his true sexual orientation, remaining unresolved; and, most disturbing of all, you have the possibility of a closeted church leader – allegedly living on the down low – remaining in a position of power where exactly the kinds of abuse that he’s been accused of can happen again.