Thursday, November 24, 2005

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Gay minorities fight cultural, religious barriers By: Addison Ore, Special to Go Triad (Thursday, November 24, 2005 1:00 am) At first glance, WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes and actor George Takei, best known for his role as Mr. Sulu on TV's "Star Trek," may appear to have little in common. Swoopes, 34, is in the prime of her career, having recently won her third Most Valuable Player award as a forward for the Houston Comets. Takei, 68, is on the downside of a career that peaked during the 1970s with his role as the helmsman of the Starship Enterprise on "Star Trek." But look again. Then you'll see that Swoopes and Takei do share something rather remarkable in common. Last month, they both came out in the press, revealing their homosexuality. Celebrities coming out always makes for sensational headline fodder because it happens about as often as Haley's Comet. Still, what makes the revelations from Swoopes and Takei even more remarkable is that they represent populations often lacking in representation. Swoopes is an African American; Takei is a Japanese American. Coming out for both Swoopes and Takei meant overcoming a lot of deep-rooted religious and cultural barriers. Swoopes was raised by a single mother and grew up in the Baptist church. Her mother, a devout Christian, has had a difficult time with her daughter's announcement. Swoopes recently told The Advocate, a gay and lesbian newsmagazine, that telling her mother was the hardest part of her coming out. "I consider myself a Christian, and my mom is a Christian, and she's really into the church and the Bible," Swoopes says. "So, of course, she says that's not right and the Bible says this and that, so we had that talk." Tamara Mason, an African American who works as a program specialist for the National Conference for Community and Justice in Greensboro, came out to her mother during her senior year at Guilford College. Like Swoopes, Mason also was raised in the Baptist church, and she has two uncles who are pastors. She struggled with her early realizations that she was attracted to women because she heard over and over again in church that homosexuality was very bad. Mason says her mother was "mad at me for about five minutes" after coming out. Since then, they really don't discuss it. Mason now has come out to other family members, but she knows there is no changing their minds on the issue of homosexuality. "People are raised to trust what they hear in church and treat it as the truth, the Gospel, the Word, and that's why they are reluctant to be open-minded about anything different," says Mason, 25. Mason, who now identifies herself as bisexual, says the stigma of homosexuality is so strong in minority communities because "it is more rooted in religious rigidity than cultural rigidity, but for many minorities, religion is cultural." Takei spent part of his childhood growing up in a U.S. internment camp feeling ashamed of his ethnicity and his sexuality. In an interview with Frontiers magazine, Takei says he struggled with "feeling ashamed because you're Japanese American and feeling like you're different because of your homosexuality." "American society has changed incredibly from the time I was a teenager to today, both in terms of Asian Americans in the theater and television and film, but also for gays and our self-image and the ability to move in our society," Takei says. There's no doubt that by coming out, Takei and Swoopes will help to improve the self-image and visibility of other gay minorities. But it always will be a difficult path to navigate for those with deep religious roots. As I write this column, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, meeting in Winston-Salem, has voted overwhelmingly to expel any member church that "knowingly affirms, approves or endorses homosexual behavior." I asked Mason how she felt about the convention's vote. "It's disappointing to me personally, but I'm challenging a lot of what I grew up learning about what is Christian and what is not," she says. "The message I heard was that Jesus taught us to love everyone with no conditions. Now, we're trying to place conditions on this love." There's a slam-dunk that even Swoopes would be proud of. Addison Ore is the executive director of the Triad Health Project and a local freelance writer whose monthly column, A Broad View, focuses on issues facing the Triad's gay community. Contact her at