Like many news stories, this one began when an influential local figure made remarks that were seen as offensive. Willie F. Wilson, former mayoral candidate and current pastor of a Southeast Washington Baptist church, said in a taped sermon that “lesbianism is about to take over our community. … Sisters making more money than brothers and it’s creating problems in families … that’s one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbians. … I ain’t homophobic because everybody here got something wrong with him. But –” and he proceeded to make disparaging remarks about gay sex which I’d rather not paste on this PG-rated website.
By the following Sunday, according to the Washington Post, “TV trucks were in front of the church and reporters were in the pews,” waiting for Rev. Wilson’s apology. But he said, “I ain’t got nothing to say to you. You don’t know us. You don’t care about us. Get off this phone. Don’t call me no more.”
Let me stipulate: a) I don’t condone the Reverend’s comments, and b) reporters and other people have a legal right to ask questions about what he said and to request an apology–the First Amendment covers their speech and allows them to stand outside the church. But these are my questions: Is the content of a sermon anyone else’s business? Is it appropriate for those TV trucks to park outside the church, demanding a public response? When does speech become “public” in the sense that the speaker owes an apology if what he says is wrong or offensive?
On the one hand … There is a lot of violence and discrimination against gays. While Rev. Wilson’s sermon did not explicitly incite mistreatment of lesbians, the minister used his religious authority to denigrate gays, which surely increases their vulnerability. Since the clergy have a First Amendment right to say bad things about gays, the only possible response is for gay people–and their straight supporters–to intervene rhetorically. Thus it’s appropriate to quote Rev. Wilson’s speech, to criticize it, to ask him to apologize, and to stick TV microphones in his face.
On the other hand … I am moved by Rev. Wilson’s statement about the media: “You don’t know us. You don’t care about us.” Even if what he said was completely wrong (factually and morally), that doesn’t mean that reporters have standing to make an issue out of it. It’s not as if the daily work of the Union Temple Baptist Church gets much coverage in the Washington Post. (There have been 443 mentions of the church since 1987, but most appear to be very incidental.) The whole neighborhood tends not to be covered unless murders occur there. The Post has no ongoing relationships with the congregation.
When reporters decide to quote a statement, and then call other people who may be offended to get their responses, they are making a choice. They are claiming an oversight or “watchdog” role with respect to the person who spoke. If they heard a teenager making an anti-gay slur while walking down the street, they would not write an article about it. They surely should tell us if an elected official utters a slur, even in private. Their decision to quote the Rev. Wilson’s sermon shows that they believe that what goes on inside his church is public business. But on other occasions, they don’t treat his congregration as if it had public importance.
I confess that I am protective of Union Temple Baptist Church and its privacy because I generally feel that the press is unfair and unhelpful to poor, African American urban communities. They only show up at the embarrassing moments. However, what Rev. Wilson said–“You don’t know us. You don’t care about us”–could also be said by a white fundamentalist preacher in the suburbs.