April 22, 2012

Dezey and the World of Tomorrow

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This is "Dezey." He's not fond of giving people with cameras and notepads his first and last name. I think I understand why. More on that later.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dezey at the The Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park(1). The Center sits inside a nondescript concrete box on a nondescript concrete block within throwing distance of a nondescript former factory where Henry Ford built a machine that changed the world.

In symmetry with that factory, the Ruth Ellis Center is also engaged in a monumental bit of manufacturing. As the only organization in the Midwest dedicated to residential and drop-in services for runaway, homeless, and otherwise at-risk LGBTQ(2) youth, the Ruth Ellis Center manufactures emotional and physical sanctuary for kids hard-pressed to find it anywhere else (Laura Hughes is the center's executive director. She was nice enough to arrange a meeting between me, Dezey, and a couple of other participants at the center).

The ostracization faced by gay teens has staked a visible perch in both pop culture and academic research. In 2010, sex advice columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller recorded a video message to gay teens. In the video, Dan and Terry promised LGBTQ teens that if they could outlast the alienation, ridicule, and bullying they faced today, there were better days on the other side of 18. That message became the catalyst for the It Gets Better video series. According to the project's website, the series has since been viewed by 40 million people and features videos from 40,000 contributors including President Barack Obama.  

In parallel with pop phenomena like the It Gets Better campaign, the plight of LGBTQ teens figures prominently in academic research. A 2011 report from the Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that 4 percent of the U.S. population identifies as gay, bisexual, or transgender. Based on their representation in the population, we would expect LGBTQ teens to be about 20 times less likely to be homeless. Instead, compared to their heterosexual counterparts, gay teens are 2 times more likely to be homeless(3). When teens come out of the closet they quite frequently are put out of the house.

It should come as no surprise to anyone with a computer, smartphone, tablet, or pair of reading glasses that gay teens are alienated in mainstream American society. What is surprising, is the way gay teens are marginalized in a historically marginalized community. One would expect that members of one marginalized group, would empathize with and embrace members of another marginalized group. One would be disappointed. While LGBTQ people are ostracized in larger American society, they are especially alienated in the black community.

A 2010 Pew Research Center poll shows that only 30 percent of black Americans support gay marriage (compared to 44 percent of white Americans). It would be reasonable to say an unfavorable opinion of a gay marriage does not necessarily indicate an unfavorable opinion of homosexuality in general - except when it does.  In a 2008 Gallup poll, only 31 percent of black Democrats indicated that they believed homosexuality was morally acceptable (compared with 61 percent of non-black Democrats).

Homophobia is undeniably a problem in America. It's even more of a problem in black America. 


Highland Park is by any definition of the term, a low-income inner city community. Low-income inner city communities tend to have higher rates of violence than non low-income inner-city communities. To avoid victimization, many young men in these kinds of neighborhoods quickly embrace a posture where anger and disregard are the only emotions fit for public display.

This posturing leads to a hyper-aversion to anything that is not explicitly confrontational and violent.  Not only is having sex with another man "gay," so is reading books and smiling when you are happy. Any person who dares to be in any way effusive or express himself in a way that is out of line with their apparent gender, risks alienation, ridicule or worse. 

Black Americans - more so than any other major American ethnic group -  are indisputably very religious and very Christian.  According to a report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 79 percent of black Americans list religion as playing a "very important" role in their lives (compared to 56 percent of all American adults).  That same report shows more than 85 percent of black Americans identify as belonging to one sect of Christianity or another. That number is even larger if you include other Bible-based faith traditions like Islam and Judaism.

So, what does the Bible have to say about homosexuality? It says God wants them dead:

"If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads." 
                                                                - Leviticus 20:13

In the interest of brevity, I'll just post one example of how much God really, really wants to kill gay people. If you'd like, you can see more examples here curated by a person who is critical of the Bible's homophobia or here by a person who isn't critical of the Bible's homophobia at all. In total, there are a dozen or so places in the Bible were God calls for violence against gays.  Sort of makes you wonder if God lives in the inner city part of Heaven.

Now, if you feel compelled to leave a comment about how these verses are taken out of context or misinterpreted, let me offer some advice: First, slap yourself in the face. Next, don't. It's not taken out of context. Its not a matter of interpretation. This is what the book says. 

Whether or not the Bible is homophobic is not up for debate. It is. What does bear exploration is the interplay between black religiosity and black homophobia.

Black people love the Bible, the Bible hates gay people - which leads black people to... exactly. A disproportionate commitment to a religion that hates gay people, largely accounts for black folk's disproportionate hatred of gays.  Can you blame them? They are simply taking cues from the Divine Creator of the Universe.

With this cultural climate in mind, I can imagine a dozens reasons why Dezey was hesitant to give me his full name. In an environment so wrought with homophobia, it would seem smart to be suspicious of all straights - even disarmingly witty, shockingly handsome,  scuba-certified, hot air balloon pilot,  ex-CIA, photographer/essayists.

[in 500 words or less]
Historically, hatred in America has been unidirectional.  For the most part(4), Americans of European descent have done the hating and everyone else has done the being hated. All along, civil rights leaders, moral philosophers, and (most recently) scientists have argued that black Americans were the equal of their white brethren. And they were right. Equally malicious.

You see, as it turns out, black people are made of the same DNA stuff as all other kinds of people. Not only are so-called black people as capable of all the lofty imagination, creativity, and intellectual endeavor as any other kind of human; they are also as prone to the vicious hierarchical tribalism that defines us as a species. Given the opportunity, black Americans are as given to oppress as anyone else. 

This dynamic can be hard to appreciate viewed through the porthole of race relations in North American. Given that paradigm, it's easy to imagine black Americans solely as the noble, long-suffering victims of European oppressors.  However, if you zoom out and press rewind, its easier to see that people of European descent have no special monopoly on oppressiveness. When my Afrocentric friends pridefully regal me with tales of the great African empires of Dahomey or Mandingo, I always ask: "How do you think those African empires acquired land and resources?"

By oppressing the shit out of anyone who opposed them, that's how. 

Ideally, the discussion of equity in America would be informed by an understanding that all humans have a propensity toward oppressiveness. With that understanding, inequitable behavior would be criticized no matter who perpetrated it.

Instead, when historically oppressed groups enact inequities, we treat them with kid gloves. Perhaps it's because we feel guilty about the historical oppression faced by these groups. Perhaps it's because would-be critics fear being mislabeled a racist.

However, failing to call a wrong a wrong, ultimately only allows a wrong to persist. If an ideology emerges that calls for the death of a people, it should be properly identified as a morally reprehensible threat to civil society. It should be ridiculed, reviled, and shunned by people of good conscience - no matter if its Mein Kampf or the Old Testament. 

If we criticize white racism, we should  just as enthusiastically criticize black homophobia.

If we hope to continue humankind's ascent toward increasingly equitable societies, we have to vehemently and vocally oppose all backward ideologies. By doing so, we take a step closer to a society where we know Dezey's first and last name. 

 - Noah -

Noah Stephens founded The People of Detroit in April 2010 as a counterpoint to media fixated on despair and disrepair in the storied birthplace of American auto manufacturing. Since, TPOD has received national and international attention. Portraits from the project have appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and other national publications. In early 2011, a creative director saw the project online and hired Noah to shoot an ad campaign for McDonald's Corporation in Shanghai, China. 

The People of Detroit Photodocumentary is funded in part by a grant from CEOS for Cities and the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation.


1. A 91 percent black, working-class municipality peculiarly located within the boundaries of Detroit. Highland Park is also the city where I was raised.
2. Defined by the Center as "Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Attractional, Transgender and Questioning"
3. http://www.safeschoolscoalition.org/LGBTQhomelessFactSheetbyNAEH.pdf
4. While Anglo-Americans discriminated against non-Anglo white ethnic groups (Irish- and Italian-Americans, for example) for much of American history; that schism has been largely ameliorated as white ethnic minorities have been subsumed into a larger, "white American" identity. 


corneliusdetroit said...

 Hey Noah, I'm here thanks to your post on Facebook.  To start, I'm down for the uplifting of anyone being put down, though I have to say I question a lot of what's in this essay.  Not the aspect of LGBT teens being bullied and harassed, but the racial/religious spin on it.  I mean, homophobia has become a blanket term to cover a range of attitudes and behaviors, from ignorance, to actual "phobia", to pure hate.  Cultural, racial, ethnic differences lead to differences in how issues and conflicts manifest themselves.  So yes, there's a lot of talk about black American homophobia being rooted in the church, yet the "gay gospel choir" members in black churches is not a myth either.  Is there a white American religious fear of having effeminate members?  Who knows, because I'm not sure this has been getting the media attention that "homophobic black churches" gets. 

Racism within the gay community is no joke either and I'd venture to guess that not much research has gone into looking at that dynamic and the negative effects it has on LGBT youth of color.  I guess I'm saying that if we're going to say that people are equally capable of bad behavior, then it should be addressed in that way rather than the way that "mainstream" media (traditionally "white") frames the discussion.  No offense meant to you at all, because I respect your work in regards to your art as well as your writing.

And on the Biblical side, that Leviticus quote was for male Israelites, so everyone else is free to do what they want.  Biblically speaking, that is!  ; )

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Hey Corne

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Hey Debra. Thank you for taking the time to comment. 

corneliusdetroit said...

 Likewise appreciated.  To respond:

a) Razib Kahn did a study for Discover which showed: In fact, among downscale sectors there isn’t much of a difference between whites and blacks, the difference shows up among the upscale.
There isn’t that much of a difference between fundamentalist blacks
and whites. There is a big difference between blacks and whites who
consider themselves religious liberals; the former are far less
homophobic than black fundamentalists, but note that they’re about as
gay friendly as white religious moderates.

So we're looking at a population that has a higher proportion of of lower income, "downscale" individuals, and hence some of what you talk about.  But then we're talking about homophobia being in part, a product of economics.  Yes, there are some racial differences, but in addressing this, I think it's too simple to simply assign this to race and religion.  I mean this is the same religion that has been open to so many differing interpretations, justifying slavery and at the same time being the argument against it.

b) Very much understood.  Though I also think that the financial fallout from race issues plays a large factor in this.  Ferndale and other suburban communities have strong LGBT centers, etc, but LGBT organizations in Detroit often don't have the financial and organizational resources.  I'd be willing to bet that the Ellis Center gets a very small fraction of the backing that suburban (read=white) organizations get.  I could be wrong, hope I am, but I don't think so.  Given that organizations like the Ellis Center would be in the forefront of raising awareness and instigating change (at least locally), I think this is important.

c) My comment was partly in jest, but that IS the main difference between the Old and New Testaments.  The OT God very much was the god of the Israelites, hence all the talk of God's "chosen" people, etc. in reference to Moses and the people who followed him as opposed to all the many other peoples referenced.  That there were other gods that were considered illegitimate is clear and the Israelites were warned to avoid them as well as the people that followed those gods.  Hence in Leviticus, there's also a mention of not having wool and cotton mixed, a not so veiled reference to other people with other beliefs.  And there's no secret that the OT God and the NT God are different.  "An eye for an eye" vs "turn the other cheek".  This has been attributed to God lightening up, as well a lot of other political theories linked to Christianity competing with other popular religions.  Regardless of the motivation of the writers, can we say that killing people for being gay was wrong then?  Sure.  We can also say that sending a flood to wipe out humanity is also wrong.  The OT God is an angry, often deadly god that appears to use fear and violence to get the point across.  That religion becomes the tool for some twisted crap, it also ends up also serving to inspire as well.  Do I "believe"?  Not enough to avoid being called a heathen more than once, but but enough to recognize that with or without religion, people will find ways to discriminate and hate no matter what.  So while yes, it's used to promote homophobia, if it wasn't that, it'd be folks using the "born this way" notion to maintain that it's a genetic defect that prevents Darwinian evolution.  Humans are sufficient idiots with or without religion.

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

A) Whatever the underlying demographic reasons, the fact still stands that homophobia is more pronounced among all black Americans that it is among all members of any other major ethnicity. Surely you don't dispute this.

B) Probably so.

C) From Revelations - in the New Testament:

"The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, 9 a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

10 The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water — 11 the name of the star is Wormwood.[a] A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter."

source: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+8&version=NIV

The "God" of the New Testament seems plenty angry to me.  In fact, the whole supposed schism between Old Testament God and New Testament God is little more than a handwaving attempt by Bible apologists to excuse an ideology that is thoroughly and inherently unjust and immoral. While I agree that people don't need religion to find an excuse to hurt other people, there perhaps is no more powerful excuse for hurting other people, than to claim you are doing on orders from the creator of the universe. Also, even if it was completely benign, there's still the little issue of it being complete and utter make-believe bullshit. If we TRULY value knowledge, then we have an obligation to divest in any ideology that is based in superstition. 

Amber Cabral said...

Great post as usual Noah. This blog has truly become an outstanding expression. Any update on the Starbucks lady?

Jagentis said...

As humans we not only evolve physically, we also evolve morally; and evolution takes time in both.  The  bible and Koran also condoned 'stoning' as well.  We don't take the bible literally.  Regardless of whether or not folks believe the bible reflects God's word...it isn't verbatim.  Like any book, it is tainted by the writer's environment subject to all the more's of society at the time.  What was not acceptable or acceptable thousands of years ago, may very well be acceptable today.  We should never 'judge' the past by our current evolved morality.  God doesn't hate!  Actually, many religious leaders, including some in the Catholic Church, have come out in support of Gay Marriage.   Things are changing...  But you change peoples minds with information and understanding....not anger and hatred.   Anything new to folks is uncomfortable at first.  Let them, and help them evolve...

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

"God doesn't hate"

Tell that to Sodom and Gomorrah, or Noah's neighbors, or the hundreds of thousands if not millions or people who were killed according to Biblical mythology.

Jgsimon said...

Your theology is really limiting insofar as you're taking the bible literally. This is the way fundamentalists approach the bible taking all that is written as literal instruction without layers of meaning. 1.) If you assume every time God speaks in the bible that God actually speaks, then that in itself is a pretty limited view of God as God is not a person, right? If you think that men wrote the bible saying they received revelation from God, then there was obviously some interpretation going on as anyone can see from playing the game telephone as kids. Your dismissal of interpretation of a text that was written in Aramaic and translated to Hebrew, which was translated to Greek and only reached English thousands of years later lack about the problems inherent in translation. For instance, fundamentlist christians like to say god created adam and even not adam and steve, but there are actually two chapters on creation. Genesis 1:27, in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. Then in chapter 2, the text talks about Eve forming from the rib of Adam. This seems like a contradiction, why would an all knowing God make two different iterations of the same thing? Rashi, one of the most mainstream and accepted sages of the Talmudic period offers in all seriousness the pos that god created an androgynous figure first with one side male and some side female before adam and eve. Then there is the issue of words. The words used for male and female in hebrew and aramaic are not the same words use for man and woman. The word for male and female (zachar and nekavah) refer to masculinity and femininity whereas Eish and Eisha refer to man and woman in terms of sex. Why would God make such an ambigous text here and then in Leviticus seem to be so cut in dry in terms of abomination and condemnation? These are some questions you need to consider before you make statements like God hates gays, unless of course you are fundamentalist in which case, you would be deeply conflicted as so many LGBTQ folks are when they grow up only around fundamentalist christian tradtion. My partner included. I only know what i know about interpretation becuase I went to Jerusalem to study.

Bella said...

Why is there so much hate here?

It's the 21st century and Christians are still being persecuted - why is it the trend these days....and wat's up with all the God bashing?

As a Christian, as a Mother, as a Detroiter, and most of all as a person, i believe all people should be treated with respect. I don't discrimate against people b/c of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other factor/s. The greatest thing that Jesus taught people was the law of love: Love your neighbor as you love yourself!

If you look at Jesus, he reached out to people that were (in ancient times' society) considered outcasts. Why? Becasue all people matter!

Bella said...

Why is there so much hate here?

It's the 21st century and Christians are still being persecuted - why is it the trend these days....and wat's up with all the God bashing?

As a Christian, as a Mother, as a Detroiter, and most of all as a Person, i believe all people should be treated with respect. I don't discriminate against people b/c of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other factor/s. The greatest thing that Jesus taught people was the law of love: Love your neighbor as you love yourself!

If you look at Jesus, he reached out to people that were (in ancient times' society) considered outcasts. Why? Because all people matter!

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Hi Bella,

When I read the first sentence of your comment, I thought you were referring to the Bible. The Bible literally calls for the death of gays, women, and even disobedient children. Is that what you call treating all people with respect?

I would really like to launch into a 1000-word, mid-morning diatribe about why Christianity (and all superstition-based belief systems) are a moral wrong, but I feel like if you already read this article, doing so would be redundant.

So, instead of a 1000-word tirade, I'll share a picture. Its probably worth more anyway:

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Hey Amber! Thank you so much, sis. I haven't really given the Starbucks woman much thought. I will probably resume my quest to teach her a lesson as soon as I get a break from living my life :)

How are you?

Bella said...

There's a lot of underlying hatred & anomosity, which really detracts from your overall message of your People of Detroit blog.

I've met with you before, and you seem like a cool guy, but all this hate on Christians (and therefore on me) has really turned me off from your blog.

As I stated before, all people should be treated with respect and I hope you can do the same.

ThePeopleofDetroit said...

Bella, You have no reason to take criticism of Christianity personally. The only reason why you are a Christian, is because you were born into a society where that is the predominant belief system.  You have to learn to separate Christianity from your identity as a individual. 

Once you can do that, you can start to think objectively about what Christianity teaches. I presume you are a moral person. Do you think its moral to kill gay people? Then why would you continue to identify with an organization that teaches you should?

Finally,  you're right. I do "hate" Christianity. I hate all organizations that hurt, disenfranchise, or call for the death of innocent people. So should you. 

Bella said...

Noah, this hatred is taken personally and your statement about Christianity is really disheartening.
Your analogy can be interpreted just the same between Christianity and America. As a whole, or organization, America stands for ‘justice and liberty for all’. However, our country’s history & current situations shed a different unfortunate light on things that should not have happened, and things that are still happening.
So, saying all Americans disenfranchise, or call to death of innocent people is wrong - not only for us as Americans, but what we stand for as a country (organization).

ThePeopleofDetroit said...


A couple of points:

1) I see you are taking it personally, and you shouldn't. We all have deeply held beliefs. It is easy to become emotionally attached to those beliefs. However,  if we care about whether or not our beliefs are true, we have to detach from them emotionally and examine them objectively. That's how we figure out what is and isn't true.

This is important because truth  - not comforting superstitions - should be the basis for all moral decisions.

2)  In your America:Americans::Bible:Christians analogy,  you imply that although the Bible  may call for the death of gays, that doesn't mean all Christians call for the death of gays. I absolutely agree. 

Most Christians, call themselves Christians, never read the bible, and live completely secular lives. They don't follow the Bible's immoral dictates, because they don't even know they exist. And thankfully so. If they did, we'd have to:

* Stone women who are not virgins on their wedding night to death [http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+22%3A13-21&version=NIV]

* Stone disobedient kids to death [http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy%2021:18-21&version=NIV]


*Close Red Lobster [http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus+11%3A10&version=ESV]

Now, I don't know how you feel about slutty brides or mouthy kids, but I'll be goddamned if Jesus takes away my Cheesy Biscuits. 

As moral, progressive, thinking people we have to be HONEST about what the Bible teaches. Then we have to muster the courage to reject it as the immoral, regressive, thoughtless doctrine that it is. 

There is life after religion. Some post-religious people are even, as you said, "cool guys"


Bella said...

1.) Yes, I am taking it personally. No ONE religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation should be used as a target or punching bag.

2.) Since you're a well versed man, then i'm sure you're familiar with the "He who is without sin cast the first stone" line from the Bible. This verse, as i'm sure you're aware of, has to do with Jesus stepping in and protecting a woman who had committed adultery, from getting stoned. Adultery, as stated in the Bible, is an abomination. So why would Jesus go against the Bible? He was trying to show that ALL people matter and it’s not up to humans to judge people & discriminate.

It’s the same point you’re making in your project - you're a rebel just like Jesus! : )

ThePeopleofDetroit said...


The Bible calls for the murder of gay people. Any belief system that explicitly calls for the murder of innocent people should be criticized. Period. Instead of sympathizing with an inherently immoral belief system, you should sympathize with the people it wants to murder.

Bella said...

We can argue semantics for years to come on this never-ending rebuttal...

The ironic bottom line for this posting: stop the hate!

Bella said...

We can argue semantics for years to come on this never-ending rebuttal...

The (ironic) bottom line: 
Please stop the hate!

Bellina said...

Noah, i can understand that you would like the last word (it is your blog afterall), but at least have the decency to publish the comment i submitted yesterday.

Bella said...

We can argue semantics for years to come on this never-ending rebuttal...

The (ironic) bottom line:
Please stop the hate!

Troy Lilly said...

I won't claim to be anything close to a bible scholar. But from my personal experience growing up in a black Pentecostal church, I can share my feelings in relation to what Noah has said in this essay.

1. I believe the bible to be a guide and not a manual. As many have noted here, the bible we read today has suffered cultural and ideological transmutations which likely make it very different from its initial form.

2. My personal opinion is that the bible has been used as a weapon and a shield by many Christians and fundamentalists (religious ideologists). It has been used as a weapon because instead of embracing all people, as Jesus did in his earthly form, most religious history has purported the bible as a means to discriminate, segregate, and avenge. Secondly, it has been used as a shield by Christians who use the bible to deflect any notion that their hate is unjustified.

3. In the black church, NOT ONLY ARE MANY CHOIR MEMBERS GAY, but so are countless bishops, pastors, elders, deacons, ministers, evangelists, prophets...etc. These same leaders preach against the act of men engaging in sex with men, or women with women, yet they are widely known to engage their own cohorts of the same sex - often in a reckless manner. It is a known fact that every convention, conference, concert, rally or large scale event is a breeding ground for black gay Christians to have sexual encounters - often with the highly visible leaders or music artists.

4. A black gay Christian who accepts their homosexuality and enters into a relationship with the same sex will be ridiculed, mocked, spewed upon and cast out. But, the self-loathing gay Christian who professes they are are "yet struggling" with their sexuality, and who refuses to remain in a healthy, committed relationship - and likely has casual encounters quite often in secret - is celebrated. The person who lives in truth is labeled the demon, the pervert, the abominate; the person who refuses to acknowledge their true nature in exchange for affability is the role model.

In my personal experience, I have concluded that religiosity is inflamed when it encounters the LGBT issue. Many people who disregard the day-to-day tenets of Christianity, such as abstaining from alcohol, pre-marital sex or adultery, feel emboldened to declare that homosexuals are the undoing of morality and humanity. I wonder how loud they would scream if they were exposed to the infinite number of gay leaders they follow and revere.

Reverse oppression is certainly at work here. Imagine in the 20th century that just as blacks were finally allowed to eat with, learn alongside and marry whites, a young black kid was bullying another child in school because he looked different or talked properly. It's as if the first struggle was to be equal with the world.

Now we're in a fight to be equal amongst ourselves. I wandered in thought, but digress.

Tessa said...

brilliant photos and brilliant posts, makes me proud to be a Michigander