Washington.--I was delighted to see Denzel Washington cast in the new hit movie "Philadelphia" to play the gay-hating, AIDS-fearing lawyer who becomes an unlikely advocate for a gay lawyer who has AIDS.
I hope Mr. Washington's star appeal will help draw other Africa-descended Americans into seeing this gripping, thought-provoking movie and talk about its main themes: people and prejudice.
As an African-American old enough to remember having to ride in the back of the bus, drink from water fountains marked "colored" and avoid amusement parks that barred "Negro children," I sympathize with every human who is discriminated against for circumstances over which he has no control. As a result, it pains me whenever I see fellow Africa-descended Americans harboring attitudes toward homosexuals that would fit well with those of neo-Nazis or Ku Klux Klansmen.
We need to talk. When Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a little-known spokesman for Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, became famous for a November speech that ridiculed Jews, Roman TC Catholics, black scholars and several mainstream black leaders, he also targeted homosexuals in his rainbow roundup of hate. Yet, Mr. Farrakhan fired him, not for his "truths" but for the "manner" with which he delivered them. I'm sure the minister was forgiving Mr. Muhammad's gay-bashing, among other sins. I have heard Mr. Farrakhan himself ridicule gays once or twice in his rambling yet remarkably riveting sermons.
Mr. Farrakhan, clever fellow, knows how homophobic we black people can be. When you put our politics aside, our values can be as conservative as those of the Rev. Pat Robertson's "700 Club." Some of America's most backward-looking voices drew crowds in Cincinnati's black neighborhoods when they campaigned there against a gay-rights ordinance.
Through one-sided door-to-door campaigns and propaganda movies shown in church basements, the backlashers promote a resentment-inducing image of homosexuals: rich, white, pampered and perverted usurpers of the noble spirit of the civil-rights movement. That's about as accurate as the notion that all blacks are loud, lazy, violent, oversexed, undereducated, singing, dancing, hoop-shooting criminals and welfare cheats. Yet it sells.
Contrary to popular belief, equal opportunity for homosexuals is not a new issue in the black liberation struggle. The late Bayard Rustin, an important civil-rights theoretician and organizer, found his upward path within the movement blocked repeatedly by discrimination against him because he was a homosexual. But, despite the objections of others who feared for the movement's reputation if Rustin's homosexuality became too widely known, he helped Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph organize projects like the Montgomery bus boycotts.
Eventually Rustin became the principal organizer of the historic 1963 March on Washington that featured King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Even so, I would bet that fewer blacks connect homosexuals to the civil-rights movement than to the sensational allegations against Michael Jackson.
Black people, of all people, should be more sophisticated. But our attitudes are shaped by experience, and most of us tend to have experiences that fill our heads with more prejudice than fact.
For example, a column-writing colleague who I like to think knows better surprised me at last summer's National Association of Black Journalists convention in Houston by demanding to know why I favored dropping the ban against gays in the military. "Don't you know," he said, "that they fondle little boys?"
"Don't you know," I responded, "that the vast majority of child molesters are not homosexual?"
No, he didn't. A simple look at FBI crime statistics could have set him straight. But who bothers to take the time to look up facts when it is so easy to rely on comfortable myths?
That's the story of Denzel Washington's character in "Philadelphia." He dislikes homosexuals. He even fears shaking hands with an AIDS-infected person might transfer the virus. (It doesn't.)
So he refuses, at first, to represent a lawyer who happens to be white, gay and infected with HIV. But he changes his mind after seeing the infected lawyer, played movingly by Tom Hanks, being treated like a pariah by others. Suddenly, it appears, Mr. Washington's character sees the worst of himself and doesn't like it.
After all, people are more than their sexuality, just as people are more than their race. When we refuse to look past superficial differences to see the people inside, we become a little less noble. We become part of the problem.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.