Rep. Rouson, Black Lives Matter call for cancellation of homophobe keynote at MLK day event

click to enlarge A still from a 2012 video of Pastor Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant preaching that homosexuality is a sin. - YouTube
A still from a 2012 video of Pastor Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant preaching that homosexuality is a sin.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Pete Democrat, has denounced the inclusion of a speaker known for inflammatory, homophobic remarks at an upcoming event that has for three decades celebrated diversity.

So, too, has a coalition of Tampa Bay Area social justice advocacy groups, including the local Black Lives Matter chapter, Bay Area Dream Defenders, Equality Florida and a number of local congregations.

But it's unclear whether organizers of the event will budge.

Earlier this week, word got around about a controversial speaker scheduled to give a keynote speech at the 30th Annual MLK Leadership Awards Breakfast, held each year at the St. Petersburg Coliseum.

The speaker?

Pastor Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant of Baltimore's 10,000-member Empowerment Temple, who has gained notoriety for his anti-LGBT remarks, like this one, from a 2012 YouTube video:

"Homosexuality is not the only sin," Bryant said in a video posted to YouTube in 2012. "But it is a sin. It is not an alternative lifestyle. It is an alternative rebellion."

Obviously, having a speaker like that headline an event that aims to embrace the differences among us and highlight the struggles minorities face was problematic to many, especially LGBT groups and allies, who immediately protested his appearance.

In the days that have ensued, the calls for organizers to disinvite the man have gotten louder and more widespread.

In a press release Wednesday, Rouson said that after he first heard of the controversy over Bryant — and told media he didn't think Bryant's appearance should be canceled — he did a little digging of his own, and what he found wasn't, in his view, in keeping with the spirit of the event.

There are times when we must allow differing viewpoints to be expressed so that we may all learn from one another and mold each other’s thought. In my initial reported comments I sought to build a bridge of communication, of mutual respect for even arcane views that would lead to change or better understanding. However, the MLK breakfast is not the appropriate venue for anyone who seeks to divide, stir discrimination or ostracize God's creation. We’ve always brought people from all walks of life together to celebrate MLK’s legacy in St. Petersburg. Dr. King preached tolerance, not intolerance. He preached love demonstrated through tension and from it, the hope is peace.

Currently, Bryant's speech is still on for the Jan. 17 event, organized by the St. Petersburg branch of the National Council of Negro Women. Rouson's wife, Angela, is head of the council. Even though he is calling on the event's organizers to find another guest speaker, he acknowledges there's not much he can do about it.

"I do have a voice, not a vote in this matter," he said. "We should strive to include a speaker that encourages us to love one another and engage in community service rather than divide."

On Thursday, the coalition of social justice groups added to that call. In an open letter, they acknowledged the pastor's work fighting violence and criticizing police treatment of African-Americans. However, they said, his inflammatory remarks do more than cancel out the good he's done.

We must, however, challenge his selection due to the indefensible slurs and routine attacks on the humanity of gay and transgender people. In embracing slurs that dehumanize black men as “sanctified sissies” and opposing equal treatment under the law, Rev. Bryant has made it impossible for organizations to provide him a podium without also legitimizing his indefensible rhetoric.

And let us be clear. You cannot truly align with the message that Black Lives Matter while simultaneously making the world more hostile and dangerous for LGBT black people. 

Signatories include Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, Edge Community Church pastor Rev. J. Ricc Rollins, Black Lives Matter Tampa co-founder Chris J. Wilson and Ashley Green of Bay Area Dream Defenders.

The group called on the National Caucus of Negro Women to disinvite Bryant.

They also asked other activists and allies to amplify their call and to sign the letter.

Earlier this week, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman said he would decline to offer Bryant the key to the city, likely due to his inflammatory comments.