Kenick El joined the Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission (VBHRC) this year at the invitation of the city council. He’s a religious minister, currently Grand Sheik of Unity Temple 14, a branch of the Moorish Science Temple of America. This offshoot of Islam shares common roots with the Nation Of Islam.
El posts on Facebook almost every day, addressing his congregation and the general public in his capacity as a spiritual leader. On October 21, he posted something that would rock Virginia Beach with scandal. He linked to a news story about a transgender woman who had sexually assaulted the daughter of a family friend in their home. But he didn’t stop there.
He went on to denigrate trans and gay people in general
“I have daughters and I won’t accept them sharing a restroom with a grown man suffering from this mental illness. Men trying to be women and women trying to be men is really confusing our children and I’m tired of seeing this nonsense promoted to our children.”
When Facebook users challenged him, he went even further:
“Homosexuality is a mental illness and should be treated as such.”
“Homosexuality is an abomination to the human race and it corrupts the hermetic principle of gender by interfering with the laws of nature just to gratify the lower self.”
The VBHRC did not move to remove El as commissioner
Sylvia Nery-Strickland, the VBHRC chair, in an interview with Norfolk’s 13NewsNow, condemned El’s comments. However, she supported his right to express himself, indicating that his personal views did not disqualify him from serving on a body that exists to protect human rights. She did not ask him to resign. She took no steps to ask for his dismissal from the commission:
Kenick El is speaking as an individual and does not speak on behalf of the Human Rights Commission… We are a commission, appointed by and serving at the pleasure of city council. [We are] a very diverse group of individuals who come together for the common good and equality for all. However, each commissioner has individual beliefs, and we do not always agree. I personally do not agree with the postings and other commissioners have contacted me and they do not agree as well, but rather support and value our fellow LGBT commissioners, family members, friends and supporters.
El defended his comments while LGBTQ groups spread the word
El told 13News Now that he didn’t have anything to apologize for. “I felt like it was very important for me just to express my views on my page in a very sincere, polite manner.
Local LGBTQ advocacy groups began to sound the alarm. The LGBT Life Center, Hampton Roads LGBTQAI Interfaith Group, and Hampton Roads Business OutReach called for El’s removal, posting on Twitter and Facebook, reaching out to journalists and activists.
El remained unapologetic. “If you were offended by anything that I said, I assure you that I didn’t intend to. I’m just expressing my faith… Just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean I hate you or I’m opposing you.”
A firestorm broke out when the queer press broke the story
By October 24, Pink News and LGBTQ Nation were running the story on their front pages, and it began to go viral in the world of LGBTQ activism. I first learned about it when the former NYC human rights commissioner Andy Humm shared news links with his followers.
Public pressure produced a call for El’s resignation
According to WTKR, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer announced last Wednesday that El’s continued service would be inappropriate. “We believe the public comments of Brother LaKendrick Coburn El are contrary to these base goals that are the core of the Human Rights Commission, and it is no longer appropriate for him to serve in this capacity.”
El resigned after giving a speech last Friday at the city council during which he once again defended his religious views about LGBTQ people. He seemed unaware that spreading hateful ideology encourages violence. His personal Facebook page remains filled with untruthful and misleading stories about LGBTQ people assaulting and killing children.
This is one small story about one man with religious views that fall outside the mainstream. The Moorish Temple and El express views about LGBTQ people that can most generously be described as crude. The don’t pull any punches and they don’t seek to sugar-coat their message.
They hold other religious beliefs that also fall far outside the mainstream, including views that many people characterize as racist. Whether that word is accurate is far too complex a subject for this article. My point is only that El and the Moorish Temple are not powerful. They are just about as marginalized a minority as LGBTQ people are.
Virginia Beach politicians initially tolerated intolerance
Council members and the mayor fell into the trap of accepting religious faith as appropriate justification for homophobia. If it hadn’t been for the national outcry organized by Andy Humm and others, El would still be a commissioner charged with protecting the human rights of the people of Virginia Beach, a task he is manifestly unable to perform given his religious belief that some of those people are “abominations” prone to raping and killing children.
Virginia Beach politicians reflect the nation in sad ways
Religious people often feel free to condemn LGBTQ people in public and to call for our rights to be curtailed. They often use more “civilized” language than El used, but the effect is the same.
Evangelical, Roman Catholic and LDS leadership lobby unabashedly for rules and laws that deny full human rights to LGBTQ people. They claim religion justifies marginalizing minority human beings.
Mainstream religions get away with what El did
According to the New Republic, Catholic and Evangelical leaders in the US are pushing against the very concept of human rights for LGBTQ people. Senior church leaders argue all the time that human rights should not extend to members of gender and sexual minorities.
The State Department even formed a panel last summer to re-examine human rights in the light of so-called “natural law,” a Catholic and Evangelical philosophy that in their view denies human rights to LGBTQ people. The panel consists almost exclusively of anti-LGBTQ religious leaders.
LGBTQ people are abominations?
Abomination is an ugly work, and coming from the mouth of Kenick El of Virginia Beach, it summoned outrage and action, albeit not immediately. But when that same word issues from the lips of mainstream religious leaders, those leaders often get a pass.
“We’re just quoting from our holy book,” they’ll say. We have a right to do that.” National outrage often holds itself back, reigned in by progressive people concerned about freedom of religion, progressive people who forget the lessons philosopher Karl Popper had to teach about the Paradox of Tolerance: A society that strives to be tolerant without limit must eventually be destroyed by the intolerant.
Human minorities are not abominations
We all deserve equal treatment. We all deserve to pursue happiness, fulfillment, and love. Nobody’s sexual orientation or gender identity has anything to say about our worth or morality. Tolerating beliefs that teach otherwise is simply wrong.
Religious freedom matters, but it must not trump human rights
The small story of El illustrates well how we as a society must not tolerate intolerance. The larger story of religious intolerance of LGBTQ people turns El’s tale in its head. He was forced to resign from a small human rights commission while mainstream religions push his views with “nicer” language every day of the week. None of them resign. And that’s a big problem.