The Curious Case of Gays in the Black Church

By Frederick Sparks

An oft repeated story in the black church and gospel music community involves 50s and 60s era gospel singing legend Mahalia Jackson making a cross country automobile trek with four male companions who were members of her singing troupe. The car suffers a flat and Jackson gets out of the car to change the tire. A passing highway patrolman stops to render aid, and asks Jackson why she didn’t have one of the men change the tire. Jackson replies “Baby, them ain’t men, them is sissies.”

Possible lack of historical verisimilitude notwithstanding, the story conveys one essential and undisputed truth: there is a long standing, well known presence of queer men in the black church. Even while African American Christians remain the group most opposed to marriage equality and most likely to believe in “literal” interpretation of scripture.

This dichotomy was recently clearly highlighted in the Eddie Long scandal, in which the anti-gay millionaire pastor of an Atlanta mega church was accused of sexual improprieties with teenage boys (Long settled with the young men after initially vowing to fight the charges). One of Long’s gay congregants, interviewed last year at the time the story broke, spoke of a large gay presence in Long’s congregation and a sort of don’t ask don’t tell policy which led the interviewee and his male partner to give different descriptions of their relationship to members of the church.
Nowhere is the gay male presence more prevalent than in the gospel church choir, or more generally what is known as the “music ministry”. Music sensation Billy Preston once quipped that the church choir was the first gay-straight alliance. The homosexuality of gospel great James Cleveland (known as the King of Gospel) was an open secret in the gospel community. After his death, widely believed to be from complication of AIDS but never officially declared so, Cleveland’s foster son alleged that the two had been involved in a sexual relationship which resulted in the young man also contracting HIV. The shroud of denial around Cleveland’s death was not an isolated incident; there was a deadly silence in the gospel community while choir stands in black churches across the country were being hit with AIDS related deaths.

So why do black gays stay in churches where homosexuality is condemned and they are kept from living their lives healthily and fully? Even when there are other choices of “affirming” churches that welcome the openly and actively homosexual? Northwestern professor and gospel music vocalist E. Patrick Johnson stated in a 2006 interview that ‘Those who are familiar with life in the Black church know that we are raised in this paradox; the church is a place we have known since the womb and, so, it is our first cultural experience in the Black community. And it is so much a fundamental part of our lives that even though we are in a place that is often very inhospitable to those who are LGBT, we remain, finding ways to exist within it.’ Johnson also believes that the choir in the Black church has always been a place where gay men could show off their virtuosity while exploring their sexuality, and that the more welcoming, liberal churches lack the “spirit” of the black church worship experience (translation: the music isn’t as good.).

In addition to that, I believe it is the perfect example of Christianity creating the problem (homosexuality is sinful) and providing the solution (God loves you, and can heal and forgive you). I also think the matriarchal presence looms large for many black gays, and mama and aunties and grandmother are all “in the church”. In addition, some actually earn money from the church because of their musical or other talents.
Given all those factors though, still seems to me like a baby worth throwing out with the bath water. The prototypical black church experience is antithetical to an LGBT person living a psychologically healthy life. And proceeding from the assumption that “this lifestyle is sinful” or that “one can be changed” presents a serious impediments for healthy same sex romantic relationships, which may partly explain why there have been so many predatory situations as described above. It has also been suggested that such attitudes lead to poorer choices in terms of sexual activity and disease transmission prevention.

If there is to be a secular/atheist movement among African Americans it must address head-on the issue of homophobia in the black community and in the black church in particular. And it must serve a community of black gays and lesbians that has too long compromised self respect for marginal benefits from the church experience.

The Curious Case of Gays in the Black Church

15 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Gays in the Black Church

  1. 1

    Very interesting stuff. Thank you for the read.

    This warrants repeating,

    If there is to be a secular/atheist movement among African Americans it must address head-on the issue of homophobia in the black community and in the black church in particular. And it must serve a community of black gays and lesbians that has too long compromised self respect for marginal benefits from the church experience.

    We get nothing from ignoring the reality of the situation we’re in. If we don’t deal with these problems (and sweep them under the skeptical purity and ‘we did it. why can’t you’ rug) nothing is going to get done.

  2. 2

    I had no idea that gay people couldn’t change tires.

    Seriously, I don’t see why so many gay people go to church — an organisation that treats them like crap. Come to think of it, why do women go to church? Or anybody else?

    1. 2.1

      Or anybody else?

      For all of religion’s evils, religious communities can provide a strong safety net for its members. Have cancer? Support group. Disobedient daughter? Hundreds of people with advice, who’ve ‘been there’ and are willing to talk. Getting evicted? Well I’m sure someone knows someone who can put you up.

      All of which are things the disenfranchised very much need and crave.

      1. Yes, I think you’re right. I put in my years in church as well and remember the feeling of loss when I left it — and I wasn’t even particularly disenfranchised. Basically it was leaving behind nearly all of my friends and much of my family.

        The frustrating thing is that these religious structures to which people come for comfort are so abusive of so many of their members. I suppose it’s like a dysfunctional family: sure, mom drinks a lot and dad beats us kids, but it’s all we know and all we’ve got.

        I suppose this highlights the need for secular social networks to provide the same support without the abuse.

  3. 4

    I don’t know…I didn’t find it hard to leave church entirely. And there’s nothing “wrong” with me that the church would see as in need of fixing, unless “mean” counts. But my mother’s family is AME, which…well, let’s face it, isn’t (or at least historically hasn’t been) one of the more “spititually moved” denominations. My father’s family’s (and he and my step-mother’s) church is a Southern Baptist denomination. Those people don’t like letting go of anyone, no matter what. I think that this kind of problem is different by degrees when you get to the different denominations, (not expressed well, I know, sorry!) but with the ongoing radicalisation and homogenisation we’re seeing even here in Iowa in the names of growing the congregations and keeping the members churched (in the “right” church) I don’t think it’s going to stay easier to leave some denoms than others. Which again may be a separate issue that could bear looking into.

    Going back to my coffee now…sorry if that was incoherent!

  4. 5

    If you’ve ever read the graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts about it. It explicitly draws parallels between the black and gay civil rights movements, but what always bothered me about it was one of the main black characters, who is openly accepted as gay by his parents (his father is a minister). I always assumed that was just wishful thinking on the part of the author, but your post makes me think that maybe that wasn’t so unrealistic as I had thought.

    1. 5.1

      I’ve never read it but it sounds interesting. Thanks for mentioning!

      As for whether or not my post makes that plot point more or less realistic, I’d have to know more in order to be able to answer that. But what I speak of here is not “open acceptance” actually, it’s an odd sort of “tolerance” and willful blindness to the reality of the gay presence, while the anti-gay rhetoric from the pulpit isn’t usually tempered.

  5. 7

    Great post Frederick. I agree that the cultural and compensatory elements are perhaps the most compelling reasons why LGBTQ folk stay in homophobic heterosexist stifling Black Church congregations. The recurring theme of “God hates the sin not the sinner” seems to be what many hew to when choosing to look the other way when these churches systematically demean and marginalize gay and lesbian congregants.

  6. 8

    Hi folks, and I care about your concerns. I’m a white gay man who struggled with religious conflict for much of my life. I empathize with your struggles very much. I have studied Mahalia’s life all of my own life and believe that she was motivated by the Spirit, which led her to travel the world to different cultures and to accept all people where they were at. We should try to learn from her example of love, and let us not be subjugated to the yoke of religious oppression. I understand being torn away from your loved ones in the event you should leave your churches, but there comes a time when we have to evaluate whether or not those same institutions are aiding us or destroying us systematically. Only YOU can decide. There are humanisitic institutions and philosophies that can rectify the wrongs/ignorance/hostility. Seek and ye shall find.

  7. 9

    Oh my goodness! an incredible article dude. Thanks However I’m experiencing challenge with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting equivalent rss downside? Anyone who is aware of kindly respond. Thnkx

  8. 10

    I’m sorry but God does not approve of homosexuality. It is a sin, let’s face it. I know we wish it wasn’t but if you believe in Christ you must believe the Word given. But let’s say homosexuality isn’t a sin, if its not well I think we would all agree that pre marital sex is a sin, and a majority of homosexuals aren’t “waiting until marriage” and to be fair NEITHER are heterosexuals. (Although more straight people are waiting until marriage compared to gay). (And yes im aware in most states gays cant get legally married but even if so im sure there still wouldnt be any waiting due to the high percentage of gay casual sex with multiple parteners tho their are the few who are faithful to one.) There are still believers who wait, or even after losing their virginity they choose to wait later on. Anyhow if homosexuality wasn’t a sin, then the issue would then be flat out fornication..lust..sexual immorality. So we can’t cover that up and throw the idea that Gods okay with that because “Heloves us all.” Lets stop trying to ignore the real issue it’s not about equality between gays and straights in the church, be real these people love the sexual acts they are doing before marriage (I’ve heard the confessions and I have many gay friends who I love despite not approving their ways) or even the acts their doing behind there wife’s back. It’s immorality. It’s sin. And they love to please there flesh (gay or straight), and that my friends is not ok with God. But He calls all to repent (turn away). It’s not ” Gods gonna do it just come to Him” NO you come to Him and He says “take up your cross and deny yourself daily if you want to follow me”-The Gospels. He says “deny your flesh!!” You have to fight and put off the old man. The Bible says this-so if you don’t agree then do away with Christianity, it’s your choice. Live the whole truth or live your own way. Sure there’s eternal consequences but its all a choice. I encourage those who are believers to read your Bible from beginning to end (using KJV and original Hebrew text for understanding) and gain truth. Certainly the Word says ” be Holy as i am Holy.” and “the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom”….please read and obey….With Love and Truth, take care.

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