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.

Black Scholarship, Non-Theism and Radical Politics

By Sikivu Hutchinson

When I began researching my book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars in 2009 I was interested in discovering what other Black writers had published on the intersection of non-theism, feminism, and Black liberation.  Historically, Black writers and scholars have been marginalized by what might be dubbed the To Kill a Mockingbird or The Help effect, i.e., that all-American phenomenon wherein a white writer playing cultural anthropologist on domestic safari travels to the ‘‘hood” to capture some aspect of Black lived experience and garners international acclaim and legitimacy denied Black writers publishing on similar topics.  Commenting on this theme in her book Talking Back, bell hooks’ contends that, “Until the work of Black writers and scholars is given respect and serious consideration, this overvaluation of work done by whites, which usually exists in a context wherein work done by Blacks is devalued, helps maintain racism and white-supremacist attitudes.”

While scholarship on Black non-theist traditions is not as extensive as it is in other areas of Black cultural production, a robust, if still emergent, body of work does exist. Early on in my research I read and was enlightened by the work of Anthony Pinn, Norm Allen, and Donald Barbera.  Pinn and Allen framed their scholarship within the context of early-to-late twentieth century African American humanist social thought; Barbera assailed the hypocrisy of the Black Church vis-à-vis contemporary mores. Pinn and Allen delineated the rich heritage of Black humanist literature and criticism espoused by thinkers like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Nella Larsen, Hubert Harrison, James Forman, and Zora Neale Hurston.  These writers challenged the racist, sexist, classist foundations of American democracy, citizenship, and human rights. A majority adopted radical postures on Black humanist thought, connecting it to a tradition of Black liberation struggle against white supremacy.  Critical inquiry into non-belief and humanist intellectual discourse was positioned as a vital part of Black identity, culture, and political resistance.

So honoring radical Black scholarship in marginalized areas of Black cultural production is important because the dominant culture and mainstream media often act as though Black intellectual traditions don’t exist.  [Read more…]

‘No More Excuses’: Review of Moral Combat

From The Monster’s Ink by Alyson Miers

Dr. Hutchinson’s book takes place at a very different degree of sociological difficulty. She places herself between the black church, the larger white-supremacist and patriarchal society, and the developing atheist movement, and she schools them all. There are few people left uncriticized by her scholarship, only some largely invisible and unheard slivers of society left uninstructed to unpack some invisible baggage.

When it is finished, there are no more excuses. None. There should be no more hand-waving away the need for a wider range of voices in the freethinking movement, no more man-splaining and white-splaining about what issues should “really” be the focus of skepticism and atheism, and no more clueless hand-wringing over why there aren’t more women or more people of color involved in outspoken atheism. There are no more excuses for failure to comprehend these concerns, no more assuming that skepticism begins with the Big Bang and ends with Bigfoot. More @

World AIDS Day & Gender Justice Education

From The Feminist Wire on World AIDS Day activism

What will need to happen to achieve the goal of eliminating new HIV infections, AIDS related deaths, and discrimination? What can we do, collectively, to get to zero?

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Young women of color are at the epicenter of this crisis.  My Women’s Leadership Project students are currently working on two days of World AIDS Day peer education.  So as an educator who mentors teenaged girls in South Los Angeles schools, I believe preventive education has to begin with breaking down the myths and stereotypes associated with heterosexist relationships, misogynist media images and patriarchal gender norms that undermine young women’s right to self-determination. Increasingly, working class African American and Latina women are being indoctrinated into a decidedly misogynist, anti-feminist view of womanhood and sexuality that has both a secular and faith-based tenor.  Coming from highly religious households, many of my students have been socialized to believe that their “authentic” destinies lie in getting and pleasing a man.  They struggle with the challenge of developing their own voices, preparing for college, careers and intellectual pursuits whilst battling the insidious tide of a so-called post-feminist universe where hypersexuality is conflated with liberated femininity.  Young men of color are also imperiled by heterosexist, masculinist gender norms that promote hard thugged-out male identities at the expense of women’s human rights as well as loving/respectful homo-social, heterosexual and same-sex relationships and families.  Getting AIDS cases down to zero must involve a revolution of mind and deed; a transformation of the way masculinity, femininity, and sexuality are perceived in the U.S.  MORE @