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 West and the Rest of Us: Atheism & Sexism 101


By Sikivu Hutchinson

At a youth media literacy conference I organized recently, I was fortunate enough to experience the performance of an extremely gifted youth band whose co-lead singer is an Asian American female guitarist. At one point during the concert she tentatively introduced a song she had written about sexism by saying that it “kind of does still exist today.” I was struck by her qualified intro to the song. She is one of the few young women of color musicians fronting a rock band in a hyper-masculine industry in which rampant sexual harassment, gender-based wage discrimination and racism ensure that women of color are only visible as sex objects, hangers-on and so-called video hos. Nonetheless, she was uneasy about embracing the term sexism.

Women’s reluctance to name their experiences is symptomatic of the insidiousness of post-feminism, which has been normalized and relentlessly propagandized by mainstream media. It fits neatly into the exceptionalist narrative that the U.S. and the West are bastions of equal opportunity and enlightenment. Because people of color and white women have seemingly unlimited access to public space and public institutions the U.S. has evolved far beyond the “dark age” of the pre-civil rights era. Because women and girls now have the “option” to be just as video ho “nasty as they wanna be” the West is the universal standard for gender equity. This kind of totalizing thinking underscores a lack of critical consciousness about how institutional sexism, heterosexism, and racism—as the basis for individual acts of prejudice and discrimination—actually work. It is especially acute when it comes to the selective “West and the rest of us” mentality that some in the New Atheist movement exhibit about sexism, imperialism and women’s rights.

An example of this was recently on display in the Rebecca Watson-Richard Dawkins blogosphere throw down. Watson is the founder of the popular blog Skepchick, and frequently writes about gender politics. As has been widely discussed, Dawkins blasted Watson after she criticized a clueless slobbery male for propositioning her at 4 a.m. when she was alone in an elevator after a conference talk on sexism. Dismissing Watson as a whiny American feminist, Dawkins trotted out the victim Olympics plight of an oppressed Muslim female genital mutilation recipient from central casting. After a firestorm of criticism from feminist bloggers like Jen McCreight, Dawkins attempted to revise his position. Still, the phenomenon of white Westerners trotting out the cultural other as the ultimate barometer of oppression is a standard rite of passage. When powerful Western white men opportunistically evoke the lived experiences of Muslim women as a space of projection for what they deem to be “authentic” sexist oppression, they deflect from their own privilege and entitlement. It’s akin to white elites descending on Africa in search of the most hardcore safari experience. The exoticism and abject primitivism of the Other ultimately confirms the rationalism and universal subject status of “me” and “my” culture. Small wonder then that it is often far easier for a celebrated intellectual of the rationalist first world to see the authoritarian misogyny of Islam than the institutional sexism, heterosexism, and racism that he and other privileged males have benefited from at every step of the way; in the academy, in the publishing world, in the Western media, and in garden variety elevators. Predictably, Dawkins did not say that Middle Eastern and African Muslim women have an abysmally low standard of living because of the imperialist invasions and geopolitical exploitation of “secular” Western powers like Britain and the U.S., or that they are more likely to be dispossessed from their homes due to these incursions or to be sexually assaulted by occupying armies. These realities are far too inconvenient when it comes to parsing the global complexities of institutional sexism in the predominantly Muslim, Western-occupied nations of the Middle East.

This episode is more than just an example of individual prejudice/ignorance. First, it highlights the arrogance of Western paternalism, disguised as liberal humanism. Second, it speaks to the delusion of pretending atheist discourse automatically translates into a liberatory politics. Lacking a social justice compass steeped in the legacies of global liberation struggle (both within and outside the West), atheism or a Eurocentric humanism are a political dead-end for radical freethought communities. As I’ve argued many times before, the New Atheist focus on science and separation of church and state, without insight into the racial and gendered histories of these traditions, is especially bankrupt for people of color. For those unclear about the concept of institutional sexism here are a few guidelines:

I. What Sexism Does:

a. Gives visibility and worth to maleness and “male issues” as the invisible universal norm
b. Devalues the lives of women and normalizes or naturalizes violence against women
c. Constructs all women and girls as objects, property and territory for male control
d. Sexualizes women and girls
e. Dehumanizes women of color
f. Reinforces a hierarchy of men and women based on white supremacy, racism and heterosexism

II. How and Where is Sexism Manifested?
• Social, Political, Cultural, Economic and Religious Institutions
• Everyday Life
• Language