Some 15 years ago, I wrote this essay in attempt to struggle with the growing and increasing vocal homophobia in the Black Church. It has been edited to suit this moment. Since that time I have deepened my theological and political commitment to queer folks. To this end, I have refused to serve churches that do not allow women or gay folks in their pulpits or ministries. There is a strong possibility that my credentials in Church of God in Christ will be challenged and taken. And that is okay. I don’t want to belong to a church that dishonors the gospel of Jesus, simply taken: love.
Years ago, the late E. Lynn Harris, author of Invisible Life, was asked about being gay and Christian. During his book-signing at Washington University, he responded with deep conviction, “I see no contradiction between my sexual orientation and my faith.” E. Lynn Harris’ proclamation speaks to the ongoing struggle in the lives of gay brothers and sisters as they attempt to reconcile their sexuality and spirituality.
Many Christians, who are very vocal in their opposition to gay and lesbian lifestyles, create barriers that make this journey for inner peace quite arduous. Contempt often drips from their lips as they describe homosexuality as an abomination. When I hear such comments, I always wonder if they know that in the Book of Leviticus the Bible also calls eating shrimp an abomination.
As a straight black preacher, I have had to come to grips with my own homophobia. One day I received an energetic call from my ex-girlfriend. “Hey baby, James and Alfred invited us to meet them at ‘The Club.’ Do you wanna go?” I hesitated. My sense of trepidation was not mediated by the fact that I am a licensed minister who would seriously be looked down upon by many church folk for going to a “den-of-sin club.”
As a matter of fact, I could not have cared less about what church folk thought or think of me because heaven and hell are God’s questions, so God is the only one who can answer them. It was my homophobia. You see, James and Alfred are gay brothers who have come to be good friends of ours and “The Club” is an African-American gay space. First and foremost, I did not want the brothers at The Club to think I was “like them.”
In a matter of seconds, my brain was flooded by all the sermons I had heard demonizing gay and lesbian lifestyles. Nonetheless, I decided that I loved James and Alfred more than the preachers who preached those sermons. And I went. The Club is precariously nestled in an unassuming building amidst a ghetto, a warehouse district and an affluent neighborhood. As we opened the door my heart sank deep into the abyss of religious homophobia.
Again, I heard Muslim and Christian ministers blaming gay folk for the problems within the black family. There was silence on the outside of the front door but the air lit up with music and conversation on the other side. I felt like the “entering-in-of-the-straight” silenced the lively voices of these brothers. All eyes were on us. I do not know if it was because we were new faces or what. This silence was only momentary. It was probably a figment of my heterosexist imagination.
The first part of The Club is a bar area where there is socializing. This room is a sea of ebony brothers from all walks of life. Italian suits, designer jeans, overalls, and khakis adorned these men as they enjoyed their space. While looking around for James and Alfred, I saw a brother I knew from back in the day. Now, I heard that this brother was gay but never had observed any behavior, subtle or blatant, to confirm the rumors.
I spoke to him. He responded with an effortless wave and that was it. A wave? A nonchalant wave from this brother I used to be so cool with? This brother was someone that I use to kick it with. We went to parties, talked about which sisters were the finest, and who had the most game.
Based on that history, I thought I deserved more than a half wave. It also seemed as though the brother was “hiding” behind someone. He acted as though he did not want to be seen. I did not care if he was gay. I just wanted to catch up on old times. It was strange.
Anyway, my girlfriend suggested that we go into the dance area of The Club. We did and saw James and Alfred immediately. We hugged them and they introduced us to their co-workers. Surrounding the DJ was a bar and bar stools. We sat there.
James and I went and got drinks in the social room and talked about work. All of a sudden I felt someone touching my dreads. I got really nervous. Slowly, I turned around and saw it was a sister. My sense of relief was shattered by the fact that if my girlfriend saw her playing in my hair it was going to be “on” if I did not stop her.
Before I could say anything, the sister apologized and said that she liked my hair and wanted to know how long I had been wearing my hair in dreadlocks. I thanked her for the complement and told her six years. James and I got the drinks and returned to the dance area.
In the corner, adjacent to the bar/DJ, I noticed a minister of music from a local church. I did not speak. He looked like he was getting his “mack” on. The music in The Club was hard-hitting. The bass throbbed with an electric energy.
The DJ, a tan brother with baby doll eyes, was grand. As he spun an eclectic mix of house music with gospel intrusions, he danced, laughed and rolled his eyes ever so fiercely. As we exchanged causalities he made flippant comments about whomever and whatever. He was a joy. My girlfriend and I danced. As the evening progressed, my body became weary. Equally, I don’t like house music.
As we prepared to leave, I noticed another familiar face. In addition to directing the church choir, we sang in a group together during my high school years. He had recently become a Baptist minister. After the initial “Hello,” I asked him, “Well, how’s the ministry?” His face dropped. He answered with what I sensed was shame. “Fine,” he mumbled.
As we exited the building, the walk to the car became laborious. My head was flooded with the familiar faces, the “normalcy” of the ebony sea of my brothers, and the “ministry” comment to my old friend. I shared with my girlfriend that I should not have asked about the ministry. He seemed too put off by my question, which was asked in a most genuine manner. “Why?” I wondered. If the brother was gay, why did he have to hide it from the church? There is contempt for gay brothers and sisters in a variety of theological appropriations in the Black Church.
As a third-generation ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ, I know this one thing for sure: I have no memory in my life in which queer folks, particularly gay black men have not been at the center of our worship life. It is normative for gay men to play our organs, direct the choir, and lead us to highest places of spirituality.
Perhaps, when he serves in the capacity of choir director, all of the reviled emotions and stereotypical behaviors associated with gay men become tolerable, in fact celebrated. Aside from the gay choir director, who is retained for convenience’s purpose, any acceptance of homosexuality within most of the Black Church is non-existent.
Simultaneously, we are silent when it comes to issues of class, gender, and undemocratic leadership in the Black church. Why would a brother in a monogamous relationship with another gay brother be shunned while the promiscuous preacher is celebrated Sunday after Sunday? Moreover, there is an uneven critique of “sin,” particularly “sins” that stand in contradiction to patriarchy and pastoral accountability.
Clearly, there are so many contradictions within the unspoken laws of the Black Church regarding homosexuality. Some gay people are alienated while others appear to be accepted for their God-given gifts. Nonetheless, the contradictions are evident. At bare minimum, if the homophobic contempt perpetuated by the Black Church persists, it begs the question, “Who’s going to direct the Choir?”
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou is a pastor, author, theologian and organizer from St. Louis.