There have never been more African-American LGBT role models, from Michael Sam to Robin Roberts. But coming out in the Black church can feel like a Faustian bargain.
When you become a faculty member, they warn you about certain things. Plagiarism, yes. Grade grubbing, yes. But no one tells you about the secrets. With the door almost but not quite closed, your office becomes a confessional. You keep secrets. Some you are forced to tell. Others go with you to the grave. As a divinity school professor, almost every semester, a student comes out to me. On some college campuses, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and other sexual minorities wouldn’t need to come out. And though the administration is supportive of gay students at a socially conservative HBCU (Historically Black College/University), like where I work, there is still a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in effect. I’m a straight woman. I don’t have a rainbow-flag sticker on my faculty office door, but students have intuited that I’m an ally. They plop down and sigh and sometimes cry and confide in me.
And as I carried their secrets, I was disheartened by the cruel jokes and memes this past November, when a video of a young Black man named Andrew Caldwell went viral, as he claimed he has been “delivered” from homosexuality. Those who are not part of the Black Church may not understand why someone would seek to be “delivered.” Why, in this day and age, would anyone try so desperately to be an “ex-gay?” Same-sex marriage is legal in more states than it isn’t. We have out gay CEOs and celebrities, including major out LGB African-American public figures like athletes Jason Collins and Michael Sam, director Lee Daniels, comedian Wanda Sykes, anchorwoman Robin Roberts, and musicians Frank Ocean and Azealia Banks. But for African-American LGB people who are active in the Black Church, there is a great deal at stake in coming out.
I grew up in the Black Church. The notion of “the Black Church” is shorthand for seven historically African-American Protestant denominations. According to the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey , African Americans are more likely to be affiliated with a religious tradition than other Americans. According to 2008 data, 87 percent of African Americans are affiliated with a religious group as compared to 83 percent of all Americans. Among African Americans, 59 percent are affiliated with a historically Black Protestant church.
For me and many other African Americans, church isn’t just Sunday morning services at 11 a.m. Church provides a worship community but also a social and cultural community. As a kid, I was in church several days a week—for Sunday services, Bible study, choir rehearsal, and any number of holidays or special occasions. My extended family attended church together, and my church family was an extension of my biological family. Church was the only place in which people who looked like me were completely in charge. It provided a sense of belonging and identity for me as a sanctuary that was for and by African Americans. Choosing to leave the Black Church isn’t something that one does lightly. For a believer, it’s not as easy as deciding to forego church to watch football or jaunt off to a bottomless-mimosa brunch. Especially for those who are LGB, there’s a lot on the line.
Melissa N. McQueen has a winning smile and a warm heart. When I ask if she prefers to remain anonymous for this piece, she declares, “Oh, no! I bring all of me to everything I do. I’m Melissa N. McQueen.” McQueen is an African-American same-gender loving (SGL) woman and a newlywed. The term “same-gender loving” was coined by African-American activist Cleo Manago. For some who self-identify as SGL, it is a way to name themselves and to recognize the unique experiences of LGB communities of color. McQueen is in the process of seeking ordination within the United Church of Christ (UCC), a predominantly White denomination, but she was born and raised in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a historically African-American Pentecostal denomination. In her COGIC church, she was taught that gays were sinners who were going to Hell. McQueen stopped going to church in college. She hated God for hating gay people and for not answering her prayers to change her sexual identity. At a friend’s invitation, she attended a UCC church that welcomed all regardless of race or sexual identity. Then, McQueen says, “I realized that there was a space for me.”
After coming out as SGL and leaving her father’s church, McQueen remains close with her immediate family, but she has lost relationships with some extended family and friends who reject her “lifestyle.” McQueen contends, “This is not a lifestyle. This is who I am.” Although the mainstream media celebrates coming out as a liberative act of self-expression, McQueen points out, “Coming out is another opportunity to separate yourself from others.” She explains, “Black folks have it hard enough. It’s easier just to try to go along. To come out and leave your church provides another opportunity to be marginalized.”
Verdell A. Wright looks like a model Blerd (Black nerd) with his thick black glasses, scruffy beard, and pea-green Army jacket. Wright is an African-American gay man who did not grow up in the Black Church, but as an adult he has tried out multiple churches and denominations in his efforts to find a church home. Wright was a licensed minister in the historically African-American African Methodist Episcopal Church where he heard negative comments about gays and marriage equality from African-American pastors. As a member of the predominantly White mainline Protestant United Methodist Church (UMC), he found the church in a struggle over LGB issues. Currently, the UMC states: “ The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.” Wright considered seeking ordination, but says, “I would have had to lie a lot to make it through the process.”
Now Wright is a licensed minister at Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ in Washington D.C., an African-American congregation within a predominantly White denomination. Still, he understands the struggles of many African-American LGB Christians. Wright explains that walking away from the Black Church means being disconnected from a lot of history and cultural memory. The desire to fellowship and worship with other African-Americans may trump the homophobia and discrimination that they endure as LGB Christians. Some LGB people may put up with gay-bashing sermons or being called a sissy or worse because they don’t want to sever their connection to rich heritage of the Black Church. Wright argues that many African-American LGB people don’t have the same resources, financial or otherwise, as compared with White LGB people. Thus, African-American LGB people may rely on their church family more heavily for the vital connections that it provides. Wright contends, “These are people who helped you and want to see you happy. You don’t want to lose that.” To be openly LGB means risking the loss of relationships, status, and opportunities to be in service to your community. Wright says, “As a Black gay person, you already feel less than, you don’t want it to be confirmed.”
Broderick Greer is a bright, confident, African-American gay man and third-year seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Greer’s family was part of the historically African-American Missionary Baptist Church, but at 13, he joined the Church of Christ in part due to its extensive youth group activities. As a student at conservative Church of Christ college, Greer faced reprisals for his LGBT activism. At 20, he joined the Episcopal Church. Drawn in by its liturgy, Greer did not become aware of its progressive stance on the inclusion of LGB persons until after joining. Greer has found a supportive faith community. As a racial minority within an overwhelmingly White denomination, Greer mourns the loss of his Black Church ties, but he does not regret his move. He admits, “If I had stayed, I would have to be in ministry in the closet. That’s not an option for some of us integrity-wise.” Yet, Greer understands the position of those who remain in churches that are not accepting. He explains, “They don’t have many other options.”
There are few African-American churches that fully welcome LGB congregants. While African-American LGB Christians may find greater acceptance of their sexuality in more tolerant White churches, such churches are not exempt from the racial and class divisions within LGB communities. Minister and activist Rev. Irene Monroe says, “White queer Christians are still White.” Monroe explains that White LGB people may not acknowledge their White privilege. They may focus on LGB activism without demonstrate a willingness to confront racism and to engage in coalition building across racial lines. For some African-American LGB persons, even the terms “gay” and “lesbian” are considered exclusionary as these terms tend to refer primarily to the experiences of White men and women—often wealthy White men and women.
The spring semester has just begun. I have some new students and some returning students, and I’ll have new secrets to keep. In the film The Color Purple, Shug Avery says to Celie, “Everything wanna be loved. Us sing and dance and holla just wanting to be loved.” For African-American LGB Christians, finding spaces to love and be loved is difficult. In order to be loved, some of them will try to be “delivered” because they just want to belong—and they’ve got a lot to lose.
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