As soon as we opened the doors, I spotted it from the back of the church. She was hunched over a bit, but I spotted it right away. I saw a lady wearing a crown, a church hat. The lady was adorned by her church hat like a dignitary. Although that morning she clearly spent time on her outfit, she arrived early and was seated near the front of the church.
As my partner and I walked the narrow aisle that divided the pews, I leaned in to share a few words with him. I wanted to give him a warning.
“I’m not so sure about this place.”
In my experience, church people who look like that don’t approve of people like me.
As the service started, the form and the style of my faith was there. I saw a familiar sway, I heard familiar songs, but I had an unfamiliar feeling.
That feeling was the freedom to be me in a faith place. I felt accepted, affirmed, and acknowledged. I wasn’t used to those feelings in Black congregations.
Like many other people, I didn’t see Black churches as welcoming places.
I understand Black churches were formed as a response to white supremacy, segregation, and underserved needs. But it isn’t lost on me how many Black churches have shoved LGBT people out just the same.
There are countless testimonies of LGBTQ people who have been hurt and harmed by Black churches that used and abused them. History has repeated itself because Black LGBTQ believers, now twice removed, have had to find or form our own churches.
And outside of the church, it’s a common perception that the Black community as a whole is inclined to homophobia. We were conveniently blamed for Prop 8 and the stall of LGBTQ rights nationwide. Even, and especially, those in the LGBTQ community claimed we were the holdouts.
But none of that is entirely true.
We Black queer people were there during the Civil Rights movement. We Black queer people were there when HIV reared its ugly head. And the NAACP and other civil rights leaders supported marriage equality too.
So now I have to wonder if this is a fair assumption about the Black church?
Negative assumptions about the Black church can be harmful. They push people away from Black churches which may be a good fit for them. And, these negative beliefs about the Black church are more ways that society makes bad all things Black.
So, we must not readily accept this spiritual stereotype even if it has been confirmed by our life experiences.
It still takes faith, the substance of things hoped for, to be a part of a faith community.
We need faith to believe that people will be who they say they are. But when it comes to the Black church we don’t have to rely on faith alone. There’s real evidence for us to review.
Myself, I started to look around for data and facts about Black churches and LGBTQ life. I do believe the truth can set us free, but we must find it first.
Here’s what I found:
We are not the worst. Black Protestants are not the religious group most opposed to same-sex marriage.
We have affirming organizations. There are affirming faith-based organizations that serve the Black LGBTQ community. One of these is the nonprofit organization Many Voices. Many Voices is “changing the narrative that the entire Black church is negative.”
We have leaders and allies. One leader of the Black church is Carl Bean. In the 70s, Carl Bean’s song I Was Born This Way, became a disco hit and an anthem for the LGBTQ community. In the 80s, Carl became a champion for HIV care on the West Coast. In 1982, Bishop Bean founded The Unity Fellowship Church Movement which is an affirming denomination of predominantly Black churches.
Another great reformer of the Black church is Bishop Yvette Flunder. Bishop Yvette Flunder is a former singer with Walter Hawkins of Oh Happy Day fame. In 2000, she founded The Fellowship of Affirming Churches.
There are also a number of faith leaders who do not identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender who are allies. These allies have faced scrutiny and have lost congregants for their truth-telling and support.
All of that counts as Black church experience and Black history too, right? So, to some extent, homophobia in the Black community and in the Black church has been demonized and exaggerated for political and profitable purposes.
But, of course, the exaggeration of homophobia in the Black church does not mean homophobia is nonexistent. The stances of the major Black Protestant churches on LGBTQ life are incomplete and unacceptable. The hypocrisy can haunt and daunt the best of us. The Black denominational leaders have created churches with innumerable closet doors for spiritual shut-ins. And for many church members, there’s a love-hate relationship with the Black church.
Even gospel music artists are tone deaf and sing the same old tired and hateful songs that hurt our ears. For the longest time, I couldn’t even listen to anti-gay gospel singers. I split with them like I split with Paula Deen over racism. But now, I see their music like retweets. A replay is not an endorsement.
But most of all, older religious Black people kept me away from the church and in the closet. I was prejudiced, and I assumed religious Black people would oppose me.
My feelings were based on my life experience. The original and enduring homophobia I experienced was from my older relatives. (Not to mention, the stats also show how attitudes about LGBTQ people vary by age.)
I used to get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I was around older religious Black people. I would hope they couldn’t tell I was gay. And, I’d pray they wouldn’t ask me any personal questions. Or, worst of all, I hated to think they might try to set me up with a single woman in the church.
Some of what I felt was a fear and my response was a defense mechanism. But I can’t deny that religious oppression, internalized racism, homophobia, and ageism were at work too.
Every marginalized group must have their eyes spread to see the ‘planks’ in their eyes.
As a reject, also judged by my race and orientation, I was shocked to realize I do the same to others. Like many people with racial anxiety, I felt threatened by religious Black people.
I had to do the same work others have to do to counteract stereotypes. Except these were spiritual stereotypes.
I’ve stopped judging people by their Sunday best. Someone’s Sunday best doesn’t have to make me feel the worst. This is what I tell myself:
A church hat does not necessarily cover a closed mind.
And a church hat is not the universal uniform or headgear for holy homophobes.
So, I stopped using stories and stats to support the negative narratives of Black churches.
Now, I use stories and stats to negate generalizations and negative experiences. I look for the positive and the supportive facts and experiences. And, usually, I find it.
I’ve met elderly leaders who affirm me. I’ve held their hands and hugged them during church services. They were there for me during the trying times in my life.
Older people have open minds too.
I’ve learned the views from the pulpit to the pews can be different. Sometimes the view from the pulpit is more favorable toward us. And, in some churches, the people in the pews may have better views.
But because of the history of the world, we must be careful to humanize and individualize Blackness.
Yes, we must hold the leaders accountable. But just like people, churches must be treated like individuals too. Not every Black church is loud, lively, and long. Not every Black church is formal. And, not every Black church is homophobic.
It’s time to let go of our spiritual stereotypes.
Stereotypes can stun and stunt us. And yet, some people justify stereotypes by saying they are based on some truth. But that doesn’t make stereotypes any better.
Stereotypes deny us experiences and deny others individuality. They require people and society to remain in a static state. That’s false and out of touch with reality.
If we open our eyes, we’ll see that positive change has happened and is happening for our community.
That’s the truth too. I learned it, I’m sharing it, and I feel freer.
We must reject not only the stereotypes that others have of us but also those that we have of ourselves. Shirley Chisholm
Attempting to get at truth means rejecting stereotypes and clichés. Harold Evans