There's a moment in Clay Cane's important new BET.com documentary Holler If You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church when the residential program manager of an Atlanta shelter for homeless LGBT youth makes a stunning admission: "Truth be told," he says, "I'll never find a comfort zone in the gay lifestyle."
The program manager, Kesawn, himself a Black gay man, identifies his faith as the primary source of the conflict between his desires and his beliefs. It's also why he does not "believe" in gay churches. "I can't look to you knowing you do the same sin I do and you can't help me overcome it if I wanted to," he says.
Watching Kesawn on screen, I remember why the Black church is simultaneously the most homophobic institution in the black community and also the most homo-tolerant. The homophobia typically comes from the pulpit, as fire-and-brimstone pastors preach Hell and damnation to gays and lesbians. But when you look beyond the pastor to the choir members, the musicians, the ushers and the deacons, you often see an entirely different story, including the undeniable presence of openly gay men.
For the life of me, I've never understood why Black gay men continue to worship at churches that disrespect them. When I've asked this question to Black gay men in the past, I've heard unconvincing answers. "Pastor doesn't talk about homosexuality all the time," some explain. Or "Pastor doesn't claim homosexuality is the only sin," others say.
But Holler If You Hear Me helps to answer part of my longstanding question. For many Black gay men influenced by the church, they still believe homosexuality is a sin. If they go to the gay club on Saturday and then go to the anti-gay church on Sunday, it seems to be a way of repenting against the demons they think are inside of them.
I don't accept the idea that homosexuality is a sin, and numerous religious scholars have challenged that argument. But as a child growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, the Bible was one of the most influential books I read outside of the classroom. Jesus, who never condemned homosexuality anywhere in the Bible, speaks of love and forgiveness and admonished his followers to help the poor and the needy. That's the message that resonated with me.
When Dr. Randall Bailey was on the ordination track at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the 1970s, he recalls Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. offered useful advice to him and other would-be ministers. "Daddy King said, 'You gotta get you some sissy deacons cause they'll do the work. Now you need some other ones to give them cover, but if you ain't got no sissy deacons, you ain't gonna get no work done.'"
Bailey, a former Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible at Atlanta's Interdenominational Theological Center, says the lack of harsh condemnation of homosexuality in the 1970s was "essentially because there was a sense of useful exploitation" of Black gay members.
I'm just barely old enough to remember that time. Back in the 1970s, my uncle was a popular and openly gay organist and music director at Kennerly Temple Church of God in Christ in St. Louis at a time when many Black churches didn't seem too concerned about homosexuality. That liberal attitude toward homosexuality began to change in the 1980s with the rise of the "religious right" in politics and the ascendance of new activism in the gay community in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.
Over the course of the next few decades, it seems, Black pastors became increasingly homophobic in their sermons. For some, like Rev. Kenneth Samuel of Victory for the World Church, homophobia was a "business decision," he says in Holler If You Hear Me. "When I started my church in March of 1987, my aim was on members and money," he admits.
But Black LGBT people still wanted and needed the church in their lives, even as the church became less welcoming in the 1980s and '90s. "Many African-Americans are born and raised in the church," says Cane. "It's deeper than just praising God. It's family, culture and roots."
Cane's analysis makes it easier to understand why Black LGBT people stay in the church, but it doesn't explain why some of them reject LGBT-friendly churches. That comes down to religious beliefs, and all Black LGBT people need to know that there's nothing wrong with them for being who they are. If you don't love yourself, you can't love anyone else.
"Free people set other people free," says Rev. Samuel in the documentary. "People who are hurting, hurt other people. People who are bound, in living in all kind of contradictions and idiosyncrasies that make no sense, are the people who do the damage — from the pulpit or from the pew."
I don't attend church regularly anymore, but when I did years ago, one of my favorite places to attend was the Unity Fellowship Church. It was an affirming ministry with a simple inclusive message that all Black LGBT Christians should hear: "God is love, and love is for everyone."
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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