(Originally posted on October 23, 2006.)
I don’t remember when I first became aware of Horace Griffin’s book Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches. Most likely, it turned up in my recommendations on Amazon.Com. But as soon as I saw the title, I knew I had to read it because it would speak to significant part of my experience as a Black gay man. The truth is, it probably speaks to the experiences of many — if not most — Black LGBT folks, because most of us probably spent some part of our early lives involved in Black churches even if we left our churches and our religion behind in adulthood. And, as I’ve noted before, some of us remain in those churches and the communities built up around them, even as part of who we are is degraded and maligned in those spaces. Sometimes we even participate in our own degradation, because we don’t perceive any other choice.
Griffin’s book probably has the most to say to Black LBGTs who remain in Black churches where they still hear homophobia and heterosexism preached from the pulpit and approved from the pews. But even for someone like myself, there is a gift (perhaps even a blessing?) here simply in the validation that some of us has experience hurt at the hands of our communities and churches, in the name of faith. It also has something to say to the ministers in those same churches. For that reason, if I could, I’d buy multiple copies and deliver them to ministers like Wellington Boone, Willie WIlson, Alfred Owens, Eddie Long, TD Jakes, Gregory Daniels, and many others. But chances are they wouldn’t read it anyway. Still, if it finds its way into the hands of Black LGBT Christians, and to their families and friends, it might just make a difference.
But for my part, having long since left “the Black Church” and the Christian faith, I can only speak about this book as one who faced the same choices Griffin mentions in the book that Black churches offer LGBT members: stay silent and “pass” while absorbing the homophobia in the church, or leave. Both choices exact a significant cost from the LGBT individual.
Griffin paraphrases his title from from a verse in the Gospel of John.
He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
But it reminded me of another verse that could also describe the plight of LGBTs in Black churches and/or religious African American communities and families. Being raised Baptist, I’d heard it (and many other verses) before, but it struck home to me when I saw it used as the title of a short story in In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology. The verse I had in mind, which may as well include the entire passage, comes from (appropriately enough) the book of Leviticus.
For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people.
And reading Griffin’s book immediately reminded me of the most vivid example of what it can mean for Black LGBTs to be “cut off from among their people,” and from the Black church and community as a refuge from the racism of the larger society. That was the story of Dwan Prince — a black gay man left temporarily comatose and disabled by a violent gay-bashing — and the response his mother received when she approached her minister for help.
[Valerie Prinez, Dwan’s mother,] also points to indifference, from politicians and from her own religion. As a member of Mount Olive Baptist Church, Prinez was dismayed when her minister refused her cries for help. The reason: He found out her son is gay, and wanted nothing more to do with her.
Local politicians were helpful when the case was in the news, but once it faded, their calls ceased.
“The people don’t want to hear about it,” Prinez said.
Griffin draws on his own experience to describe the familiar role of Black churches and communities as “safe havens” for African Americans — “wonderful institutions of support, nurture and uplift” that are at the same time “resistant and even closed in treating gay and heterosexual congregants equally or, in many cases offering simple compassion to the suffering of gay people.” Black gay people like Dwan Prince, because “the black heterosexual majority is presently engaged in a biblical indictment that identifies gays as immoral.”
From there, Griffin delves into an overview of American religious history that actually parallels with the one in Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury, detailing how many African Americans who converted to Christianity during slavery joined conservative denominations that were also big on biblical literalism/inerrancey. (Those Black christians found ways to ignore or dispense with some biblical passages used to justify slavery, but more about that in a bit.)
What’s most intriguing is Griffin’s suggestion that this particular brand of religion combined with the popular sexual myths about Blacks at that time — that Black men and women were insatiable sexual savages, prone to predation, seduction and violence — and the strict sexual morality of the Victorian era, to produce Black churches and communities that still respond vehemently and even violently to the very concept of homosexuality let alone actual homosexuals in Black churches, families and communities. In fact, is the most cogent explanation I’ve heard yet of a reality that still tends to mystify me.
Following slavery, the racist attitudes that defined black men as sex predators caused black men extreme hardship and death. By appealing to the age-old stereotype that black men harbor an insatiable desire for white women, black men existed as targets for to be blamed for raping white women. Indeed as Paula Giddings notes, it was black women themselves who were identified as culprits for their own rape due to the purported sexual appetite that blacks had for sex. … Given the majority culture’s racism and sexual attitudes, African Americans soon learned that their very survival depended on distancing themselves from “sexual perversions.” Much of black heterosexuals’ antihomosexual sentiment exists as a means of countering the perception of black sexuality as perverse in order to survive and gain respectability and acceptance by the majority. Thus, it is understandable that African Americans would approach homosexuality with more dread and disdain than others, often denying a black homosexual presence to avoid being further maligned in a racist society.
Fast-forward to today and you have Black parents in Philadelphia objecting to the school district merely acknowledging a gay and lesbian history month, denouncing it as a part of a white political agenda, and even going to far make statements that seem to completely deny the existence of black gays & lesbians at all.
[Robert Gray, of the African American Freedom and Reconstruction League] concluded, “[In] the struggle for black people’s rights, black people are the focus themselves and the primary benefit, and in the Gay struggle whites are the primary beneficiaries and blacks are on the bottom.
“In reality, the gay and lesbian agenda is not inclusive at all. It is a white orientated (sic) agenda using African-American children.”
In the same week that Michael Sandy was killed in a gay bashing in New York, and the remains of Tyrone Garner — a black gay man who was one of the plaintiffs in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruling that overthrew state sodomy laws — were imperiled, You have a black minister like Wellington Boone saying that gay rights advocates “raped” his movement, the civil rights movement, as though black gays and lesbians don’t exist and don’t and don’t have just as much claim to the heritage of that movement as he does.
In Boone, as in other ministers like Bush ally and advisor TD Jakes we merely have the latest incarnation of Black ministers currying favor and gaining “respectability and acceptance” with the powers that be, using their shared homophobia and heterosexism as common ground. (But not really getting much in return.) It’s convenient, then, to deny the existence of black gay men like Michael Sandy and Tyrone Garner, as well as the Black gay and lesbian Christians Griffin mentioned in his book; like George Washington Carver, James Cleveland, and Barbara Jordan. But, there is, in African American Christianity a long history of denying what’s theologically inconvenient.
When it comes to arguing scriptures concerning homosexuality, I tend to agree with what Keith wrote in Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America, about his appearance on BET with Angie and and Debbie Winans to discuss the Winan’s anti-gay song “It’s Not Natural”. (More on this in a bit, as well)
I have never been convinced that these biblical debates are as useful as we like to think they are. Most observers tend to have preformed opinions about the issue, so it is difficult to really change anybody’s thinking. One side quotes a bible verse to make its case, and then the other side quotes its own. At the end of the debate, it all comes down to which side you agreed with in the beginning.
But Griffin, being a minister, is invested in what scripture means and how it is used. So he goes through most of the usual “clobber texts” on homosexuality, and offers the usual alternate interpretations. What’s compelling in his discussion of scripture, though, is part concerning how slaves who converted to Christianity dealt with the scriptures used to justify slavery, specifically “The Curse of Ham”, in which Noah’s son, Ham. comes upon his father passed out drunk and naked, etc., goes to tell his brothers, who then basically grabbed a sheet and backed into their father’s tent to cover him with it, their heads turned so that they would not see the patriarch’s nakedness. Long story short, Noah comes to, finds out what Ham saw and lays a curse on him, that he and his descendants should be slaves. (Actually, as Griffin points out, the curse is on Ham’s son. So the “curse of Ham” itself is a misreading.)
There are also Paul’s admonitions to slaves; “obey your masters, etc. Griffin uses Howard Thurman’s report, in Jesus and the Disinherited, of his grandmother’s response to those passages to sum up the response of most African American Christians to troublesome passage like those, and certain Levitical laws that would put the makers of fast food and polyester blend clothing out of business pretty quickly, not to mention the seafood industry. Thurman’s grandmother talks about the white minister who would preach obedience to the slaves on her master’s plantation, and wraps up by saying:
I promised my maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the bible.
The truth is, that there are a great many parts of the bible that a great many people would rather “just not read,” like the passages that demand silence and submission of women. (At least a good many female ministers must ignore that one.) And many people probably ignore them because to apply them to their lives or to our present-day society and culture would be unthinkable. It almost leads me to at least have some respect for “extremists” who insist that all of it must be taken and applied in its most literal sense; more respect than for other “believers” who are willing to jettison or reinterpret an awful lot of it, except for that which has the possibility to lift them above others in a moral sense. In that sense I share some of the frustrations Sam Harris (see the article at the bottom the page linked here, in PDF format) has voiced about religious moderates.
Moderates do want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they don’t want anything too critical to be said about people who really believe in the God of their forefathers because tolerance, above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world -to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish – is antithetical to tolerance as moderates conceive it. In so far as religious moderates attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, they close the door to more sophisticated approaches to human happiness.
Rather than bring the full force of 21st-century creativity and rationality to bear, moderates ask that we merely relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos. But by failing to live by the letter of the texts -while tolerating the irrationality of those who do -religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. As moderates, we cannot say that religious fundamentalists are dangerous idiots, because they are merely practising their freedom of belief. We can’t even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivalled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. It is time we recognised that religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance.
Harris details some of the “life-destroying gibberish” referenced above, from both the old and new testaments, in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, including Jesus’s resounding “not an iota, not a dot will pass away” endorsement of old testament law. But those points will probably only interest or amuse nonbelievers, and leave believers as unfazed as my mother was when she tossed a line from Leviticus to me, and I tossed her one back from the same book that basically said the cheeseburger she had for lunch and the poly-cotton blouse she was wearing damned her as much as being gay supposedly damned me. Presented with a conflict that calls belief into question, specifically a contradiction within that belief, what’s troublesome is dismissed or explained away (“Well, we all sin,” was my mom’s answer, though she still believed I should “stop being gay” but that she could go on eating cheeseburgers and wearing mixed-fabric clothing and get into heaven anyway.)
Or sometimes it’s ignored completely. Not long ago, I engaged in an extended (and pointless) discussion with a Black Christian blogger about homosexuality (killed by a database crash, cached by Google) that illustrates the conundrum here. More than once in the “rules” for our discussion, he declared that I couldn’t use science because:
Hmmm, so if scientific studies show that blacks are inferior, I should believe that over the actual testimonies of people?
Remember, scientific studies were big in Nazi Germany as well–and widely supported.
Wow! We have certainly come a long way as a society when we believe more in what a scientist says over real people.
Yet he managed dismiss or ignore the reality that religion — specifically, Christianity in this country — had been used to “show that blacks are inferior” and to justify slavery, even though religion in general and Christianity in particular was the entire foundation of his argument against gay and lesbian equality. And while the other party in this discussion could probably not be called moderate under any circumstances, the discussion does bring to mind what Harris wrote his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
… the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather it is the larger set of cultural and religious accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.
And thus the other party to the discussion mentioned above didn’t have to provide anything to support his argument other than his religious beliefs, however contradictory they might be, because as Harris has noted before, religion is a “conversation stopper” in America these days. As such it’s nearly considered impolite to challenge anything, even public policy, if it is based in someone’s religious belief, and particularly if that person is in the religious majority, because to do so (as Harris suggests should be done the next time Bush utters something like “our freedoms come from God,” by someone asking how that’s different from saying the come from Zeus or Odin). But it doesn’t happen.
That’s particularly true for religions the tenets of which hold that every other religion or system of belief must be wrong. If you’re outside of that faith, you have no real common ground on which to have a dialogue. Because they know the truth. They know what must be if their understanding of an otherwise uncertain world is to remain intact, and you — even if you are pointing out the obvious contradictions or what they’re ignoring in order to cleave to their understanding of their faith, or you are using tangible evidence to support your claims — are deluded. What must be trumps what is.
That’s the case, too, in the Black churches Griffin rights about, where congregants either “see but don’t see” the gay and lesbian members among them, or gay and lesbian members of those churches simply “hear but don’t here” the homophobic and heterosexist. sermons coming from the pulpit. “Seeing but not seeing,” and “hearing but not hearing” have a long history among African American Christians, as shown by the stories Griffin includes in his chapter “Black, Gay and Christian in Black Churches.” It’s particularly evident in the story of gospel music giant James Cleveland, whose homosexuality inspired a kind of schizophrenia in his followers.
Such things still do happen, and they’re the reasons why I often say that if there’s anything I wouldn’t ever want to be, it’s gay, and especially not black and gay, since, I’m sorry to say, many African Americans are rabidly homophobic.
Perhaps it’s because African Americans have so much else to contend with that homosexuality on top of it all is just too much.
Whatever the reason, African Americans are a mass of contradictions relative to homosexuality. In our churches, for example, some of the same preachers who’ll reduce you to tears with stirring, Biblically referenced denunciations of racism may in the next breath thunder against homosexuals, as if gay men and lesbians aren’t sitting right there in the choir and in the pews.
It’s crazy, but many African-American Christians will shout and do a holy dance to James Cleveland’s gospel, yet deny what was an essential part of his being–that besides being a great singer and composer of religious music, Cleveland was also homosexual.
And Cleveland’s story echoes something Michael Eric Dyson had to say about homosexuality and homophobia in Black churches in his essay, “The Black Church and Sexuality.”
One of the most painful scenarios of black church life is repeated Sunday after Sunday with little notice or collective outrage. A black minister will preach a sermon railing against sexual ills, especially homosexuality. At the close of the sermon, a soloist, who everybody knows is gay, will rise to perform a moving number, as the preacher extends an invitation to visitors to join the church. The soloist is, in effect, being asked to sign his theological death sentence. His presence at the end of such a sermon symbolizes a silent endorsement of the preacher’s message. Ironically, the presence of his gay christian body at the highest moment of worship also negates the preacher’s attempt to censure his presence, to erase his body, to deny his legitimacy as a child of God.
… the black church, an institution that has been at the heart of black emancipation, refuses to unlock the oppressive closet for gays and lesbians. …Black Christians, who have been despised and oppressed for much of our existence, should be wary of extending that oppression to our lesbian sisters and our gay brothers.
But that door stays locked, not merely for reasons theological, but personal as well because however much the importance of what must be is emphasized sometimes what is kicks down the door and demands acknowledgment. And it doesn’t just kick down its own closet door, but kicks in a few others and threatens to expose much to the light. The bio of 70s superstar Sylvester, The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The Seventies In San Francisco, details Sylvester’s growing up in the Church of God in Christ, and eventually blossoming into a sexually active gay teenager who shared intimacy with several of the men (deacons, some married) in the church. And he was asked to leave the church because of his flamboyant homosexuality, but his ouster was driven by some of the same men who’d been more than willing to have sex with him in the dark.
(There’s another kind of “seeing but not seeing” that goes on and is illustrated by Griffin’s retelling of how Bayard Rustin — a black gay man who was one of the chief organizers behind the 1963 March on Washington — was driven out of the civil rights movement in a campaign led by preacher/politician Adam Clayton Powell, who was also quite a womanizer.)
It’s actually Sylvester’s story that reminds me of another reading of the “Curse of Ham” story that might explain why some Black Christians respond to homosexuality as they do, particularly in the church. Keith writes in Beyond the Down Low about how everyone is on the down low, as he extends it to also define heterosexual men and women who are stepping out their mates with a member of the opposite sex. That thought, combined with the “Ham” mention in Griffin’s book sent me flying to my bookshelf to look up the alternate reading in Derrick Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe.
In my mind, Ham’s first impulse in the tent in simply to keep staring as he realized, perhaps for the first time that his father is merely human. His next impulse is to cover his father, then leave and pretend he did not see what he knows he saw. Then he has a third impulse, which is to leave without covering his father, and to tell his brothers of his newfound understanding. As he considers, the looks away to the flap of the tent, looks back to his father’s body, looks more and more closely still, then finally turns and walks outside into the daylight.
… What’s more important is the lesson that can be pulled from this cautionary tale, which is that in order for a system of domination to be maintained … rigid protocols must be maintained, which include first and foremost that one must never see those in power as they are — in this case, naked — nor especially to perceive them as vulnerable — in this case, passed out. To see them at the same time naked and vulnerable is to find oneself no longer susceptible to any power of theirs save physical force.
Except that in the case of gays and lesbians in Black churches and communities, there is another power to fear. From the start Griffin recognizes the role that Black churches play in Black communities, serving as a refuge from the racism of the larger society, and a safe space in which African American men and women are not only supported and celebrated, but also aided when misfortune falls. The same can be said of communities and families, which are often heavily influence by churches.
In the case of black gays and lesbians, the power of Black heterosexual Christians, community members, and family to withdraw that refuge — to withdraw access to that source of support and strength — is one that creates what Griffin calls a “no-win” situation. He draws on the old practice of some light-skinned African Americans “passing” for white to describe a situation that offers (besides coming out and having to sever ties with church, community, and/or family) gays and lesbians in black churches four different types of closets, none of which are particularly roomy.
Guilty Passing: Homosexuals who feel that they are sinful and deserving of the rage and condemnation imposed on them by heterosexual church members
Angry Passing: Homosexuals who publicly deny or remain silent about their own homosexuality and live (pass) as heterosexual by expressing rage and condemnation of homosexuality and/or lesbians and gays.
Silent Passing: Homosexuals who publicly deny or remain silent about their sexual attraction and live (pass) as heterosexual.
Opportunistic Passing: Lesbians and gays who have accepted themselves but remain in the predicament of the closet, feeling that they cannot “come out” and many not speak against the homophobia or heterosexual supremacy in the black church.
It’s also something I noted in response to a story about Dwan Prince (a black gay man in New York who was left temporarily comatose and disabled by a gay bashing) and the response his mother got when she turned to her minister for help and was refused.
It’s not a huge secret that the black family — and by extension the black church — as long served as a kind of refuge from the racism present in society at large; for a long time, the only refuge. The power of the church — along with a deeply ingrained literalist approach to scripture, along the lines of “God said, I believe it, that settles it” — in both the community and the family creates circumstances under which individuals are required to toe the line of what is accepted moral behavior by the majority, or at least appear to do so, if they want to keep their place within that refuge. Step out of line and you may find yourself “cast out from among your people”; set outside the walls of the fortified city to take your chances without the protection available within.
Want to stay safely within the walls of the refuge? Then Dwan Prince is an example. Step out of line and you could end up like him, “left for dead” with no one looking out for your interests and no one to protect you. Maybe not even your own family, if it means they’ll have to join you outside the walls of that refuge, where who knows what might happen. So, maybe you bear what you have to bear, and hear what you have to hear, rather than risk facing the rest of the world without a community to turn to when there’s trouble.
Given that, standing up for justice — let alone demanding it — may be too much to ask.
Scott Poulson-Bryant offers a direct look into one of those closets in Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America when he interviews an occupant of one of the closets above.
We knew there’d never be a rap version of, say, Rupert Everett or Boy George, someone out proud and living his life. And we knew it because, in the black community, a secret had finally been revealed: the crime wasn’t necessarily to be gay, the crime was to claim it.
…That was in the eighties, when calling oneself gay, particularly in a world defined by AIDS, was a loaded political choice, particularly for a black boy from a black family and an overwhelmingly conservative black community where homosexuality is seen as a white phenomenon, a sin, something shameful enough to be kept in the closet.
… To openly live a life that includes sex with men would mean that he’s weak, less a man.
… I say to Darren, “Did you ever think that perhaps your life isn’t really yours?”
No, he tells me, that’s never occurred to him.
But the next time we’re chilling he tells me that his life isn’t his own. His life is dictated by the forces of too many other things. By public opinion. By his family’s possible revocation of their love for him. By the look he can envision in his sons eyes if his son knew that he liked to suck dick.
Or, for that matter, the look in his father’s eyes, or his mother’s eyes.
There is another, more hopeful, side to the story that Griffin shares towards the end of the book as he describes the founding of churches like Unity Fellowship, Inner Light Ministries, and Chicago’s Church of the Open Door, all founded by Black gay and lesbian Christians who feel the same combination of frustration and yearning expressed in this essay on the Operation Rebirth website.
The church has preached hate, and meted out abuse so long that they have made the very “lifestyle” we are said to live the only place we have to go for acceptance and love. I mean, it’s a no-brainer! Who would give up an atmosphere where you are accepted for a place where you are abused? Instead of giving us an atmosphere of affirmation, we are more often than not treated with hostility. We need to know that the same God that loved and brought “Big Mama” thus far is the same God that loves us and is carrying us through our tough times. We need to know that the same Bible that’s being used to beat and bash our heads in, has words of comfort, encouragement, and inspiration for us. The same Word of God that most of the preachers of today use to kill us speaks to our many dilemmas and gives us victory over our issues, just like it does for everyone else.
And that’s where I think the potential power of Griffin’s book lies. Earlier in this post, I rattled off a list of ministers to whom I’d like to give copies of Griffin’s book, and expressed doubt that many of them would ever bother reading it if I did. But, maybe that’s not the book’s audience. Much as Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation is likely to be read by conservative Christians as is it to provide atheists and other nonbelievers with ammunition, Griffin’s book may serve to give gays and lesbians in Black churches a firmer place to stand in terms of reaching out to heterosexual members of their churches, families, and communities.
In that sense, Griffin’s book need not get into ministers’ hands to make an impact (though it surely would if some ministers got it and read it), because the answer to the question of how to fight homophobia in Black churches may be more likely found in the pews than in the pulpit if black gays and lesbians are equipped to speak up.
My only criticism, then, of Griffin’s book is that it may be a little too academic to be digested by many people, though it provides great “talking points” for those who read it and want to take its message into their churches and communities. Maybe what we need is a book that’s written for families and church members, maybe a book about what it means when their child or fellow church member comes out as gay or lesbian, and how to put that in the context of their faith in a way that allows them to embrace and support gay and lesbian people in their lives.
Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches is a welcome, long overdue book; one that I was anxious to read, and didn’t want to stop reading even after finishing the last page. And perhaps that’s because I, too, wanted some salve for wounds received in dealing with homophobia in the Black church where I grew up, and in a family and community heavily influenced by its particular brand of Christian faith.
They are wounds I thought were mostly healed, until I grappled with the death of my father and my own feelings about how religion came between us in a way neither of us could figure out how to get around. You know the song, “So tall you can’t get over it. So low you can’t go under it. So wide you can’t get around it. You must come in at the door.” As I’ve said before, when it comes to black gays and lesbians, either their is no door, or the doorknob is on the other side, and all the knocking in the world won’t help you gain entry.
Maybe Griffin’s book, and more like it will open that door for families, communities, and eventually churches.