The Old Prejudices
In a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, I wrote about an ongoing civil war in America’s black church over the issue of gay rights. For the most part, I was talking about the Pentecostals, who have been particularly vehement in their damnation of gay men and lesbians—despite the fact that these very parishioners have played a key role in building the church. In the weeks since I wrote my essay, this drama has intensified. Indeed, like almost everything else in America, the war between gay Pentecostals and their pious oppressors has grown uglier with the start of the Trump era.
Yet there have also been stark instances of resistance. For example, over thirty years ago, when Bob Dylan became a newborn Pentecostal, he issued heated jeremiads against gay people—targeting, in particular, the latter-day Sodom of San Francisco. He met with virtually no resistance, and his countless devotees have long since forgotten such remarks or swept them under the rug.
How times change. Two months ago, the gospel singer Kim Burrell was caught on tape preaching against lesbians and gay men. “That perverted homosexual spirit is the spirit of delusion and confusion,” she told the flock. “It has deceived many men and women, and it’s caused a stain on the body of Christ.” Unlike Dylan, she was widely condemned. Burrell was quick to excuse herself, declaring in familiar Pentecostal terms that she was fighting the sin while loving the sinner. In the end, she backpedaled even more, declaring that she was addressing only the members of her own small congregation, not her denomination—the Church of God in Christ—at large.
At that moment, Burrell was actually poised to reach a much larger audience: she had been booked to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show with Pharrell Williams, her duet partner on the hit recording “I See a Victory.” Williams distanced himself from her comments, and DeGeneres cancelled the appearance. Burrell had also been featured in a recording with Frank Ocean, whose very public coming-out in 2012 had obliged the hip-hop world to choose between its familiar homophobia and a more enlightened attitude. Ocean’s mother, Katonya Breaux, was so disturbed that she wanted Burrell’s voice expunged from her son’s recording. Clearly this was not the mother celebrated in gospel mythology, that maternal storehouse of Old School doctrine who most often shunned her punk son or butch daughter.
Yet the old prejudices soon reared their heads. A large number of gospel fans rallied behind Burrell, declaring, without any apparent irony, “I’m with her!” Her sermon had in fact been prompted by a return to the pulpit by Bishop Eddie Long, a gay-baiting Bapticostal who was accused of dallying with a number of his male congregants. In many ways, Long’s congregation had resembled Trump’s supporters—fully aware of his trespasses, and eager to forgive them all. Burrell and her fans were less forgiving. Long had been struggling with cancer, and on the morning before Martin Luther King Day, he died. At once, Burrell’s fan base flooded the web with its disdain. What the family called cancer, Kim’s people called AIDS. And the Pentecostal saints rejoiced in its exposure, for, as the Bible promised, God would not be “mocked.”
The next day, Bernice King, Long’s habitual partner in sanctified homophobia, preached at her father’s church in Memphis, though without reference to her old friend, much less the gay-bashing war they had waged together. That same day, her brother met with Trump. Their conversation, he later told the press, revolved around the nation’s “broken voting system”—which must have made for a lively exchange, since Trump and his allies like nothing more than systematic voter suppression.
The week would end with inaugural balls, featuring a few gospel singers, although the president had reportedly objected because African Americans had been so grudging in their support. Jennifer Holliday, a gay icon since her appearance in Dreamgirls, was scheduled to appear, and even boasted about the reconciling powers of her song. But her gay fans—as she admitted, virtually the only group still loyal to her—exploded in rage, and she withdrew.
There was no such objection from Travis Greene, the current king of gospel, whose songs of deliverance have been claimed as the personal testimonies of ex-gays. Accompanied by the secular singer Chrisette Michele, he performed with huge confidence. Afterward, it was reported that he had earned $90,000 for his appearance—and she, a mere quarter of a million.
It may have hurt Michele with some parts of her audience; she has subsequently claimed that her family disowned her. Greene encountered some complaints as well, in the thirty-pieces-of-silver vein. But others were more friendly, and quoted the biblical passage, “The wages of the wicked will be spent by the righteous.” Once upon a time, gospel singers would resist as least some of the world’s enticements by saying, “There’s some money so dirty you hate to touch it.” But in the Trump era, any money that falls into saved and sanctified hands is gratefully accepted, if not spiritually deployed.
Inevitably, Donnie McClurkin, the contemporary gospel singer and pastor, was the next to sign on with Trump. He had not voted for the G.O.P. candidate, disapproving of his “misogynistic ideas [and] racism”—quite a loaded phrase, given his own animosity toward lesbians. But he was now ready to march with, say, Michael Voris, the ex-gay Catholic traditionalist who boasts that his prayers to the Virgin have kept him celibate. The black church’s homophobes have continued to find friends in faraway places.
Indeed, the conservative wing of the black church rejoiced in Trump’s victory as the first of many trials for gay America. One fellow wrote that Dr. King’s ecclesiastical opponents had been vindicated. Another pastor posted YouTube clips condemning all the closeted bishops, not merely the doomed Long. All of which is to say that the civil war in the black church is still raging—and will doubtless get worse before it gets better.
Read Anthony Heilbut’s story on black America’s civil war over gay rights here.