Essay — From the February 2017 issue

The Number That No Man Could Number

Black America’s civil war over gay rights

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On the morning of June 26, 2015, barely two hours after the Supreme Court handed down its decision to uphold same-sex marriage, Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for nine murder victims at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. With impeccable timing, he moved from word to song, invoking grace and then singing of its sweetness and redemptive power. To some practiced ears, the president resembled an earnest college boy trying to mimic a field recording. But whether his performance was improvised or not, the product of spirit feel or political instinct, it was a rhetorical coup, almost without precedent. Obama knew that the black church’s most famous leaders had expressed rigid opposition to gay rights. But with “Amazing Grace” — whose reference to “dangers, toils, and snares” makes it a kind of secret gay anthem — he preempted their complaints. Pleading the blood at Mother Emanuel, he robbed them of their song.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Many black politicians have supported gay rights, of course. But the fact is that the leaders of the mega-churches, the men who draw thousands every Sunday, have been stark reactionaries. Pastors and worshippers alike consider “gay rights” an oxymoron, tastelessly equating fallen women and perverts with people of color.

To insiders, meanwhile, the church’s war on gay people is a case of massive bad faith. For the reality is that they all know better. Every megachurch pastor, black or white, is aware that religion is one of the gay arts, along with ballet, gymnastics, and lyric poetry. Just think. Without gay men, no Sistine Chapel, no Last Supper, no “Ave Maria,” probably no “Hallelujah Chorus.” And without gay people, gospel music would shrivel and die. It would be (as I have written elsewhere) like Germany without the Jews.

To expand on that last point: it’s generally accepted that the masters of modern German prose are two Jewish writers, Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth, and Thomas Mann, with his Jewish wife and six half-Jewish children. The editors and publishers of all three men were Jewish, as were their most informed readers. The parallel to the black church, whose despised subculture is also the jewel in its crown, is impressively exact. Wherever the church has flourished, in New York or Chicago, Philadelphia or Detroit, Oakland or Atlanta, gay men have been the leading musicians, soloists, and choir singers. (As one famous female evangelist pointed out, “You all can’t have church without some sissy pumping out the organ.”) They have also swelled the ranks as Sunday-school teachers, missionaries, treasurers, elocutionists, and usher-board captains.

Even when they haven’t been the preachers — and they sometimes are — they have constituted the pastors’ inner circle and praetorian guard. Music dominates the traditional black church; the minister is as much cantor as village explainer. In particular, a good “Mississippi whoop,” or melodic growl, has been the making of many a preacher. And when the minister growled, the gay organist would accent his every moan, while the gay choir members made their joyous noise, and the gay saints (i.e., members of the flock) jumped to their feet, clapping and dancing in the spirit. The whole experience was orchestrated and annotated by gays and lesbians. This is one reason why many straight men have shunned the church — why, for example, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was ashamed to tell his mother that he had joined a choir.

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’s most recent book is The Fan Who Knew Too Much. His article “Aretha: How She Got Over” appeared in the April 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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