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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The church has often responded to these sissies in its bosom by reasserting its masculine character. This tendency goes back to the nineteenth century, when the abolitionists and Transcendentalists were dismissed as effeminate and the vigorously aerobic movement known as Muscular Christianity flourished, first in England and then in the United States.

To some degree, though, these fellows have fought a losing game. Pentecostalism in particular prizes its women. The first member of Parham’s Kansas congregation to speak in tongues was a woman, Agnes Ozman, which created an enduring archetype: the male prophet and his perfected female vessel. Pentecostal women have also been among the faith’s most famous evangelists, in both black communities (from Elder Lucy Smith to Prophetess Juanita Bynum) and white (from Aimee Semple McPherson to Katherine Kuhlman). The church may have been the first institution to demonstrate a lasting truth: whenever women assume power in an emancipated, nonsexual way, gay men will be their most ardent supporters.

Nowhere has this truth been proved more consistently than in the world of gospel music. As I have noted before, gospel has long been a gay genre — one in which male singers would “mock” (that is, copy) every vocal habit of the female singers they worshipped. The exchange worked both ways, allowing men and women, gay and straight, to draw on each other for inspiration, creating a music filled with male sopranos and female basses.

Mahalia Jackson was early and always the queen of the gay singers and groupies — the Children, as they were called. But her only rival, Marion Williams, may have been more instrumental in bringing this cross-dressing style to the masses. She invented a startling mix of growling syncopation and ecstatic falsetto, her high C’s derived more from field hollers and electric guitar than the opera stage. And her greatest imitators were men. Little Richard, the so-called architect of rock and roll, copped his style from her. And his acolytes included James Brown, the Isley Brothers — and, just a few years later, the drag queens of Stonewall, strutting through Greenwich Village with an approximation of Williams’s generous hips, greeting the straight world with her patented “whoo-hoo.

That’s an awful lot of American culture changed for the better by the union of strong women and their gay disciples. And within the black church, nobody complained, since they were too busy rejoicing. The great world, however, was sometimes less welcoming. Remember the hostility toward disco, a music dominated by gospel-lite divas and their gay fans, who had adapted their church dancing for the club.

Or think of Billy Preston’s hard times. He was a superb musician, who cut his teeth with Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, and was temporarily dubbed the Fifth Beatle during the Let It Be sessions. But when the gay Preston danced his way through “That’s the Way God Planned It” during his tours with the Rolling Stones, one rock critic grumbled that he was a “showboat.” (So much for Mick Jagger and his Tina Turner moves!) Such critics willfully ignored that Preston was gospel’s ambassador to the world of British rock, which couldn’t have existed in the first place without the church and its gays.

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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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