Coda — March 17, 2017, 12:16 pm

The Old Prejudices

The war between gay Pentecostals and their pious oppressors has grown uglier with the start of the Trump era.

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Anthony Heilbut:

From the February 2017 issue

The Number That No Man Could Number

Black America’s civil war over gay rights

From the April 2012 issue

Aretha

How she got over

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2019

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Post
Seeking Asylum·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

Post
Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Article
Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Article
Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.
—Chaucer

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today