Kenyon Farrow says he was 10 years old when he learned that being openly gay was a liability. As a member of his uncle’s church in Cleveland, he says he remembers when the congregation’s openly gay choir director and his male partner would bring food for the church potluck, folks would whisper about which dish it was so nobody would eat it and “catch AIDS.”
“This was when the AIDS epidemic was first gaining notoriety,” says Farrow, referring to the early 1980s. “Since HIV/AIDS was automatically linked to homosexuality back then, you’d hear a lot of the fire-and-brimstone-type speeches, about how being gay was an abomination and a sin. If you were gay, you pretty much learned to keep quiet.”
Unfortunately, says the former Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice and Policy Institute Fellow with the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, not much has changed since then. He says that while nowadays Christian LGBTQs (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender or Queer) in large cities can opt to attend queer-friendly churches, those living in small towns or in the south must either worship at home or quietly attend predominantly heterosexual ones, at the risk of being found out. “[Gospel superstar] Donnie McClurkin was at a youth revival at this mega church in Memphis in 2009 where he was calling out ‘all the sissies,’” recalls Farrow. “He said, ‘I’m not here to save a whole bunch of sissies this weekend,’ demanding that they come out and down to the front as part of this whole public shaming. Now, is that sort of thing fair? Absolutely not,” says Farrow. “But it definitely happens.”
Formerly closeted pastor Joseph Tolton, who formed his own Pentecostal ministry six years ago, the Rehoboth Temple Christ Conscious Church in Harlem, can speak to that type of humiliation from personal experience. “I used to attend the New Life Tabernacle Church in Brooklyn,” he says, “and my best friend at the time—who I hadn’t told I was gay—was about to get married. He asked me to be his best man,” Tolton shares. “I felt like I needed to come out to him and his fiancée before I did that…but when I told them, they asked me not to be in their wedding. I knew then that I had to go,” he says.
Rigid attitudes around homosexuality in the church, mosque and in communities of color overall may explain the fervor that surrounded embattled Georgia pastor Eddie Long. After years of publicly denouncing homosexuality—even going so far as to lead a special ministry for gays and lesbians in order to convert them into heterosexuals—Bishop Long was sued last year by four young men who alleged he used his pastoral influence to coerce them into a sexual relationship with him. A national uproar ensued as he scurried to settle with them out of court. Some argue that had it been women Long had the affairs with, he might have gotten a slap on the wrist. But because his dalliances allegedly involved (underage) men, his feet were put to the proverbial fire.
New York City-based trauma expert and wellness coach Dara Williams says it is the fear of public condemnation that keeps folks—in and outside of the church—from being honest about who they are when it comes to their sexuality. “The black community is very conservative about most sex-related issues,” she says, “and homosexuality is one of them. Sexuality in our community is generally oppressed or not discussed, and we can see through our [collective] rate of HIV infection that this kind of secrecy is literally killing us.”
Williams, who has held a private practice for 25 years, says that what her LGBTQ clients want mostly from the Black church is to be received into a welcoming and safe space—without having to be on the “down-low.” “Hiding [your true self] can cause one to suffer from depression, anxiety, anger and sadness,” she says. “It is not a healthy or self-empowering way to live your life, let alone worship.”