Black and LGBT in the Black Church

Straight and gay pastors weigh in on the polarizing isssue

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.”

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  • James Ross

    Thank you, Black Enterprise, for your focus on black LGBTs and what this means. I especially appreciate that you have included this story about the black church and homophobia.

    Without a doubt, traditional black congregations can be dangerous places for black LGBT people. I would argue that many white congregations are just as homophobic, but that is a different argument for a different day.

    While I very much appreciate that you spoke with Kenyon Farrow and some other people, I think your story would have been enhanced by a including more about mainline black churches that have committed to full inclusion. For example, I am a member of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. where the pastors have, at the cost of loss of a portion of their congregation as well as marginalization and persecution of themselves committed to an providing an inclusive ministry. In fact, they led the clergy in the effort to achieve marriage equality in the District of Columbia. I offer that not as a means of highlighting them but to make the point that there are some black churches that are progressive as it relates to issues of LGBT inclusion. Without a doubt, there are too few and many that are constantly seek cover for their actions. But I think it is a mistake to leave out this part of the story.

    Again, thank you for your commitment to this issue. I have never subscribed to Black Enterprise in the past, but because of your work on this issue, I plan to subscribe today.

    • Khalil Edwards

      Thank you for your comments! I also applaud Black Enterprise for highlighting this issue. Please check out this courageous video and share with others:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1AYIxGM_2g

  • allen

    this is a dangerously game in the church.LGBTscannot play with the bible.

    • Anthony

      Dangerous for who exactly?

  • Stan

    But…this goes on in most traditional churches, no matter the race or ethnicity of the congregants. Why single out “the Black church,” as if there’s only one type of Black church? Isn’t that a form of racism in itself?

    Why not write an article about the Black churches and ministers who ARE LGBT-friendly and affirmative. Where your mind goes, your behind follows; if we keep demonizing “the Black church” for homophobia that is rampant EVERYWHERE, we’re not empowering “the Black church” to be open-minded or expand their horizons.

  • D. Carr

    These articles are UNREADABLE since your pop-up ads cover most of the text and there’s no button available to click to close them!

    • Anslem Samuel

      We are working on the issue. It is resolved in most browsers (Firefox, Safari and Chrome) but not in Internet Explorer. Please try one of those other browsers while we figure out what the issue is with Explorer. If you still have issues please feel free to alert us.

  • Momofone

    I am confused by the term LGBT and the “church” having to be inclusive of that group. Homosexuality, adultery, incest, lying, cheating, drugs ettc. are sins committed in the body, and all abhorrent to God. He hates sin, but he still loves the sinner. But, when we truly know Him and his Holy nature we turn away from our sins to be more like Him. God is neither of those things above, but some choose to serve Him in their own way and when it is convenient for their lifestyle. When we resist the bibical word of God, we are rejecting Him so that we can continue in our sin. The word of God is clearly written and not up for our own personal interpretation. Leviticus 20:13 clearly states the lifestyle of an LGBT is perverse, and not natural. It is not being judgemental, but stating what the word of God says about it. Just because it is in the Old Testament, does not mean it is not for our learning today.

    • Erica

      I agree with your post, everyone is leaning to their own persception, understandings and views instead of going to the correct source the Bible. Thank you for ending this conversation with the Word.

    • DFS

      Do you eat shrimp? Wear clothes made of blended fabric? Do you think it is ok to beat a slave as long as it gets up after a few days. All those things are in your Old Testament bible as well. And before you come with the same BS explanations Ive heard before (that’s before Jesus came, or that was just for the Jews) let me tell you that you are cherry picking those parts of the bible you want to follow and you are a hypocrite.

  • Marcelina

    @Momofone: “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.” [Einstein]

  • James Aldridge

    As an African-American youth leader of a church, I find it incomprehensible that black Christians have become so accepting of the LGBT lifestyle. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter,” Isaiah 5:20. I do not hate gay people. I do not hate anyone. We are all sinners before a mighty God and God sent his Son to die on the cross for humanity to be reconciled to Himself. I think we should show love to everyone and not bully, harass or ridicule gay people. However, the Bible is clear that homosexuality is sin and we must be honest enough to proclaim it as such, just as we proclaim certain heterosexual acts (fornication, adultery) as sin as well. The black church has an opportunity to love the LGBT black community. However, the way we love people is by leading them to a right relationship with God. When we trust Christ for our sins, we can experience not only the forgiveness of sins but freedom from the bondage of sin and that includes the bondage of homosexuality.

    • Erica

      Once again I agree with the Word, and you are correct we have become so accepting of everything that we don’t even realize we are condoning sin and I am not only singling out homosexuality, people now have a blinded eye to everything, adultery, fornication, gambling, stealing, etc. Everything goes now, morals and decency is a thing of the past. We all have to wake up and get on one accord with God and stop trying to find comfort and understanding in man’s word but look to the Bible.

      • Deneen Robinson

        As a believer, the challenge I have with your comments is your reference to the Bible as if God stopped speaking after this book was created. There is so much we do not know or understand about who God is and what he thought. More importantly, we are offering up judgment when scripture clearly tells us that as we judge we set a standard for how we will be judged by ourselves, others as well as the Living Christ. If we resolve to only find truth in the Holy Bible, then we deny the ‘spirit’ the opportunity to show us and teach us the ways of Christ. There are not any checklist, we must make the decision to develop an intimate and personal relationship with Christ. Let us all face the fact that we do not know the all encompassing mind of God. What we do know is that our job is to be open to the still speaking God that lives in the heart of every believer irrespective of gender, gender identity and sexuality or sexual expression. God really did create Adam, Eve and Steve.

  • Yolanda Stephen

    This is a profound article. The comments of Dara Williams are true. My late husband, a well-known pastor and community leader, ended his own life a month after his teenage lover sat in our living room and confessed their indiscretions. He did it on the church grounds in the car that the church purchased for him. In the instances of the down low, I worry about family and congregants that look(ed) up to church leaders for spiritual guidance. To help begin a dialogue about this very thing I wrote a memoir, The Upside of the Down Low, a Pastor’s Wife’s Memoir. It’s available on http://www.upsidebook.com. Hopefully, as more people speak out about these issues they will be addressed.

  • Rog in Miami Gardens

    Conservative, white-god-worshipping Christians can run their mouths all they want about how evil homosexuality is. However, the fact of the matter is that more and more of your very congregants are going to keep coming out as society becomes more accepting of homosexuality.

    The church is not immune to societal changes, no matter what your error-filled bible says, so please get over yourselves.

    Instead of running your mouths about what people do in the bedroom, the so-called, Black church needs to get back to the basics: helping the poor and the needy and fighting for social justice. We’re in one of the worst economic situations since the Great Depression, and you all are over here discussing something that Jesus, himself, didn’t even discuss or even tentatively touch on in ANY of his sermons.

  • Extreme Atheist

    christianity is a gay person religion….. plain an SIMPLE….

    • pj

      facebook-style “Like”

  • pj

    …um, when was the Q added to LGBT, or are u just hoping it would catch on?

  • Marie

    What the “church” (black, white, or otherwise) wants to do within their own confines is fine with me. Where we have a problem is when these people push their prejudices onto the public. Don’t like gay civil marriage, then don’t have one, but the “church” has no right (separation of church & state) to deny gay people the same civil (yes, civil, because these are the rights of the citizenry) rights that they themselves enjoy. Not all citizens are christians or members of any religion, so religion needs to stay in the churches. Let the co-called religious run their own lives and leave the rest of us alone. “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” “Judge not lest ye shall be judged.” Christians seems to have forgotten those parts of the bible. I am NOT a christian and I do not want to live under a christian dictatorship any more than christians want to live under a muslim religious one.

  • Donald Price

    I can agree with the church on this one. Homosexuality is not natural in human beings. It simply is INCORRECT!! Heterosexuality is the norm and always will be the norm. I support gay rights in certain circumstances but I do not support homosexuality when it is concerning church, children and/or same-gender being forced to expose themselves. I think society should continue teaching the correct way, period.

  • Khalil Edwards
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