I have never been to Pulse, but if the Orlando nightclub is anything like the gay clubs I’ve visited elsewhere in the United States, Israel, Italy, Canada and Britain, I imagine it is a sanctuary for people who are subjected to violence and discrimination on a regular basis.
In my work as a priest at an Episcopal church in Memphis, I am well acquainted with the role churches and other houses of worship play as spaces of familiarity, warmth and liberation. In my life as a queer person, I am well acquainted with the ways LGBTQIA-friendly and gay-specific bars and clubs become places of safety and unconditional acceptance for sexual minorities. And as a black person, I have witnessed firsthand the power of black-affirmative spaces to nurture movements and community in the lives of black people.
On the surface, gay nightclubs and black churches seem like antithetical institutions. But they both give their attendees something no other institution can: a place where people can be themselves, even when the outside world often feels hostile. This week it will have been a year since a gunman killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Like the black people attending a mid-week Bible study in the church they called home, LGBTQIA people dancing and celebrating Orlando Pride were gathering in a familiar space, surrounded by people who loved and cared for them.
For centuries, black people have carved out spaces to affirm their blackness and humanity; and sexual minorities have established communities and gathering places meant to be refuges from queer antagonism and homophobia. This past weekend’s massacre is all the more reason for black churches to continue moving toward the full inclusion of LGBTQIA people — and for white-owned gay nightclubs to be more welcoming of communities of color.
Sometimes spaces that are meant to be safe aren’t safe for everyone, regardless of whether there’s a gunman in the room. Shootings are obviously unsafe, but so are sermons that promote “loving the sinner and hating the sin,” a theological euphemism for church-sanctioned homophobia. For a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual person, having to sit through antagonistic tirades or be sent away for “reparative therapy” are violent acts on a spectrum with mass shootings. Denominations that prohibit the full participation of LGBTQIA people in their local congregations are complicit in attacks like the one that occurred early Sunday morning. This episode in the ongoing journey toward the liberation of sexual minorities should serve as a time of self reflection for religious leaders and institutions that use holy texts to exclude and mischaracterize some of their churches’ most vulnerable members.
To feel safe in these sanctuaries — religious or otherwise — we have to show up in them as fully ourselves, unbothered by detractors’ efforts to discredit our humanity. That might mean being the first openly gay choir director at your black Baptist church or you and your queer friends of color being the ones who integrate a white-dominated queer space. Inserting one’s body in these spaces creates visibility in systems that have either erased or ignored us. But if a space continues to compromise your existence — or that of people you love — the best way forward may be withholding your financial and moral support.
Black churches and gay clubs have a history of being targets of violence, especially when they pose a threat to the status quo. The Orlando massacre makes me think of two in particular: when, in the early 1800s, the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston was burned to the ground because of its suspected involvement in a pending revolt of enslaved people of African descent. And the 1973 fire that killed 32 people at a gay bar in New Orleans. Until the Orlando massacre, that fire was the largest killing of sexual minorities in the United States.
Even though same-sex marriage is the law of the land — and same-sex experiences are increasingly common among Americans — some still consider sexual minorities a threat to the status quo. This makes it all the more important for sexual minorities and our allies to pressure elected officials to end workplace discrimination, LGBTQIA youth homelessness and the rising number of HIV infections among men of color. This means educating pastors and other religious leaders regarding the unique gifts, challenges and experiences of sexual minorities; welcoming gay couples to be married and have their children baptized in our churches; partnering with local LGBTQIA community centers to combat food, job and housing insecurities. It also means paying attention to stories that often don’t make the headlines: stories that highlight the beauty and diversity of LGBTQIA people — people like myself — who deserve to live and flourish.