Because, even at a young age, I was able to sense a relationship between the genius musicians performing those chord progressions, the flamboyant choir directors moving the congregation, the quiet conversations I only heard in snippets about their supposed sinfulness.
It was the 1980s, the ’90s. There were gospel songs that promoted homophobia, like the one lamenting the inability to “tell a her from a him.” There were sermons that lamented “sissies” who directed choirs, the lack of “real men,” or the evidence of queer women trying to replace men as the head of households, with pejorative names used to drive the point home.
My parents traveled yearly to Memphis for the annual convention of the Church of God in Christ. They purchased videocassettes of church services and concerts, videos that featured sermons and songs that included many men, flamboyant and free, in the choir. But year after year, more and more of them disappeared.
There was so much loss.
In 1996, there were 581,429 cases of AIDS reported, 362,004 deaths, and it was the first year that the proportion of Black people living with AIDS surpassed that of Whites. And Black churches, in the years since the first reported cases in 1981, suffered from the deaths of so many musicians and choir members, many of whom contracted HIV, lived with AIDS and died from the complications.
The number remains uncounted, I have found, as I have been working on two books and an art installation on the topic. The immeasurable loss was surely felt in other kinds of churches, but I remember the devastation to the Black church — of family, friends, lovers, musicians, singers, ushers, preachers, social practices, laughter and joy.
These uncounted musicians and singers were not the only ones in Black churches, or within Black communities, impacted by the public health crisis, but they serve as a sign for a disposition of invisibility, erasure. The intense scrutiny of their talent and flamboyance rendered invisible other practices of queer life, of women and gender nonconforming folks, for example.
Yet these musicians and singers provided a soundtrack for churches to pray and praise with fervor, conviction, energy. They extended the history and practice of Black religion, taking the best of Black language, sound, gesture to make community with others.
It was so scary to me, seeing the loss, and how it went unremarked. Or, if talked about, it was often discussed as the deserving sickness and death of the purported abominable.
The Black church didn’t create the conditions for the public health crisis; it was a creation of an inequitable political and economic structure. But the question is about the reply.
It was within this context that imagining life as a musician, singer and choir director was difficult for me. I already felt, at least by the age 11, attraction to men. So would the music condemn me to a hell-bound fate? Would I join the fraternity of those whispered about? Would I bring shame to my family, embarrassment to my friends?
It felt like a lot to carry for a young person trying to make sense of the world, especially when so much joy, life and love happened in the same place.
The gossip admitted a simple fact: the presence of queerness exists, always existed, in Black social life, and that Black queer people were always part of Black sacred communities and its practices.
What can we make of this loss? And how should the Black church sit with this when considering its future?
To reckon with this history is to consider what is allowable at any moment, what we are willing to misremember, to forget, who we are willing to shun, to exclude. We must ask how the Black church can today move forward with honesty, integrity, love.
I talk not about doctrine nor theology. I refuse to debate about the meanings of passages found in Leviticus or Romans or I Corinthians, the meanings of Hebrew or Greek words or turns of phrase. These debates are a worthy pursuit for biblical criticism or theology, but I want to talk about how it feels to feel rejected by the Black church.
These same churches gave so many of us space to cultivate gifts and talents like public speaking and learning music. So many of us were asked to perform at events, praised for good report cards or for trying new things. In these churches, we were given succor for living and breathing to resist and reject racist ideas about and against our humanity.
So the castigation and exclusion of so many of us feels jarring. Heartbreak precisely because these are dense and beautiful Black worlds of tenderness.
The historic Black church in the United States, composed of various denominations and theological orientations — though in their positions most seem to agree that affirming queer life is beyond the limit of possibility — is often noted for its foundational liberation practices. Laypeople and preachers broke with the philosophical and theological foundations for enslavement of Black people, the idea that we were and are abominable.
This freedom impulse was created against the biblical text that enslavers used to justify theft of flesh and forced servitude. They rejected the gods of exclusion and violence, and found deities and prophets, like Jesus, whom they called friend. They brought into existence the imagined alternative, a different ethic, a critical practice of living.
We who practice queerness in Blackness are sacred and holy, and we use imagination to press beyond limits. Like the Black spiritual practices from which the Black church emerged that birthed us, we recognize imagination is neither silly nor frivolous but serious work that must be cultivated. White supremacy, Toni Morrison taught, desires to interrupt and distract, desires to get in the way of imagination. Black queer folks imagine alternatives to the dominant, and always violent, social order. We imagine “otherwise possibility.” Imagination, like what Audre Lorde said of poetry, is not a luxury.
Consider the beauty created in exclusion: the houses in ball culture for the disaffected and dislocated kids, including many from churches, to care for the excluded, as shown in television shows like “Pose”; the contributions to fashion, dance, arts and education; the openly Black queer pastors and preachers creating more just paths to practice spirituality like Bishop Yvette Flunder and Archbishop Carl Bean, the Rev. Lynice Pinkard. If all this beauty is created in exclusion, what could we be if we were free?
I incorporate lots of the song, musicianship and dance that I learned in church in my writing, as well as my sound and visual art practices. But I have not been a member of a church in the historic Black church or any tradition for many years. Since preaching a sermon, which would be my last, at Atlanta’s Metro State Prison for women in 2005 as a student chaplain, agnosticism has been my spiritual path. The doctrine about queerness as sinful initiated my journey outside the Church. But the distance also gave me an appreciation for what I was able to glean there and how to attempt a joyful and loving critique.
The Black church has to become what it has already been, a place that reimagines relationships, a place that celebrates and cultivates difference, a place of refuge. The future of the Black church depends on learning from queer folks how to unsettle seemingly settled concepts — like what is gender, and what is the range of gender identities available — and how to remain in the posture of questioning.
At its best, the Black church is and must continue to be a space of experimentation that places the care of Black flesh as its primary operation. It, thus, can serve as an example to various worlds of how to be together in difference. But we must reach for the past to realize a different, more just, inclusive future. And perhaps then maybe we can honor the many that we lost and produce a rupture toward an alternative future, an otherwise future, a reckoned future.
Ashon Crawley is a writer, visual and sound artist, and an associate professor of religious studies and African American and African studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of “The Lonely Letters” and “Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility.” He is at work on a book and a short story collection, both about the Hammond B-3 organ, the Black church and sexuality. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram.