“But the sacred constructions of silence are futile exercises in denial. We will not go away with our issues of sexuality. We are coming home.” —Essex Hemphill
Can we talk? Good. This conversation couldn’t come at a better time, given the fact that this is our religion and faith issue. Like many of you, I have deep ties to Christianity. Throughout my life, my faith has been a source of both comfort and spiritual anguish that has carried me over insurmountable odds while simultaneously threatening to extinguish my light. It is in the church where I first received the conflicting message that Jesus’ inevitable condemnation of my soul as someone who embraces his God-given sexual orientation was indeed an act of a loving and merciful God.
I struggled for years with the idea that my innate desire to love another man and share in community with other LGBT people would separate me from God. I somehow managed to escape the relentless shame experienced by so many LGBT people of faith as a result of the spiritually violent sermons and homophobic interpretations of scripture that have become all too familiar in houses of worship. It’s a miracle that I haven’t completely rejected the church and its teachings, which happen to be at the center of my experience as a black gay/same-gender loving man in America.
Unfortunately, everyone isn’t so lucky.
I was reminded of that fact recently when shame, trauma and (internalized) homophobia showed up in my email inbox. For the record: my sexual orientation, like my race, is part of my identity. The quickest way to dishonor me is to tell only the part of my story that a homophobic culture deems acceptable.
For many Christians, whose devotion to Hell stands in tandem with their belief in Heaven, the closet has become a sanctuary in life for many LGBT folks and an instruction manual for those we leave behind on how our lives are to be memorialized in death.
I must have missed the memo that said it was our duty as gay people to take on the negative connations historically associated with the word “gay” or to elevate other perceived positive attributes to win in the game of respectability politics. I must have missed the memo that said by hiding and cowering in fear, we would endear ourselves to those who are intent on hating and questioning the authenticity of our truth. And I definitely missed the memo that said by naming these things, as they are, that our lives become less valuable or less sympathetic or our legacies diminished in the face of unthinkable tragedy.
Let me be clear: the playing field is not even, and I loathe the fact that as LGBT people we are constantly living in a state of coming out; constantly having to defend our humanity to those who hate us, to those who profess to love us, and even to ourselves. It’s a cultural issue that I believe many of us have yet to even begin to unpack. Doing so would require us to view our sexual orientation and any public identifier as simply the truth, an aspect of our identity to be celebrated and not hidden. But that would also require us to relinquish the stronghold that toxic theology has over our lives, which doesn’t happen overnight. It is without a doubt a process.
We must begin to do the work. I recognize that there is much untreated trauma in our community, specifically among LGBT people of color, and it pains me. We cloak ourselves in religion and church traditions, but when the service is over and the euphoric high of worship has ended, we’re still left to grapple with the truth about who we are. To quote Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.” Those who would withhold love and respect and insist on us living in a closet of secrecy and shame do not deserve to experience the beautifully complex person God has designed. Their love may be conditional, but all bets must be off when it comes to loving and accepting the fullness of you.