Gospel music in the key of queer

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A woman of color is standing by a lake, playing a guitar and singing.
(Photo by Norbert Gaßner)

Every Black History Month, there is always a tribute to the Black church and its gospel music. The contribution of LGBTQ singers to the canon of gospel music, however, is never front and center in celebration of its history. Every churchgoer, straight and gay, knows the inimitable style and flair LGBTQ singers bring, which have long been part and parcel of gospel music. Moreover, what would gospel music be without the boys in the choir loft and gay church musicians?

There is an undeniable queerness to gospel music, a particular interpretation, and expressiveness by LGBTQs, churched and unchurched. As repressive as the Black church is around openly LGBTQs, many of us nonetheless are drawn to its gospel music.

“It’s Black folks’ prayer and lamentation. It’s our language and expression as a people that cannot be taken away. It speaks to times of great joy and sorrow. It mirrors my breath and the beating of my heart. It is soul-stirring, and a meditation with your spirit with whoever and whatever is your God,” Gary Bailey waxed poetically.

Bailey is a professor of practice and assistant dean for community engagement and social justice at Simmons School of Social Work and is a member of Union United Methodist Church, the first “open and affirming” Black church in New England. 

The Black church applauds its LGBTQ congregants in the choir pews yet excoriates us from the pulpits. It pimps our talent yet damns our souls with the theological qualifier of “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Our connections and contributions to the larger Black religious cosmos are desecrated every time homophobic pronouncements go unchecked in these holy places of worship. However, our pull to gospel music is seen as a calling, a distinctive gift to the church, and an expression of queer pain and hardship. Both Evans, former vice president of Cape Cod Pride, and his spouse, Paul Glass is program coordinator for the LGBT Elders of Color at the MAC.

For Charles Evans, “Gospel music is tied to suffering, black suffering, and certainly black gay suffering. It communicates our trials and tribulations through song that a better day will come.” Both Evans, former vice president of Cape Cod Pride, and his spouse, are program coordinators for the LGBT Elders of Color at the MAC.

Donell Patterson told me his “entire life has been gospel music,” and he has the resume to prove it. Patterson is chair of the Gospel Music department in New England Conservatory’s School of Preparatory and conducts three renowned gospel choirs in the Boston area. Patterson has observed through the years that some Black church denominations are queerer than others. “Those denominations are more open to gays without announcing it, because of its liturgy and organizational structure, like Pentecostal churches,” Patterson shared.

The Church of God in Christ (COGIC) is the largest Black and Pentecostal church in the United States. Many of the gospel music industry mega-stars are from COGIC. The church, however, is conflicted with itself. These Black gay male mega-stars are always forced to go back into the closet, publicly denouncing their sexual orientation at the church’s annual convocation.

Toxic masculinity contributed to the early years of AIDS, ravaging the gospel industry. The effects of AIDS were widely discussed but rarely publicly acknowledged until the death of James Cleveland, the King of Gospel, in 1991. Cleveland was influential in bringing gay men into the industry. He was a fixture at gay parties in cities he toured, and it was an open secret. However, the most devastating news following Cleveland’s death was when a male member of Cleveland’s choir sued his estate, alleging he contracted HIV during their five-year sexual relationship.

Homophobia and hypermasculinity are rebuked by many openly gay men in gospel music. They see it as a complex welcome space, allowing enough wiggle room to be themselves. “Gospel music allows you to emote where you can be openly expressive in public with your emotions that you can’t be with your sexuality. In gospel music, you don’t have to suppress either,” Glass states. “Women and gay men can allow the music to take them where heterosexual men cannot go.”

For me, gospel music is an embodied musical extravaganza. It reminds me that our bodies are our temples, housing the most sacred and scariest truth about us: our sexuality. Through gospel music, I learned that sexuality is an essential part of being human. It is an expression of who we are, a language, and a means to communicate our spiritual need for intimate communion-human and divine. When we embrace the Christian mind-body dualism, we lose our bodies, sexualities, and spirit.

Gospel music helps me not to forget that our sexuality is a spiritual site of revelation, an intimation of the holy unavailable in any other experience, and a source of our capacity for transcendence. However, the church and school truncate that ability to experience an embodied spirituality and homophobic peers.

Gospel music is theater and dramatics rolled up in song. With its overtly gay overtones, gospel music is in the DNA of both Black sacred and secular cultures. It cannot be overlooked in its influence in Aretha’s songs, Little Richard’s flamboyant performances, Alvin Ailey’s signature dance piece “Revelations,” or the public fire and brimstone exhortations of James Baldwin, whether at the pulpit or in his writings. “You can’t listen to them and not hear the gospel influence or hear the music of the church in them,” Bailey stated. “And, as for Black gay men, well, it allows us to be peacocks with our multicolored feathers on display.”