By D. Kevin McNeir
Citing the paradox that oppression and celebration co-exist in the Black church for those who are part of the LGBT community, respected scholar, author and gospel vocalist/director E. Patrick Johnson was the featured speaker at the recent program for Out at CHM: Exploring the LGBT, held at Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington, on April 6, co-sponsored by Center on Halsted.
Johnson was joined by his longtime friend Kent R. Brooks, who sang and accompanied his colleague on the piano, showcasing his abilities on the instrument. Together, the two men—who have been praising God and encouraging congregations with songs of praise and worship since their college days at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte—explored the tensions, challenges and triumphs of gay men's contributions to church music.
The audience, which numbered well over 100, was a mix of Blacks and whites; men and women; and young and old, with some clearly couples and others just friends—but all of whom appeared eager to participate in the celebratory spirit that is reflective of the Black church and its unique style of music—gospel.
'I want to introduce some of you to the proper protocol of the Black church, which, in essence, means this evening requires two-way communication,' Johnson said. 'We are a church that believes in call and response, and so I need you to shout amen, clap your hands and let your body sway to the music. And it is fitting that we are in Chicago to discuss the contributions of gays in gospel music since this city is the home of Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music.'
For the next hour, Johnson and Brooks sang solos and duet pieces that illustrated the contributions of everyone from some of gospel music's early pioneers to present-day singers. But the caveat is that all of the singers, composers, arrangers and musicians who were discussed were LGBT.
'The choir in the Black church has always been a place where gay men could show off their virtuosity while exploring their sexuality,' said Johnson. 'I was one of the church sissies who, because of my high vocal range, held the reign of choir diva until I was about 17 years old. For me and so many others like me, it was a place where we could safely express our queerness in covert ways while taking pleasure in pushing the gender limits.'
Both Johnson and Brooks emphasized that the fact that the church, even in its negative comments from the pulpit to the pews on homosexuality, still provides a safe haven for many LGBT folk in an otherwise homophobic context.
'Men can be flamboyant and use church as a guise to express both spirituality and sexuality,' Johnson said. 'It is in the choir that we [ LGBT individuals ] have found a space and a place where we are allowed to build community. However, it is difficult for a lot of people to understand why someone would remain in the church when there are homophobic sermons being preached every Sunday or when you can't really come out.
'Those who are familiar with life in the Black church know that we are raised in this paradox; the church is a place we have known since the womb and, so, it is our first cultural experience in the Black community. And it is so much a fundamental part of our lives that even though we are in a place that is often very inhospitable to those who are LGBT, we remain, finding ways to exist within it.'
Johnson talked about the recent phenomenon of Black ministers, like Chicago's Rev. James Meeks, who are leading the crusade against Black LGBT people while right across the street from Meeks's Salem Baptist Church is Trinity UCC, whose pastor, Dr. Jeremiah Wright, welcomes and affirms gays and lesbians, inviting them to participate in every aspect of the church, while supporting their decision to live as they choose.
'I finally had to leave the Black church because I refused to be a part of my own oppression, but it's not that easy for others,' Johnson said. 'Other churches have begun to spring up, like the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church ... . And while you do have MCC Churches, most Blacks I know say that they don't do it for them—they are affirming but they don't have the spirit that we need as part of the Black church experience.'
Brooks talked about his brother, a flamboyant and gifted musician and. in a style reminiscent of gospel pianist and composer Richard Smallwood, offered a rendition of The Lord's Prayer that moved many in the congregation to tears.
'My brother was always accepted for who he was,' Brooks said. 'And I don't think he ever felt like he was being exploited because of his musical gifts. His church members loved him and loved the way he shared his gift with them. That's what it's all about.'
Johnson, who is a professor at Northwestern University in the department of performance studies and African-American studies, focuses on issues of sexuality, gender, race and class. His forthcoming book, Sweet Tea: An Oral History of Black Gay Men of the South, is expected to be released in the fall.