Required Reading: The “Gospel Homosexual”

Just like all people, many Fundamentalist Americans can be a lot of things at the same time.  At Religion Dispatches, Douglas Harrison interviews Anthony Heilbut about people who live with seemingly irreconcilable contradictions: African American, conservative Christian, and homosexual, all at once.  And often without feeling the conflict.  How do they do it?

Heilbut describes his recent book, The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations.  One of his themes is the persistent tradition of “gospel homosexuals.”  Heilbut says in this tradition, homosexuals have long had an influential role.  Often called “the children,” they experienced an intensely ambiguous role as singers, musicians, and fans.

On the one hand, “the children” endured or even participated in an increasingly rabid anti-homosexual theology and culture in the black church.  On the other, they pushed for acceptance–albeit in a very different way than many other post-Stonewall gay-rights activists.

Heilbut wants to crack the anti-gay code, both to prevent more ruined lives and to promote better music.  As he told Harrison,

“What I want to say to all of these people from all denominations—and we know that homophobia is allowed in all the churches—is: where would religious art be without gay men? You wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel. You wouldn’t have The Last Supper. You wouldn’t have “Ave Maria.” Most likely you wouldn’t have the “Hallelujah Chorus,” because we seem to think Handel was gay.”   

The story, as Heilbut tells it, is not a happy one.  His gospel homosexuals lived tortured, even persecuted lives.  “You must remember,” he concludes,

 “that I’m really very angry. I really want to be literate and literary, but I’m really furious. Probably the most daring thing I say in the book is when I compare [the gospel church to] the Taliban, and then I say, thinking of all the ruined gay lives, this really is the number that no man can number.”

It would be hard to imagine a group of people more exposed to the destructions of America’s culture wars than this.  Forced to negotiate between seemingly irreconcilable cultural identities, some members of this contested group made some of the greatest contributions to gospel music.  More than that, Heilbut implies that other gay African Americans, such as James Baldwin and George Washington Carver, found themselves propelled by these ambiguities to excel in literature or science, too.

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