Tough trifecta: Black, gay and Christian in Memphis

The Commercial Appeal | by Samamtha Bryson | 09/23/12


Felicia Oglesby (center) applauds a community comment speaker about adding a sexual orientation amendment to the Memphis nondiscrimination clause at the Memphis City Council meeting on Tuesday.

Felicia Oglesby sat in her car outside the church and wept.

“I didn’t know if these people were going to kick us out of their church, so we sat in the parking lot and cried,” she said. “We honestly didn’t know, and there was nobody we could call and ask. So we never went in.”

The panic drove her to tears, so her wife Lorna drove them home.

Before she moved from Orlando to Memphis in 2009, attending church had been a much-loved, sometimes twice-weekly ritual for the woman who enthusiastically describes herself as black, married, lesbian and Christian.

There were no open and affirming black churches, Oglesby said, and few other black people at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

“Our souls are starving,” Oglesby said three years and six churches later, having yet to find a place to call home.

And she wasn’t just talking about the starving souls of herself and her wife, who she legally married in Boston in 2009. She was talking about black, gay people of faith in what is arguably one of the most churched cities in America.

“People are so far in their closets in the African American community,” Oglesby said. “They’re not themselves in church.”

But that doesn’t mean they’re not in church — it just means they often choose to abide by the unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that is pervasive within Memphis’s black LGBT community.

“You’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders, because what are you supposed to do?” Oglesby asked. “You have to disappoint big mama and mama and tell them that you’re the villain the pastor told you about. So you chose not to deal with that.”

In Memphis, the issue reached a kind of fever pitch leading up to the Memphis City Council’s decision Tuesday to add sexual orientation to a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance. Ever since President Obama became the first sitting president to endorse gay marriage in May, many of the city’s leading black pastors have come together not only to condemned gay marriage, but also implied that the issue could put their support for Obama on shaky ground during this year’s election. From full page newspaper ads, to news conferences, to roadside rallies, people on both sides of the issue are doing whatever it takes to make themselves heard.

It’s just that most of those people are white, said Minister Davon Clemons, noting a scarcity of black pastors at Tuesday’s council meeting. Or at least the ministers who openly support gay marriage in Memphis tend to be.

While such pressures transcend race, class and even the blurred boundaries of gender, statistics consistently show that African Americans, particularly protestants, have opposed gay marriage more strongly than almost any other demographic in America over the last ten years.

Nationally, public opinion has slowly shifted in favor of legalizing gay marriage, from 35 percent in 2001 to 48 percent in 2012. But among black protestants, the number has climbed only five percent over the same period, currently resting at 35 percent, according to the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life.

“The movement for marriage of same sex couples has been as rapid if not more rapid than any other social movement in history,” said Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. “That change isn’t even in throughout the country. There’s still substantial differences in the more socially conservative parts of the country like the deep south.”

Despite popular perceptions, the number of black and Caucasian LGBT people in America is about the same, according to Gates, who specializes in demographic studies of the LGBT community. He said there is no academic research to support the assumption that sexual orientation varies by race, or by region. It’s a matter of visibility, he said, and the role of the church often being “a more important part of the broader social life of the community.”

“It could very well be that African Americans, in those contexts, are much less visible than their white LGBT counterparts,” Gates said.

What Gates has observed through academic research, Rev. Sonia Louden Walker of First Congregational Church, has noted playing out in Memphis churches for some time.

“Of course not all white people are out,” said Walker, whose church is one of the largest gay-friendly churches in the city. “In the African American community, people seem to be less willing to be disclosing because the consequences are so much greater within their families and churches. Family and religion were all we had for such a long time.”

Of the roughly 1,500 churches in Memphis there are ten that explicitly advertise themselves as gay-friendly — meaning the church has no doctrinal issues with homosexuality — on a website that lists open and affirming churches by city and state. Many others use a more subtle tactic, by touting phrases such as “all are welcome,” but avoid the issue from the pulpit.

Often the loudest religious voices in Memphis — the ones on television, the ones who take out newspaper ads, the ones who shepherd quadruple-digit flocks — are, however, clear about their stance on homosexuality.

World Overcomers Church, lead by Apostle Alton Williams, issued a “loving admonition for homosexuals to obey God’s commandments before experiencing spiritual, physical, emotional and eternal consequences,” in a newspaper ad several years ago. Earlier this month, Williams’ church purchased another full page ad, this time focusing not on the morality of homosexual behavior, but on the “persecution, discrimination, and silencing of Bible-believing Christians” as a result of the increasingly vocal gay-rights movement.

Williams could not be reached, but there is no shortage of pastors willing to speak out on the subject.

“From a Biblical principle, I’m not for it,” said Dwight Montgomery, pastor of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church, stressing that he does not support gay bashing from the pulpit. “I have a four year-old grandson, and I want him to like girls like his daddy,” Montgomery said.

He opened his King James Bible to Genesis and said that with the creation of man and woman, God made his will pretty clear. “I talk to God quite a bit,” Montgomery said, “and you’d think if He was going to change the rules up on us He’d have at least sent me an email or something.”

Most black pastors, to Montgomery’s knowledge, share his view of homosexuality as unnatural and counter to Biblical teachings, and despite President Obama’s declaration of support for gay marriage in May, he has “not seen a wave of black pastors speaking on behalf of same sex marriage.”

In fact, Obama’s change of heart so offended William Owens, founder of the Memphis-based Coalition of African American Pastors (CAAP), that he has been on a highly publicized national crusade to condemn it ever since.

On Thursday, CAAP announced the start of its Swing State Marriage Tour — which will include Representative John Deberry, who is also a Church of Christ minister, as well as other political and religious leaders — to warn Obama not to “leave out black Christians.”

Bishop David Allen Hall of the Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis recently appeared alongside Owens at a press conference at the Democratic National Convention “asking Christians to stand together to stop the incursion of the homosexual agenda in our society and upon our churches.”

Pastors from the Baptist and Church of God in Christ denominations have been among the more vocal opponents of local pro-gay legislation in Memphis. In 2007, members of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association protested the addition of sexual orientation to a federal hate crimes law and have been at the forefront of the opposition to its inclusion in city and county nondiscrimination ordinances.

Floridia Jackson is the manager of Caritas Village in Bingampton, as well as a preacher in her own right and a fixture in the LGBT community. Caritas Village is one of the few places in the city where displayed affection between same sex couples isn’t simply tolerated, Jackson said, it is welcomed and encouraged.

“The black church itself is God to a lot of people,” Jackson said. It’s often through the church, she added, that a kid might learn how to interview for a job, or that someone who’s out of work might hear about an opening.”You have to know what’s attached to people who are still in these places: their jobs, their livelihoods — and I need to say this as well — their sanity,” Jackson said. “When you start unplugging connections, they lose who they are.”

The reasons for such palpable silence within the black gay community are as varied as its members. A man named Greg said that, in Memphis, being a black man who also is gay means starting out with two strikes against you. For Dennis, its just hard to ignore a culture pressure to be macho. Kenneth said that everyone knows — at work, at church, at home — but as long as no one talks about it, life can go on as usual.

“In the black church, you can be gay and in the choir — but that’s it,” said Clemons, who is part of a newly formed group called Clergy Defending Rights for All.

Bishop Hall said pastors who openly welcome gays and lesbians to their churches have capitulated to cultural pressures, whereas Clemons said that pastors who don’t are hypocrites.

Since Tennessee is one of 29 states whose law does not preclude employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, the risks of coming out can extend far beyond the emotional. Former Belmont University soccer coach Lisa Howe was fired in 2010 after informing the school’s administration that she and her partner were expecting a child.

In 2008, a transgender woman named Duanna Johnson was beaten by a Memphis police officer in front of security cameras, and then several months later was found shot to death — an extreme reminder of what keeps some closet doors tightly shut.

For those who insist on living openly, there is a tendency to drift away from church, says Virginia Awkward, whose wedding was featured on the TLC reality show Police Women of Memphis.

“A lot of us are staying at home, and reading the Word ourselves,” she said.

Darnell Gooch, pastor of Cathedral of Praise Church of Memphis, decided to found his now six-week old church in hopes that it would address the experience that people like Awkward have had and, offering an alternative to those who have “lost touch with God and with the church,” because of its stance on homosexuality.

Oglesby managed to get a small group together for a Bible study called The Stone in 2010, but so many people were warning her about the protesters that would gather outside her house if word got out that she started having panic attacks.

“It has been white churches in Memphis who have welcomed black gay people openly … but can I holler hallelujah when I get there?” Jackson said. “We haven’t found familiar spaces where we can be ourselves and clap. Because even though it’s welcoming, it’s a sleepover. It’s not home. It’s not that same feeling.”

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