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Sexuality and spirituality have long been seen as two opposing forces in the black church. Add into the mix sexual orientation and you’ve got an explosive concoction of emotions, dogma, intolerance and misunderstanding; leaving behind the rubble of pain, dissension – and in many cases even disease.
For longer than anyone can remember, the black church has been a symbol of safety; a trusted space for African Americans to experience community, express spirituality and cultivate family. The church has also been a cornerstone for justice and social change, providing a sturdy support system for community action. Its faith-based platform has raised iconic leaders, speakers, musicians, politicians, entrepreneurs and activists that have enhanced the black experience in the United States and the world.
From tongue-speaking, tambourine-slapping holiness churches tucked into blighted street corners to the Jumbotron-hanging, iPad-accommodating mega movements, the black church continues to be a primary source of consistently positive affirmation and guidance for the community. Studies have shown that African Americans are more likely to report a formal religious affiliation when compared to other populations.
While the traditional black church has provided an incredibly stable source of support for most of its members, it is still struggling to meet the challenge of offering inclusivity and acceptance for people who identify as LGBT.
Raphael Coleman, 24, is a candidate in the Master of Public Health program at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. As a self-identified black, gay man who was raised in a faith-based environment and a student of human sexuality, Coleman’s thesis is a collective study of 13 black men titled, “Religious Socialization: Its Impact on the Sexual Behavioral Development of Black Men who Have Sex with Men in Emerging Adulthood.”
Raphael sat down with me to talk about his experiences being black, gay, Southern, Christian, and his public health thesis. Raphael has volunteered with several community-based organizations serving black MSM (men who have sex with men) as a mentor and organizer. Coleman also shared a few thoughts about how the black church can work toward inclusivity and join the fight in reducing the community’s burden of HIV.
Pierre: “Is it [homosexuality] really an alternative sexual behavior, or is it part of the scope of human sexuality and how we [human beings] express ourselves?”
Coleman: “Why I say alternative sexual behaviors is [because] behavioral scientists see them as alternative, but heterosexual people also partake in things like anal sex. It [homosexuality] is a part of the scope of human sexuality. By normalizing the so called ‘alternative sexual behaviors’ as acceptable forms of expressing human sexuality, we can actually address it in such a way that we can make sure people protect themselves when they are having sex in general.”
Pierre: “So take ‘alternative’ out of our language?”
Coleman: “Yes, and start [educating] as early as possible. I’ve studied human sexuality very extensively and I do know that we start developing sexually very early. We start getting sexual health education after we have developed so much sexually, and we don’t know what’s going on.”
Pierre: “Talk to me a little about what the church represented in the lives of the gay and bisexual men you interviewed.”
Coleman: “A lot of people in my study saw the church as their primary support system – their sole support system. The church was also their family. Their families were still involved in the church. They [the family] gave them all the information regarding their health and development – it was a sole authority in their lives. At many times, it was incongruent with what they were feeling internally. We need to find a way to address this discordance before people reach adulthood.”
Pierre: “Because that’s the time when we build these towers that take so much work to tear down?”
Being nearly buried alive in a culture of loud silence, people who are homosexual serve in traditional black churches from the pulpit to the parking lot – whether noticeable or not. The unspoken gag order that exists between a congregation’s heterosexual and homosexual, bisexual and transgender parishioners has set the stage for a scenario where the church is at best cordial, but intentionally not connected to the reality of diversity in human sexuality.
In more extreme scenarios, many black churches have been accused of selling mud sandwiches – using select biblical passages as endorsement for demonizing parishioners (of all ages) who are homosexual, conveniently failing to objectively examine the applicable historical, cultural or hermeneutical context of these scriptures. This home-grown brand of biblical literalism frames same-gender relationships and attraction as a sexually deviant act, opposed to a legitimate sexual orientation.
In 2010, black people saw almost eight times as many new HIV infections as whites, and 51% of all new infections among MSM were black
It has become clear that many black churches are now reluctantly delivering messages about sex, but only those which are relevant to people who are heterosexual. Under religious skies, there appears to be some heavy clouds of misconception drenched in denial, raining down the notion that there are no homosexual people – only heterosexual people who are “sinning.” Other than magical assimilation to heterosexual norms by way of altar calls and olive oil, traditional black churches have yet to offer their gay population any intentional form of affirmation or support which encourages healthy, productive living.
Young black MSM (men who have sex with men) between the ages of 13 and 29 saw a 48% increase in HIV infections between 2006 and 2009
If the trend in this study which shows early church influence as having the potential to impact sexual decisions made during adolescence holds true abroad, then failing to educate youth about risk factors related to their sexual orientation is a missed opportunity. Information gathered in Raphael Coleman’s study indicated that the messages about human relationships and sexuality delivered by black churches were “sex negative” and presented exclusively from a heterosexual point of view. Coleman’s study also noted that the primary message about sex and relationships is one of abstinence until marriage, which often results in fewer sexual partners, consistent condom use and delayed coital debut – between people who are heterosexual.
10 of the 13 men (76.9%) were single
5 of the 13 men (38.4%) were currently members of a church
The median age of sexual debut was 15.82
The number of sexual partners in the past 90 days was 1.92
The following are statements from interviewed participants of Coleman’s thesis project:
Subject (1): “They never, they never, or if they did talk about sex it was always related to you know heterosexual sex you know…don’t have sex.”
Perhaps the lack of conversation around same-gender attractions, relationships, sex, and options for protection against disease in communities of faith translates to a failure in providing the education and information necessary to prepare youth of various sexual orientations for their relationships.
Subject (2): “Like I heard the messages alright, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t feel like I was being talked to, because I knew I was gay from the start.”
Negative attitudes and messages about people who are homosexual are likely to exacerbate stigma by criminalizing homosexuality as a deviation from normality, as opposed to an extension of normality. Findings have revealed that the lack of inclusion in black churches leaves many homosexuals with life-long feelings of guilt, inadequacy and internalized homophobia – unworthy of love and acceptance from their own community as well as from their recognized higher power.
Subject (3): “I rebelled for me, for my own benefit, because I wanted to find out what was so wrong with homosexuality. No one was talking.”
Religion was described by subjects as a more extrinsic concept characterized by the partaking of traditional and ritualistic practices. Because of the polarization that exists within communities of faith between sexual orientation and spirituality, being passionate about faith is seen by many black MSM as something that is precluded by their sexuality.
As a way to keep their psychological, emotional and spiritual health intact, 61.5% of the subjects chose to re-imagine their concept of spirituality in a way that maintained a belief in a higher power, but excluded church membership.
For a countless number of people, faith is an important element of their lives. It represents hope, security, moral accountability and inspiration – and many embrace the right to own it, regardless of their sexual identity.
There are an increasing number of nontraditional churches that are inclusive of the LGBT population. These faith environments provide healthy soil for restoring the passion for faith that is often diminished by deep-seeded feelings of guilt and shame of one’s sexual orientation. In affirming churches, the LGBT community can be seen fully embracing the principles of their faith, free from the pressure of heteronormative conformity, or suppression and denial of their sexual orientation.
Coleman on Being Proud of Sexuality:
“Being proud of my sexuality means knowing that I’m normal, I’m worthy of living, I’m worthy of being a functional individual and [having] all the success that I have attained at this point, and all the success I do aspire to have.”
Coleman on Being Proactive with Health:
“..Being proactive with health…I’ve kind of taken that a step forward, which is my inspiration for going into public health and doing public health research is to really define what’s going on in my community. Whether that be my faith community, people who share my sexual identity or people who are black – my communities. In my communities, we carry a burden for a lot of illnesses, and I wanna know why. When I get that why, I wanna be able to make an informed effort to address or fix whatever those problems are. I think by helping those around me, I’ll be helping myself as well, because I’ll be addressing all of my identities as well.”
Coleman on Being Passionate about Faith:
“I know how much the church means in [the black] community…with that, I’m not giving up on the church. One of the things I really want to do is impress upon faith leaders that do serve the black community. Getting them to step back and see where their messages are really coming from, and how the messages impact the entire congregation – not just the congregation that they choose to see.”
Coleman’s Challenges to the Faith-Based Community:
(1) Inclusive Sexual Education: Incorporating sexual information that is relevant to those who are having other forms of sex.
(2) Creating an Alternate Support System in Community: An independent program that focuses on faith-based adolescence who may not have a healthy outlet to learn about their sexual identity.
(3) Leveraging the Influence that Faith Leaders Have: Finding innovative ways to educate leaders about the diversity of sexuality and how it impacts the LGBT population.
*To learn more about HIV statistics in the United States, click here.
The Center for Black Equity, formally known as the International Federation of Black Prides, is an American institution with a global reach strongly committed to supporting leaders, institutions, issues and programs that lead to social, economic, and cultural equity for all LGBT people of African descent. www.centerforblackequity.org
 (HIV Incidence. (2012, December 19). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
HIV in the UNited States: At a Glance. (2013, February 27). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
 Hall H, S. R. R. P., & et al. (2008). Estimation of hiv incidence in the united states. JAMA, 300(5), 520-529. doi: 10.1001/jama.300.5.520