For months, I was perplexed and baffled by Little Richard’s comments, where he seemingly both attacked gays as “unnatural” and rejected his gay identity after admitting to numerous gay experiences decades ago. While the reaction from the LGBT community was justified, I was left with the nagging question of “Why?” Why did he turn on the gay community now? And why attack the queer community when society is far more accepting than it was in the 1950’s?
While I don’t know Little Richard personally, and I’m by no means an expert on his life, I spent some time reflecting on why he might have lashed out the way that he did.
A recent study from researchers from Coventry and Aberystwyth universities in Britain showed that gay men prefer men with muscles, and white men are overwhelmingly preferred to men of color. All of society is youth-obsessed and focuses far too much on appearance, and gays are no exception. In fact, I argue in my book Grindr Survivr that as dating apps become the primary means of gay men’s meeting and interaction, they screen out—whether unconsciously or consciously—anyone who doesn’t fit their immediate sexual desire, forfeiting great (potentially plutonic) relationships in the process. A community that holds up and celebrates only one “type” of guy is seemingly turning itself into a loose confederation of cliques, leaving many feeling isolated and alone.
Little Richard is an African-American man in his 80’s, and while I don’t excuse or condone his comments, I can’t help but wonder whether the gay community, which is rapidly changing due to dating apps, somehow made him feel unwelcomed or unsupported in recent years.
There were no doubt a myriad of reasons as to why Little Richard may have chosen to realign himself with homophobic evangelicals. Little Richard was born and reared in a Pentecostal church in Georgia. He probably believes the church helped foster many of his musical talents—as black churches have done with Nina Simone, Aretha Frankly, Whitney Houston, and Beyoncé, and so he feels grateful. He comes from a long line of preachers, and perhaps in his final years, he’s longing to “come home” to the community that supported him before he was famous. But that raises an obvious question: does Little Richard feel more welcome among a group of homophobes than he does among the wider gay community? The sad truth is that for Little Richard, the answer is probably yes, even though such acceptance comes at a high price.
This question prompted me to look for a space in the gay community where (1) everyone is genuinely welcome and (2) everyone gets to be affirmed and made to feel special—not just the hot blond guy with perfect abs. I couldn’t think of any queer establishment that I had either been to or been invited to in recent memory that offered both. Definitely not Grindr! And not a club or bar either. And let’s be honest, if you’re under 35, that’s probably where you’re going to have the majority of your gay interactions. The sad truth is our community is quite adept at fighting external threats, but we seem far less equipped to take care of the mental health and spiritual wellbeing of our own people.
There are gay people of faith, who are trying to change the way we interact with each other. And in wrestling with these issues, I decided to visit my local Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which was a church founded in the 1960’s with the express purpose affirming and supporting the LGBT community.
When I arrived, the lesbian pastor was standing outside, smoking a cigarette and greeting parishioners. I’ve never seen a reverend smoke before—not least on the steps of the church, but she was edgy and different. And her sermon pulled no punches: she spoke openly and authentically about how members of the Catholic church had tormented her for years about her own sexuality, and she told the congregation that they need to create the wherewithal to reject these hypocritical modern-day Pharisees and embrace the truth that God loves all of Their children – and yes, she used the pronoun They in stead of He as the pronoun for God. It was such a breath of fresh air to see a queer space where no one was shunned and everyone was told that they are loved. But I found myself wishing there were ways to bring this acceptance to more people in a myriad of environments, potentially outside of a religious framework, and I wish more queer leaders would find ways to create a strong sense of community, which seems to be slipping away in the age of dating apps.
Little Richard could have done this, but he chose not to, which is disheartening. Perhaps, he is just trying to reconcile his religious upbringing with his gay identity, which he views as completely in conflict. But I feel sad that he missed a great opportunity to marry his background in Pentecostal music with a progressive church like MCC. This would have created a powerful message of unity, acceptance, and spirituality that would have created a lasting legacy of affirmation for an extraordinary life. Not to mention, it would have been one hell of a show.