Anyone who is an avid follower of the news and social media is well aware of the storm that has erupted around Kim Burrell and the controversial statements she has made in regard to gays and lesbians. On December 30, Burrell, who is a pastor at the Love & Liberty Fellowship Church in Houston, delivered a scorching denunciation of the LGBTQ community for what she saw as the “perverted and immoral” lifestyle and values that members of gay men and women engaged in. Burrell also threw some drive by shade on pastor Eddie Long, who is currently battling illness, referring to him as a hypocrite who had disgraced the larger religious community. Not surprisingly, reaction was and has been intense and swift. People from across the entertainment community have weighed in on the controversy. Many have taken Burrell to task for what they see as her hateful and callous comments.
Octavia Spencer, Questlove, Janelle Monáe, Pharrell Williams, Yolanda Adams, and Chaka Khan are among those who argue that the statements were unacceptable, uncalled for and had no place in the mindset of people who refer to themselves as Christians. In addition to being disinvited from appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Burrell’s own radio show — Bridging the Gap — has been canceled. Shirley Caesar, the godmother of female gospel singers, has been one the few public figures who has come to the defense of the embattled singer. The Black bloggersphere has been awash in posts on the subject, with many employing quotes from the Bible as they came to the defense of Burrell while many others decried what they saw as her ignorance and insensitivity.
For her part , Burrell has stood her ground, refused to apologize, and has argued that her words had been “misconstrued” and taken out of context. While Burrell is certainly not the first and undoubtedly will not be the last public figure who has landed in hot water for espousing intolerant views about a specific group of people, she has added her undeniably controversial perspective on an issue that has been an ongoing source of contention within the Black community — homophobia. There is no doubt that many Black people — especially over age 35 — have attended a church service in which the pastor has made direct, if not outright, hostile comments about gay people. Immoral, sinful, perverted, and unchristian are just a few of the likely words that come roaring out of his or her mouth. The book of Leviticus gets referred to, dissected and recited in depth. To be sure, there are Black pastors that have taken a minimal or even neutral stance on the issue. However, they are few and far between. The same holds true for the Black community.
The fact is that large segments of our community harbor deep and passionate viewpoints on gay and lesbians. At barbershops, beauty shops, on the basketball court, at grandma’s house on the holidays with anti-gay relatives, and other places where Black folk tend to congregate, the topic of homosexuality is bound to come up. More often than not, the sentiment — particularly among Black people, let’s say, over age 45 — is negative, or at the very least, ambivalent. For myself, such a mindset is perplexing, given the fact Black gays and lesbians have made significant contributions to our community, especially in the Black church. In fact, it used to be common narrative among many Black folk that, if it were not for women and gay Black men, the churches would have been extinct a long time ago. From the choir director, choir members, piano player, ushers, congregation members, and, in some cases, the pastor himself or herself, gay and lesbians have always been actively involved in the religious community, even if not always visible. Something tells me that Kim Burrell and many others know is to be the case.
Religion aside, from James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, June Jordan, and many others who are still alive, the LGBTQ community has been an integral and vibrant part of the Black community. Imagine the void that would be left in the Black intellectual and cultural sphere without several or all of the aforementioned individuals. In fact, as quiet as it is kept, the reason why certain segments of the Black community have been either reluctant or outright refused to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is due to the sexuality of several of its founding members. While not as pronounced as it has been in the past, especially among Black millennials, the perception among many Black people is that homosexuality and lesbianism are largely a “White people’s thing” and that only the supposedly few Black people who do embrace or engage in such a lifestyle are freaks, social deviants, or emulating the White man or woman.
Due to such denial and, in some cases, outright hypocrisy, we have seen enormously troubling rates of HIV, AIDS and another venereal diseases ravage parts of our community. This is due to the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters who fall into this category do not feel that they can be their true selves. Thus, they have to live a life filled with hypocrisy and facades, participating in sham marriages, sheltering, disguising and obscuring their sexuality in secret shadows or on the down low in some cases, denouncing themselves, and living in a quandary of self-hatred. For many in the Black community, our attitudes and dispositions toward sexuality is draconian, antiquated, outmoded, stagnating and, in some cases, killing us. Sexuality is an issue that we as a community need get woke about, get out of denial, keep it real, and begin to speak truth to power with unabashed candor. Our potential survival and ability to move forward may depend on being able to do so.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.