For too long, gay experience was defined by outsiders who tended to condemn rather than empathize. As reporting has become democratized and stigma has eroded, more and more people who actually live the experience—the real experts—have been able to share it. The new documentary directed by BET’s Clay Cane Holler If You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church facilitates that sort of modern sharing in interviews with several black LGBT people who have vast experience with having their identities shaped, tested, and sometimes flat-out rejected by their churches. It dismisses the notion that being gay and Christian is paradoxical and it helps explain why it’s hard for even those who feel maligned by the church have a hard time leaving it. You can watch it in its entirety here:
I talked to Clay Cane, a peer and friend of mine who’s written for Gawker before, by phone about his doc, which he filmed in May in New York and Atlanta. We discussed several of the intersectional identity issues he explores, issues that are still under-discussed and mostly misunderstood in mainstream culture. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
Gawker: Why is this subject important to you?
Clay Cane: I wanted to put the narrative in the hands of black LGBT folks in the church, because for so long, black LGBT folks have faithfully served their communities, yet they haven’t been able to speak their truth or take their rightful place in the family of God. I didn’t want to talk about the stereotypical homophobic black preacher hollering and screaming. I wanted to know: What’s the story of who’s in the church, why they stay, why some don’t stay, and where the church is going in the future.
Something that’s insane in broadcast journalism is the continued reliance on homophobes to talk about gay people and culture—the “gotta hear both sides” philosophy. You wouldn’t have a Klansman on CNN to talk about Black Lives Matter, for example, we know those people are not worth listening to. Tony Perkins, however, is still very visible. I wonder if at any point you considered talking to someone with a similar agenda as Perkins, or if in fact, not doing that was part of your statement. [Note: A homophobic perspective is represented through an interview with the mother of a gay woman who gets married in the doc.]
That was part of my statement. There were some people—not in BET—who were giving me advice, like, “Well, why don’t you have the black homophobic preacher.” I said, “Because you can Google that.” You can search that anywhere to find that perspective. There have been docs that have touched on the LGBT experience in the church, but it’s always been from the heterosexual cisgender perspective. I don’t think we’ve seen it told this way before. It was important to me to not have that. It’s damaging. It’s damaging to see the same story over and over.
Why do you think it’s important to tell a story about this particular homophobia, especially when institutional homophobia is largely a product of white people who are in power?
There’s two points to that. One, the black religious experience is much different than white churches. It’s different than even Latin churches or Asian or Native American. The black church has this history of Jim Crow, of slavery, and of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s very unique. One would have to assume that there have been black LGBT folks in the black church since the beginning. There’s that connection that makes it every specific, that intersection of race, sexuality, and faith that other churches don’t have. The other point is, and some folks might get mad that I’m saying this, I have this joke: If you want to see a whole bunch of black gay folks, just go to the black church. I wanted to know why there are so many LGBT folks there and yet there’s a prevalence of homophobia. The history of the church and the prevalence of LGBT folks is pretty unique.
The other part of it, too, is that a lot of African Americans are born and raised in the church. Just because you’re LGBT does not mean you’re going to abandon the church. It’s really where you learn how to harmonize, it’s where you first learn about prejudice, where you’re first prepared for racism. I have friends where, before this doc, I would say, “Why are you staying in this kind of environment?” They would say, “The church is my family and you don’t abandon your entire family because of one element of it.”
I was raised Catholic, and I think the entire institution is corrupt. I can’t believe my mother continues to give the church money—anti-gay stuff aside, I still think it’s a hypocritical organization that is fueled by greed and enables child molesters. It’s easy for me to turn my back on it because the only sense of identity I ever got from the church was a belief in God that I don’t subscribe to anymore. I literally have no use for the Catholic church. What you describe is a completely different thing that has a practical function, that fosters identity way beyond religion and conflicted feelings about sexuality.
That’s so crucial. It’s one of those things where black Christians, once upon a time, were told they were abominations, they were going to go to Hell and they’d hear scripture about slaves who obeyed their master. Yet, black Christians were able to reinvent that and find their own salvation. What’s interesting about the black Christian experience is that black LGBT folks are doing that today. Like, “You’re telling me I’m going to burn in Hell, you’re telling me that I’m not worthy of the kingdom of God, yet I’m finding my own way to be loved regardless of what you say.” The way that African Americans have handled faith throughout the years is fascinating, and part of that is because of the intersection of faith and race. What I’m adding here is the intersection of sexuality. It is up to anyone to decide if the church is for them or not. What I did learn is that some black LGBT folks feel judged by LGBT folks who are not in the church, who ware saying, “Get out. Leave.” It’s more complicated than that.
Some of these young folks I was talking to said they’re so happy about all the LGBT folks who are out and living their lives, but in some ways, it’s made people even angrier at them. It’s not that they wouldn’t want a Janet Mock out there or a Jason Collins or an Ellen, but they feel like there’s more visibility and there’s more of a fight, and that sometimes people forget about them. The conversation is beyond same-sex marriage. It’s beyond Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. One of the kids told me off-camera, “I’m not trying to get married. I’m trying to find a place to live. I’m trying to love myself right now.” There’s still a lot more work to do. We have visibility to some degree—not enough—but there’s still work to do for people who don’t have the same type of access.
After watching this movie, I don’t know what the answers are. Is the point that this matter is still so rarely discussed that talking about it is a crucial step toward progress?
I would say that. I’m not giving you some grand solution, but there’s one takeaway that I hope people get: Spiritual violence and theological violence is just as damaging as emotional abuse. It is just as damaging as physical abuse. If you think you’re doing things in the name of Christ, the name of “goodness,” and you’re damaging people, like Rev. Samuels says in the documentary, you’re undermining all of your rightness. What happens to a young person’s soul when they’re taught you’re an abomination? I have friends in their late 30’s, in their 40’s who are still trying to unlearn the lies they’ve been taught about themselves. I truly believe that if anything will make a shift, it won’t be stats and numbers. It will be stories.
How personal is this subject for you?
My experience is a little bit different. My mother is white and she hated religion. She grew up Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness, and she was like, “I will not have my son around that,” in Washington state. Moving to Philadelphia in my teens, it was my first real experience in the black church. I think because of my mother affirming me so much—and she knew I was gay from when I was a little, bitty boy—I felt kind of unaffected by it. The church wasn’t something for me. However, I was baptized in an Apostolic church, which is really strict.
Then when I came into my authentic self and I was dating, and I’ve dated mostly African American men, it was just sad. My ex-boyfriend, who I was with for a long time, he could just never work through spiritual violence. He just never could. One of my worst experiences happened when a friend of mine suddenly passed away and I went to his funeral and the preacher said everything short of, “This faggot’s gonna burn in Hell.” He was screaming, yelling at the casket and pointing to my friend’s dead body and saying, “He don’t have another chance; you have another chance.” So it became personal in an indirect way. If you are a black gay man—I don’t want to say all of us, but the majority of us—you, in some way have been affected by homophobia in the black church. Not all black churches, but you are in some way affected or touched by it, whether you’ve heard it, experienced it, friends, walked away from it, stayed in it, or found a way to reinvent it and still love yourself, you are affected by it.