Gay choir directors 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' in black church

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“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as we know it was introduced in the early 1990s when President Bill Clinton presented the policy as a “compromise” in the debate over whether gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women should be allowed to serve openly in the armed services.

If an individual was believed or found out to be same-gender-loving they were given immunity from being barred from the military. However, those who were openly gay were barred from joining the military.

Long before Clinton’s time, the same issue was alive and well within the black church, said Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, professor of Homiletics and director of Black Church Studies at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA. And it began not long after integration.

Prior to integration, during, say, the Harlem Renaissance, a person’s sexual identity was not an issue, Fry Brown said.

“That was what you did and who you were,” she said. “But the more we identified with other cultures, the more we would step on one another. We became so mind-alteringly obsessed with others’ sexuality. It made us turn on one another.”

At one time, the black church was the home of unity, love, and acceptance. It was the black church that served as the home of the civil rights movement. It was the black church that helped strengthen the black community. But then the obsession with sexuality made its way into the church — thanks to the influence of some conservative capital.

Who a person slept with and how they lived became a cause of critique — that is, except when it came to the choir director or minister of music, in many cases.

The minister of music is a coveted position, said Rev. Charles E. Collins, Jr., a Baptist preacher from Chicago who is now an associate minister Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, GA.

“You don’t talk about him or her, but particularly him, at least until you leave the church house and only in passing,” said Collins. “The ‘mothers’ protect that one, the preachers depend on him and the church, well they live for his music. So they excuse him and love on him while everyone else is an open target.”

Growing up with a mother who was a choir director in Kansas City, Fry Brown said the main critiques of the choir director were that he, or she, was either sleeping with all the women in the church (if they were a man), or was gay or living with their mother.

No one talked about the sexual identity of the choir directors then, but everyone knew about them. Labels like, “He’s special” or “She’s special” were always placed upon the director. But that was as far as it went.

“It is because of the importance of their role in the worship experience,” Collins said of choir directors. “It is because of the pure benefit that these men and women bring to the church. They are creative; gifted, and I dare to say…anointed at the highest level. They add to the religious experience. And when done with excellence, as many of these folk are capable of achieving, the church experience comes alive.”

“Showstoppers” is how Philip David Hill, minister of music of the Victory Church in Stone Mountain, GA, describes many choir directors in the black church.

“It seems as though the most talented singers in the church, the most talented musicians in the church just happen to be gay,” he said. “I don’t know why that is. People go where they are most talented. It just is what it is.”

Hill said it is not a matter of trying to hide the fact that these individuals are gay. It just is not talked about.

But is it okay that their sexual identity not be addressed?

“This behavior is indicative of the ‘Black Church’ experience. We are a community of people that remain silent on these very important issues,” Collins said. “We can’t get beyond the conversation or even the idea of sex…to talk about healthy sexual relationships, interactions, or even human sexuality. Therefore, the blind eye becomes the proper place for the assumed and sometimes even outwardly stated sexual ‘orientation’ of our musicians; in particularly our minister of music.”

Fry Brown considers it an issue of integrity on the part of the pastor. She calls it a form of dehumanization. When she was entering ministry, she was told she could be a minister, but as a woman, could not cry because crying was seen as a sign of weakness. It was like asking her to not be who she was.

The same is being asked of individuals who are asked to hide their sexuality, she said.

“You want them to lead your choirs, entertain you every Sunday, but they have to hold back a portion of who they are,” Fry Brown said. “As long as you are making money for the church, they don’t care what you do as long as you don’t self identify.”

So why do the choir directors and/or ministers of music do it? Not necessarily for the money and their livelihood, but because alienation outweighs accountability, Fry Brown said.

“Love is one of our basic human needs; it is critical,” she said. “It is at the core of our humanity. When there’s a threat that love will be withheld, then we will be who we have to be to keep from losing that love.”

And while it is an issue that needs to be dealt with, it is not safe to say that this goes on in every black church, said Fry Brown. Geography and denomination are major factors in whether or not a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is present.

But turning our heads is no longer the solution.

“Once we accept gay people for who and what they are, the better off we will be,” Hill said.

Fry Brown agrees. Her solution?

“Let’s affirm folks. Let’s live, however we live,” she said. “And let’s affirm folks.”