By now, you have no doubt read about or seen Kim Burrell’s homophobic rant, which has taken her from being a fixture in Gospel music to being a national topic for all the wrong reasons. A prodigiously gifted singer, Burrell’s gritty alto tone and instrument-like vocal runs ushered in a new style of singing in Gospel, and even earned the admiration of the late Whitney Houston. Yet, now Burrell is recognized not for her voice, but for declaring that people who are filled with the “homosexual spirit” are “perverted” and “will die from it”. Her diatribe comes after she sang on Frank Ocean’s acclaimed Blonde and agreed to a (now cancelled) appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. Ellen is lesbian, and is credited with helping bring LGBTQ rights to the national forefront. Frank, in an open letter to fans, revealed himself to be sexually fluid. So there is a glaring contradiction between her vile words and her actions. Social media, however, is dragging her for both the hypocrisy and the vileness. Yet, I am not surprised by her beliefs. Kim Burrell is one piece of a larger cultural problem.
In the black community, queer & transphobia continues to be a destructive ideological plague. In many black churches, there is a shocking juxtaposition as sermons of love and salvation are followed by scathing tirades, full of hatred and condemnation, aimed at black queer and trans people. In the Black liberation community, there are activists who fight for equality, but propagate intolerance toward black queer & trans people. This toxicity runs deep in the psyche of many in our community, making the fight for black queer & trans rights an especially difficult one. Yet, it is a battle that must be waged.
In a cinematic era where coming-of-age dramas tend to revolve around straight cisgender white couples, the 2016 film Moonlight broke ground by focusing on a distinctly-black queer experience. It was an magnetic, slow-burning character study centered on two young black men who must stifle their love because of cultural stigma, and even the threat of death. It showed an old artistic motif, "The love that cannot be," through the lens of black queer urban life. I saw it in a theater full of our people. The most heartbreaking moment, however, was not watching the characters be silently destroyed by a psychologically ingrained denial-of-self, but the moment when a scene depicting two black men physically expressing their love caused several people in the theater to leave in disgust.
You see, from a very early age many black boys and girls are taught that to be queer or trans is wrong, and that we must adhere to strict gender standards. Boys must act in a tough, stoic manner, with exaggerated machismo. They must not cry. They must walk with a militaristic gait, “put some bass in their voice," play with only action toys, and aspire to “masculine” career fields. Likewise, while girls are taught to be strong. They must lower themselves and submit to male power. They must be desirable and are sexualized at an early age to enforce the ideology that their worth lies in their sensuality. They must play with dolls, and learn to take care of the house. Most importantly, they cannot be queer or trans. These teachings follow us well into adulthood, and black queer and trans people often find themselves adjusting to the gaze of strangers so as not to set off certain alarms. While physical expressions of love are allowed for black girls, they are strictly forbidden for black boys. We must not show emotion or have prolonged physical contact. We can’t hug, cry or hold each other unless it’s after a major sports win, or a funeral. To do so might invite slurs, insults or even violence.
The irony is in the hypocrisy. Some church folk don't have a problem with queer & trans people when they're preaching a good word, singing in the choir or donating money. Yet, these same church folk teach those very same queer & trans people that they are disgusting hell-bound abominations? There’s also hypocrisy in the idea that the intolerance is rooted in adherence to scripture as out of a host of sins, only homosexuality faces the harshest judgment.
The pain is in the jagged emotional shifts. The same mothers and fathers who tenderly love their children quickly veer into emotional torture by mentally & physically forcing their children to adhere to homophobic guidelines. Unconditional love, it seems, has conditions here.
The sadness is in the fear. Black queer & trans people still find themselves curled up against the wall of “coming out," for fear that authentically living will cause them to be abandoned by those they love. They have fears of being ridiculed, beaten or even murdered.
The results of the virulent, toxic homophobia in our community are tragic.
It gives birth to a life where people have to live their truth in dark shadows. The "down-low" is a lifestyle where men and women secretly have same-gender relationships, despite sometimes even being straight relationships and having families, eventually leaving a trail of irreparable damage for those they love and within their own lives.
It gives birth to homeless young queer & trans people who are deserted by their families and cast out into the streets, stripping them of opportunity, hope and love and, forcing them to use between those they love and a part of their very being.
It gives birth to mental trauma and an increased rate of suicide in the black LGBTQ community.
Yet, it’s all born from a distorted sense of righteousness, which is actually intolerance toward anyone who doesn’t fit into a very narrow, and highly hypocritical, definition of “holiness."
The problem is not Kim Burrell. It’s the dogma and hypocrisy that she represents, which has been indoctrinated into the black church & black community for generations. It’s time for us to call it out. Too many lives are ruined or ended from hate-speech masquerading as holiness.
If black queer & trans rights & equality are not a priority for you, I charge that you are on the wrong side of history. Until the black churches that share Kim’s beliefs challenge their own hypocrisy, black liberation won’t be achieved. Until the black community questions the ignorance and hate-filled dogma that gives life to queer & trans intolerance, black liberation will not manifest.
Black liberation must include liberating ourselves from the internal chains which bind us to the primitive, allowing all Black people, of all walks of life, the right to live and love freely.