Acclaimed gospel singer Kim Burrell recently rose to Black Twitter’s burn list when video of a homophobic church sermon emerged online. While the content of this hateful speech isn’t worth repeating, the idea that gay people aren’t worthy of God’s love and are perverse, didn’t sit well with tolerant, equality-driven people. For black members of the LGBT community, the scene of an middle-aged pastor pacing the stage, spewing homophobic rhetoric to the applause of an audience, seemed all too familiar.
If you’re black and gay, you probably have a Kim Burrell in your life. She's that elder that holds a high place in the church. She may even be a pastor, worship leader or bible study teacher. Maybe she’s known your mother for years, and is always present at dinner parties and holidays with a delicious sweet potato pie in hand. Maybe you don’t speak to her much besides the occasional sloppy kiss on the cheek as your family walks to the car after the pastor’s two-hour long sermon on a hot Sunday afternoon. You dread your interactions with her, but cannot quite figure out what makes you so uncomfortable. When she approaches you, you smile politely while subconsciously stepping behind your siblings, hoping that they’ll somehow shield you from the harsh gaze of someone who’s judging you for something you can’t control.
Photo: Praise Cleveland
The Kim Burrell in your life might be a family member. She could be the great aunt that taps on the table with her long nails, looking you up and down trying to understand why your ear is pierced, why you’re wearing “boy clothes," who your “little friend” is. She might knowingly shoot you a glance before pursing her lips and continuing to shuffle the cards for the next game of spades. She knows your secret and picks up on the subtle ways that you express your sexuality. Though rather than offer comfort or understanding, she pushes you to the mental edge through passive bigotry that makes your palms sweat and knees weak. She activates the fight or flight response in your body that eats away at your core until you want to run, be somewhere, anywhere but with her in that moment. You can’t explain to anyone why she makes you so uncomfortable, because the judgement she throws in your direction is often under the surface and hard to identify unless it’s directed towards you. So you smile, keep to yourself, and continue with the “yes ma’am, no ma’am” statements that are expected of you.
The Kim Burrell in your life might be polite. She smiles with you, celebrates your achievements, sends graduation cards stuffed with cash. She will like your Facebook posts and comment with heart eyes, while conveniently skipping over the pictures with you and your girlfriend on vacation, or you and your boyfriend at the gay pride parade. You’ll post an article surrounding gay topics and she’ll post a status five minutes later. More than likely it’ll read, “Sometimes all you can do is pray for people” or “Hoping all of my family and loved ones see the light before it’s too late! Repent! Accept Jesus! I only say this because I love you!”
I’m not salty. I have no qualms with gospel singers, with churchgoers or even with organized religion. In the words of Kevin Hart, “do you boo boo." Each individual has the right to live their life and develop a moral code through whichever means they find most appropriate.
However, there’s danger in a Kim Burrell attitude — the people that will tear you to shreds over your sexuality one minute, but will smile in your face the next. Keep in mind that before her homophobic comments went viral, Burrell was featured on Frank Ocean’s latest album and was scheduled to perform on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. She was going to reap the exposure and benefits from the LGBT community, while simultaneously ripping those very people to shreds. She would have her cake and eat it too, by cashing in on royalty checks and reruns, while making her core audience happy with bigotry and intolerance.
Kim Burrell is not alone. When I watched the video of her pacing on stage, spewing hate and homophobic rhetoric, I didn’t see a Billboard chart-topping, popular gospel singer. Instead, I saw the Sunday school teachers who hovered over me as a child, asking me things about womanhood and sexuality. I saw the ushers who lead me to my seat in the church, not after shaking their heads with knowing glances. I saw my older cousin, who tagged me in homophobic posts on Facebook and later disguised the aggression as an act of love and God’s will. I saw my devoutly Christian godmother, who asked countless times “when are you getting a boyfriend?”, when I’d been openly committed to the same girlfriend for over three years. I thought of the young gay boy or girl who may have been sitting in the audience during that sermon. There was deep familiarity with the alienation, humiliation and self-doubt that comes from hearing that sort of speech when you’re struggling to come to terms with your own sexuality. It’s fear-inducing. It's what makes young LGBT members flee from the church. It's the reason I can't hear gospel music without feeling a pit deep in my stomach. When I watched the viral video of an unapologetic Kim Burrell, I saw the face of every black LGBT youth who had been turned off and alienated by the Christian church by that very type of rhetoric. I’ve been the terrified, shivering person in that audience, as many black gay kids have.
Homophobia is universal, alhough Kim Burrell, her attitude, unapologetic style, half-baked backtracking, is unique to the young black gay experience. We’re expected to endure, to be respectful, to willfully be in the presence of people who quite literally hate us. We have to accept hugs from the same people who are still wiping the microphone from their abhorrent, homophobic on-stage rant. We’re not allowed to point out the inconsistencies, use the bible for our own defense, to speak up, to walk away. I’m expected to be subject to hate speech and passive aggressive verbal abuse all in the name religion. We’re an easy target, because those who slander us know that the church will come to their defense. So we’re left to sit alone in the pulpit with the walls closing around us.
Coming into 2017, I challenge black members of the LGBT community to confront the Kim Burrell’s in our lives. To avoid, unfriend, or even defy the people who attempt to make you feel less than human and unworthy of love. To walk away when these people corner you with accusations or cherry-picked scripture. I challenge you to know that God’s love cannot be stripped away by anyone, not even an award-winning gospel singer.
For the church members who want to welcome members of the LGBT community rather than alienate them, I challenge you to shut down the Kim Burrell’s who wish to turn a church of love into a place of fear. When the pastor starts a homophobic, alienating rant, shut it down. Critique each other, challenge yourselves to be tolerant, welcoming and loving. Ask yourself if your sermon, Facebook status or mumbled comment is coming from a place of love, or from a place of confusion and hate. Offer a smile to the church member that seems uncomfortable. When a preacher suggests that only straight people are worthy of God’s love, do not meet them with applause or an “Amen!” Call them out.