Black churches are often painted as the most vehement opponents of gay* and transgender equality, but two recent studies suggest that the lines between race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression tend to be blurred more frequently than some might think.
A Gallup poll released last week—the largest population-based study so far of the gay and transgender community—contradicts almost every stereotype that prevails about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. Most surprisingly, it found that African Americans are more likely than any other ethnic or racial group to identify as gay and transgender. This finding flies in the face of media images and conservative fodder that portray the gay and transgender community as largely white and the black community as overwhelmingly straight.
It also contradicts the idea that there is an epidemic of closeted gay men on the “down low” that is exclusive to the black community. Young black men in particular (those between the ages of 18 and 29 years old) were 56 percent more likely than young white men in the same age group to identify as gay, which suggests that the closet is colorblind and might not be as large as conventional or popular wisdom would have us believe.
Another recent study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that black gay and bisexual Americans are not only more religious than their white counterparts but also quite possibly more religious than Americans as a whole. They are more likely to attend religious services, to engage in prayer, and to self-identify with a religious affiliation than are white gay Americans. Most interestingly, this study also found that black gay Americans are less likely to be deterred by nonaffirming congregations than their white counterparts.
When taken together, these studies raise new questions about the extent of homophobia in black churches and their relationship with their gay congregants. If black churches are really as antigay and unwelcoming as they are sometimes portrayed, why are so many gay and transgender Christians who attend black churches out and proud? Wouldn’t the oppressive environment push them further into the closet?
As Charles Blow of The New York Times noted, it’s a “head scratcher.” Below, we offer some preliminary analysis of these studies that might help us understand the dynamics at play.
Black churches are no more homophobic than any other communities of faith
It’s time to stop scapegoating black churches as though they are the gay population’s Public Enemy No. 1. There is simply no evidence that this is true, despite the common narrative pushed by the National Organization of Marriage and other antigay activists, who have attempted to create a wedge between the black community and the gay community.
Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of the 8,000-member Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in a personal interview for this column, calls out the fallacies with this commonly held misconception. “I don’t buy the narrative, I think that it’s a myth,” he says. “The black church may struggle with language around sexuality in general, and biblical interpretations, but that does not translate into an antigay political agenda.”
In fact, it’s white, right-wing evangelicals and the Catholic Church who have invested millions of dollars to wage a political war against gay rights, not the black church. Sure, the organizations have been able to buy the allegiance of a handful of black clergy to help champion their message, but Rev. Coates points out that many of these clergy are mere hired guns—paid talking heads who do not represent a congregation or the black church tradition. There is little evidence, though, that the black church as a whole is itself invested in or fostering an antigay agenda.
The black church builds community, not divides it
The tradition of the black church is predicated on the idea of kinship—the familial bonds formed among black people of varying backgrounds—which were originally forged out of necessity to preserve the sense of community that slavery sought to divide. At their core, these black churches are much more than theological centers. They are also community centers where people from all walks of life can find compassion and camaraderie, love and hope. That is what draws black gay and transgender Americans to the church, and that is why we see such high levels of what sociologists call “religiosity” among them.
It’s important to note, however, that religiosity in this context is not merely just a measure of commitment to religious doctrine or biblical dogma—it’s about affinity with a broader community and support system.
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, president and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, suggests that the fruits of this relationship between black gay and transgender Americans and their churches far outweigh any antigay energy that might surface. “The data tells us the truth that we see daily in our lives, families, churches and communities—a narrative quite different from the ones we witness in the media and in the political arena,” she tells TheGrio, a prominent African American news outlet.
Rev. Coates, who recalls having been an active member in black churches his entire life, says he has seldom come upon the antigay vitriol that black churches are alleged to promote. He says that at most some churches may employ a code of silence around sexuality, but few actually preach division and hate from the pulpit.
After all, he says, “The Bible says much more about public morality than private morality,” so sermons around social issues are more likely to focus on themes of freedom, justice, and equality for all, rather than the condemnation of a few. The messages are also likely to preach leading by example and treating others with dignity and respect, even when they grapple with their beliefs.
This would explain why black gay and transgender Americans feel more affirmed and secure in their identities—and therefore more willing to be open about their sexual orientation—than we would have imagined. Their relationship with black churches in fact provides safe spaces and a steadfast social network that helps them deal with societal oppression at large.
As Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel points out, polls and statistics such as the ones released by Gallup and the Williams Institute are rarely the end of the story—more likely, they’re the beginning. These studies do indeed raise more questions than they answer, but if they tell us anything, it’s that black gay and transgender Americans are more resilient—and their faith communities more nurturing—than they get credit for.
Aisha C. Moodie-Mills is an Advisor to the LGBT Policy and Racial Justice program at the Center for American Progress. Katie Miller is a Special Assistant to the program at the Center.
* In this column the term “gay” is used as an umbrella term to describe people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.