Contrary to popular belief, there is power and hope at the intersection of race and LGBTQ life.
As a Black, same-gender loving woman who is a pastor, Bishop and activist, I can solidly say that my wife, children, grandchildren, and community have stronger allies, greater opportunities, and more protections than we have ever had.
A growing number of Black clergy are no longer willing to stand idly by and watch large segments of the communities they were called to serve be alienated, stripped of their rights, physically abused, and treated unjustly. These clergy have taken a costly stand against the notion that LGBTQ people are unworthy of God’s love and full acceptance within the church.
When preparing to write this essay, I was reminded of Mr. Bunny. All of the youth in my community called him Mr. Bunny because when I grew up, we were not allowed to call any adult by their first name. As a show of honor and respect, we had to address them as miss or mister.
If he were around today, we would have acknowledged Bunny as gender variant or trans, but those words were not used at my Black Baptist church home in Newark, N.J., in the 1960s. He was a beautician who styled the hair of many of the women in the church I attended. He was their confidant and “good girlfriend.” The two things I most recall is how much he loved the church and how much my mom and many of the other women loved him. They did not judge him or the male “friend” he lived with.
The rabid homophobia we see in the church today did not exist back then. We figured out how to live together because there was no place else to go. Bunny was one of ours.
The separations that we experience today are largely charged by a political and socially conservative machine that has used religion and fear-baiting to build a divide between the Black church and the LGBTQ community. The goal was to weaken collective power by placing wedges where tolerance once resided. This has proven an effective tool in determining the outcomes for elections and shifts in policies.
But now black folks everywhere are waking up and realizing that while we each have a right to our own beliefs, when those beliefs infringe on the rights of others and do not advance justice, then we must call out such injustice. We must resist efforts to divert our attention from the intersection of social justice, race, religion, and LGBTQ rights and protections.
In reality, black people are not any more homophobic than any other group. The fresh memories of slavery, Jim Crow, the killing of black men (regardless of sexual orientation), over-incarceration, and poverty have helped many see that LGBTQ people are not the enemy nor the real threat to their families.
Consider the fact that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and that the few references in the Bible that do mention same-sex encounters have nothing to do with loving, same-sex unions and families like mine.
John McConahay and Joseph Hough shed some light on why this issue of sexuality has taken up so much space in the hearts and minds of reasonable people. They conducted a 1976 study that defined symbolic racism as “the expression [by whites], in terms of abstract ideological symbols and symbolic behaviors, [of] the feeling that blacks are violating cherished values and making illegitimate demands for changes in the racial status quo.” These are the same beliefs that have negatively affected LGBTQ people.
Marriage equality, workplace rights, and accommodations that support varied gender expressions, have all challenged many individuals’ long held beliefs. However, the deeply held attitudes and beliefs about justice and equality for all has led a growing number of Black clergy to stand with the LGBTQ community in our fight for justice.
I have seen the best of what is possible when we reason together and let unconditional love lead.
In fact, many Black clergy, led by the president of the North Carolina NAACP, Rev. Dr. William Barber II, have assembled a moral movement that has refused to leave anyone behind. We have fought side by side in support of LGBTQ people’s right to equal protection under the law. We have been holding “Meetings in the Upper Room,” a program of the Charlotte-based Freedom Center for Social Justice, where Black pastors and clergy have come together to learn more about the scriptures that deal with homosexuality and explore ways to be more supportive and welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community.
Working and learning together has allowed us to foster healing and help create the beloved community that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of.
When I first deeply engaged in this work, there were many who felt we were wasting our time working with Black preachers and the Black church. I am here to report that I have seen the best of what is possible when we reason together and let unconditional love lead. In North Carolina we’ve found that our commonalities far outweigh our differences.
I am grateful for the support of this courageous generation of Black clergy, scholars, civil rights leaders, and others, who refuse to hide in shadows as it relates to their support of LGBTQ children of God. We need each other to survive.
Come on and meet us at the corner of love, justice, and equality for all. We have work to do!
Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls is the Pastor of Sacred Souls Community Church and Founding Executive Director of The Freedom Center for Social Justice in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a member of the Board of the NC Council of Churches and other advisory councils. She lives in Charlotte with her wife and partner of 16 years Gwendolyn and their dogs Zora and Sonny.
Adapted with permission from the magazine Sojourners.