Under the Overpass: Pray Gay Away? – One Man’s Journey Towards Ally

Under the Overpass focuses on politics, current events, and social commentary from a black, crunchy, granola perspective. Myshell chooses the topics. Michael writes the commentary.

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, justice is a noun, a verb and a lifestyle. Like life, justice is evolutionary. You don’t start grown.

As a child, my Eastside Long Beach neighborhood was dominated by Crips and Jackrabbits. National sports powerhouse Long Beach Poly High was home base for both. I lived across the street. The young boys grew up idolizing the teenage Jackrabbits, who were often Crips. We watched them bounce outside and race down the sidelines. Cheered their game-winning grabs on corner-post routes. Cheered their left jabs after a rare rout loss. Mostly, we imitated their moves and behavior on the gridiron and off.

We played a popular football-oriented game called Smear the Queer. The rules were simple. The pigskin was tossed high above the crowd of boys and whoever caught it became the queer who tried to score a touchdown while the other players tried to smear him. It was a brutal game. If there were 13 boys, it was 12 boys trying to inflict bodily harm on one queer. One punk. These were the words we heard Jackrabbits and adults use to identify gay males and insult straight males. These were the words we used too. They were fighting words. Effeminate boys were called faggot before beat downs for being effeminate. Ferocious boys picked fights by calling ferocious boys faggot.

Looking back, we used this nomenclature to demonize difference. In our tough hood, males were expected to be hyper masculine. Deviation from this narrow construction of masculinity made you a target. A beat-down-in-waiting. So sensitive boys like myself, also rocked our tough pose. Spat our homophobic epithets. We visited our verbal and physical violence on those deemed different from us. Similar to the ways dominant groups had visited verbal and physical violence on our community for our perceived difference. Shadow and act.

Normalized homophobia has its roots in ignorance and the shadowing of dominant actors. I am ashamed to say that I have been the shadow who followed the actor and the actor who has been shadowed. My ignorance was not unique. There exists a population that believes that same gendered and/or transgendered loving people are less human than individuals who love people of the opposite gender. Less human, meaning not all there, meaning broken, meaning wrong. When people equate difference with wrong they are more inclined to treat the different wrongly. This wrong-headedness can manifests as verbal abuse, physical bullying, and, on a particular insidious level, preaching that same gendered love is an abomination before God -— that can be prayed away.

For same gendered lovers who prefer a Black church style of worshipping, it must be a harrowing experience to come into faithful fellowship where the leadership preaches that your very existence is wrong. Certainly, there are Black churches that are welcoming to gay brothers and sisters, but in my nonscientific polling of same gendered people, it’s difficult for our gay brethren and sistren to find an emotionally safe place to worship. This also appears to be true for gay folk who are Muslim and those who embrace traditional African-based belief systems like Ifa. A common complaint that I’ve heard across faith traditions is that in faith communities gay folk are often made to feel that who they are, who they choose to love, is wrong. A sin … that like other sins can be prayed away. Meditated away. Oracled away.

As a kid in Long Beach, I wasn’t up in church too often, but I can vividly recall hearing on several occasions from a pastor’s mouth, “God didn’t make Adam and Steve, God made Adam and Eve.” This declaration was then followed by how hot hell was going to be for the Adams and Steves of the world. In the two churches that I attended, both had a minister of music, who performed a type of presentation of sexual orientation that seemed to suggest that he was a same gender lover. Even in my own homophobic ignorance, I wondered what it must have been like for a gay minister of music to hear his pastor preach that people like him, and him in particular, were going to burn in everlasting hell unless he got fixed, got healed, got sufficient prayer to pray his gay away. A seemingly gay ministers of music had to hear all that, and then lead the congregation in song to co-sign his own hellish demise. Have mercy.

There are some hopeful signs that this type of behavior is abating. In June of 2013, Orlando-based Exodus International shut down its ministry after 37 years of being the world’s largest ministry focused on “helping those who struggle” with same sex attraction. At the time, lead minister Alan Chambers said, “More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives.”

The turning point in the Exodus International ministry’s eventual closing was a series of suicides by younger people of faith, who believed that people and God hated them for who they were, who they chose to love. For these young people, the slogan, “It get’s better” didn’t arrive in time or simply wasn’t believed.

What can get better is an ignorant state of mind. If I had my own Holy Book, and I believed in sin, I would definitely place ignorance near the top of my Thou Shalt Not List. The amount of hate, bloodshed and degradation that can be traced to ignorance could fill a 47 volume book called The History of the World. Ignorance has killed more Black men than Rollin 20s Crips and COINTELPRO combined. Ignorance (and profiteering) made the Atlantic Slave Trade possible. Ignorance is why George W. Bush was elected—twice. Ignorance is why people think you can pray gay away.

My own state of mind about gay folks began to change when I began to work on my ignorance by having openly gay folks in my life. As mentors, colleagues and eventually friends. My mind nor my homophobia changed over night. In fact, I’m still unlearning years of shadowing and acting. What has helped me is listening to the stories of these mentors, colleagues and friends. Hearing them give voice to their beauty, and at times their beautiful struggle, has made it clear to me that I have much more in common than I have things that are different with our gay brethren and sistren. But commonality learned through interpersonal exchange is not enough to change an ignorant mind. I began to seek out the history of the gay rights movement. I began to follow issues that seemed important to some members of the gay community. And mostly, I got involved. I became an ally. An imperfect ally with a homophobic background, wrestling with a past that still, at times, visits me in the present. But I’m here. Recognizing that I didn’t start grown, and I’m still growing. Listening, learning and acting for justice. Struggling to throw shade on my shadow and act, here, under the overpass.

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