Who Can I Run To?: Queer Black Kids in the Church Need Love Too

by Candace Simpson

Last month’s #BlackChurchSex Twitter chat introduced me to a wave of new Twitter followers and Facebook friends in my messages. These were young Black church kids who felt like their faith contradicted with their sexuality. There are even more stories of suicide ideation, catalyzed by conflicting messages about self-worth and God’s supposed “mistake.”

The tweets within the #BlackChurchSex hashtag demonstrate the safest people in the church are those who have the ability to assimilate and perform as heterosexual, cisgender, respectable, college-bound church kids. I’m not naïve enough to think that I don’t also fall into that category. I wear pantyhose (reluctantly), I have church manners, I’m working towards an M. Div. degree, and I’ve had a few boyfriends in my life.

When I was in college, I attended a retreat where we discussed sexuality and gender. At this time, I knew I did not identify as “straight,” but I hadn’t yet found the word “queer.” I was certainly attracted to men and women, but not comfortable using the word “bisexual.” In one of the sessions, we talked about our sexualities and its relevance in our lives. I was 21, a senior in college, and heading into an incredible full time job in the fall. And yet, I was still lost and unsure. Why didn’t I know my own label? Who was I? Was I imagining my non-straightness? Was I imagining my straight-ness? I saw people in the room name themselves as straight, bisexual, and gay, but none of those words made sense to me.

“Everyone has a name but me, I don’t even know who or what I am.”

I broke down and cried. Because of the nature of the retreat, friends came to comfort me and there was space for me to process those feelings. I still credit that moment as a defining one for my self-awareness.

Both Pew Surveys and pew-sitters can tell you that something funky is going on with the church. In the last month, the trending of hashtags and stories like #BlackChurchSex and #CaitlynJenner have triggered those same feelings within me. I fail to be surprised by the predictable responses, especially from church people. As I hear from Black queer teens who still want to believe in a God, I am reminded of what it felt like to be confused, alone, and scared of who I was. Now that I am an adult and a seminary student, I know that our obsession with supposed “deviant sexualities” is an ironic perversion from more constructive talk about sex and sexuality.

There are many theologians who have done incredible work to bring clarity to our understanding of sex and sexuality. Sex and sexuality are profoundly human issues, and therefore, they are theological issues. To pretend that God’s love is formulaically measured by our sexuality or gender identity is biblically inaccurate. I have learned to deal with the biblical literalists who magically have the wherewithal to appropriate narratives about liberation in the story of Moses. There are some people who have the sense to challenge slavery as a Biblical mandate. Some of our people have even used the Bible to support greedy prosperity gospel. Basically, we’ve learned to appropriate Biblical texts to fit our needs, which is great if you’re using the text to support the historically oppressed and forgotten.

Yes, we have learned to ignore the parts about shellfish, slaves obeying their masters, gold earrings, and mixed fabrics, but we can’t accept any kind of romantic relationship that is not heteronormative. Because that simply would be too much of a “distortion” of the Gospel. We have learned to draw the line to include “us” and to exclude “them.” That sounds like the God of White Supremacy, at least to me. We continue to come back to this language of “abominations” and “sin” when we talk about sex and sexualities. We are holding on to this theological grain so tightly that it has formed our hands into fists. We’re punching people and calling it “the work of the Church.”

Most concerning is the study that suggests suicide among Black children has risen. Some argue that a decline in religious observance might make Black children more vulnerable to suicide ideation and attempts. But what if we bent that logic in the reverse? Part of me cannot help but wonder that perhaps we are doing such a terrible job of showing children, all Black children, that they are incredibly beautiful and remarkably loved. We’ve got a monumental task in front of us. We cannot decide which Black lives are worth love and support. We owe love to the child who got into all Ivy League colleges and to the kid who sits in the back of the church with piercings and pink hair. Jesus set a pretty clear example about where he spent his time and did his work.

These two studies, about the decline of church affiliation and the rise of suicide among Black children are telling of a larger picture. I do not think one causes the other, but they must be understood as realities happening concurrently. This is a prime moment of reconstruction, not just for the sake of our institutions, but for the lives of our children. We can’t keep missing these links.

I will be (relatively) fine, no matter what memes and statuses arise from the stories of Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox, because I’ve been blessed with a family who has told me they will take care of me no matter what. For what it’s worth, I feel relatively safe because my multiple villages have covenanted to support my life and my growth. I struggle to name as often as I can the multiple privileges I have inherited. I present as a certain kind of woman, I know how to read a Bible contextually and to the end of liberation thanks to a seminary education and a loving home church, and my queerness is misinterpreted because I’ve been known to date men.

And yet, if it was hard for me to love myself fully, how much harder is it for those who do not have those cushions? We know that all churches aren’t struggling with the same kinds of political edges, but it is still important to notice the trends. Your pastor might be super inclusive and your youth ministry might be supportive of all its children, but we belong to a larger institution. Our work is just as much about holding our siblings-in-faith accountable as it is about spreading the Gospel. Maybe we might even see that task as Gospel itself.

We should vow to make sure each word out of our mouths about children is wrapped in a hope for their greatness and an appreciation of who they are right now. The lives of our children and the future of our church depends on our ability to demonstrate love consistently.

Photo: Shutterstock

Candace Simpson is a seminary student and a Brooklyn native. You can follow her tweets about faith, Nicki Minaj, and shea butter at @CandyCornball.

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