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MILD SPOILERS FOR GREENLEAF FOLLOW
Among the timely topics Oprah Winfrey's new show Greenleaf tackles is being black and gay in church, which, as many black LBGT Americans know, is not always a safe space to be oneself. There's a palpable ask-but-don't-tell quality to the faith experience that sends many of us scurrying away for alternative welcoming spaces.
Greenleaf character Kevin Satterlee is the son-in-law of the bishop of Greenleaf World Ministries, a fictional megachurch based in Memphis where intrigues, such as police brutality, political corruption, and sexual abuse, are as real as it gets. While the plot hasn't explicitly revealed that Kevin, who is married to the bishop's daughter Charity, is gay, the storyline has dropped many hints and promises to get complicated now that Charity is pregnant with twins.
Whether fictional or in the real world, events have laid bare the complicated existence of being a gay person of color and the struggle to find spaces to breathe and thrive without judgment or violence. This was underscored by the massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, which occurred almost a year to the day that the tragedy at Charleston's Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church took place. Like black churchgoers seeking worship, music, and fellowship in the safety of the walls of a church, so, too, Pulse clubbers sought sanctuary. And just last week, DC woman Deeniquia Dodds became the 15th trans person murdered in 2016.
Clubs and churches serve as safe spaces to protect and provide refuge to people who need a place to belong in a country where racist and homophobic policies conspire against them daily. These sacred spaces were violated, and 50 people in Orlando and nine faithful churchgoers in South Carolina have paid the price with their lives. Yet, in many cases, the church and gay communities live, thrive, and suffer separately in their respective silos. Locked inside respective communities of interests, the challenges and joys of life are shared, but not outside those tight circles where common ground and goals surely exists.
As a black, queer woman living at the intersection of faith and identity, I know well the schism. I lived in Orlando for three years and frequented Pulse on weekends because of the cool vibe and that one room decked out in white. It always made me feel like a movie star. (I could've been home watching The L Word, but, alas, I didn't have cable.) At the same time, I find solace in my religion but cannot help but be affected by the toxic theologies from churches like Westboro Baptist Church and the First Baptist Church of Dallas, which provide the fuel to acts of hate by instilling fear and promoting division and disconnection.
I've come a long way from my teen days when I didn't have a word for what and who I am. I was the teenager who was in charge of the youth department and president of everything. When people found out I was gay, I was discouraged from being in other parts of life. At 16, ministers would call me, assuming I was sexually active when I hadn't yet kissed a girl. It was in church that I learned I was going to hell. Six years ago, I found a gay-affirming church in my hometown of Dallas and now know for sure that I'm not damned for eternity. Still, I know the hurt caused when one's spiritual gifts are in doubt.
I also know well that operating in silos is counterproductive and more so in social justice spaces of which houses of worship should be included. But in our national grieving over "crimes" of identity, we have an opportunity. When members of different communities have taken a stand together, great change has taken place. Think of Frederick Douglass, a former slave, standing with the early women's rights movement.
"Right is of no sex, truth is of no color," Douglass said. Or consider Juliette Hampton Morgan, a white Southern socialite, who initiated a letter-writing campaign to the local newspaper calling out their hate, which cost her dearly. Coretta Scott King spent her prodigious civil rights social capital to advocate for the LBGT community during the '80s AIDS crisis.
Instead of getting people engaged in what my partner calls "loop conversations," with promises to address bigotry and never really quite doing so, we need to do a better job of recognizing the humanity in one another. Our tendency is to disconnect from causes outside of our own personal interests, and that is killing us.
Like the character Kevin, I struggled to embrace my whole, authentic self. But I also know the story doesn't end there: Just as Douglass, Morgan, and King were willing to stand and be counted when it mattered most, I know I have to take a stand in uncomfortable spaces. The plot is thick with possibilities for change. Here's hoping that the worlds of fiction and reality can converge to breathe inclusive life into the church universal.
Greenleaf is on Wednesday nights at 9/10 Central on the OWN channel.