The Whole Black Church and Me

Photo: Lawrence Ware
America. In Black.America. In Black. is a weekly essay series that examines the myriad experiences of blackness in the United States.

One of the first sermons I ever preached was titled “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

In it, a very young and naive preacher, emboldened by an atmosphere that allowed impenitent homophobia to go unchecked, uses the language of revulsion to articulate why he believed same-sex relationships were wrong and not in line with God’s idea of love.

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There are no records of that sermon. No transcripts or links to share that show a young preacher fumbling over words and using tired tropes to communicate hate. The sermon was not well attended, and I scarcely remember getting an “Amen” during the pauses ubiquitous to black preachers who use silence as a means of soliciting a response from those listening to the oratory.

Still, thinking back on that day makes me ashamed. I’ve come to terms with how wrong I was back then, with the hate I had in my heart, and I thought I had done sufficient work on myself to see all people as God’s children.

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I was wrong.

A few months ago, I was a panelist discussing the seemingly uncontroversial question: “Do Black Lives Matter to the Black Church?” Listening to the discussion, it was clear by the pontificating and posturing that black men and their egos mattered a great deal to the church. I also discovered that black women mattered less than black men because they are often marginalized in ministry by being relegated to supporting roles and forced to endure unwanted sexual advances from men in positions of power, often times clergy. And I learned that the lives of black same-gender-loving folks seemed not to matter to the black church I was in at all—at least not enough to affirm their right to exist unapologetically while expressing the fullness of their humanity.

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When I noticed this, I went in. I spoke clearly (and, if I must say, eloquently) about the need to affirm all black people. “No black life matters until all black life matters,” I said with style and gusto. I was in the zone, feeling myself—then someone in the back of the church raised their hand.

“You spoke well about black gay folks, but what about black trans people? Do we matter?”

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We. I felt a knot in my stomach.

This person was sitting in the back asking to be seen, heard and valued as a human being worthy of love and respect. They did not get that validation from the representatives of God on the panel—my peers, all men— who are called to love all people unconditionally.

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One panelist made it clear that in the eyes of his god, black transgender men and women were subhuman. “God loves them, but he does not like them,” he said sneering. Another commented on how they are, “for lack of a better word, mistakes.” As I listened, I discovered that there was more than just ignorance about the lived experience of black trans folks at play in what was being said; there was genuine disdain and enmity. There was hate.

Another panelist, a younger, slightly more progressive preacher from California pointed out how trans men and women were killed at alarming rates. And yet, while much is said about black men who are killed at the hands of the police, there is not nearly enough discussion about the number of transgender men and women turning up dead.

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I was quiet during that part of the panel. My righteous indignation had dissipated. My pride was put in check. Chills ran up my spine. I suddenly discovered that I was not who I thought I was. I had not entirely overcome the animosity that I’d spewed back in my teens. I was complicit. I was uncomfortable, uneasy, with transgendered people, and I needed to do more work on myself.

This is something I’ve decided to do with greater intentionality: to deeply and honestly examine how I can be more loving, more exemplary of the God I serve because I understand that when we do not see the full humanity of those who identify as transgender, we further marginalize human beings in an already marginal community—especially transgender black folks.

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I do not have it all figured out. In the same way that AA teaches alcoholics to surrender themselves to a problem, yet also challenges them to go to war with their addiction, I admit that I am homophobic and transphobic—yet, I fight daily against that socialization by my religious upbringing. Too often when we think of black people in America, we forget about the experiences of those who live their lives in the margins of identity, who too often seemingly fit in nowhere, so we fail to make room for their existence. If we are to tell the complete truth about the experience of being black in this country, we must include them too—and fight against our impulse to place them in the periphery.

Honestly, that’s a lesson I’ve not yet fully learned. And try as I may, I must constantly be reminded that black trans folks need to be included when we discuss issues important to the black community. It may be cliché to say it, but all black lives matter—including black trans folks. And we, I, need to be reminded of this truth daily.

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About the author

Lawrence Ware

Lawrence is a philosopher of race at his day job and a curator of dopeness when time allows. Words in The New York Times, Slate Magazine, and others. Email him at law.writes@gmail.com