No closet religion: a southern Black queer boy speaks of home.

by Jeremy O’Brian

People are often curious about why I don’t visit home much. Hardly ever am I allowed to respond to their curiosity because they often just assume I’m really busy, but, if I am honest, my failure to return home is more intentional than many might imagine.

Growing up, my identity was informed largely by my church-home. I am from a small town in Mississippi called Lambert where home as I know it is heavily constituted with my past relationship to the institution of church in mind and heart.

It was in a church that I sang my first song. It was in a church that I felt any sense of community with the boys in my familythe fellowship. It was in a church that my interest in fashion and fabrics was endorsed and normalized. It was in a church that I uncovered myself.

But now much of my discomfort with simply hearing the words “church” or “god” can be attributed to that very same institution.

While church is where I first learned to feel, to love, to sing, and to speak, church is also where I gained some of my most damaging messages about myself as a black queer/gay man. I learned that the sin was in having sex with other men. This implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) taught me that gay people were solely sexual beings and incapable of intimacy and loving.

These experiences with the church are my own and the southern black queer/gay community is not a monolith. We all experience trauma and joy in many different ways, and every space holds a different kind of relevance in our memory. For me, however, the church easily became a site of contestation and a perpetual move to undo and redo the ideas I have about who and how God is.

The church taught me that God loves everybody, but the “gays are going to hell.” The church taught me “god wants real men, he don’t want no gay men.” The church demanded a kind of queer invisibility; teaching me to love the parts of myself that people are willing to accept and reject what others found inadmissible.

Those were the lessons imprinted out of a simple concern for the human spirit. That was home.

Home began to feel foreign.  The lessons I accepted with an open heart were simultaneously tearing down any sense of worth. They far too often moved to erase my subjectivity and painted anything I knew to be true as illogical.

When I came out, it seemed every sermon was a shot at my humanity by demanding I turn from the wickedness that is “homosexuality”. I remember going to church on a visit home and the sermon left me with three important disheartening points of reference. 1) God don’t want no gay men. 2) “Some people are too educated for their own good. They think they’re above God (mainly gay people). ” And 3) “If your “house” ain’t built by God, then it will fail.”

All of these points came in a sermon inspired by Psalm 127:1, which offers: “unless the lord builds the house, the builder labor in vain.” Somehow, the sermon went from building up the congregation to tearing down any person who might have been gay or lesbian. It went from an exploration of God’s love to praxis of complete and utter lovelessness.

Here I was sitting in a church full of familiar people who dared not see me beyond my abominable queerness. Here I was being torn down in the same place that once built me up to see myself as worthy of God’s love… without the queer shit. Ironically enough, I was home.

I cannot return home without the reminder that I have no place in the church, a place I once loved—without making myself invisible at the door. In this moment, I am not yet healed from the damage of church. I feel very little refuge. I don’t return home often, because I am taking some time to heal, to make space for recovery, rediscovery, refuge, and becoming again. I have no hard feelings, but I realize how important it is to be of sound mind, body, and spirit.

I am indebted to a group of people—the church—who silently observe violence against me, who might witness my murder and paint my death as me having lived by the sword. I still love people who are uncritical in their praxis toward me, people who relinquish any need to check their own understanding of our god. That is home, but I can no longer sit in silence while my humanity is being negotiated.

Home had become punitive. It was in the silence of the congregation that I feared the pastor might have been right, but, it was also in the contrasting audible gasps that told of potential inequity. In a perpetual state of questioning, the doctrines being disseminated were infringing on any sense of self-worth. But home is beginning to shift. I realized that if I were to survive, I would have to re-conceptualize it. I would have to be at home within myselfa metaphysical dilemma I had yet to conquer.

You see, when I started to embrace burgeoning adulthood as a southern black queer man from Mississippi whose understanding of his maleness & blackness was attached to his queerness, it came with so much hurt. It came with the knowledge that family might be just as socially constructed as race, and my queerness would always be a site of demonic grounds when surrounding myself with people who were uncritical of themselves. But, most of all, it came with the realization that I had some healing to do if I were ever to give anything of value to this world… if I were ever to be home.

So, for all of the curious minds that wonder why I don’t visit home very often, here is why: we understand home very differently. Your straightness allows for comfort unbeknownst to me. Where you are, home is linked to the church, an institution that far too often is willing to strip me of any self-pride at the site of my queerness. Home is a reminder of all the ways people are willing to deny me the very rights they demand themselves. Home is a reminder of the demands for queer invisibility.  That is the home you speak about.

But we no longer understand home in the same ways. Home for me has loosened into a kind of inner whisper, an ability to stomach the man in the mirror. Home is a thing to be carried, a discursive truth that flows like the river. Home is a place where I am at peace.

In the words of Sharon P. Holland, my queerness “exploded upon the ordinary life of childhood and made family and friendship all the more difficult, morphing them into the bittersweet tonic that many of us now refer to as ‘home’- a place of refuge and escape.” 1)Holland, Sharon P. “‘Home’ Is a Four-Letter Word.” In Black Queer Studies, by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson. Duke University Press , 2005 .

I don’t have a closet religion. I’ve found home in myself, and that whisper within promises that it is okay to never hide the God I serve. I do not return home very often because my religion comes without confines, without a closet. This truth denies me a lot of refuge and sense of belonging in spaces like the church and home as it is traditionally understood.

I’m learning that home transcends time and place. Home is a compilation of all I have gone through, and it is reflected in the strength that ensued. I carry home with me. All the love, all the pain, all the rage, all the joy, all the tears, all the scars, all the healing—and everything beyond that—I carry it with me. When I finally looked inside myself, I realized that home shifts as I grow. So, actually, I am home quite often.  

To that pastor, and anyone who thinks like him, as I heal I have to offer up a couple of things: 1) In all of my gayness and queerness, I am a real man. 2) My education keeps me grounded, and it is a constant reminder of God’s grace. 3) My house is built by God and I labor not in vain.

Jeremy O'BrianJeremy O’Brian is a recent graduate of The University of Texas at Austin’s Master’s program in Black Studies. He is an educator, aspiring love theorist, and an emerging playwright. 

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References   [ + ]

1. Holland, Sharon P. “‘Home’ Is a Four-Letter Word.” In Black Queer Studies, by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson. Duke University Press , 2005 .
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