Many in the Black community view queerness and Blackness as incompatible, using conservative religious morality to bolster a sense of virtuosity. In doing so, they limit possibilities for full human expression and solidarity. They might also be harming themselves.
One spring afternoon, the lights in the restaurant where I worked were dimmed, and the flow of the evening’s guests was slow but steady. At the front of the restaurant, the lights seemed to be the lowest, allowing the ambiance of the bar to shine as a warm and inviting space. It was intimate, an ideal setting for a romantic evening. I was bartending and discussing the complexities of trans identity with Ally, the other bartender on duty. One of our co-workers identified as a trans lesbian, as she was male-bodied but female presenting and was attracted to women. Ally, as a lesbian woman, admitted that it was confusing and complicated for her. I replied that I understood the confusion and that I tried to remain open-minded when thinking about sexuality and gender identity.
One of our bar guests overheard the conversation and interrupted. She asked what the conversation was about. After bringing her up to speed, she frowned and made a sigh of disgust. I asked her what was wrong, and she replied, “So what if customers don’t approve of the way that people identify or their sexuality?!”
Initially, I was shocked; not that a person would have sexual prejudices but that such prejudices could and would be articulated as a type of authority.
“Well,” I responded, slightly stunned. “That depends on the customer. As long as they don’t say anything to the employee, I don’t see it being a problem.”
Rolling her eyes, she took a sip of her drink and sat her cup down slowly. With an air of self-assurance, she replied, “What if I did say something? Does the company support LGTB people?”
At that point, part of me wondered if this lady was joking and pelling some kind of prank. However, I decided to humor her. “Yes, ma’am. It does.”
She rolled her eyes again. “Uh. Well, I don’t like that. They might lose my business after today because I don’t support that. Who could I talk to about this?”
The snarkiness in me wanted to reply “God. A therapist. Anybody else besides me.” However, I kindly told her that she could speak with a manager if she liked or call our corporate offices.
“I will do that because y’all going to lose my business.”
With that statement, I decided to remove myself from the conversation. I walked over to the service well and continued to make drinks. The woman continued the conversation with Ally, who nodded and seemed to indulge the woman for as long as she could. She told Ally that queer identities were the signs of confused people. They represented an evil that needed to be purged from the world. They were a sign that the Devil was running the world. By condoning these “behaviors,” we were giving the world to the Devil. The world needed saving from its sinful ways. What we deemed to be a moral and humane duty of acceptance, she deemed an act of evil.
After Ally eventually grew tired of the conversation, the woman went to the host stand of the restaurant and asked to speak to a manager. She then repeated her frustrations to manager, and before long, news spread around the restaurant about “the homophobic lady who was angry that Cheesecake supports LGTB people.” Comments around the restaurant grew. “I would’ve walked up to her and kissed her,” said one employee. “I should have kissed Ally in front of her,” said Ally’s partner.
The commentaries of my colleagues were a mount of frustrations about the basic human rights and freedoms that a person should have as a living being. However, in the conservative religious philosophy of the bar guest, these freedoms and privileges were perceived as sexual immorality. Such beliefs are common amongst religious conservatives in the Abrahamic faiths. Christians and Muslims in particular often deplore queer identities. In fact, in the U.S. many believe in extreme methods of “self-control” and “cleansing,” such as conversion therapy and “praying away the gay.” Such ideals are a result of religious conservatism, which draws on concepts of morality that repress not only sexual desires but full human expression.
Therefore, as a necessity for full human expression, there has to be a reconceptualization of morality that produces a liberated existence. There must be a type of spiritual liberation. Spiritual liberation refers to moving beyond systems of control and repression in the name of morality; it suggests thinking beyond archaic and limited definitions of right and wrong to allow for newer logics. However, such ideals are far from being achieved, due to the shifting discourses and relations of power within communities, especially those facing the intersections of other inequalities.
Spiritual liberation refers to moving beyond systems of control and repression in the name of morality; it suggests thinking beyond archaic and limited definitions of right and wrong to allow for newer logics.
For instance, the bar guest was a middle-aged Black woman who believed, based on her faith, that queerness is a sin and a form of sexual immorality. Her faith led her to believe that anyone who commits this sin is led by the devil. Furthermore, anyone who condones it is just as evil. The same faith led her to believe that she had a right and duty to prevent these sinful acts. The bar guest’s perspective is a common one amongst Black conservatives (West 1999).
Queerness and Blackness are often placed at odds within the Black community. For instance, Cornel West discusses the commonality of Black intolerance towards LGTBQ identities. West argues that these forms of intolerance lead to closeted sexual identity and behaviors. While people were aware that their loved ones may be gay or lesbian, they referred to them as being “that way” (404-5). Indexically, “that way” refers to the otherness of Black queer sexuality, locating it as something abnormal and also antithetical to the Black experience.
Similarly, Asante (2003) argues that Black queer identities are not native to Black culture. In fact, they are divisive and prevent Black solidarity. “Homosexuality and lesbianism are deviations from Afrocentric thought, because they often make the person evaluate his or her own physical needs above the teachings of national consciousness” (72). Therefore, many Black people reject queerness as anti-Black behavior. For instance, I once had a discussion with an activist who argued that queerness is an outlying identity in the Black community, and it could be weaponized to decrease the population of Black people in America. In fact, he argued that Black Lives Matter was divisive because it proclaimed to “queer up the Civil Rights Movement.”
Again, such fears are commonly expressed amongst Black conservatives. However, such ideas limit our understanding of Blackness and solidarity. Similarly, conservative Christian doctrine, as spread by the bar guest and others like her, can be equally limiting and often reflect a lack of intersectional consciousness and a limited worldview that renders difference as deviation. Such deviations are then deemed deviant.
These attitudes render certain types of Black people normal and others abnormal. In this case, the bar guest renders her cis heteronormative sexuality as both normal and virtuous. Therefore, anything other than this identity can be deemed sinful and abnormal. However, these people fail to see how such perspectives exacerbate forms of structural inequality. The condemnation of queerness as abnormal sets a precedent that renders certain types of Blackness as normal and all else as abnormal. In the same manner, it allows for certain ways of being human to be considered better or moral, while others are deemed dangerous and sinful. Therefore, the woman’s comments reflect larger forms of structural violence, especially as she attempts to use her perceived economic power as a customer to force the restaurant to adhere to her moral standards.
I argue that the idea that conservative morality constitutes personal sacrifices and forms of repression is an interpretive frame of freedom, faith, truth, and sin. It is a conservative construction of purity and faith, as a restrictive reality where pleasure, sexuality, and any form of self-interest is deviant. However, these frames are a misunderstanding or rather strict interpretation of the concepts of faith and belief. Cornel West (1999) argues that while faith is a universal human concept, the expressions of faith and the conditions of morality are just as diverse as the human species.
Faith, in other words, is an element of cultural ideologies and social action that must be understood as the result of a particular worldview. The woman’s articulations of sin and evil therefore are a form of cultural expression and beliefs. West argues that such constructions are a form of heterosexist justifications of self-interest. In articulating such ideals of conservative morality, they oppress others, and, at the same time, they repress themselves. While asserting their moral high ground, these people internalize forms of violence that can be rearticulated and repurposed by others to harm them.
Therefore, liberation and freedom come with the undoing of such constructions of faith, allowing us to recognize the freedom of human expression for others and in turn, allowing us to lift the veil of repression within ourselves. In fact, queer people sometimes learn to adapt these forms of repression within themselves. They often internalize them.
West discusses this in the form of “closeted sexuality.” He argues that “it could lead toward a kind of internalized homophobia within gay or lesbian [queer] persons themselves” (404). In fact, such positionalities allow for other forms of violence within Black communities, against women or other groups within already marginalized communities. In the macrocosm, these forms of violence transform from forms of religious and sexual conservatism as well. There was a time when slavery was “morally” justified by certain Christian ideologies in America. In the frames of jihadists, murder and public execution are framed as acts of morality and divine promise. What does this mean? Simply put, faith and belief, like any other element of culture, can be constructed in ways that promote oppressive social actions.
Therefore, we must regard faith, belief, and religion like any other frame of thinking or ideology: as expressions of culture deemed appropriate and sound in the context or company of others who share those beliefs. Such constructions, though framed as right and true from the perspectives of individuals, can still violate human rights and limit people’s humanity. These belief systems become pedagogies of oppression and praxes that condition us to repress each other and ourselves. In terms of human social evolution, these conservative ideologies are the true sins, as they limit us and create conditions of hatred binding us to behaviors and social structures that reproduce violence and destroy more than they could ever build.
In the microcosm, the bar guest’s behavior is simply an expression of her beliefs. However, structurally, it reproduces forms of hatred and violence that led to the destruction of humanity. Furthermore, such violent acts also set precedent for justifications for other prejudices and forms of inequality, justified under equally convincing ideologies and discourses.
Asante, Molefi Kete. Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change. Chicago: African American Images, 2003.
West, Cornel. The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999.