What It's Like Attending a Black Church as an LGBT Person

January 14th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

Growing up is hard for everyone, especially when we're exploring our identities, and it's that much harder when one's identity is rejected as a sin by the community one's growing up in.

Growing up as an LGBT youth in a black church presents it's own particular challenges. This was highlighted by a recent controversy involving a black pastor and singer, Kim Burrell, whose January 3 appearance on The Ellen Show was canceled after video surfaced of her making anti-gay comments during a sermon in Texas.

Burrell's response to the backlash was a familiar defense of homophobia: that she loves gay people, just not the "sin" of homosexuality. 

"I love you and God loves you," Burrell said. "But God hates the sin."

Days later, another well-known black pastor, Shirley Caesar, weighed in on the controversy, voicing support for Burrell and blaming President Barack Obama for supporting gay marriage. 

"You [Kim Burrell] should have said something four years ago when our president made that stuff alright," Caesar said during a sermon in a Maryland church. 

"I think it's very interesting that two black women are ultimately the ones making these comments, and years prior they didn't have any rights in society," Jonathan Higgins, an LGBT contributor to the black news and culture website The Root, told ATTN:. What would he tell those women? "The same things that have been done to me have been done to you."

A church on a hill.

How does this kind of rhetoric affect young and black LGBT Americans? 

LGBT adults have disproportionately higher levels of mental illness, LGBT youth have higher rates of suicide, and black Americans overall are more likely to report psychological distress.

Last year, the Advocate's Neal Broverman wrote that intolerance in society can affect the "self worth of millions of queer Americans, especially impressionable youth" and that "until there's an end to institutional homophobia and transphobia... community reinforcement will be necessary for every LGBT person throughout their lives."

But sometimes those communities reinforce that discrimination.

ATTN: talked to two LGBT Americans about their experiences attending black churches. 

Higgins, 32, grew up a Jehovah's Witness and wrote a piece for The Root on the "loving the sinner and hating the sin" argument often heard in black churches. 

"It's this notion of, 'How do I hide the hatred that I have without it coming across as pure hatred?," he told ATTN:. He says he's no longer a Christian, in large part because of the homophobia he faced in church. "I had to go to therapy because of all the things people have said to me."

Dr. John Higgins.

The religion-based homophobia has even hurt his relationship with his mom, Higgins confided. He invited her to his wedding and she said she may not attend because it's a same-sex marriage. After that comment, he decided to stop speaking to her. 

"At this point in my life, if you're not able to accept me in my fullness of who I am, then you don't need to be in my life," he said. 

Bianca Worthy, 29, is from Atlanta and still attends church. She said she didn't have any "personal horror stories" but that she stopped going to certain churches because of homophobic sermons or comments she heard in the congregation. She remembered at one service a teenage boy was called to the altar, where the pastor encouraged him to resist homosexual urges in front of the whole congregation.

Bianca Worthy

As an adult at a different church, she heard a guest pastor go on a homophobic rant during a sermon. 

"I was vibing with his story at first until he started talking about gay people and 'the gay agenda is being pushed in the media and how you need to pray it out of people,'" Worthy said. "I really didn't like that and people were just clapping along," she said. " I was like, 'Wow, people still do think like this,' because I've been in my gay bubble for so long."

Worthy hasn't given up on Christianity, though.

"I think a lot of us could do better by going back to our churches and try to bridge some of those gaps," she said. "If we were able to go back, we could try to make churches more inclusive and try to change some things."

But Higgins isn't sold on that approach.

"I would say this is asking a great deal from the marginalized group," he said. "My question is: Why is it always on the backs of marginalized folks to create change?"

RELATED: These Illustrations Address Anyone Who Thinks You Can't Be Christian and LGBT