Gospel music book challenges black homophobia
Mr. Heilbut, 71, discovered gospel while exploring Harlem as a teenage NAACP member. While writing “The Gospel Sound” and producing award-winning gospel records, he was also immersed in the daily homophobia of the Black Church. . “I’ve heard it forever,” he said in a recent interview. “’He’s a great singer, but he’s a sissy.’ Or, ‘He did a terrible thing, but at least he’s not a sissy.’ “
His reasons for breaking his silence are partly practical. Many musicians he identifies as gay or bisexual – James Cleveland, Alex Bradford, Clara Ward, Sister Rosetta Tharpe – are now dead, and in Mr. Cleveland’s case, died of AIDS.
In the book, Mr. Heilbut recounts a conversation with another gay musician, Charles Campbell, shortly before his death. When asked by Mr. Heilbut if he could ‘tell his story and quote it’, Mr. Campbell replied, “Sure, baby, I think you have to tell it. Everything has to be said. “
Leading scholars of black Christianity see both a value and a risk in Mr. Heilbut’s challenge to churches on same-sex marriage, and more broadly on their attitude toward homosexuality.
“His argument must be taken seriously,” said Jonathan L. Walton, professor of Christian ethics at Harvard. “It’s hard to have a conversation about this brilliant cultural production – gospel music – without affirming the prominent role that people of the same gender have played and continue to play.”
Professor Walton, however, said that a mixture of motives and actions more complicated than hypocrisy informed the positions of black churches towards gay and bisexual members. “The practice is much more tolerant of GLBT siblings than the public professions,” he said. “When you are forced to make a public profession – like in a referendum – it seems people go with their more conservative instincts.”