Earlier this month in an interview with Christianity Today, singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp confirmed what a lot of people in the contemporary Christian music world have suspected since she ascended to popularity a decade ago: she’s gay.
Since then, Knapp has continued to talk openly about coming out in Christian music, including an appearance on Larry King Live, where she got caught between King and a fundamentalist preacher in what Candace Chellew-Hodge has not unjustly described as an “immoral debate about homosexuality.” That Knapp, as Hodge also notes, held her own in the debacle of a discussion King blunderingly presided over is no surprise, given how deftly she deflected the Christianity Today interviewer’s repeated attempts to describe her coming out as part of a larger “struggle with homosexuality.”
“It never occurred to me that I was in something that should be labeled as a ‘struggle,’” Knapp said. “The struggle I’ve had has been with the church acknowledging me as a human being.”
Knapp’s response echoed that of another gay Christian singer, the black gospel performer Tonéx, who came out in a television interview last fall. “Have you struggled with homosexuality?” the interviewer asks Tonéx. “Not ‘struggled,’” Tonéx replies. “It wasn’t a struggle.”
More Than Just Friends
It may be difficult for people unfamiliar with evangelical popular culture to understand how and why this kind of thing matters so much. It’s not because Tonéx and Knapp are the first gay singers in Christian music.
At least as far back as the 1940s, the gospel guitarist Rosetta Tharpe was, as Gayle Wald has noted in her excellent biography of “Sister Rosetta,” rumored to be “something more than ‘just friends’” with the performer known as Sister Katty Marie. More prominently, James Cleveland’s homosexuality was an open secret for most of his career in the last half of the twentieth century, and the “King of Gospel” died in 1991 amidst rumors that he had infected a much younger man with HIV and that he himself had died of AIDS-related complications. More recently in 2004, the Southern gospel tenor Kirk Talley was outed after the FBI arrested a man who tried to blackmail Talley with indiscreet photos the singer had posted of himself on a gay chat site. In 2006, a photo of the songwriter and gospel music impresario Bill Gaither embracing the lesbian songwriter Marsha Stevens and her partner generated such blowback from Gaither fans that Gaither issued a public statement denouncing homosexuality and lamenting Stevens’ “sad” life as a lesbian. A few years later in 2008, the soloist Ray Boltz came out after a long and successful career in CCM and inspirational music (and a 33-year straight marriage), citing the “darkness” of the closet and the torment of living a double life.
And these are only the most famous examples. Not for nothing has Bishop Yvette Flunder said that gospel music is gay music. But it’s not just gospel. From traditional black and Southern (or white) gospel, to praise and worship and inspirational, to Contemporary Christian music, you can’t swing a Dove Award (the Grammies of Christian entertainment) without hitting upon evidence of the longstanding, deep-set presence of queer experience in, and its influence on, Christian music culture at all levels: from performers on down the line to piano players, back-up singers and other supporting musicians, choir directors and song leaders, songwriters, producers, and managers, and of course, ordinary fans.
Come Out From Among Them
I have been one of those fans as long as I can remember, growing up as what the playwright Del Shores has called a Southern Baptist Sissy: a deeply-closeted preacher’s kid who couldn’t get enough of gospel music, whether listening to it, singing it, playing it on the piano in church, or performing it on stage with others. For some time now, the thinking both within and beyond the Christian music world has been that gay guys like me are attracted to the flamboyance and theatricality of Christian entertainment. Anthony Heilbut was probably the most prominent voice to assert this theory in his landmark history of black gospel in 1971. There, he wrote that “since gospel is theatrical, and theater is the paradigm for much of gay life, gospel has a special allure for gays.”
More than a few orthodox Christian-music insiders would agree with Heilbut. Many of them would probably also call for unflagging vigilance, lest the overabundance of homosexuals in Christian entertainment turn the Lord’s music into Sodom and Gomorrah: The Musical.
Tonéx’s and Knapp’s stories stand out in the queer history of Christian music because they directly challenge this heterocentric vision of the misfit gay using the stage to sublimate his forbidden sexual proclivities. Openly gay and Christian, Tonéx and Knapp insist on the right to “come out from among them,” as the apostle Paul put it in his letter to the early church at Corinth, and “be ye separate,” in ways that are true to the totality of who they are. In this way they actively resist being inscribed into evangelicalism’s punitive discourse of the self-embattled homosexual.
It is tempting to believe we’re seeing in the likes of Tonéx and Knapp the emergence of a prototypical species of postmodern gay Christian entertainer. On his popular blog about politics and culture, Andrew Sullivan linked to both Knapp’s and Tonéx’s coming-out interviews, particularly highlighting their insistence that being gay is not a personal struggle. These artists’ refusal to accept what Sullivan often refers to as the radical “Christianist” worldview about homosexuality seems to represent for him the incremental—and inevitable—liberalization of conservative Christian culture in America.
There is undoubtedly some truth to this view, insofar as greater inclusivity for homosexuals in American society at large has allowed the Jennifer Knapps and Tonéxes of the world to live open, honest lives. But it’s also easy to confuse the main currents of evangelical popular culture, which overlaps with but remains distinct from mainstream American society, with the cultural climate of America at large.
While the everyday living environment for gays and lesbians in America has improved considerably since Tharpe’s and Cleveland’s time, today the resistance within evangelical popular culture toward non-heterosexuals may be, if anything, intensifying in far more overt and punishing ways than in times past. While Cleveland dominated gospel music for two generations despite the open secret of his homosexuality, the only performers today who have been as widely known to be gay, while also maintaining a career as a Christian performer, are self-described “ex-gays” such as the black gospel star Donnie McClurkin.
And McClurkin is among the “lucky” ones. In the much less cosmopolitan world of Southern white gospel, the outed tenor singer Kirk Talley submitted himself to a regime of ex-gay reparative therapy under the supervision of respected industry leaders and prominent pastors. But music stores still pulled his product from their shelves, his concert schedule became a long list of cancellations, and his music career continues to languish more than six years later (I’ve written at greater length about gay men in southern gospel here). Boltz has fared slightly better (perhaps because he has eschewed the ex-gay path and focused on building a post-gay Christian fan base), but I wouldn’t be surprised if you can find a lot his music deeply discounted in the must-go bin of your local Christian retailer.
The Song Goes On
Even though I eventually came out and left evangelicalism almost half a lifetime ago, I confess there are still times in my work as a scholar of American religious culture (and a fan of Southern gospel) when the overwhelming reality of evangelicalism’s abiding antipathy toward homosexuality becomes so claustrophobic that I want to seize on stories such as Knapp’s and Tonéx’s as evidence of a fundamental recalibration in the threshold of tolerance for openly gay people in the world of Christian music.
Yet as much as I’d like to be right about this, the reality is that the fate of professional Christian musicians who come out is mostly fixed the moment they speak their truth. Which is why no one I know expects a comeback from Tonéx or Knapp in Christian music. At some level, they both seem to acknowledge as much, releasing post-coming out crossover albums aimed as much at secular pop, R&B, and hip-hop audiences as Christian music fans.
Understood, then, within the wider contexts of contemporary evangelicalism, these coming-out cases illustrate something less uplifting but more important to any meaningful understanding of religion and American culture: namely, that the more accepting secular society becomes of non-heterosexuals, the more aggressively protective evangelicalism is of its sense of itself as a haven for traditional values and lifeways—not least of all that for them, an absolute prohibition of homosexuality as defining feature of Christianity as they practice it.
Fortunately, the song goes on, as an old Bill Gaither tune puts it. While the ideological center of evangelical culture may well hold steadfast in its opposition toward homosexuality for some time to come, the critical mass of cultural consensus against gays shrinks ever so slightly every time people like Knapp and Tonéx insist publicly on being true to themselves, without surrendering their stake in Christian music and its concern with the alluring mysteries of the soul’s striving after grace and salvation. This, I think, is the true value of the sacred music of American Protestantism: its marvelous, incantatory, ever-dawning capacity to transcend orthodoxy’s efforts to control what it means or to put limits on the redemptive work it accomplishes for all those who find in it the key for their souls to sing in.