Words by Marcus Donaldson | Photo by Amani Williams
I remember waking up at 5 a.m. every Wednesday in high school to attend prayer circle before class. We would meet in the foyer of Matthews’ Auditorium, and I’d listen to my peers give thanks for the gift of life, for the greatest act of love, for the blood of Jesus whose sacrifice was to cleanse us of our wrongdoing.
It took two years to realize the Lamb’s blood was staining me. I wasn’t going to be washed clean. I was in love with a boy. Some Sundays I felt filthy, like I was lying, as if I might implode from the guilt.
Could anyone tell I met a boy at the movies last night? Does anyone else in here have drippy palms? Surely, I couldn’t be the only one, but I wanted to be. I needed, perhaps, to think I was the only one. We all can’t be going to hell, right? I wouldn’t have wished these feelings of shame and self-contempt on the most pompous peacock among us.
I remember the summer my grandfather noticed my voice changed. He asked me if I could sing, my emerging manhood resting on the number of women I could acquire with my voice. I told him I sang at school, but I knew why he asked. I wasn’t about to be the Michael to his Joe Jackson.
If my voice wasn’t going to win budding women, it was going to be my body. That summer, and the three following, he made me do sets of push-ups. I probably got stronger, but I was still skinny. His plan failed.
I was proud to sing in my school’s a cappella choir, and begrudgingly sang in the church youth choir.
“Only what you do for Christ will last,” my mother says.
“ ‘No sin is greater than any other,’ they tell less well-meaning Christians. Which is to say, for queer folk, to exist is to sin. To love is to sin. I was told this whole thing was rooted in love.”
My mother would often guilt my sister and I into participating in the creative parts of the monthly children-led services. We would have much preferred to greet visitors, and sometimes we did. But mostly, we danced.
Most of the time, I was the only boy in the liturgical dance ministry. Dancing never made me uncomfortable, but being the only boy always felt odd. I’d been taught about Alvin Ailey and the dance company he started, but everyone left out details of his life. During dance rehearsal one Saturday morning, I overheard a conversation between our instructor and my mother.
“Girl, I don’t know what I would do if my son came home talking about how he likes boys,” our instructor says.
“Child, me either,” my mother replies.
I didn’t know if I liked boys at the time, but I knew I shouldn’t.
I remember taking pride in dressing up for church, and receiving compliments on my shirt and tie pairings. That feeling drastically differed from being mocked by my boy cousins for wearing similar ensembles when I’d visit my grandparents during summers in Media, Pennsylvania.
I’d seen queer boys disappear in church before. They, too, were beloved for their talents. They, too, came back from college different. I now wonder if they began attending less frequently for reasons similar to mine. Did they also feel they had to be the church’s version of themselves? I’ve learned about trying to be multiple people at once. Eventually, my selves would have to duke it out. This wasn’t a street fight; we weren’t fighting for bragging rights. We weren’t all going to make it out of this brawl alive.
In December 2015, I went to church with my parents for the first time in just under a year. I
had been away for college, and I did my best not to look uncomfortable. But I’m sure my mother felt me shifting beside her. I tried to hide my rolling eyes during the reading of scripture, during the offering and during the sermon. I’m still unsure if I succeeded. I played my part, though. I smiled, shook hands and hugged folks. I even answered intrusive questions about my ex-girlfriend.
Being there, a reformed peacock among peacocks, reminded me how I got here. I used to think my posturing was giving God my best. I had more questions the longer we sat in service. How might my black queer body be used for His plan? And what would be the lesson? What’s the takeaway? What was the truth?
The reality is well-meaning Christians are culpable in our deaths in the rhetoric used to defend the abomination of our love. “No sin is greater than any other,” they tell less well-meaning Christians. Which is to say, for queer folk, to exist is to sin. To love is to sin. I was told this whole thing was rooted in love.
I learned my truth wouldn’t shame my grandmother’s devil, nor the church’s. I’d been taught to be ashamed of my truth, even if indirectly. Calling my truth an abomination with no more weight than any other sin is still calling my truth an abomination. We pray away my kind of truth. I learned that here, in the church. I also learned how to worship, even if my worship now took place outside the sanctuary, outside the fellowship hall, outside the vestibule. My worship takes place in my bedroom, on sidewalks, in the bar.
My soul gets happy when I hear second altos running up and down scales. My hand gets toflailing when the bassist hits a lick. I shout because it’s what I know. I twirl, spin, drop and crawl when that syncopation hits my left hip bone. My body has always known how to groove. My body has always known how to praise. It’s always known worship, but I couldn’t help the feelings of guilt that made me uncomfortable during the preaching.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I asked my dad why he’s a Christian.
“I gotta hang my hat on something,” he says.
I knew then this wasn’t good enough for me. Now, I know why. For my father, his faith will grant him deliverance. His faith will bring him freedom. I heard Jesus doesn’t grant my kind of freedom. I heard I have to sign my own freedom papers.