1. How did you get involved with TBP?
I was invited by Alex and feel very honored. Alex wrote to me in May of 2007. I was all ears. He said he enjoyed reading my columns in Newsweekly and wanted me to be a part of the Bilerico community. After he described the vision that he and Bil had for the site, I was delighted to be a part of the Bilerico blogging family.
2. What was your coming out experience like?
I write about that experience in the upcoming book CRISIS:Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America, edited by Mitchell Gold with Mindy Drucker , (which will hit bookstores next week). Here's an unedited copy of what I wrote.
"I ain't raising no goddamn bulldagger up in my house. Before I do that I'll send your ass right back to that damn agency where I got you."
Whenever my behavior revealed the slightest hint of masculinity, my foster mother always used those words to threaten me with expulsion from her house. My infraction one Saturday morning was getting caught playing an aggressive game of handball in the August heat with our neighbor's boys. Earlier that day, I had gone to Miss Pearl's Beauty Shop, where black hair was pressed, fried, dyed, and relaxed, and now I had sweated mine out playing ball. Instead of hanging flat and listless on my shoulders, it had happily returned to its nappy roots, giving me, before it was fashionable, an Afro. Incensed by my behavior and the waste of her money, my foster mother made me stay home from church the following day. It was culturally unacceptable in those days for African-American women to publicly display their nappy hair, especially in the House of the Lord. And besides, many church members were already gossiping about my behavior. Their gossip shamed me because it shamed my foster mother.
My residency in my foster mother's house was always tenuous. It hinged precariously on my being a number of things for her, one of which was a dainty little girl. I desperately tried to be that little girl. However, sometimes I failed her. And in those times, before I learned to censor my undainty ways, the wild and happy and athletic butch girl in me would break loose. And I realized, in those wondrously fleeting moments, that not only did I enjoy competitive rough-and-tumble sports with boys, but also the sexual exploration that came with sensuous joy of a touchy-feely game of "doctor" with girls.
At age six, my behavior was easily explained as precocious and cute; I was a tomboy who would outgrow this pre-adolescent phase once I learned cultural norms. However, by age sixteen I showed no signs of changing. Instead of precocious and cute, I was seen as a developmentally arrested teenager. The slang word for my "illness" was bulldagger, a colloquialism once commonly used in the African-American community to denote a masculine lesbian. This pejorative term had both tremendous sting and stigma, and my foster mother used it not only to spew her venom about my behavior, but also to evoke fear in the hopes that it would straighten me out. It didn't.
I like women!
The realization of my attraction to them was affirmed weekly as I delighted in looking at the voluptuous mocha-colored to honey-brown complexioned centerfolds in Jet magazine. Oh how I dreamed of being sexy like those women so that they would lust and long for me the way men lusted and longed for them. And with my nightly fantasies of Jet centerfolds eyeing me, finally, I thought, I would make things up to my foster mother: Since I hadn't been able to be her dainty little girl, I would become her ultra-fem teenager.
I probably shouldn't have told my foster mother the reason why I wanted to become ultra-fem--so other women would like me. She yelled at me for my twisted thoughts, warning me that I would be homeless if I didn't take her demands that I become a normal girl seriously. My minister said I would go to hell if I didn't rebuke the homosexual demon in me and be spiritually treated by him.
As a ward of New York State, I had a third authority figure in my life: a social worker assigned to me by the Bureau of Child Welfare. And of the three--my mother, my minister, and my social worker--it was my social worker who showed the greatest optimism for my becoming a healthy heterosexual.
According to her, my sexual confusion was a textbook case. Having lived with my birth mother for six months before she abandoned me in a trashcan in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, my behavior was merely an expression of my continuing search for her. In her usual distant and clinical tone, my social worker explained that the "tactile deficit" experienced by a child deprived of a parent's touch during infancy is often expressed sexually with someone of the same gender as the missing parent. I interrupted her to point out that I was missing both parents. Annoyed, she snapped back that it was the gender of the parent I missed most or who had hurt me most.
Both my foster mother and my minister accepted her explanation. So they sent me to weekly psychotherapy sessions, but I showed no progress. The child psychiatrist and my social worker seemed to realize I was incurably gay, incapable of modeling societal gender norms, and the frustration showed in their faces. At that point, my social worker gave me some advice: Pretend to be straight.
Here was her reasoning: In those days, before there were group homes and interracial adoption, African-American and Latino foster kids were the hardest to place (and still are). With many more children in need than foster homes available, my being a troubled African-American homosexual teenager assured me neither long-term housing nor permanent placement.
Her stories of the many foster children thrown out of foster homes for lesser infractions than being homosexual scared me enough to act straight. Moreover, she believed in behavior modification to change dysfunctional behavior patterns and remediate damaged thinking so one can better interact with the world. With her advice, I began accessorizing myself with the outward accouterments of heterosexual culture. Being captain of the girls track and volleyball teams kept the question of my sexual orientation on the front burner for my foster mother, minister, and social worker, so I became a cheerleader. My biggest and best cover-up was my six-foot-three high school basketball-playing boyfriend. And while the cover-up worked beautifully Monday through Friday at school, I never felt comfortable with the lie I had created when I was in church on Sunday.
The centrality of the Black Church in African-American communities shapes the attitudes and mores of both its "churched" and "unchurched" residents. I joined my church at age five, was baptized at six, and served on the junior usher board from ages six until sixteen, becoming board president by fifteen.
I still remember the first day my minister called me into his study to share Jesus' special love for children. He read the Bible passage in Mark 10:13-16: "People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.' And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them."
He told me no other place in the world so welcomes all children--especially orphans--as the church. And since my church, a pillar of the community, was so welcoming, it was a nod for the larger community to welcome me, too. Growing up in the church was a refuge from the hostile and violent worlds of my environment and foster home, feeding and clothing me both physically and spiritually. For me, aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., my minister was one of the best representations of doing God's work in the world and an exemplary disciple of Jesus because he, like Jesus, loved me. Therefore I took his advice and admonitions about unjust acts and ungodly behavior seriously.
Over the years, I frequently met with him in his office--to sign an embarrassing report card, explain receiving detention for cutting class, discuss why I wanted to join the Dance Theater of Harlem instead of going to college, debate scripture or world events, and get advice on how to be a good Christian.
I will always remember my last visit to his office, when I was sixteen. It was my desire to be a good Christian that led me to make the appointment. When we met, I told him that my boyfriend wanted to have sex but the feeling wasn't mutual. I also confessed that if there was anyone I'd want to be with in that way, it would be my girlfriend.
As always, he listened attentively. Then he came around the desk with his Bible in hand and told me to open my Bible. He read Leviticus 18:22: "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination." Next he told me to read aloud Romans 1:26-27 in which Paul writes, "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error."
When I finished reading, he slammed his Bible shut, knocked mine out of my hands, and said not only was I causing God's wrath, but also his own. Like my social worker, he too believed in behavior modification: He explained that if I pretended to like natural sexual relations with men I would eventually come to love it. However, he said, the best person to teach me was not my boyfriend, but him--and he was going to teach me now, once and for all.
The scuffle that ensued caught the attention of two male deacons, who ran frantically down the hall and knocked on the door. When my minister swung the door open, the deacons could see furniture overturned and the contents of his desk on the floor. Noticing that my minister and I were both straightening our clothes, the deacons asked what was the matter. My minister said, "I was fighting this harlot off me. After all these years of being a father figure to her I couldn't imagine anything like this."
News spread through the church and the community, with most people, even my foster mother, questioning the veracity of the story. But because I brought shame to the minister, in less than a week, with a black garbage bag of my worldly possessions in tow, I was an emergency placement in another foster home. When I told my new foster family what had happened, they threw me out of their house for fear that my homosexuality would contaminate their other female foster kids.
With no place to go--no help from the foster care agency and the loss of both my community and my church--I would have attempted to take my life were it not for the help of my high school guidance counselor and teachers.
When I left for college in the 1970s, I was the beneficiary of three civil rights movements--black, women's, and gay. I assumed my choice of school--renowned liberal Massachusetts women's college, Wellesley--would be the most open and affirming. It wasn't. Although Wellesley had many white openly lesbian students, the African-American ones were closeted. Controlled by the homophobic ethos of black nationalism, as well as the social isolation and cultural intolerance of the campus milieu, many of us African-American lesbian sisters performed our requisite black heterosexual roles in order to be part of the black community. I played my role so well that by my senior year I was elected president of the black student governing body.
After college, I decided to attend seminary. I wanted to go to an African-American seminary because I felt there was no better place to learn about the Black Church. But by this time I had come out, and the two African-American seminaries to which I applied had rejected me because of my sexual orientation. Instead I attended Union Theological Seminary in New York and then Harvard Divinity School, where as a doctoral student my focus became gay rights.
In recent years, the Black Church has yet again rejected me. Because I am openly lesbian, I have not found a home church in my faith tradition from which to do AIDS ministry--and Black heterosexual women are the new face of HIV/AIDS, so there is much work to be done.
So I have become a public theologian. I have found a home and my ministry on the streets, with Boston's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. The foundation for my life's work is in what Jesus said in Matthew 25:45: "In truth I tell you, in so far as you failed to do it for the least of these, however insignificant, you failed to do it for me."
My work is a public theology in tandem with a struggling community. While it is easy to see how economic disadvantage because of racial bias leads people of color to the streets, it is less determinable as to how many gay people are forced into homelessness. Abandoned by family and friends because of their sexual orientation, many have only the streets.
Part of my outreach ministries is reporting on religion in the news for gay and mainstream publications. In this era of dominance by the Christian Right, I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against gay people. And because homophobia, like other prejudices, is a hatred of the "other," and usually acted upon in the name of religion, my writing allows me to highlight how intolerance and fundamentalism not only hurt the gay community but also perpetuate other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism, and anti- Semitism. And in the process, prejudice and intolerance in the name of religion also shatter the goals of American democracy: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for every citizen.
3. Why did you decide to go into ministry?
In the 1960s and 1970s, we African Americans got our news concerning black people from three main sources: the black church, the black newspapers and the streets. Believed to be much more reliable than television's ABC evening news and white newspapers like the New York Post and The New York Times, the streets were usually where we heard or saw the news first. In my home of segregated Brooklyn, N.Y., in fact, the streets functioned as a multi-layered site where African Americans transacted their business, interacted socially and were mobilized for action. So, coming from a black urban tradition, I grew up on the streets and was educated by them.
In African American urban communities, the streets have always been the site for radical change and the stage for subversive public discourse. Weekly, in the protest era of the 1960s, African Americans from all the five boroughs in New York City would travel to Harlem to hear street ministers, street intellectuals, street politicians and African American griots (oral historians) give their public addresses at the well-known street site of UCLA, the University on the Corner at Lennox Avenue. With no walls to lean on, no chairs to sit in and, oftentimes, with no podium for the speakers to speak from, UCLA served as our public institution of higher education. The street, UCLA, provided a rich public discourse of black intellectual thought.
In African American religious life, the streets have also been the stage for Christian social protest and public theology. The black civil rights movement picked up its momentum and received worldwide attention when African American preachers moved their members from their church pews to the picket lines. The world not only got to see an African American Christian social ethic in practice, but it also got to hear a black public theology espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. On the first day of the Montgomery Bus Boycott on December 5, 1955, King espoused his views on the requisite conditions for black activism: "Freedom is never given to anybody! For the oppressor has you in domination because he plans to keep you there! And he never voluntarily gives it up. We've got to keep on keepin' on in order to gain freedom. It is not done voluntarily. It is done through the pressure that comes about from people who are oppressed. Privileged classes never give up their privilege without strong resistance."
To the general public, the streets are commonly thought of as the site for rioting. Demonized for much of the violence that does take place there, marginalized people's street riots are organic revolutionary forms of social justice where they come into their own power. New York City's Greenwich Village LGBT community learned that on the night of June 27, 1969. Little would the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a predominately African American and Latino LGBT working-class bar, know that those two nights of rioting -- June 27-29 -- would spark the advent of our queer liberation movement. On the last day of the street riots, crowds gathered outside the Stonewall Inn to assess the damage and to read the graffiti sprawled on its bricks -- "Legalize Gay Bars" and "Support Gay Power." Such were the earliest expressions of Queer public theology.
Public theologies emerge from street people. Public theologies are also liberating theologies, because they emerge from those people at the bottom and at the fringes of life. Theologian Robert McAfee Brown in Liberation Theology (1993) points out that "the starting point for liberation theology is not at all the topics theologians write about, but [it is] the here-and-nowness of what is happening on street corners or at soup kitchens." These theologies are about the dispossessed, the disinherited, the disrespected and the damned. They are expressions of the life of God's people. And, while not all street people are people of faith and many live secular lives, theology is not restricted or privatized to only those in seminaries, churches or who acknowledge a living God. Theology is about the whole of life and the whole of life encompasses both its sacred and public spheres. As Massachusetts' Episcopal bishop, M. Thomas Shaw, has pointed out, "our public life is very much a part of our [religious] journey." (See "Walking the God-talk in politics today: resurrecting a public theology," The Witness, Sept. 2000.) Street people may have been forced to the public margins of society -- the streets -- but their social location and lived experiences as individuals and as communities bump up against existing structures and systems of domination and call into question the dominant culture's presumptions about the wholeness of life and the theological underpinnings upon which they rest.
Clearly, public theologies often emerge from a place of inhospitality and parochialism. Having neither a home in the church nor a place in the academy, these theologies emerge from the activism of indigenous people of and on the streets. Public theologies have a prophetic call in that they call attention to the present-day social injustices and institutional ills that bring about a particular people's forced eviction from the Kingdom of God. These public theologies are nagging reminders to the privileged that their churches and seminaries not only choke the spiritual lives of the oppressed, but also limit their theological view in seeing and knowing the various faces of God. These public theologies are, indeed, the authentic expressions of the life of God's people. And, while these public theologies reflect the unending struggle to give voice and visibility to those relegated to the margins of society, these theologies also reflect the joy and celebration in the daily lives of its people of and on the streets.
While it is easy to see how the economic disadvantage based on structural racial bias leads peoples of color to the streets, it is less obvious how many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are forced to become street people. Abandoned by family and friends because of our sexual orientation, many of us have only the streets. And many religious lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are spiritually homeless in that we have been evicted from our faith communities. Oftentimes we find ourselves on the streets of gay enclaves searching for the spiritual community we lost since being excommunicated by our faith communities. And, while many of us have found spiritual refuge in queer alternative churches like Metropolitan Community Church, Dignity, and Unity Fellowship, many of us nonetheless miss our home churches.
Because the streets are the harsh reality of both homelessness and joblessness, many of us LGBT people who are in seminaries or in schools of theological study reside in the closet until after tenure or ordination. However, even once out of the closet, many of us do not necessarily preach, teach, write or advocate from the social location of being queer because the streets can still be a place where we end up if we do so.
Because I am an open lesbian, I have not found a home church in my faith tradition of the black church from which to do AIDS ministry. Nor have I located an academic base where I can do queer theology because it is not yet, in the eyes of many academics, a legitimate theology. So I have found a home and my ministry/life's work on the streets, with Boston's LGBT communities.
As I came out as a lesbian to myself and to my church, my theological voice shifted. Where as a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York I was just focused on black church women, as a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School my attention was drawn to the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. At Harvard, too, I combined journalism with my area of study, enabling me to develop a strong focus on religion in the news. As a result, in this era of the Christian Right, one of my outreach ministries is my two religion columns -- "The Religion Thang," for In Newsweekly, a LGBT newspaper that circulates widely throughout the New England states, and a monthly column online, "Queer Take," for The Witness.
4. What's the most rewarding thing about your job?
In this era of the Christian Right, a notable element of my public outreach ministry is the number of queer religion columns I write for papers and online journals across the country. As a religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against LGBTQ people.
When churches work, they ground the spiritual wanderer and embrace the ecclesiastically shy. They bring in the un-churched and uphold the Christian mission to welcome in all of God's children. However, when churches lose their prophetic call, they open themselves not only to the charge of inhospitality, but also to the charge of parochialism. Theology in these churches, unfortunately, assails LGBTQ people.
Similarly, seminaries lose their prophetic call when they address only the academy, or only the institutional interests of their denominational churches, and not the interests of those on the streets, like the epidemic of homelessness among LGBTQ youth.
Much of what is written about LGBTQ people is by heterosexuals, thus much of who LGBTQ people are is seen and written through a complicated prism of homophobia that projects and condones lies, fears and violence for the holy sake of moral virtue and family values. Ignored is the distinctive epistemology that shapes not only our identity, but also the interpretative lens we zoom onto the world--on politics, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, arts, music, and ostensibly religion.
For LGBT people, writing from our social location is not only a radically queer act, but also a subversive tool to decentralize the traditional theological canon in this society which values and lauds heterosexuals' writings as normative. We create a counter voice with our writings--a text and knowledge that becomes a tool that not only gives us a voice, but also gives us power. Writing in this sense becomes both an act of liberation and of social activism which is the work of a public theology.
It is important that LGBT writers, journalists, theologians and activists write because our lives depend on it. We should write because not to write would be to participate in our own spiritual death. We should write because our progeny will need it. We should write because our opuses become canons for survival. We should write because our lives are sacred texts.
5. What do you think the greatest challenge facing our community is?
It is how the Black Church endangers the African American LGBTQ Community. Why? Because the nadir of ecclesiastical responsibility in the Black Church pivots around 4 major concerns impacting African American communities today- the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially as it impacts African American women, marriage equality for same gender-loving couples, LGBTQ homelessness, and its alliance with the Christian Right.
The face of HIV/AIDs in the African American community was once gay men. Today, however, the face of the epidemic is heterosexual women. But the tragedy doesn't stop there. The epidemic is also with the unseen faces of black teenagers. Seventeen percent of the U.S. teen population is African American, but Black teens make up 70 percent of teenagers testing HIV-positive, and many of these teens- straight and gay- are on the streets. With African Americans at younger and younger ages being infected with the AIDS virus, the life expectancy rate of African Americans will decline. Soon we will no longer expect today's young African Americans to become the elders of the community.
6. You spend a lot of time taking care of others? But how do you make sure that you're taking care of yourself?
I do pilates religiously 3 days a week. Biking and hiking throughout the hinterlands of the People's Republic of Cambridge, water jogging, and taking the Fast Ferry from Boston to Provincetown.
Check out previous interviews with TBP Contributors
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore