For Coming Out Day, ‘Gays and Gospel’ Celebrates LGBTQ+ Influence on Church Music

Celebrating the ‘Gays and Gospel’ event on October 11, National Coming Out Day, at Northwestern University’s Alice Millar Chapel. Credit: justin barbin

National Coming Out Day, October 11, was celebrated at Northwestern University with a combined lecture and concert titled “Gays and Gospel” that honored the contributions of the LGTBQ+ community to gospel music.

The event was held at Northwestern’s Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Road, and led by E. Patrick Johnson, Dean of Northwestern’s School of Communication, and Kent R. Brooks, Director of Special Projects for the Department of Religious and Spiritual Life and Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Performance Studies. NU student Olivia Pierce participated as a vocalist with several musicians from the Bienen School of Music.

Kent Brooks, left, and E. Patrick Johnson. Brooks is Director of Special Projects for the Department of Religious and Spiritual Life and Adjunct Teaching Professor in the Department of Interpretive Studies. Johnson is dean of the School of Communication at Northwestern. Credit: justin barbin

The program delved into the history of gospel in the black church and introduced audiences to an array of LGBTQ+-identified gospel singers, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Willmer “Little Axe” Broadnax, James Cleveland and Rev. Dr Yvette Fluunder.

In a phone interview after the event, Brooks said, “One of the things I’m teaching in my class this term is the importance of the black church not only to the survival of black people in the United States , but also for the development of black people in the United States. United States.”

Chicago is often considered the birthplace of gospel music. Gospel flourished under the prodigious songwriting talent and musicality of Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the “Crown Prince” of gospel. Dorsey is credited with composing 3,000 songs, a third of which were gospel.

In an email, Brooks explained that “Dorsey’s foray into black sacred music began in the early 1920s. He was still composing and performing blues with Ma Rainey and Tampa Red, but real success came in 1930 when Mrs. Willie Mae Ford Smith sang one of Dorsey’s songs at the National Baptist Convention. This song, “If You See My Savior”, sold thousands of copies and, Brooks said, “made her opened the door to other gospel music, which was new at the time. This allowed him to devote his career to gospel music.

Dorsey honed his skills as music director of Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, a role he held for 50 years. In 1932 he co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses to help guide and train musicians and singers across the United States. He influenced the careers of a whole generation of gospel singers, including, above all, James Cleveland.

Cleveland, known as the “Gospel King,” was a boy soprano and a member of the Pilgrim Baptist Church. While still a teenager, he stretched his vocal chords resulting in the rocky voice that became his trademark, although it also led him to focus more on his skills as a songwriter, arranger, pianist and choirmaster than singer. His recording career spanned from 1950, with his group The Gospelaires, to 1988 under his own label, King James Records. A highlight was working with Aretha Franklin on her best-selling 1972 gospel album, “Amazing Grace.”

Interspersed with slides and dialogue on prominent black gospel singers, the October 11 presentation featured Brooks playing the piano and Johnson and Brooks singing, filling the church with rich sound that energized the audience.

Johnson opened up about his experiences growing up in the Deep South as a chubby black boy who knew he was gay. As a regular churchgoer, he felt comfortable and at home in his Baptist church choir, describing it as “feeling affirmed without naming it”.

As a child, Johnson said, he took confidence in his singing abilities, and since his voice didn’t change until he was well into his mid-teens, he harnessed that talent for everything he wanted. was worth. “I was a budding diva,” he said.

Brook’s expertise and area of ​​study is the performance history and social implications of black gospel music in the United States. He said his brother Larry, 16 years his senior, had been a huge influence on his career. Brooks shared some memories with the audience, which he detailed later in the phone interview.

“We were a family gospel band, basically. And Larry was the one who was the de facto musical director,” Brooks said over the phone. “He was looking for new songs. He was teaching the songs, and even his teaching style was so comical. He had the perfect blend of comedy, but he also demanded authority. You know, when he was teaching me, he wanted everything to be perfect. He was a perfectionist with a great personality to match. His talent was such that he commanded respect and he took it with him in his professional life.

Larry Brooks came out while in college, which in the early ’70s “was an anomaly,” Kent Brooks says, adding that his brother came home from college on a weekend and told his parents.

“My mom and dad dealt with it and had to deal with some hard truths because my brother came out, and those truths, once suspicions, now had to be resolved,” Brooks said. “I won’t say it was always rosy and sunny, but they did the hard work, to their credit, and that’s what they modeled before me, my other siblings, and really people in our community. , people in our community who knew my brother was gay.

“You know, people may have said things behind his back, but not to his face. They needed my mom and dad, who were celebrated in their own right in our community. Larry was their child and they accepted their child unconditionally.

Brooks’ brother, Larry, died of AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1998. AIDS decimated the gay community of singers, musicians, choir leaders, record producers and worshippers. “The best way to honor them is to use their gifts,” Johnson said at the Coming Out Day event.

E. Patrick Johnson famous. Choir robes add a theatrical touch to gospel concerts, but robes used for a doctoral hood ceremony work just as well. Credit: justin barbin

Johnson said black church and gospel music were natural venues for sissy boys to express their talents. The “theatrics of robes” worn for choir concerts is just one example, Johnson said.

He pulled out and wore the robe he bought for his doctoral hood ceremony and joked, “I got every penny out of that robe!” before starting a rousing demonstration of how he celebrates in church. The crowd cheered and cheered. Johnson was out of breath when he returned to the front of the church to resume his presentation.

The irony of so many revolutionary evangelical leaders who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, employed by churches who decried those sexual or gender identities as sins against God, is not lost on Johnson or Brooks.

Ingrained bigotry is deeply painful, Johnson said: “The church family is their first family. This breakdown has led to many artists being locked in and internalizing their struggles, even today.

Johnson closed the lecture concert by saying that National Coming Out Day celebrates those who dare to revel in their differences.

Jerry B. Hatch