Hitting the wall

“We’re just as normal as everybody else.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that statement – or variations of it. I’ve seen headlines titled “Gay – the new straight.” Or “The mainstreaming of gay.” I must say, though, if anyone’s been paying attention to the Chik-fil-A drama, it’s pretty clear that, for many people, being gay is kind of a big deal, and far from being considered normal.

But I don’t want to talk about Chik-fil-A – there’s enough media saturation on that topic. However, I do want to talk about religion, which is embedded in the Chik-fil-A debate, because I think that the LGBTQ community’s struggles in this arena powerfully illustrate the challenges of gaining acceptance in a mainstream cultural institution. More specifically, I’d like to spend some time focusing on one particular religious enclave – the contemporary Christian music industry.

Marsha Stevens, at one point in her career, was considered to be the “mother of contemporary Christian music.” She had a record label and a successful career – and then, in 1979, she came out publicly as a lesbian. Her record label dropped her. Her music was pulled from retail stores, and promoters canceled her concert bookings. Christan Century magazine called Stevens “conservative Christianity’s worst nightmare – a Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, God-fearing lesbian Christian.” Her career hit a wall.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we have Jennifer Knapp, a top-billed Christian singer who sold a million records between 1998 and 2002, earned four Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association, and secured two Grammy nominations. In 2010, after a six-year hiatus from the music industry, Knapp made a public announcement stating that she’d been in a same-sex relationship since 2002. She, too, lost her record label, and her latest independent release isn’t being played on Christian radio stations.

Qui510, formerly known as TriQui Di, is a vocalist and songwriter hailing from Oakland, California. Although she doesn’t perform Christian music, she got her start in the African American Baptist and Pentecostal churches, singing in the choir that produced the Hawkins Singers (of “Oh Happy Day!” fame). She, like Marsha Stevens and Jennifer Knapp, was signed with a major record label and performed with Snoop Dogg, Aaliyah, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, and Tony! Toni! Toné! Since 2009, when she came out publicly on her radio show, she’s had difficulty getting even local gigs. “Before, I was on the front page,” Qui510 told me. “Now, I’m an afterthought.”

All three of these artists decided to be true to themselves, and live as openly, honestly, and authentically as possible. All of them still hold strongly onto their religious faith. And all three of them have been effectively shut out from the mainstream – and their careers have suffered tremendously.

When it comes to accepting LGBTQ people into the mainstream, religion seems to be the last house on the block. And I think that psychological theory and research can help us explain why that’s the case. Using social identity theory, Megan Johnson, Wade Rowatt, and Jordan LaBouff of Baylor University explain why there’s such a strong divide between people who identify as religious and people who are gay. In their most recent study, “Religion and prejudice revisited: In-group favoritism, out-group derogation, or both?” published in the May 2012 issue of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Johnson and her colleagues found that people who identified as Christian were more likely to hold negative attitudes towards gay men (and to Muslims and atheists, interestingly), compared to people who didn’t practice a Christian faith. This finding probably isn’t all that surprising, given the stronghold that the religious right has on anti-gay policies.

But it’s this next finding that is quite interesting, in my opinion. Regardless of preexisting religious beliefs, people who were subliminallly primed with religious words developed more negative attitudes towards gay men than those who were primed with neutral terms. In other words, being exposed to religion – even in a subconscious way – was enough to create animosity towards gay men.  Clearly, there’s a very powerful “us vs. them” mechanism that is embedded within traditional Christianity.

Here’s where social identity theory comes in: According to this theory, identifying as a member of a particular group helps people to maintain and enhance their self-esteem. If that group is associated with positive characteristics, such as “good” or “moral,” that enhances self-esteem even further. Moreover, establishing an out-group (such as “gay”) and establishing a set of negative connotations to that group (such as “bad” or “immoral”) further helps to solidify one’s in-group identity and self-esteem. Put more simply, putting others down helps us to feel better about ourselves. And putting gay people in the “them” category helps people feel more secure in the “us” category.

No wonder the stonewalling in the music industry (particularly in contemporary Christian music) is so pervasive. Keep the lesbians out, and we’ll all be safe.

At this moment, it doesn’t look like assimilating into the Christian music industry is much of an option. So what choices do these artists have? When Marsha Stevens was shut out of the Christian music house, so to speak, she built her own – in the form of BALM (Born Again Lesbian Music) Ministries, which now has its own record label. As for Jennifer Knapp, she’s chosen to abandon Christian music altogether; for now, she’s writing and recording secular music under her own independent label. And Qui510? Although she’s doesn’t perform Christian music, her fan base was the Black community – and that fan base has dissipated significantly since she came out. And as a Black performer, she’s historically faced challenges in getting booked at venues that have more White audiences. As an African-American lesbian, she’s a member of more than one out-group – and her career has taken the hit. But she’s not giving up – if anything, it’s strengthened her resolve to live her truth.




Filed under coming out, homophobia, LGBTQ, media, psychological research, racism

9 responses to “Hitting the wall

  1. I grew up in conservative fundamentalist Christianity. There are people of that faith who actually believe that if the U.S. sanctions gay marriage and accepts LGBTQ people with full equal rights, their God will punish the entire country and they will suffer physical harm. I believe the conservative politicians who use LGBTQ issues as a wedge issue are very well aware of this and play into it for their own gain. I’m not sure how to convince people who hold to that sort of belief that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans* people deserve and have every right to demand equal rights. Is this a divide too large to bridge?

    • I wish I could give a definitive answer to this one, Karen. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film “For the Bible Tells Me So,” but it’s an excellent documentary. One of the narratives involves a young lesbian named Anna who committed suicide after her mother disowned her, quoting Scripture and telling her she was going to hell. That tragedy created enough cognitive dissonance in her mother for her to start questioning her religious beliefs, and ultimately led her to become an LGBTQ activist. Personally, I haven’t found a great way to “convince” religious people to evaluate their beliefs – engaging in arguments about the Bible usually turns into a frustrating, dead-end conversation. However, I do think that people are more motivated to shift their beliefs if someone they love very much discloses that they are gay. Obviously it doesn’t happen in every circumstance – far too many LGBTQ people are estranged from their families. But some families do make the shift – Gregory Herek’s done some interesting research on this angle of reducing homophobia.

      • I haven’t seen that film yet, but have heard great things about it. It is on my list of must-see films. I have been trying recently to go back in my mind to the point when i myself let go of my own dogmatic beliefs, to see if i can pinpoint a conversation or a moment that helped broaden my thinking. So far, i have not been able to. I’m not familiar with Gregory Herek but will look him up. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Gary Hollander

    Thanks again for getting my brain juices flowing on a weekly basis, Gayle. Thanks, too, for the smart post — both current AND informed.

    I am wondering what we would find in our research on intolerance if we had better and more consistent measures for it. I sort of think of it this way: if I am unhappy, I am not giving much of a clue about what I am. Am I feeling angry, sad, fearful? In a funk, blue, worried? The same goes with intolerance. It sounds like the capitalist thugs in charge of so-called Christian music ventures are REJECTING individual lesbian artists (Wouldn’t you love to hear that board room discussion? Does it start with a prayer?). They might also be AVOIDING the discussion with many other Christians who are TOLERANT of an artist’s sexuality. I think that only when we examine our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (both real and imagined or intended) in these gradations of intolerance will we be able to plan our responses to it.

    At this point, I find that many of my LGBT friends, colleagues, and community members don’t rock the boat on issues of importance to them because they want to preserve their sense of acceptance by family and friends. But, when I scratch the surface on their experiences, I don’t so much find that they are being accepted; they are just not being overtly rejected. The limbo of avoidance and tolerance is not acceptance. In fact, I think it is killing us.

    The women whose careers are being affected by rejection by a Christian Capitalist junta are harmed by it. So are their fans in a way. So are their LGBT brothers and sisters, Christian or not. But I believe that they would also be hurt by the frozen “stepford smiles” of avoidance or tolerance. Their stalled careers would feel more like a problem of their own making — maybe limits in their talent or taste. At least this overt rejection can be traced to idiot bigots.

    • That’s a really good point, Gary – that there’s a difference between “acceptance” and “lack of rejection.” I think the reason these women have all chosen to be out and unapologetic about who they are, even though their careers have suffered, is because they know that the cost of hiding who they are in order to make others happy and comfortable is far greater.

      Part of what makes intolerance so difficult to measure is that it’s often intangible. When I was doing my dissertation research, I wanted to assess the degree to which lesbian women had internalized our culture’s homophobic attitudes. Most of the measures I found were rather crude and obvious – I wanted to get at the subtleties of internalized homophobia. I ended up finding a measure that was adequate, but not spectacular. I also don’t think that we psychologists have done a very good job naming the different forms of oppression that LGBTQ people are subjected to. We have the word “homophobia,” for example, but there are so many different ways homophobia can be expressed, and that one word doesn’t capture that idea very well.


  3. Keith Slaughter

    Gayle, thanks so much for this post and for your responses to Karen and Gary. Karen and Gary, thanks for your input.

    In addition to the “us” vs. “them” perspective posited by social identity theory I think it is important to consider that the Christian music industry is selling to a wide audience, many of whom believe that the Bible is the Word of G*d and that the Bible tells them that homosexuality is just plain immoral. Putting aside whether that is a correct interpretation, even those who “love the sinner” but “hate the sin” have trouble getting past it, and this would certainly factor in their choice of the Christian recording artists they listen to. So it makes sense, of course, that Christian record company executives, out of fear of loss of sales, would drop their recording artists who come out as gay — attempting to get out in front of their customers on this might well put them out of business!

    There seems to be a growing group of Christians, albeit still small, who act in accordance with their belief that the overriding message of Jesus in the New Testament is to love one another since we are all equally sinners, that it is not for us to judge whether one “sin” is worse than another. And some Christians believe that the Bible has to be interpreted as a document rooted in the historical times in which it was written or transcribed, which I take to mean that they believe that the Bible would read significantly differently were it set down today. Perhaps Christian recording artists who come out in order to be more fully authentic — let’s support them to do so if they want to! — will find success appealing to that market segment and, perhaps, to a more mainstream secular audience.

    • Gary Hollander

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Keith. Good points all. I sometimes get snagged on small parts of a discourse and need to go back to reflect on them at times. This makes the exchange of thoughts more interesting to me and helps me hone my own thinking. I consistently find Gayle’s postings inspirational in that process.

      Your observation of social identity as an us vs them perspective snagged me just so. As I consider the development of our social identities (see Cox and Gallois) I am less struck by the notion of us vs them than by us in the context of them (and them in the context of us). In other words, the category with which I identify developed and develops in the context of the other AND in the context of each other. My posse and I learned the category as we took it on, but we are not powerless to change the category’s meaning nor is there inherent conflict with the other to do so.

      There is no essential capitalist core to Christian music, but LGBTQ Christian recording artists will likely need to address their own capitalism if they will get their creations into the hearts and minds of other Christians. Otherwise, the profit motives of the other control them and control access to their potential audience. In the time of expansive social media, there certainly should be a way to get music to those who want it without going through the traditional corporate system. That is not conflictual in my view. It is freeing.

      • Gary and Keith, my apologies for letting a few days go before responding. I’ve been without Internet for a couple of days.

        Both of you make excellent points. I wanted to throw one more into the mix. Given that so many LGBTQ people have had such bad experiences with religion, and because, at least these days, Christianity is (sometimes unfairly) equated with homophobia, getting the mainstream or the LGBTQ community to buy or support Christian music – even if it’s LGBTQ-affirming – would likely be a hard sell. I don’t know too many LGBTQ people who have any interest whatsoever in Christian music – and this includes people who go to some kind of church or spiritual center.

        Increasingly, I hear straight people who are Christian voicing their anger about the fact that their religion has been hijacked by the political right. One of my students, who is Christian himself, put it well when he said, “Christian has become a political party.” If more straight Christians who are also LGBTQ allies spoke out against the way religion is used to uphold homophobia (and other forms of oppression), I think we might start to see some change.

      • Gary Hollander

        I totally get your point, Gayle. I would only encourage us to remember that Christian music and musicians include Gospel in the tradition of African American churches. While I am not Christian myself, I listen to Shirley Caesar and others — especially if they have a shout choir behind them.

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