“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.