National Coming Out Day was celebrated at Northwestern University on Oct. 11 with a combined lecture and concert titled “Gays and Gospel” that paid tribute to 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 the School of Communication at Northwestern, and Kent R. Brooks, director of Special Projects for the Department of Religious and Spiritual Life and assistant professor of instruction in the Department of Performance Studies. NU student Olivia Pierce participated as a singer along with several musicians from the Bienen School of Music.
The program delved into the history of gospel in the Black church and introduced the audience to an array of gospel singers identified as LGBTQ+, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Willmer “Little Axe” Broadnax, James Cleveland and the Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder.
During a telephone interview after the event, Brooks said, “One of the things I teach in my class this quarter is how important the Black church was in not only the survival of Black people in the United States, but the thriving of Black people in the United States.”
Chicago is often considered the birthplace of gospel music. Gospel flourished under the prodigious songwriting talent and musicianship of Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the “Crown Prince” of gospel. Dorsey is credited with composing 3,000 songs, one-third of them gospel.
In an email, Brooks explained that “Dorsey’s foray into Black sacred music started in the early 1920s. He was still composing and performing blues with Ma Rainey and Tampa Red, but real success came in 1930 when Madame Willie Mae Ford Smith sang one of Dorsey’s songs at the National Baptist Convention.” That song, If You See My Savior, sold thousands of copies and, Brooks said, “opened the door for him to further gospel music, which was new at the time. It allowed him to dedicate his career to gospel music.”
Dorsey honed his talents as the musical 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 throughout the United States. He influenced the careers of an entire generation of gospel singers, including, most significantly, James Cleveland.
Cleveland, known as the “King of Gospel,” was a boy soprano and a member of Pilgrim Baptist Church. While still a teenager, he strained his vocal chords, resulting in the gravelly voice that became his trademark, although it also caused him to focus more on his skills as a composer, arranger, piano player and choir director than as a singer. His recording career ranged from 1950, with his group The Gospelaires, through 1988 under his own label, King James Records. A highlight was working with Aretha Franklin on her 1972 best-selling gospel album, Amazing Grace.
Interspersed with slides and dialogue about significant Black gospel singers, the Oct. 11 presentation included Brooks playing the piano and both Johnson and Brooks singing, filling the church with a rich sound that energized the audience.
Johnson spoke 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 drew confidence from his singing abilities, and since his voice didn’t change until he was well into his middle teens, he milked that talent for all it was worth. “I was a budding diva,” he said.
Brook’s expertise and area of scholarship 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 a tremendous influence on his career. Brooks shared some memories with the audience, which he described in detail later in the telephone interview.
“We were a family gospel group, basically. And Larry was the one who was the de facto music director,” Brooks said on the phone. “He was finding new songs. He would teach the songs, and even his teaching style was so comical. He had a perfect mixture of comedy, but he also exacted authority. You know, when he was teaching me, he wanted everything to be right. He was a perfectionist with a big personality that came with it. His talent was such that he commanded respect and he took that with him into his professional life.”
Larry Brooks came out while he was in college, which in the early ’70s “was an anomaly,” Kent Brooks said, adding that his brother came home from college one weekend and told their parents.
“My mom and dad were processing it and had to face some hard truths because my brother came out, and those truths, formerly suspicions, now had to be worked through,” Brooks said. “I won’t say that everything was always roses and sunshine, but they did the hard work, to their credit, and that’s that’s what they modeled before me, my other siblings and really people in our community, people in our community who knew that my brother was gay.
“You know, people might 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 without condition.”
Brooks’ brother Larry died of AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1998. AIDS decimated the gay church 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.
Johnson said the Black church and gospel music were natural places for effeminate boys to express their talents. The “theatricalities of the robes” worn for choir concerts is just one example, Johnson said.
He took out and wore the robe he purchased for his doctoral hooding ceremony and joked, “I’ve gotten every dime out of this robe!” before he began a rousing demonstration of how he celebrates in church. The crowd clapped 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 groundbreaking gospel leaders who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans being employed by churches who decried those sexual or gender identities as sins against God isn’t lost on Johnson and Brooks.
The engrained bigotry is deeply painful, Johnson said. “The church family is their first family. This rift led to many artists being closeted and internalizing their struggles, even today.”
Johnson closed the concert-lecture by saying that National Coming Out Day celebrates those who dare to delight in their differences.