“You better sing, boy!” The cry rang out from a hat-wearing sister in the crowd as she held up her hands in euphoria. An older deacon followed up her exhortation, “Take your time now!” Others in the crowd chimed in with enthusiastic fervor. The deserving recipient of these hurled praises? Demetrius.
He and his mother visited our church annually during those interminable summer conferences Black churches love. As well as I remember him singing his ass off, I remember Demetrius as one of the few adults who spoke to me, a child, as an actual person. Exceptional in those days as most ascribed to the “children should be seen and not heard” mentality and unheard of in church, where quiet, obedient children are coveted. Demetrius was different, always greeting me with a genuine smile coupled with a wave or handshake. I remember our brief interactions and treasure them as they are some of my earliest memories of validation.
But I also remember the whispers. Conversations held at low volumes about Demetrius “living that lifestyle” along with the side-eyes and standoffishness. I was old enough to infer that they thought he was doing something wrong but young enough not to know what any of it meant. I just knew that nice people should be treated nicely, and he wasn’t being treated as such, in church of all places.
By the time things ramped up to full sermons with the topic of the abomination of homosexuality, I was a little older and more well-read. I knew “abominable” meant something utterly awful and quickly pieced together that Demetrius was one of the intended targets of these fiery indictments from the pulpit. The pastor never uttered his name, after all, there’s a cowardice that contradicts the boldly damning conviction with which violently homophobic sermons are delivered.
Eventually, though his mother continued her annual visits, he stopped coming. A few years later, I heard that he’d passed away. Crushed, I wondered aloud how someone so young could be snatched away (as he was only in his 20s). Instead of commiseration or comfort, my query was met with “Well, had he not been gay…”
All these years later, I think about the ways Demetrius’ life would have been different had the people closest to him loved his whole personhood rather than just his talent. I think of Nigel Shelby, the 15-year-old 9th grader from Huntsville, Alabama who took his own life because of homophobic bullying. I wrestle with how utterly alone they must have felt and the ways they would’ve flourished had they been embraced rather than cast away. I ponder how if adults are scorched by the hate for their queerness, how much more oppressive that heat must feel for a child with little if any agency or control over their environment.
And the most damning thing in all of this? We’ve grown so accustomed to the narrative of queer individuals, especially children, being shunned by their families, their churches, and their communities that when it doesn’thappen, we’re surprised. Imagine NOT being abusive toward your children being the exception rather than the rule.
We’ve seen headlines and stories commending the likes of Magic Johnson, Dwyane Wade and their respective families for openly supporting their queer children. But isn’t that what they should be doing anyway? You can almost sense the amazement in coded questions like “How did you come to terms with your child’s sexuality?”
Simply put: You’re willing to love, support, and be seen publicly with your queer child? How brave! No, as a parent, that’s not only your duty but something I would assume you would delight in. I’m sure any good parent would echo that sentiment.
Loving your child is not revolutionary. But in our othering of queer people, we’ve made it so. And we’ve taught queer people that they are difficult to love, so much so that those who love and support them deserve our praise for undertaking the formidable task.
Love “in spite of”instead of just love. I’m so glad that not every queer person has to go through what so many have but excuse me if I hold my applause and accolades. That valuable energy can be used to make sure we are a place in which our children can find refuge, encouragement and affirmation. They deserve that, to be able to sing, learn and grow without being ostracized.
Like Nigel, like Demetrius and countless others.