A good speech or sermon can stimulate the mind or touch the heart; but it is music that can heal the soul. Whether disco from the 1970s and 1980s, classical, jazz, dance, gospel, country, R&B or multiple other expressions, music is spiritual. Not because it was necessarily written to be so, but for the way in which our bodies interpret it.
I learned long ago, that you don’t have to be in a religious place to have a spiritual experience — my first Pride (Britain 1981) taught me that. The songs of the Tom Robinson Band, such as “Sing If You’re Glad to be Gay”, or Sylvester (James Jr.) “You Make Me Feel” became the spiritual anthems of my own coming out. Labi Siffre’s “So Strong” was one of many songs that sustained us during the AIDS era. While Marsha Steven’s “The Body of Christ Has AIDS” shocked us into the reality.
Having worked with church music of differing genres through much of my life, there has always been a resistance from the institution to stray from the sacred. Of course, what one holds sacred another considers sacrilege. Personally, I’ve always felt there’s never enough saxophone in church — but there speaks a frustrated sax player.
If music is my pathway to God, then LGBTQ music is my highway to God’s diversity. Inevitably, I write sermons and spiritual reflections to the rhythms of music. Yet I’m equally conscious that music tears at the emotions, and for that reason some much-loved gospel has been sent to my closet — for they recall days of secrecy, judgment and ultimately exclusion. Love songs that were sung by people who didn’t know how to practice God’s love. But even those songs escape, every now and then, and dare to plead that I give them new hearing — much to my husband’s distaste. But when I do, I’m reminded that many of these songs were written and sung by people who were hiding in their own closet.
Fifty years ago, Marsha Stevens, the queen of LGBTQ Christian music, wrote “For Those Tears I Died.” It became widely popular and found its way into many Evangelical hymnbooks. Then she came out as lesbian, and she has often told how churches ripped her song out of their books. She has written, recorded and performed many songs since.
Music has given us allies; provided mediums for story telling and protest. LGBTQ music has given new voice to sonnets and poems written in times when love could not speak its name. (For example, Marc Almond’s “Feasting with Panthers” and Rufus Wainwright’s “Take All My Loves.”) The music world has exploded with LGBTQ artists from classic composers such as Samuel Barber and Michael Tippett; to jazz maestros such as our own (Hillsborough N.C.) Billy Strayhorn; to hundreds of songwriters and performers who sing our Pride anthems.
Yet here’s my conumdrum — all too often we fall in love with a song because of the music. In religious music, especially, a song can live or die based on the tune it’s assigned or the tempo it’s set to. There is a bold uniqueness in LGBTQ songwriters and collaborators who perform their own compositions, for they are proclaimers and prophets in our community. We have to pause our lives and listen.
There is so much great LGBTQ music waiting to be heard. A friend of mine hosted a two-hour weekly radio show, called the Rainbow Radio Network, on a university campus in Canada. The show ran for 20 years. Each week, he committed to exclusively playing music by LGBTQ artists. He was one of the most spiritual people I have met.
Rev. Paul Whiting is Pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte. He has danced with Boy George and had breakfast with Jimmy Somerville.