Going Down (South): The Gospel of The Southern Divas, Part I

Going Down (South) is a regular column about y’all being a gender neutral pronoun, how red states are actually more of a purplish color, boiled peanuts, and the trials and tribulations of being a rural homo — with an emphasis on the tribbing. 

going-down-south_640web

Header by Rosa Middleton

At a gathering of gay friends last spring, my iPod became the default white noise maker. After songs by Metric and Joan Jett that we all seemed to know by heart, Vickie Winans’ tambourine-slinging gospel anthem “Long As I Got King Jesus” began to play. In a matter of seconds, the white noise was no longer white, and the conversation changed from cute girls to Vickie’s wailing.

“Sarah, what the hell?” someone said. “Why do you have this?”

I shrugged. This was a valid question that I couldn’t answer. I don’t really “have King Jesus” in my life (neither did the woman I was seeing at the time, a conservative Jew). I just knew that I liked the song. Not really sure how to explain myself, I clicked my iPod’s forward button until shuffle settled on a track by Frank Ocean or Le Tigre or Rufus Wainwright or someone more palpable to our queer ears.

But my foot kept tapping to Vickie.

***

 My hometown’s population is just under 8,000. In that same town’s weekly newspaper, there are over 40 churches listed.

every church in my hometown

To put this into perspective: That is one pastor to every 170 residents (less if we were to include associate pastors, of which each church has between one and five). Whenever I’m in a college lecture and realize that the ratio of students to professors is 350 to one, I laugh to keep from crying. Whether I like it or not, I’m forced to acknowledge that there have been far more religious leaders in my life than there have been academics.

I have Georgia red clay stains on my heels from constantly being barefooted and outside. Yet there are less visible marks, tell-tale indicators of my upbringing, which come from being raised in the church. Even though I’m now nonreligious, I still subconsciously live by the Golden Rule; half of my favorite quotes are actually Bible verses, and I’m still trying to teach myself to say “goddamnit” without cringing over breaking one of the Ten Commandments.

When I say that I “grew up in the church,” I mean the Baptist church…which actually means the Southern Baptist church. And when I say, “the Southern Baptist church,” I actually mean Southern Baptist churches. My parents were notorious church hoppers, and they changed my family’s house of worship membership a minimum of two times a year (with every move, we inadvertently scandalized a new racially unmixed congregation with our strange little multiracial family).

cl71099_1

The Countyville Baptist Church, Dudleyville, Alabama

For my parents, Christianity came with a high; a promise of redemption, transcendence, and the overwhelming visual of someone dying for our sins — one which was often depicted in stained glass windows of those clapboard buildings. When the ethereal high that came from a particular religious institution waned for them, we moved onto a shiny new one. While my time under each steeple was fleeting, I noticed that we lingered the longest in congregations with choirs. Not stoic Sistine Chapel choirs or TV show choirs which deceptively promise a spot for every socially disenfranchised youth, but choirs as in, you know, ”I’m about to break a sweat right now in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” gospel choirs.

Maybe my parents stayed in churches with choirs longer because gospel music echoed and reaffirmed a pulpit preacher’s alluring promises of Heaven, love, peace, and prosperity. But gospel music, when done well, is also entertaining. An eight-hour service on a Sunday morning goes by a heck of a lot faster when there is not only music but physical movement, a chance to stretch your legs, clap your hands, use up some restless energy.

Appalachian State University Gospel Choir

Appalachian State University Gospel Choir

Christianity justifiably gets a lot of hell from queer people, myself included. But I’m not really here to beat the “religion is hypocritical” dead-as-a-doornail horse today. Instead, I’d like to talk about the ways in which these small churches function as accidental safe havens for the scarlet-lettered, the eccentric, the musically talented, and the queer. For many, salvation doesn’t come in the form of Christ hanging on a cross, but a gospel choir and a piano accompanist who can keep up. Willie Nelson’s heroes might be cowboys, but mine are these working class men and women — more often than not, people of color — who have voices as big as their hearts. I’m as much of a fan of Adele’s blue-eyed belting as the next person, but let’s be forthright and honest here: There are ~17 members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir right down the road who can do the same thing better and while wearing musty old robes in 105-degree weather.

In The Fighting Temptations, Beyoncé plays a bar singer-turned-gospel headliner, exploring the gospel's relationship with immorality and acceptance in the process.

In The Fighting Temptations, Beyoncé plays a bar singer-turned-gospel headliner, exploring the gospel’s relationship with immorality and acceptance in the process.

This is not to say that Southern gospel is accepting of girl-on-girl action or even hetero promiscuity — it isn’t. However, choir culture is all about unity and — if you have some sort of musical talent or at least the patience to develop it — a choir between here and the Mississippi River is bound to take you in. This has less to do with gospel’s acceptance and so much more to do with its resourcefulness. These churches do not perpetuate Glee‘s hoity-toity acceptance, and they certainly do not have the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir‘s budget. The ethos of Southern gospel is one that dates back to the postbellum South: You’ve got to do the best with what you’ve got. And sometimes, all you’ve got is century-old choir robes, a thirdhand bass guitar, and talent in unlikely places.

Gospel is velvet robes detailed in gold, swaying hips, sweat, and a tempo that can easily rival that of any Benny Benassi remix. It is perfectly fine to be aggressive or flamboyant, as long as your audience thinks you’re flaming in Jesus’ name (as opposed to that of the cute lady in the front pew). Gospel is performance art. Gospel is up for interpretation: What seems like the exorcising of personal demons in song and dance form might really be one’s only way of expressing desire in an otherwise intolerant culture. Gospel is a masquerade. Gospel is a survival strategy.

how-great-thou-art

This sort of talent doesn’t always stay behind the pulpit, however. It goes on do big things. Perhaps this is why many of our allies, gay icons, and even queer family are Southern gospel choir alum: The church has not only taught them priceless lessons about turning the other cheek and Sarah’s impossible laughter. They are also well-versed in regional accounts of brutal racial and sexual inequality, and the personal empowerment that musical unity necessitates.

Tina Turner. James Brown. Little Richard. Britney. Elvis. Dolly. Beyoncé. Britney “bitch” Spears. In this series of posts on Autostraddle, Going Down (South) will explore these revolutionary voices in entertainment who are rooted in Southern gospel traditions, and how they continue to “perform” them in both their art and philanthropy.

Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in A Joyful Noise

Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in A Joyful Noise

See ya’ll next Wednesday. Like me, you might not have King Jesus, but these folks just might make you just wish you did.

 

Avatar of fonseca

Sarah Fonseca diplomatically lives, works, and plays in rural south Georgia. A Lambda Literary fellow, her essays and articles have appeared in The Q Review, Lavender Review, Thought Catalog, Autostraddle and Choice USA's ChoiceWords.

fonseca has written 45 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Religion was a huge part of my life growing up, but I grew up in a much smaller religion called the Baha’i Faith. Living in South Carolina. It prepared me for being a grown up queer cause I’ve been told I was going to hell since I was in elementary school. We did get down with some gospel music though, cause it was still the south, and I know how much I loved the music, so I totally relate to this. I’m excited for more. I love this column.

  2. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    THIS IS AMAZING!!!! I have also been in that awkward moment during queer brunch at my house when the ipod inadvertently stumbles on a gospel track and I have to run to change it. I have never been able to explain my connection to deep, good Gospel to others so they could understand it. I’m looking forward to this series to see if it can help me find my words.

  3. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Well, the next time Gospel comes up on your iPod, just tell your friends you’re a sucker for good voices and a good beat. You don’t have to be ashamed of your music preferences!

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I’m so excited to read more! And why are you friends so judgemental? Haha if I had something weird on my ipod most of my friends would laugh or just be interested. Gospel music is amazing, be proud of your unique taste!

  5. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    normally, wednesday eve, the first thing I do on the interwebs is look for the new PLL episode. you changed that. now it’s going down south then looking what rosewood is up to.
    I like this a lot is what I’m saying. also how did I miss that a Sister Act like movie w/ beyonce exists.

  6. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    There is a reverence about gospel music I enjoy despite being a skeptic/atheist. The beauty and the sound transcends for me personally my own biases about the religious content in the gospel music. I grew up Catholic and the music was BOOOOOORING, so when I went to church with a friend and heard gospel for the first time I enjoyed it. The experience was just that, an experience. So sometimes I would sing to myself some gospel tunes because a lot of the music is just beautiful.

    *snaps snaps snaps*

    Sing it gurrrl!

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I grew up in the church, but particularly in the Nazarene denomination, which strictly outlaws dancing and therefore I think we got shafted in the gospel music department because there might be a little too much hip action. But we have the special “church praise team being a refuge for the queer” in that almost every white bread praise team in a Nazarene church or what have you has at least one obviously queer lady playing the drums or the acoustic guitar. So there’s that. But if I hear “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” one more time, I’m gonna blacken one of those heart eyes.

  8. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    I’m so excited for this series!

    Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why I still find such comfort and happiness in the music of a culture that caused so many years of self-hatred and shame. I don’t know if it’s nostalgia or like musical Stockholm syndrome. But nothing pumps me up more during an intense run than some southern gospel music. It’s my dirty little secret.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Stockholm Syndrome, yes, this came to mind when I started thinking about the things I liked about growing up Christian. But then I thought about allll of the things I disliked about it and I felt a little less off my rocker.

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    When I was small (in grade school/early middle school) my siblings and I had this baby sitter who was from Louisiana and intensely religious. She would play gospel music whenever she was watching us. I remember being really into some of the music and secretly hoping she would play some of the songs. (I also now have a sort of soft spot for gospel because of her.)

    I wonder what she’d say if she knew one of the kids she used to babysit now identifies as not straight. Hmm.

  10. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Elvis’ version of How Great Thou Art is still a favorite of mine. And I do love gospel music, despite the fact that my home Methodist congregation doesn’t have the talent and is as white bread as they come.

  11. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is so refreshing to read! I’m moving form NY to the South for a job opportunity this summer. I’m not very religious, but maybe I can find a church with a great choir to enjoy.

  12. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I relate so much to this article. I grew up in church (as in, my dad’s a minister) and I always got away with being quirky and eccentric by being involved in the praise band(s). Thankfully creative people are given a bit of a pass, even in church!

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.