Rev. J. Grace Harley and Rev. Harris Thomas

The Rev. Grace Harley of Silver Spring (left), who left her life as a lesbian behind and now opposes same-sex marriage, and the Rev. Harris Thomas, the openly gay founder of Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore, which serves LGBT Christians of color. (Lloyd Fox and Algerina Perna / The Baltimore Sun / October 13, 2012)

While growing up in an African-American Baptist church, Harris Thomas was taught homosexuality is an "abomination in the eyes of God." As a young minister, he disparaged the gay lifestyle even while secretly pursuing it. Today he heads a Baltimore church that serves gay Christians of color "right where they are."

Grace Harley, too, grew up in a mainstream black church. She discovered the gay underground as a teen and lived as a lesbian for nearly 20 years. But God freed her from homosexuality, she says, a "blessing" she gladly recounts as a straight minister based in Silver Spring.

Both longtime Marylanders began their spiritual journeys in a similar place, as black Christians who felt strong same-sex attractions. Both faced rejection from family and community, and particularly forceful disapproval from fellow African-Americans, a group whose values have long been shaped by conservative religious thinking. But on a key question of the day, Thomas and Harley could not be more different.

As Maryland's same-sex marriage referendum looms next month, Elder Harris Thomas, 57, the openly gay pastor of the Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore, backs "marriage equality." The Rev. Grace Harley of Fruit of the Spirit Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., 58, opposes it. Both have arrived at their views at a steep price.

Recent polls indicate the Nov. 6 vote on Question 6 could go either way. If nothing else, it will pit African-Americans' usually reliable support for Democratic causes against traditional elements of social conservatism. Thomas and Harley have never met, but their tales of struggle expose the emotions at the heart of a debate that could split a major voting bloc in two.

Black, Christian and gay

It can border on the perilous being black, Christian and gay in America. The predicament has a long history.

African-Americans have deep spiritual roots in the evangelical tradition of Christianity, a broad school of faith incorporating the Pentecostal, Baptist and African Methodist traditions, among others, and stressing biblical authority.

Evangelicals tend to read Scripture literally, religious historians say, and at first glance, the Bible seems to leave little room for tolerance of homosexuality.

"Both the Old and New Testament speak out strongly against homosexuality," says the Rev. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baptist pastor and Maryland delegate who has been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage in the state. "To interpret it otherwise is to rewrite what God means."

Burns, an African-American who leads a predominantly black congregation, says he hits that point so hard in church because he fears children will be learning that gay relationships and heterosexual ones are equivalent. "There absolutely is a difference between them," he says. "There is no other counsel to give except what the Bible says."

According to recent polls, support for such views has softened of late. A Baltimore Sun poll found black support for the measure has increased from 33 percent to 51 percent in Maryland since March. But opposition remains considerable, at 25 percent.

It's a remnant of the slavery era, says the Rev. Cedric Harmon, an African-American pastor who is co-director of Many Voices, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for same-sex marriage within the black church.

First, Harmon says, black preachers were among the first African-Americans who could read, and their interpretive skills were rudimentary. Second, slaveholders abused black sexuality so badly, it took hundreds of years for their descendants to develop a healthy sense of self.

As they did so, he believes, a culture developed inside and outside the church that scorned behaviors that might be seen as aberrant. He wonders whether African-American men adopted a culture of machismo at that early stage.

"Literal readings can lend themselves to condemning and ostracizing interpretations," Harmon says. "Now that many of us have gone to seminary and studied those scriptures, that language has begun to lessen a bit. But that doesn't diminish the intensity of what many people have gone through."

Imperfect sanctuary

For many years, life contained a cruel irony for Harris Thomas: What gave him sanctuary also cut him to the core.

He grew up in a rough section of Philadelphia, where the neighborhood boys liked to roughhouse, play sports and hang out. He preferred spending time with girls and skipping rope.

"I didn't like basketball or football at all, but I could do a mean double-dutch," Thomas says, laughing. "I was very effeminate."