Black, gay and Christian, Marylanders struggle with conflicts

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.
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)

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."

At the time, there was nothing funny about his situation. In grade school, he endured regular homophobic taunts. Older boys made sexual threats. At home, even family members mocked him.

Mostly he just wanted to be left in peace. What he really enjoyed was church.

He was raised in a Baptist family that read the Word. Even as a child, he loved the feeling of community at church services, the uplifting choir music and the sense of brotherhood the Bible seemed to radiate. Being a Christian seemed a good way to be humane. But not every aspect was fun.

His pastor often cited portions of the Bible like Genesis 19 (Sodom and Gomorrah), Leviticus 18:22 ("Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable") and I Corinthians 6 ("Neither the sexually immoral nor … men who have sex with men … will inherit the kingdom of God").

As often as not, he'd round out his readings with homophobic slurs. The other churchgoers hollered "Amen!"

"I never heard anyone, man or woman, question that," Thomas says.

The hatred even seeped into his family. His own older brother, a macho type, often smacked him on the hands and face and told him to "man up."

His father, a drinker with a bad temper, took things even further.

"I'm ashamed of you," he'd say, disparaging what he saw as his son's homosexual behavior. "Do you know you're the black sheep of this family? I'd rather you were dead."

The boys' mother moved them to Washington, D.C., but if Harris thought God would rescue him, he was in for a surprise.

Men's clothes, cute women

The pressure on Grace Harley mounted more slowly. As a child growing up in South Carolina, she had less sense of her sexual identity.

She, too, grew up in a religious family. Her grandfather had moved south to plant churches. Her father was a Baptist deacon, her mother so devout she held services in the home.

The family loved worship so much that they found time to attend both Baptist and Pentecostal services. "I was a Bapticostal," Harley says.

To Grace, church mainly meant something that kept her parents so busy they sometimes missed meals. And it probably was a factor behind the way they avoided talking about an uncle who had moved away (he later came out as gay) and warned her away from her strikingly masculine female cousin. "They thought she'd rub off on me," Harley says.

In retrospect, she believes the signs were evident. She disliked her mother and adored her father, to the point of wanting to wear his clothes. She developed a crush on a female teacher. By the time she and her mother moved to Washington, D.C., when she was in middle school, she realized she lacked any attraction to boys.


She did date a few, she says, to conform to intense social pressure. By 17, she had two sons. But mostly she remembers feeling adrift. "I had relationships with boys and men, but it was going through the motions," she says. "You knew you weren't loving it, but what was loving it? You had no idea."


What brought things together was a TV show.

It was 1973, the year the board of the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders. A local TV station ran a five-part documentary on Washington's gay subculture.

"I had never heard of any of this," she says. By series' end, she'd met a cast of characters who reminded her of herself.

That Friday night, Harley says, she went to her closet, grabbed the most masculine clothes she could find and made her way to a gay bar. "For the first time, I felt I was where I belonged," she days. She spent the next 18 years chasing "cute little women," having the time of her life.

Pride and fall

As a teen in Washington in the mid-1960s, Thomas found himself nervously seeking male attention. Though there was no visible gay community to approach, a few close friends told him where to meet guys downtown. At school, he tried dating a girl, but it went nowhere. A thought began to take shape: He could live as a gay man or a black Christian, but not both.

He resolved to become a minister, in time training in two old-school traditions. A Maryland bishop, Stella V. Mack, ordained him in the Pentecostal faith and added him to the staff at Holy Cross in Capitol Heights. He was there all day every Sunday, directing the choir, heading the youth ministry, counseling kids on relationships.

He enjoyed it so much he sometimes forgot he was living a lie.

He met a minister from another church, a believer named Brenda. She knew his secret, but he promised he was trying to change, and he meant it. They prayed together. They got married, even had a daughter. But he couldn't stop visiting gay haunts.

After trysts, he'd repair to the bathroom, clean himself up and pray to be delivered. At church, when preachers attacked homosexuality, he'd join the "Amens."

A tall man with a welcoming manner, he reclines in a chair in his brightly colored office in the storefront church on Old York Road, folding his hands atop an African cane he uses.

"I couldn't let the others see I was different," he says, his eyes a little distant at the memory. "I was applauding my own condemnation. How self-hating and desperate is that?"

By 1998, the conflict was so great he resolved to come out, but only a bit at a time. One night he decided to officiate at a friend's same-sex mock wedding. That went all right. But when he took a friend to Black Pride D.C., he had no clue a TV crew would be on hand, that he'd star on the evening news.

He resigned at Holy Cross, of course, a shock after 27 years. Friends and family stopped calling. His wife and daughter left him. "What kind of God would treat a person this way?" he thought. A few days later, he did the kind of thing Harmon says still occurs far too often in the gay African-American community: He made his way to the medicine cabinet and downed every pill he had.

Pulling over

For someone who thought she'd found the answer, Grace Harley, too, came to a point where she felt the ground rumbling beneath her. She never saw the tremors coming.

It was a life of happy oblivion, those 18 years. She hung out in clubs, did cocaine and drank more than she ever had. She even came to a conclusion she found pleasing — that nature had made a mistake with her, wiring her like a man.

In the early 1990s, as the gay culture took hold, she gave herself full permission to act and dress like one. She dated lots of girls, and the atmosphere was electric.

And church? At 15, Harley had announced to her family she would never go again. The closest she came was making sure friends took her two boys to Sunday school.

Her spirituality returned to her through an unexpected medium — a same-sex relationship. In 1992, she found herself in one that, for the first time, transcended the physical. She began to wonder whether their attraction was right in the eyes of God, and Harley did not want to sin with someone she loved.

Her partner, she says, sensed a change in her. "One morning, my girlfriend woke up, looked at me and said, 'You're different.' She was right. From that day to now, I've had no fantasies or attractions to women. Not one."

The "ex-gay" movement is so controversial it's hard to get those within it to talk on the record. California lawmakers even voted this month to ban "conversion therapy" — an approach by which counselors, often Christian ones, attempt to "cure" gays of their homosexuality — for minors in the state. People who publicly advocate the conversion approach often meet with protest.

Harley believes fervently that one can become an "ex-gay" — it has happened to her, she says, so contrary to popular belief, it can happen — but she experienced no such indoctrination.

The change wasn't always so pleasant. Like a stage in detox, it left her in need. One day, Harley says, she found herself driving on Interstate 495, overwhelmed with a sense of sorrow. She pulled over to the shoulder as the traffic raced by. "God, why did you let me deceive myself?" she cried out.

At times, she says, she felt so empty she didn't want to live. She, too, contemplated ways of taking her life. Like Thomas, she found something new through the pain.


A potent message of faith and rebirth radiates through much of Christianity: "If you cling to your life, you'll lose it," Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke. "If you let your life go, you'll save it."

Thomas and Harley lived this paradox. It wasn't until they reached the brink that they learned what they really believed.

Doctors guessed Thomas would die. If not, they told his mother, he would lose all brain function. He woke up after three days.

When he looked around his hospital room, he says, he was surrounded by friends and family, all the ones who had abandoned him. "Why did you go and do that?" they said. "We love you."


Thomas had a strange reaction. Their opinions no longer seemed to affect him. He found he could move his limbs and could speak. He had taken every bit of his anguish and thrown it at God, and the Creator seemed to telling him, in effect, "I heard it all, Harris, and I'm sustaining you."

"For the first time in my life," he says, "I knew God loved me."

He spent the next three years studying something he never realized existed — a theology he sees as more fully in keeping with 21st-century thought.

"In Leviticus 18, it also says you shouldn't eat pork or shellfish," he says. "Why do we get to be selective in what we obey and what we don't? God should be about relationships, about how we show love for each other."

In 2000, he founded the Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore, the local branch of a nationwide movement ministering principally to gay, lesbian and transgendered people of color. The congregation of 150 meets in a rented space on Old York Road, where Thomas preaches, has a busy counseling ministry and works with colleagues to promote the law to legalize same-sex marriage.

He commutes from Washington, where he lives with his longtime male partner. He has been a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage in Maryland, though he said other pastors at his church have been more active in the cause.

Harley had her own resurrection. A friend gave her a tape by the evangelist T.D. Jakes, and she loved how his Dallas megachurch helped domestic abuse victims and featured ministry work tailored to women. Reading more, she learned he held an annual conference called "Woman, Thou Art Loosed."

The reference, to Luke 13, almost floored her. It tells of how Jesus speaks to a woman who had been "crippled" for 18 years, laid his hands on her said, "You are freed from your infirmity." The woman stood and walked. Harley went on to become an ordained minister.

She counsels gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals in the Washington area and around the country, offering prayers for deliverance from what she calls the dangerous deceit of homosexuality. She has an Internet TV show, "God's Will & Grace." She speaks out against same-sex marriage.

To those who call her ministry intolerant, Harley says it can work, given a kind heart, and in any case, she's more concerned with people's eternal souls than their momentary reactions. "This life only lasts a moment," she says. "God's love is forever."

Elder Harris Thomas

Age: 57

Hometown: Philadelphia

Current residence: Washington, D.C.

Occupation: Pastor of Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore, the local branch of a nationwide movement ministering principally to gay, lesbian and transgendered people of color. He preaches, has a busy counseling ministry and works with colleagues to promote the law to legalize same-sex marriage.

Question 6: Supports

The Rev. Grace Harley

Age: 58

Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Current residence: Silver Spring

Occupation: Pastor of Fruit of the Spirit Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.; she counsels gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals in the Washington area and around the country, offering prayers for deliverance from what she calls the dangerous deceit of homosexuality. She has an Internet TV show, "God's Will & Grace."

Question 6: Opposes

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