Originally published by The 19th

When Karmen Michael Smith moved to New York City in 2003, he joined a new progressive Baptist church. He was raised with the understanding that if he wanted to find community in a new place, he needed to find a “church home.” 

But in a city known for progressive views, the homophobia that had sprouted in his childhood church like a sudden, invading weed was still waiting for him. Smith wanted to lay down roots. He even took a job at the church as a member of the praise and worship team — but the minister still refused to look him in the eye. 

“This minister would talk to me in private. In public, I could be standing right next to him, and I was working at the church, and he would never look in my direction. He wouldn’t speak … it’s like I was invisible,” he said. 

From the outside, leaving Christianity or the church might seem like an easy solution for LGBTQ+ people who are discriminated against within the faith. But for many queer people, especially for Black Americans, leaving the church means leaving more than just a particular way to worship. New data suggests that queer Black Americans are sticking with the church more than other LGBTQ+ people.

What Smith experienced in New York is one of the many moments that led him to speak out against how he sees Black churches treating their LGBTQ+ followers — and to explore his faith outside of the church.

The Black church is a cultural and social hub that, throughout the country’s past, has been a singular source of protection and dignity for Black Americans. The community within the church isn’t just centered on religion; family life, school life and everyday support are intrinsically tied together.

Growing up in rural Texas, Smith found community at his family’s Baptist church. He made school friends there, had sleepovers, ate meals, sang with the choir. Then he got older, and he wasn’t acting like the other boys. He liked music and the arts, not sports. He wanted to grow up to be both Janet Jackson and Prince. Now that he was a teenager, his community began to ostracize him for his differences.

“People could see, I think, quite clearly, that I was gay. But it’s not a term that I would’ve used or that I even thought about in that sense. I was just being me. And it became a threat. And then people in the church started looking at me differently. … And mainly, this was adults,” Smith said. 

The prejudice rotted everything that had filled his “home away from home” with love. “Adults became the bullies and the unsafe people,” he said.

Smith is not alone. The complicated relationship that LGBTQ+ Americans have with Christianity, and the demographics of those who choose to leave, is explored in new data from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law and Utah State University. Almost two-thirds of LGBTQ+ people who were raised Christian have since left the faith, the study found — and those who stay are typically older, Black, cisgender men and those who live in the South. 

“The data shows a religious exodus,” said Tyler Lefevor, an associate professor of psychology at Utah State University and lead researcher in the study. “Religions do a shit job of affirming queer folks.”

The overall picture of the study finds that for LGBTQ+ Americans, identifying as Christian is associated with greater experiences of stigma and stress. But the church also provides a community that can’t be easily replicated elsewhere.

“The church has historically been, for Black Americans, the one place where we could be ourselves,” Smith said. “During Jim Crow and slavery, this was our place that we could come in our Sunday best, we could look good, we could be affirmed, inspired.”

The study found that of the 87% of Black LGBTQ+ people who were raised Christian, over half of them — 53% — stayed Christian. The research used a nationally representative sample of 1,529 LGBTQ+ people recruited by Gallup, who were polled in 2016, 2017, and 2018. While the Williams Institute study does not measure what kinds of churches people are attending, data from the Pew Research Center shows that most Black Americans who attend religious services go to Black congregations.

In 2011, still living in New York City, Smith left the church. In 2019, he became an ordained nondenominational Christian minister — something he had long believed he could never become as a gay man. In those intervening years, Smith was seeking a relationship with God outside of the institution that had tried to convince him that God could never love him because of his identity. 

“I learned that if God had not wanted me to be this way, I would not be gay. And then I also learned the divine privilege it is in which to be gay. … That it is not anti-God,” he said. “It took me getting out of church to learn that.” 

Although Smith visits churches occasionally, he’s not interested in going back — unless God calls him to back to a traditional church setting. He wants to reach people who have been pushed outside of the church, however that manifests. As a Black openly gay man, he feels that he’s different from many preachers; and he views his ministry the same way.

Smith said that he often gets calls and messages from queer Black people, especially older men, who consider the church their family, but who don’t feel safe or included. They don’t know where else to go. Many of them reached after he published his book, “Holy Queer: The Coming Out of Christ.”

“I offer them two journeys. You can stay, and I say please find a qualified therapist whom you can talk with, and a good friend whom you can talk with,” he said. “If you choose to leave, know that even as much as you may gain, please be aware you will also lose something.”

That loss can be a cultural one, Smith said. The Black church is more than a religious practice — it’s a culture encompassed with unique music and art. Finding an affirming congregation could mean leaving the Black church and losing that culture, he said.

But there are accepting spaces within the Black church, too. Dozens of churches across the country and various denominations are part of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a Black LGBTQ+ affirming coalition that pledges to create safe spaces for queer and transgender people, as well as anyone else who has been “wounded by oppressive religion.”

“I don’t understand why, with the number of choices that we have, why people don’t choose to be fully free,” said Victoria Kirby York, director of public policy and programs at the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights group that advocates for Black LGBTQ+ people.

Like Smith, she grew up in the Black church, attending a nondenominational African Methodist Episopal churchand a Missionary Baptist church with her mom. They were baptized in both traditions. York now attends a church that’s part of the United Church of Christ, and one that frequently works with the Fellowship.

“The church I go to now has good music, good preaching. It’s led by a heterosexual Black couple,” York said. But some people seek out what’s familiar — and sometimes, what’s familiar is being called an abomination from the pulpit.

“I long for a day where all the folks who have decided to stay in the faith know that they’re fully loved without question,” they said. “That they’re good people.”

There are other alternative spaces outside of religion that can also feel like a form of worship; like the ballroom scene, Smith said, where group praise takes place during voguing and drag competitions. But some of the older Black gay men who have reached out to him feel like they don’t have a place in the broader LGBTQ+ community. Many of their generation died during the AIDS epidemic, and they feel disconnected from younger queers.

Whether they choose to stay or go, Smith said, there is collateral damage.

“There’s still some negativity that you’ve ingested along the way that you’ll still have to deal with, even if you leave. Because you’ve been told Sunday after Sunday that you are the problem,” Smith said.

The study found that LGBTQ+ people raised Christian, whether they stayed religious or not, experience more current feelings of stigma than those not raised Christian. Those who stayed felt more ongoing internalized homophobia and transphobia than those who left, and were more likely to have a history of conversion therapy. Those who were never Christian were out to family and friends at younger ages than those who were raised in Christianity.

At the same time, the data suggests that LGBTQ+ people who stay Christian experience some psychological benefits. Cisgender queer Christians who stayed in the faith experienced less psychological distress than those who were never Christians, suggesting that religiosity has offered what the study called a “protective” effect on their mental health.

LGBTQ+ adults who stayed Christian and those who left also shared the same amount of resilience — a combined factor of social support and connectedness with others in the LGBTQ+ community.

As a therapist who works almost exclusively with queer clients from religious backgrounds, Lefevor, a queer man who was raised Mormon, wants more people to understand how complicated these experiences are for religious LGBTQ+ people.

“We live in a world where queer and trans folks are systematically excluded from this positive social resource because of non-affirming policies,” he said. “Religion, at its most core, seems to be helpful for people. But obviously queer and trans people don’t get to access that in many cases.”

For York, their faith is what has kept them alive. York has fought suicidal ideation from a young age, and she says her faith in God has sustained her. For them, it’s heartbreaking to see their faith — their lifesaver — used to hurt LGBTQ+ people.

“We’ve got to save our kids from these narratives that would have them believe that God doesn’t love them and that being queer and being Christian are incompatible,” York said. “I believe it’s at the root of so much of the devastating statistics that we read — whether it’s around bullying, suicide, conversion therapy, homelessness. At the heart of it is, too often, a kid who’s been rejected … because of religious beliefs.”

As a Black nonbinary femme who has worked in LGBTQ+ advocacy for years, York has frequently acted as an essential bridge between queer activists and the clergy.To fight back against anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry, and to actually change the minds of those proposing discriminatory legislation, the voices of queer people of faith need to be amplified, she said.

In 2016, in the aftermath of the massacre at Pulse, Orlando’s storied gay nightclub, York spoke at a citywide prayer vigil at the city’s First Baptist Church. She was handed the microphone by megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, a longtime spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama. Hunter, who was originally “disappointed” at Obama’s decision to support marriage equality, went on to accompany President Joe Biden to witness the 2022 signing of the Respect for Marriage Act to federally protect same-sex marriages.

Florida’s LGBTQ+ community was mourning after losing so many at Pulse. And the clergy, including conservative sects, were reaching out in response to the killing. York wanted to deliver a message that many of those believers would receive for the first time: that what they had been hearing from the pulpit was driving LGBTQ+ youth into homelessness and suicide, and was fueling the kind of violence that erupted at Pulse.

“I called up anyone who felt comfortable who identified as LGBTQ+ to come to the pulpit for prayer,” she said. Hunter invited the clergy to the prayer as well. York reflected: “This was probably the first time in many of their lives that they had ever been prayed over by clergy and not asked to change.”