Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Southern Gospel Sissies: Evangelical Music, Queer Spirituality, and the Plays of del Shores

Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Southern Gospel Sissies: Evangelical Music, Queer Spirituality, and the Plays of del Shores

Article excerpt

The Gay-Gospel Paradox

The origin of this paper is twofold. In the first place, I have for some time now been alternately fascinated and perplexed by the number of gay men--myself included--who enjoy music in the southern, white gospel tradition, which perhaps more than any other could be fairly described as the soundtrack for fundamentalist, evangelical Protestantism in North America. The second catalyst was the appearance in 2006 of an article from Inside Out Nashville, a weekly periodical focused on the queer community in Music City. The piece was a vitriolic critique by a local gay writer unaffiliated with gospel music, aimed at a periodic social gathering of gay southern gospel professionals, whom the writer lambasted for the hypocrisy of being gay and working in conservative Christian entertainment. This gay-gospel social gathering, the writer concluded, was as "one of the most cynical and creepy statements of our society" (Derrick, 2006, p. 5). For several years now, I have attended this event, though my association with gospel music goes only so far as an academic interest and a blog devoted to criticism and commentary on southern gospel music and culture, and the columnist's portrayal of the gathering bore virtually no relationship to what I have encountered there, which might best be described as part religious experience, part cabaret, part family reunion, and--perhaps most important for a group of people whose identity puts them at odds with their spiritual traditions (not to mention their livelihood, in many cases)--unconditional affirmation of both the redemptive promise of evangelical spirituality and gay male sexuality.

The paradox of gay men and gospel music has come to occupy more and more of my scholarly energy as I have undertaken a sustained study of southern gospel music and its cultural function. In addition to the formal analysis of gospel music--its lyrics, musical form, and performances--my scholarly approach to southern gospel situates the music within the broader contexts of contemporary Protestant evangelicalism, particularly evangelicals' struggle to balance their commitment to notionally absolute doctrines against the practical need for theological and cultural flexibility if religion is to remain relevant. In general, my research reveals that the interaction of lyrics, music, and religious experience in southern gospel comprises a heterodox discourse through which evangelicals sustain a surreptitious pluralism within an officially absolutist culture. Evangelicals use white gospel, as I have argued elsewhere, not to diminish experience in this world--the conventional scholarly wisdom about the music's cultural function--but to manage the vicissitudes of psychospiritual life in a way otherwise unavailable in evangelicalism (Harrison, 2008).

But what are the limits of this surreptitious heterodoxy? The answer, it seems increasingly apparent to me, is bound up in negotiations of (homo)sexuality and masculine spirituality (and their discontents) in southern gospel culture. After all, it doesn't get much more heterodox in fundamentalist evangelicalism than homosexuality, and for the many gay men I've met--both from my own experience with southern gospel music as an erstwhile Southern Baptist gospel pianist and from my scholarly research into white gospel music and its culture--fundamentalist evangelicalism's absolute prohibition on homosexuality means that gay males who wish to remain affiliated with evangelical popular culture have learned to be surreptitious about their involvement in white gospel, whether it be as a concert-going fan, a songwriter, producer, performer, promoter, or industry executive.

This surreptitiousness, however, poses a methodological problem. It's one thing to analyze the psychosocial dynamics of a live concert for what they suggest about evangelical culture or to close-read song lyrics for the way they imaginatively construct certain religious identities or make available certain spiritual experiences. …

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