Last year, on a postcard-perfect fall day, Charles Underwood and Wayne Toles exchanged commitment vows. They wore matching African ceremonial robes for the occasion, which was presided over by the Rev. Carl Wallace, a United Church of Christ pastor in Cleveland who performs gay unions.
The couple had met three years before in Bible study at their home church, Mount Zion Fellowship of the Brethren. "I liked his spirituality," Underwood, a slender 38-year-old with a bubbly laugh, says of Toles, who is 35. "I liked the fact that we thought the same way, believed the same way--or if we didn't, we weren't miles away from each other."
The elders at Mount Zion--an African-American church with a large gay population--frowned on the union. The couple had taken pains not to advertise the ceremony, but the church got wind of it about a month before it took place. As a result, a Mount Zion elder summoned Toles from his pew during choir practice one evening, escorted him to the office, and closed the door.
"He asked me, `Is it true you are having a marriage ceremony?'" When Toles answered yes, he was immediately kicked out of the choir. "I left [Mount Zion] that evening and never went back," he says. "I was hurt very much."
Underwood, the grandson of a Pentecostal minister, also left the church. But even though the incident led to a boycott of Mount Zion's World AIDS Day ceremony last December, no other congregants followed Toles and Underwood's lead.
That's probably because they felt they'd only fare worse at another black church, says Christopher Coleman, educator for Cleveland's Brother2Brother HIV prevention and education program.
"If you're black and gay and talk about it, as far as [finding] an open and affirming black church--nada," says Coleman. "There are two things you're not supposed to talk about in church: AIDS and homosexuality. And these are two things that really need to be addressed in African-American culture."
It was African-American ministers who led the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but when it comes to equal rights for gay men and lesbians, they are moving at a glacial pace. In socially liberal and conservative congregations alike, gay African-Americans are often singled out for special humiliation in sermons, expelled, or relegated to the back pews of their churches.
The discrimination is of particular concern to more open-minded African-Americans because unlike other Americans, who often keep their religion and secular needs separate, blacks often regard the church as the center of their social life.
The late religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln, an expert on the sociology of the African-American church, wrote that the church has historically been the lifeblood of African-American culture, liberation, and civilization. It has served not only as a place of worship but as "lyceum, conservatory, forum, social service center, political academy, and financial institution."
Statistically speaking, according to a study by the Christian-oriented firm Barna Research in Ventura, Calif., 83% of African-Americans say religion is important in their lives, compared to 66% of white Americans.
But when it comes to gay issues and health concerns such as HIV and AIDS, "the attitude of a lot of the black [churches] is, `We're just teaching what's in the Bible,'" says Tracy Jones, associate executive director of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland. "That's not really encouraging you to be who you are."
A 36-year-old straight African-American woman, Jones left her home church a few years ago because she was disillusioned by the minister's tirades against gay people. "It was a funky perspective," she says of his regular antigay sermons, delivered in front of a choir that she estimates was 50% gay. "Not only that homosexuality was wrong, but for some reason, it was more wrong than any of the other sins. More unforgivable than any other acts of immorality, like adultery. …