The following is an essay written by Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, extracted from The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion, in which writers, thinkers and activists explore how they reconcile their sexuality or gender identity with their faith. Compiled by Ruth Hunt, former CEO of Stonewall, the essays address issues of exclusion, the idea that to be LGBT is to sin, and how a belief in God doesn't have to be undermined by queerness.
After church, I head home and straight into my bedroom, where I close the door and stare at my black body in the mirror. The pastor spoke of God creating all of us in his image and I wonder how that can be true, as I examine my burgeoning breasts, my expanding hips, the black of my skin. The white girls at school give me looks loud with disgust and the white boys steal stares at my chest. I wonder if this is what the pastor meant: God created us to be examined, pored over, misinterpreted. I turn away from the mirror, confused, with no hope of a clear answer. I’ve long stopped listening to the voice inside my chest that I once thought was God, but which turned out to be an amalgam of every negative thing anyone has ever said to me, forged into a pithy little knife: You are not worthy. I know that isn’t true. Even amid my disenchantment and my confusion, I can see my own beauty and know God would never say such things to his children.
How, then, to reconcile what is said with what is true?
When we look only to those around us to interpret what is written, much is lost. As I look back on my relationship with the Bible and my relationship with God, I now understand why the two have often been in conflict. To look at both literally, as others frequently do, is to miss the point of God altogether. That both are taken literally is seen in the conflict of blackness and queerness. Queerness is seen to sully the black body, the black body to make queerness dirty. To hear people explain to me how my body and my desires fall just outside the bounds of God’s love is to be deafened to the quiet yet persistent voice within that says, You are a triumph. God is an abstraction wrangled into words and stuffed into the cage of pages.
What if we let God run free?
To let God run free, I stepped out of the walls of the Church and into the expansive ministry of my queer black body. My black body is a feat of exquisite engineering. My cocoa-bean skin is a honeytrap for the sun. My wide hips are designed for birthing and for loving. My almond eyes feast and see. My bones and muscles bear the weight of a purpose bigger than myself and carry me forward when I don’t know how. My queerness is numinous and radiant. It connects me to a struggle for liberation that goes far beyond the physical confines of this life, into planes and spaces that I cannot touch or see but that I can feel. My queerness is a compass, a spiritual marker: This way home. Each explains and yet cannot explain the other. Each requires a faith beyond comprehension, a blind trust in futures promised but not always delivered. Each defies literal interpretation, demands to be enjoyed in the abstract.
Isn’t that God? To centre our ministry in these monuments we call bodies is to then reject a force-fed image of God as man, as white. It is to reject the God beaten into us by the coloniser, and to exorcise a benevolent white Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross for the sins of the brown people. It is to sing praises for calloused hands and beating hearts, to recognise the spirituality inherent in survival and to see God glisten in sun-kissed skin. It is to look in the mirror with awe, to worship at the altar of our ancestors and to call forth a gospel that sings from parched throats raw from war cries. It is to believe that there is something out-of-this-world in the way black bodies come together to love on each other, to weep at the beauty of ourselves when we are unobscured by the foggy lens of self- doubt. When we refocus our spirituality, our faith, our God in the small victories of survival, we take small but confident steps towards healing: Look at how I’ve survived!
Isn’t that God? Even still, a reimagining of our Godliness doesn’t heal the wounds of so many words weaponised against us. And to incorporate God, faith, a spirituality into our lives doesn’t necessarily negate what was once (and often continues to be) a bone-deep internalising that we are somehow wrong, that we fall just outside the bounds of God’s love. And so a divorce has to take place in order to create something new, something healing. The project of a queer faith is not only a rejection of the narrative that excludes us, but a complete dismantling of that narrative: a queer black editor striking through in red, contextualising the Word for our current moment and tearing out pages to lighten the books we’ve been beaten with. It is a wholesale ownership of our own narrative – cast in the images of ourselves and our community.
The very unique journey of blackness and queerness is not a Dante-esque descent into hell. It is not preordained marginalisation, nor is it death. It is the manifestation of possibilities and futures that are borne from radical potential. What Jesus, God, the spirits and the numinous have in common is that whether we look up into the sky or call forth from nature, we believe that someone or something is bearing witness to our lives. We hope that someone or something sees who we are, who we’re trying to be, what we desperately hope to become and will help us, guide us, to the promised land of self-actualisation. We cry and we languish and we beg for help because there must be something greater than us, because there must be a way out, because this can’t possibly be it. But when we call out, we call in. We begin to see that it is we, a community of survivors, who are bearing witness to the lives of our siblings. It is we who are fighting for a world we all deserve to live in. It is we who are exercising a patience beyond comprehension. It is we who touch and guide and advise, who speak up for the voiceless. We embody on terra firma the answer we look for in the sky. We are not Jude, but Moses. We are the guiding light, the answer to our physical and spiritual liberation. And when our voices are united, they rise up in a thunderous chorus: Let my people go!
Phyll Opoku-Gyimah is widely known as Lady Phyll, partly due to her decision to reject an MBE in protest at Britain’s role in formulating anti-LGBTQ penal codes across its empire. Phyll is the cofounder of the award- winning celebration and protest that is UK Black Pride, which she set up to promote unity and cooperation among all Black people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin descent as well as their friends who identify as LGBT+. You can demonstrate your support of UK Black Pride here.
The Book of Queer Prophets: 24 Writers on Sexuality and Religion is out now, published by William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins.