[There was a video here]
“I stand here, I am Reverend—ordained, yes Lord—Reverend Derek Anthony Terry, and I am a black gay man who ministers,” is how Rev. Derek Terry came out to many of his relatives, friends, and members of his congregation earlier this year. It’s also how he told the world when his coming-out sermon aired last weekend on OWN’s self-help series Iyanla Fix My Life, as the climax of Rev. Terry’s three-episode arc.
The full scene of Rev. Terry’s sermon is above. I was so moved by Rev. Terry’s eloquence and bravery (particularly in discussing surviving sexual assault as a child) when I watched the show this weekend that I reached out to him to discuss coming out and its aftermath. That Rev. Terry came out at the Douglass Boulevard. Christian Church, which is listed on its site as “open and affirming” (i.e. gay-friendly), was of particular interest to me, as were issues of intersectionality, the supposed contradiction of being a gay practicing Christian, and the oft-repeated belief that black people are more homophobic than whites (“Black culture is so homophobic,” said Kanye West, for example, in an interview that was released this week).
As the culture war rages on, we find ourselves at the Battle of “Religious Freedom” with the Kim Davises of the world (and their hangers-on) waving bigot flags. It strikes me that someone like Rev. Derek Terry has the built-in experience, knowledge, and engagement with spirituality that makes him well worth listening to if we’re ever going to figure out how to get along. We talked earlier this week via phone. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat appears below.
Gawker: How has life been for you since coming out?
Reverend Derek Terry: Out of the ministry, we may have lost one family, but for the most part it’s been really, really positive. What’s really interesting is so many people have come out to me with their own truth. Some people I never thought were gay came out with their stories, some people were sexually assaulted. It’s been a really positive one. Of course there’s been some craziness—little conservative groups sending brochures to the church, and making calls, and some foolishness on social media.
Is the Douglass Boulevard Christian Church your primary church?
No. We had to use that for filming. I have a church in Cincinnati [St. Peter’s United Church of Christ], I have a church in Louisville [Community Empowerment Center]. They’re 100 miles apart. I commute on Sundays [from Louisville]. [In the filming], it wasn’t just my church. It was people like aunts and uncles, people from my home church. People I grew up with. People that were friends with my grandmother, who has since passed. Seventy-year-old friends of hers—conservative old church ladies. Former teachers. It was really a congregation of my community.
Your personal community.
I looked up the Douglas Boulevard Christian Church and right on their site it says it’s “open and affirming.” It seems like if you’re going to come out in a church, that’s the church to do it in.
That was the building, right. They were mostly a white church. There were 140 people there. Some of them were friends and family that were really, really close to me and knew, “OK you’re about to come out.” Most of them were people I had purposely distanced myself from. I didn’t want them to know or ask me questions. There’s always that pressure: “When are you going to get married?” “What about kids?” These are people who had supported my ministry all along but had supported it from afar.
How did the congregation at St. Peter’s hear about you coming out?
I talked to them before the show came out. Coming out can be in stages. I told people really, really close to me. You have to tell them so you can have your sanity. And then the church in Cincinnati, it’s multi-cultural, multi-racial. It’s an old, Evangelical and Reformed (E&R) church. It’s part of the United Church of Christ. United Church of Christ, as a whole, is open and affirming, but each individual church gets to have their own stamp. So the church here is very unique. Let’s say it’s 50 people. Of those 50 people, a bunch of them are old white people who grew up in the church: Republicans, conservatives, very simple old Germans. And then the other half of the church are younger, progressive liberals. And then sprinkle in about 20 percent black people. It was a unique church.
And even with those old white people, we had to talk about it because so many of them were of the idea, “We just don’t talk about that.” It was just a lot of work that we had to do. One of the people on the church board had a meeting with the congregation: “Hey, this is the truth about who Rev. Derek is—he’s gay, he’s going to be on the show, he’s going to be talking about this...” The board said, “We’re going to stand by him and we’re going to stand up for him.” But at the same time, it’s a congregationalist church, so it’s important that they were on board as well. It started a whole lot of dialogue that is uncomfortable for everybody. They honestly believe, “If you’re going to be gay, just be gay, you don’t need to talk about it.” But, I just went on TV in front of a million people. It’s been positive but it’s been tough.
That’s the gay experience in a nutshell: You just have so much more to consider than straight people.
Right. More work.
Why was it important for you to stop sweeping it under the rug and address your sexuality in a church context where sexuality is rarely spoken of, and if it is, is often condemned?
More than anything, it was to provide a voice. I wrote an article for the Huffington Post a few weeks ago about my childhood pastor, my favorite pastor, who taught me how to play the piano, who really encouraged me to work in the church when I was a teenager—who really helped me to build my overall confidence. He was brutally murdered in 2010. October will be the fifth anniversary. Brutally murdered. I mean beat and stabbed multiple times. They cut his throat and they strangled him and tortured him, took his car, cleared out his bank account, left him on the floor praying and crying until he died. He was gay in a denomination that said, “You can’t be gay.” These guys who did this were these young gay-for-pay kinda thugs.
My thing about this was: What if he was allowed to be himself? What if he was allowed to get married and settle down and live his truth? What if he didn’t have to hide, what if he didn’t have to sneak? Of course, we can always play the what-if game, but for me, that was a turning point. That was when I said, “I don’t want this. I don’t want the burden of having to sneak.” I have friends that are pastors who are gay and they wait till they go out of town, they find any reason to go out of town, or any reason to do anything, just so they can go and be gay and then come back and be miserable again. I said I didn’t want to do that. I kind of wanted, as an homage to my favorite pastor, to do what he wasn’t afforded the opportunity, which is to live in truth.
It’s interesting that you said the church in Cincinnati is multi-cultural and you had to deal with old white people’s misconceptions and prejudices. There’s a stereotype that black people are more homophobic than white people. I don’t think that’s true and I wonder what you think about that idea.
I think it looks different. I think what it is, more than anything, is when you add the spirituality piece, the church piece—the black church is so important to so many people and to so many communities. So when you have this physical representation of holiness, of God condemning something with passion, it adds a whole other layer. That’s not to say it’s worse, but it’s different.
I’ve had people tell me, “When you stand up there and preach, I hope someone blows your brains out and your blood flows like Jesus’s did for your sins.” Like, what the hell? When people tell you that kind of stuff in the context of God, if you’re not strong enough to separate Christians from Christ or church people from God, it’s a very heavy burden.
Are people telling you this verbally or are you talking about anonymous internet stuff?
The internet is most of it, which you know, the internet is what it is. People go out of their way to find you on Twitter or Facebook just to be mean to you. I got way more when the previews started airing; I guess because people didn’t know what to expect. I had somebody yell, “I hope you die,” out of the car one day while driving. Somebody in the drug store one day called me a “faggot” or something. Most of it is Twitter, Facebook. I just block ‘em.
I hate to hear you say that, but at the same time, you must have expected it.
I did expect it, and it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be, at least not yet. I find most of it hilarious, especially when you see the faces of some of these people and the organizations that some of them are in or read their tweets.
In Yoruba Richen’s The New Black, it is posited that the reason why the black church has such a hold is that it’s one of the only American institutions that’s governed by black people with little-to-no white influence.
Exactly. And the prejudice of black people toward other people rears its head in the church. I’ve heard people say, “Well, that’s really white, why would you come out like that? Black people don’t do that.” We don’t! But it’s killing us. It’s so unhealthy. I have so many friends that because of their family and because of their church, they move away and never look back. Or they’ll go home on Christmas, and then that’s it. That’s one of the reasons I reached out to Iyanla. I didn’t want that to be my relationship with my family.
Why do you think you get that “That’s really white” comment? Why is coming out taboo to the black people who say that to you?
You know the idea of intersectionality, and that all of us have all these little parts? Most black people would say their biggest struggle is race. Just a picture, just a glance brings all kind of stuff. Usually that’s our first identifier, race, personally and by how other people look at us. Our sexual orientation may be a secondary or a tertiary identifier. Even a lot of black gay people will say, “Well, marriage equality is a gay white issue. That’s not important. What’s important is Black Lives Matter.” People see it as an either/or: You have to fight for your blackness or your gayness. People are kinda simple. But being a black gay man means something. It’s a struggle. It’s a double negative. Just imagine how black gay women feel.
Or black trans women.
Black trans women, exactly. There’s also the idea of racism within the gay community.
I think it was in Minneapolis that Black Lives Matter, if I’m not mistaken, went up there during Pride and said, “Hey, this is too white.” And it is! Black gay issues are different than white gay issues. A lot of black gay people feel like, “They’re not fighting for our rights,” just like trans people feel that way. There’s all this dissension, and it’s tricky and it’s ugly and it’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean we should stay away from it. It just means we need to figure it out.
And I get the sense that’s why you did what you did on such a grand, televised scale.
The big deal was being brave enough to talk about something that I knew was going to paint a bullseye on me. For the rest of my life, people will attack. That’s just the reality. But I did it because I feel like God and the universe and all that wisdom picked me to say, “Look, we have to deal with this. We have to talk about this. We have to bring this to the forefront of people’s consciousness.”
The other day, someone was arguing to me about, “Well, you shouldn’t have to come out. It’s nobody’s business who you sleep with.” I said, “I’m celibate. I’m not having sex. At the end of the day, the fact that I’m gay has little to do this sex.” There’s also the intimacy. It’s a part of who I am. Even if I’m not having sex, I’m still gay. Why do we reduce the totality of one big part of who we are—our sexuality—to just sex? I said, “That also [would mean] that I’m ashamed.” Straight people aren’t ashamed to say they’re straight. Straight people don’t feel like they have to hide their straightness.
Until more people come out and it becomes quote-unquote normal, whatever normal is, then one day in some future general it won’t be a big deal. But now it is. And more people need to do it so that they don’t end up married with kids and all these broken hearts and broken lives. At the end of the day, we just have to be who we are. And I really feel that God called me to do that, to be a demonstration of truth and courage to other people. Not just gay people, but people—whatever your truth is, whatever you’re hiding, whatever you don’t want other people to find out because you’re afraid they’re going to condemn you, it doesn’t matter.
Unfortunately, I think the church is not really looking for people to be converted, I think they’re looking for people to assimilate. “Sit here, get the nod of approval from me, not God.” It’s all about making the church people feel comfortable with who they perceive you to be instead of being comfortable being yourself. That’s why I did it: to take away the shame and the guilt and the fear.
And to expand the idea of what a pastor is?
Are you celibate because you aren’t married or because you’re a pastor or what?
I don’t know. (Laughs) I don’t typically talk about relationships or dating or sex or anything like that. At this point, I’m just not having sex. I would love to say, “Yeah, because the Bible says...” but no. My ideas and concepts around Bible and sexuality are completely different from what most people think. I’m just not having sex...right now. It’s not like some epiphany. Not any hard thing. Right now it’s easy and I don’t have sex and I don’t know what happens next.
What’s the short answer you give when someone says, “How can you be a Christian and gay?” or “How can you be a pastor and gay?”
It depends on what day it is. Sometimes I just ignore ‘em. (Laughs) Usually what I say is: There are over 23,000 verses in the Bible. There are anywhere from four to eight that condemn homosexuality. It depends on the text. That’s anywhere from .015 percent or .03 percent. That’s the range. Of all the verses in the Bible, that’s the range people use to attack a population of people based on one of their characteristics. Not to mention all the other things the Bible says not to do: mixing fabrics, women being over men, all these other things. The Bible condones slavery. The Bible condones human trafficking. The Bible condones polygamy at various points.
The other thing I say is: At the end of the day, I could be wrong, you could be wrong. We could all be wrong. But we’re still going to meet a forgiving God, a loving God. When someone says to Paul in the Bible, “Hey, there’s all these people preaching and they’re not right,” Paul replies, “But the gospel is still being preached.” For that, I get excited. There’s so much about God we don’t know, we don’t understand. The Bible has all of the social, political, and economic of whomever commissioned that translation at that time. It’s called the King James Version because King James said, “Make me a Bible.”
I don’t believe that God is just in the Bible. The United Church of Christ says, “God is still speaking,”—that’s one of our mantras. Man decided what went in the Bible, and what didn’t. The Catholic Bible is different than most Christian churches. It’s ludicrous to me that people hang their hats on those few verses and they do everything else. They pick the one thing they’re not doing and harp on it.
I wonder if people realize the damage they are doing when they use God’s word to promote hate. Even if the Bible does say that this is wrong, it is not your job to judge—to condone or condemn. It is your job to have compassion.
Why did you ask children to leave the room before you started your sermon?
The truth is that because of the subject matter, Harpo didn’t want them in the room. They asked me if I was going to talk about my sexual assault in my sermon. It was a really organic experience. Nobody looked at my sermon, no one asked me anything except for that: “Are you talking about sexual assault?” I said yes and they said, “Would you mind if we collected the children?” I said, “No problem.” I think most of the kids that were there were 7 or 8.
In the first episode, you said, “When I hear myself say, ‘I am a gay man,’ it makes me feel hurt. It makes me feel substandard. It makes me feel petrified.” Do you still ever feel those things?
Not that way. Every now and then, just because...it’s still a process. That show is the first time I said, “I am gay.” I would also find a nicer way of saying it. Again, a lot of my black friends who are gay won’t use that word. They’ll say “same-gendered loving.” They’ll say “the lifestyle.” There’s different ways they’ll approach that.
Now I’m eons beyond where I was but I still have a long way to go. What has helped me is I feel pride in all of the people who have reached out to me and said, “Your show—watching you deliver that sermon, watching your process—has helped me,” and that’s why I did it. I’m proud of my relationship with my family and I’m proud of so many people who have reached out to me and said, “This is what’s going on with me in my church and this is how I feel.”