As a young organist for my hometown church, I was often the last to leave church services.
One evening as I was waiting for the staff to close the church’s doors after a concert, I sat on the back pew with a special guest, Myra Saulsberry, the musical director for our family of churches.
Myra’s gorgeous, aged brown eyes stared into the distance as she recalled a precious, 20-year-old moment with her fallen mentee named JJ.
“Mmm! He was so anointed,” she chuckled with joy and tossed her red shawl over her right shoulder.
“Anointed,” was a word church folks used to describe someone who was immensely gifted in a way that moved others to responsiveness—mainly some visible display of emotion.
Myra Saulsberry pulled a hard candy from her purse, first holding it up in an offering motion. I politely declined with a negative nod.
With her mouth now full, Myra continued with her story.
“Anointed,” she paused and looked at me over her glasses, “but he just couldn’t shake that switchin’ demon.”
Her eyes squinted on the word, “demon,” as she began rummaging through her purse and shaking her head back and forth.
“He let it lure him down to that ‘ole Atlanta—and when he got down there, that switchin’ demon killed him dead!”
I pretended not to know what she meant.
Me: “Switchin’ demon?”
“Switching” is a term used by many Southern-cultured Black people, referring to the gentle sway in a woman’s hips as she walks.
For some same gender attracted Black men, this word can crack like a whip emotionally, because it is sometimes used to highlight everything we aren’t (that we ‘should’ be)—and everything we are (that we ‘shouldn’t’ be) as it relates to our expected presentation of masculinity.
Myra: “Homosexual spirit had him spreading it out for other men!”
Suddenly a wave of discomfort washed over me, and I wished I had gone along with her narrative without playing dumb.
JJ vs. Jesus
Myra was talking about JJ, an incredibly talented singer, musician, and songwriter who once lived in our hometown; he was extremely well-respected locally.
Later, JJ became known for his work with a gospel choir in Atlanta, Georgia that would go on to release a major hit record he wrote in the late 1980s.
At the height of his success in gospel music, JJ was a hero to church musicians back in our small, town in the Midwest (especially those who were same gender attracted), because of his talent, bravery, and how far he’d been able to take his gifts.
After his untimely death from AIDS complications, he became an informal textbook example of what could happen to those who dared to flirt with “sin” as a direct challenge to God’s law.
As Myra continued with her narrative, she looked puzzled.
“I just can’t understand what it is about that particular demon. Them punks will switch right up to the altar to get deliverance—and switch right back to their seat.”
As I listened to her talk through JJ’s life story, which sounded similar to my own, I shrunk a little as a dam of anxious thoughts broke my consciousness.
Did part of Myra Saulsberry know she was also talking about me? Was this her covert way of sounding off a warning shot?
If I moved to Atlanta (which I’d also begun to contemplate) would I also eventually die from complications of AIDS?
Was there a pill I could take, a home remedy, some preventive action to avoid this, or was this really all of our divine fate for having these attractions?
When I recognized my surroundings and could understand Myra’s words again, she was hugging me. As she headed on her way out of the door, she paid me a compliment on how quickly I’d developed as an organist and kissed me on my forehead.
Oh, Child Please!
Whenever I needed context outside of my limited, hyper religious circle, I was fortunate enough to have a few people I could rely on to offer sane, clear-thinking guidance. Lamont was one of those people.
Although Lamont had been living in Texas for years, he was only a long-distance phone call away when I felt confused or alone. I’d met Lamont on a trip down to Texas after helping a friend with a move back home.
He was older than me, and I was impressed with how incredibly down-to-earth Lamont was as a highly visible singer, organist, and songwriter within the extended family of churches I was a part of.
He was handsome, same gender attracted, and quite immune to the red hot, spewing judgment of church folks. I wondered how he could be so confident and unbothered by the opinions of others.
I remember Lamont holding his full head of wavy, low-cut hair high, with his 5”11 shoulders pinned back, strutting toward a new Lexus.
It was then when he warned me not to shake his hand too hard.
Lamont: “I know you’re a man, but my hands are how I make my money—don’t break ‘em, now!”
That night after leaving church, I rushed home to call Lamont, hoping he wouldn’t already be sleeping.
I wanted to tell him what Myra Saulsberry had said about JJ moving to Atlanta. I was worried that JJ’s story might end up being my own someday. I needed to hear Lamont tell me it wouldn’t.
“Oh Child, please!”
“Your relationship with God gotta be your own. Can’t worry about these church folks! They living their lives for themselves and you gotta do the same. Let me play you a song God gave me last night!”
Half asleep with my cordless handset propped against my face, I listened to Lamont as he sang into the phone and played the organ in his house.
I was mesmerized at the colorful way Lamont’s imagination approached song structure and laid my anxiety to rest at the same time.
Equal to a Dropping Fly
The next time I heard about our town’s own, legendary JJ would be years later from another musical director for our family of churches—only this time for the state of Georgia.
After taking a job as an organist for a local Atlanta church, Minister D.J. Winters swore he hadn’t heard of a Black person being from my small Midwestern town since JJ.
“They must got something in the water up there! You need to be playing for the state choir.
I’m gonna drop the music off for you to listen to next this weekend. Our rehearsal is in two weeks! Be ready!”
Minister D.J. Winters didn’t make it to drop off the music until a week later. When he arrived, he asked me to come out to the car.
He wasn’t quite as animated, and he left right away. Days later, he was hospitalized, and didn’t attend the rehearsal he’d scheduled.
A week afterwards, I was notified by a fellow church musician that he’d passed away.
I was shocked.
When I asked how he passed away, the keyboardist turned to me with a smile.
“AIDS, man! These f*gg*s is droppin’ like flies!”
Did he know I was like Minister D.J. Winters?
It didn’t matter.
This was one of the most heartless, brutal, and insensitive remarks I’d ever heard anyone make about another human being as a response to their loss of life, suffering and/or disease.
If there was a time when my sense of self-worth was impacted by the immediate reflection of another person’s view of my value as a person who is same gender attracted—this was it.
In that moment, I’d never felt more paralyzed by cruelty, disrespect, and dehumanization than any other in my life—and I have never quite felt this depth of shame and worthlessness since.
Oh, Child Please (Again)!
It had been a while since I’d moved to Atlanta, but I still needed Lamont for affirmation, and he was happy to oblige.
Lamont wasn’t surprised to hear what the musician had said to me; he wasn’t a stranger to cruelty. His feminine nature drew a lot of unwanted attention during his life, and he’d been beaten up a lot—and suffered violence even in some of his relationships.
Lamont: “Oh Child, please! Half of these boys saying this mess be the main ones fooling around with other men behind closed doors. Let me play you another song God gave me about living in your truth!”
Lamont sang like he always did—but this time, his voice along with the Hammond’s vibrations funneled their way into my emotions.
As a single tear built up and fell from my eye, it dawned on me. I’d never be able to play or sing like Lamont—ever.
Although I’d been raised in a church with many singers and musicians, Lamont had a talent I couldn’t quite fathom.
I had to ask him.
Me: “Lamont—how did you learn to be—so deeply advanced in your playing organ and singing?
Lamont: “I asked God to give me everything up front, just in case…”
Me: “In case what?”
Lamont: “God doesn’t let me live…”
Lamont: “Honey, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak…this is the call I been waiting on!
Love you…talk to you later!”
Like many other Black, same gender attracted men in our family of churches, Lamont had been taught by society, his family, and closely-knit religious community (since before he even knew he was experiencing same gender attraction) that this was an unnatural, unacceptable, and immoral feeling for any person to have—therefore, there must be a divine punishment.
By the time he was an adult, and part of the LGBTQIA community, this conviction was already ingrained into his consciousness, although there wasn’t anything he could do to reverse the kind of love he required to function properly as a human being.
In the Name of JJ
If it weren’t for Quinn-Ella Dupree, an elegant and beautiful woman from my hometown, known for her beautiful gospel voice (splashed with a hint of classical soul), I wouldn’t have been able to move to Atlanta.
She gave me a place to live (a small room in her gorgeous Victorian home nestled in the hills of College Park) until I found a church to play for earning enough money to rent an apartment downtown. I later learned that she took care of JJ during the worst of his last days.
She would often sit and tell stories about him as she looked into the distance—almost as if she were smiling softly inside—while coping with a gentle pain.
Although the response to HIV/AIDS in the Black church has been largely apathetic since the onset of the infection, the congregation in Atlanta where JJ had risen to fame and fallen to complications from AIDS was unique among our family of churches.
After JJ’s passing, the church was torn. Some of its members adopted the more traditional response of pretending he never existed and moving forward in silence.
The pastor of the church where JJ was active was unique in our family of churches in that he was well-studied as a Ph.D. and was externally engaged in the community in ways that were less common in our faith.
As a result, he insisted that the congregation respond to the devastation of the overarching HIV/AIDS crisis by starting a ministry that responded specifically to the needs of those infected and affected by the disease—in the name of JJ.
Child, Please: A Self-Fulfilled Prophecy
One Sunday morning while standing outside the church where I worked as an organist, I hesitated to pull the door, wondering if my life would ever come to a point where I could walk away from the check turned ball and chain that kept me coming back to the organ each week.
Suddenly, I remembered that Lamont always joked no matter how tired of it you got—if you had fingers, you had extra income. “Keep them folks out ‘ya business, do your job, and hope they don’t bother you,” he would always say.
It was the sudden ring of a Texas number that jolted me out of my daydream.
Friend: “I can’t talk long. Lamont passed away this morning. It was AIDS. I’m sorry to have to tell you like this, but none of us knew.”
I didn’t cry right away; I was shocked and angry.
There was so much I didn’t get to say. So much more I wanted to learn.
I wanted to tell Lamont that I finally understood Myra Saulsberry’s bitterness when her husband passed away and an inconsolable man showed up at the wake all dressed up in a winter fur, crying harder than her (as he attempted to scale the coffin).
I wanted to tell him that he was so incredibly gifted because he was brilliant, not because God was intentionally cutting his life short.
I wanted to tell him that I needed him to keep helping me survive in the world, and that he deserved to live.
The Safety of Apathy
The people at church looked different when I opened the doors after the phone call I received that Sunday—and for many years to come.
Guilt (brought on by religious indoctrination turned trauma) eventually led Lamont to a place of expectation; instead of looking forward to a life of health and wellness, he fully expected illness and death to inevitably claim his future.
I was too young to fully ascertain the scope of this reality at the time, but I knew the circumstances surrounding Lamont’s death were layered—and I felt cheated out of a friend.
African Americans are more likely to become infected with HIV, less likely to know they have the disease, and more likely to die from HIV/AIDS than any other race. Still, every church in my proximity pretended it didn’t exist—and progress and faith seemed to be two opposing forces.
I’d already been through the motions and fanfare of impersonating a heterosexual man and preparing to start a family as a younger man. I was over it.
I found that the incredible amount of inauthenticity, contortion, as well as the unnecessary potential financial burden of that act was also completely unsustainable.
I decided that reconciling my sexual orientation with my spirituality along with the risk for contracting HIV/AIDS was simply too much anxiety to manage.
Lack of finances, difficulty dating, distant family, dying friends, diminishing support system, stigma and abandonment of community, the judgment of religion, and hiding my authenticity; I couldn’t bear to know if I was also HIV positive.
Altogether, it was just too much to worry about, and too much to feel.
If HIV came for me, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.
* These stories are a collection of first person narratives taken from anonymous lived experiences; names have been substituted.