Revelations by Linda Villarosa, 1995
In the May 1991 issue of Essence magazine, my mother and I each wrote about my coming out as a lesbian. That article received a tremendous reception – most of it positive – and it remains the most responded-to article in the history of the magazine. Due to the avalanche of mail, my mother and I followed up with “Readers Respond to Coming Out,” which ran later that year in the October issue. This article was much more political, allowing me to speak out directly against homophobia in Black communities. Almost overnight, I was unexpectedly catapulted into the public arena, which began a wave of national speaking engagements that left me to cope with both adulation and condemnation.
Before I came out in print, I never had someone tell me I was going to go to hell. Now people say it to me regularly. When my mother and I addressed a conference of Black social workers about how families may confront their homophobia and accept lesbian and gay children, a sad-eyed mad, round shouldered in a baggy suit, approached me. “I enjoyed hearing what you had to say,” he offered, his hand extended. My hand in his, he continued, barely missing a beat, “But you’re a sinner. You’re going to hell.” He said this casually, through a half-smile, as though ready to add, “Have a nice day.”
Some people put their condemnation in writing, spitting angry religion-like curse words. These are two of the several letters I received at Essence:
From Smyrna, Georgia: [Your] behavior is a sin against God that can be forgiven by sincere repentance and turning away from the sin of homosexuality. In fact, the word of God is very clear on the immorality of homosexuality. Read 1 Corinthians 6:9. Homosexuals and the homosexual lifestyle will never be accepted. I believe that sharing the Word with those individuals afflicted with the sin of homosexuality and imparting love and patience, they can receive the loving salvation of Jesus Christ. This is the only way you, and other homosexuals, can become normal saved persons.
From Westchester, New York: [Essence] should be ashamed of itself for having a woman like Linda Villarosa on your staff. Lesbian [sic] is not a sickness, it’s a sin, and if that woman does not repent, she is going to perish. She should read Mathew [sic] chapter 19 verses 4 and 5. Read it and see what it says. Linda, no one wants to know who you are!
The worst verbal attack came at Oregon State University, where I was to address a large group of students about being Black, lesbian, and out. The trouble started before I arrived. I had requested that the organizers contact African-American student groups about coming to my lecture, because I believe that it’s extremely important for Blacks – gay and straight – to know that Black lesbians exist and can be happy and out and secure in their identities. A member of the school’s Black Women’s Alliance (BWA), who was also friendly with the gay group on campus, agreed to make an announcement at BWA’s next meeting to garner support and ensure a strong Black presence at the lecture. At the end of the meeting she told the other sisters that an editor from Essence would be speaking the following evening. Several women clapped and nodded. “She’ll be talking about what it’s like to be a Black lesbian,” the young woman continued. At that point, the room fell silent. Finally, one woman stood up and said, “Lesbianism is nastiness and they should get a vaccine to make them normal.” Spurred on, another declared, “Gays are against God, and because of my religion, I can’t hear this woman speak.” In the end, another exasperated sister said, “Can we please stop talking about this, I’m getting physically ill.”
Thankfully, I didn’t know about this backlash or I would’ve been too freaked to do the lecture. Expressions of homophobia hurt deeply, but coming from other Black women the pain is particularly acute. Knowing that I would be facing such resistance in what was already a largely white audience on a conservative college campus may well have paralyzed me.
The lecture went fine. The question-and-answer period was particularly long with interested students – gay, straight, and many races and ethnicities – hungry for answers and information. After a while I became tired and announced that I’d answer one final question. A clean-cut white guy wearing a baseball cap waved his hand frantically from the balcony. And there it was: “You and all gays are going to hell. I’m telling you this because God taught me to love you.” Then he cited a Bible passage: “Read Leviticus 20:13.”
Bedlam broke out in the room. After several minutes, I got things quieted down and looked out into the expectant faces of the audience. The challenge had been made, and I felt that all of the young, gay people there expected me to defend us all with authority. My voice shook with anger and a little bit of fear that I wouldn’t be able to meet this challenge. “Listen, you don’t love me, you don’t know me, you don’t understand me,” I said, barely able to remain composed and keep from crying. “You’re using religion to cloak your horrible message in the language of love. People like you have used religion to suppress everything you find offensive. In the past the Bible was used to justify slavery and now you’re using it to justify your fear and hatred of those of us who are living our lives as gays and lesbians.”
The tension broke and the crowd began to applaud, but I felt empty. Even the reporters covering the event saw through my strong front and brave smile. The next day’s edition of the Corvallis (Ore) Gazette-Times reported that as I stepped from the podium, I had seemed stunned. It was true: I was stunned. And sad. My words had sounded hollow to me, as though I had been reading from a textbook. I hadn’t felt them. My reaction had been a knee-jerk response to being attacked in public; but deep within me, I knew I wasn’t so sure about myself. Where do I really stand spiritually? That heckler knew exactly how he felt and where he stands, why didn’t I?
From my parents’ church I learned about respect for difference and community across seemingly unbridgeable differences, and through my grandmother’s church I connected with my Southern Baptist roots. But nothing from my religious past had prepared me to deal with the continued abuse I was receiving from so-called religious people. It was time for me to begin studying the Bible, but, more importantly, it was time to discover my own spiritual core.
First, I dug out the dusty copy of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible left over from my days in confirmation classes, and I looked up the passages that had been thrown in my face. I started with 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 10, which read: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
I felt skeptical: had the authors of the Bible really used the word “homosexual” two thousand years ago? No, they had not. The New Testament had been written in Greek and then translated into Hebrew. In 1382 the Bible was first translated into English, and in 1611 came the King James (or authorized) Version. The Bible I was reading had been revised 335 years later. I purchased a paperback copy of the King James Version and looked up 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 10. This earlier version never used the word “homosexual” but listed the “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” in its inventory of the “unrighteous,” and that had been translated to mean “homosexual” in the revised version. Something had been lost – or gained – in translation.
I decided not to spend much more time trying to sort out what the authors meant and what lessons they were trying to teach about homosexuality – if that’s even what they were talking about – in the context of social systems from twenty centuries past. In fact, even after reading Genesis 19 many times, I still didn’t see how the story of Sodom had anything to do with gay sex. In that story, Lot, a holy man and a resident of the evil city of Sodom, is visited by two angels. Genesis 19:4-8 reads:
…the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight [i.e. the angels]? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men…
Eventually, the angels strike the men blind, and God rains fire and brimstone on the city and burns it down. From this story comes the word “sodomy” – a pejorative term for gay sex. And now, when a city like New York is described as a modern-day Sodom, the underlying assumption is that it’s full of sin and sex and gays. Even assuming that the word “know” refers to sex, it seems a stretch to use it to condemn gays and lesbians. Why isn’t anyone questioning Lot for offering to turn over his virginal daughters to the mob of men, which is the most obvious aberrance relayed there?
Moving on, I looked up Matthew 19:4 and 5, which says: “He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’”
Upon further reading, it was easy to see that the letter writer from Westchester, New York, had taken these verses completely out of context. The passage had nothing to do with lesbians and gay men but was clearly a condemnation of divorce. In fact, the verses she cited were an answer to the question “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3). Verse 9 says that “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” In case there’s any question about the seriousness of adultery, Leviticus 20:10 spells it out clearly: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” What does this have to do with queerness?
Next I looked up Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” I guess they could be murdered along with the divorced remarried couple from earlier Leviticus verses. At this point, I started getting angry.
It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to figure out that people use the Bible selectively. The people who write me letters are not sending hate mail to people who are divorced or to those who have cheated on their spouses. The man who lashed out at me in Oregon is not condemning people who eat pork (“And the swine, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean to you”: Leviticus 11:7-8) or shellfish (“…anything in the seas r the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is an abomination to you”: Leviticus 11:10).
Neither is he cursing or carrying on about cattle breeders, farmers who grow two different crops, or anyone who wears a poly-cotton blend of clothing despite Leviticus 19:19 “You shall not let you cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two different kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.”
These people are also overlooking beautiful, lyrical passages in the Bible that celebrate same-sex love. In Ruth 1: 16-17 of the Old Testament, Ruth says to Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”
David and Jonathan of the Old Testament seem to be deeply in love: “…the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). When Jonathan dies in the war, David writes: “…your love to me was wonderful, pass the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
Many so-called righteous people are taking the Bible literally when it suits them, ignoring anything that doesn’t easily support their narrow condemnations or calls into question their own life styles. And many Black people are using the Bible against their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers just as whites used the scriptures against our ancestors when they interpreted passages such as Ephesians 6: 5-6 – “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ” – to mean that our people should remain enslaved.
Fortified in mind and spirit, from my connection with this community [Unity Fellowship Church, NYC], I felt ready to face the world. And an opportunity presented itself while I was giving a talk at a Black cultural center on the West Coast. After going through my usual song and dance about how it felt to be Black and a lesbian, I began fielding questions. I noticed a woman raising her hand tentatively. She was s sister in her mid-thirties, turned out in an expensive, corporate-looking suit and bright gold jewelry, with her hair freshly done in braided extensions. “You seem like a really nice woman and I enjoyed hearing your story,” she began slowly. “But as a Christian woman I need to share this with you. I went through a period in my life when I thought I was attracted to women. But then I discovered Jesus Christ. By reading the Bible, I realized that homosexuality was unnatural and that I was a sinner. If I continued in the life, I would be condemned.”
“Where does the Bible say that?” I asked.
Opening her purse, she pulled out a small, worn copy of the New Testament and began to read from a marked passage. “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.’ Romans 1, verses 26 and 27.”
I listened politely as she read. When she had finished, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my own copy of the Bible, “ ‘In like manner that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing.’ 1 Timothy, chapter 2, verse 9,” I read. “And 1 Timothy 2: 11 and 12 say, ‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.’ I’m sure in your work you have had to supervise men. I know I have. And even by standing up and speaking out today, I guess we’re both sinning.”
“Wait, that’s not fair,” she said, her face looking at once confused and angry. “It’s not right to take the Bible out of context like that.”
“Why?” I countered. “That’s what you’re doing.”
Even as I hit her close to home, I felt sorry for this woman. She was obviously confused and probably a closet case, and I knew I was preying on that, attacking her with scriptures almost as I had been attacked. I was aiming at a place she had only recently uncovered – where she was still vulnerable.
“Listen,” I said softly: “I don’t want to do this. All of us need to stop taking the Bible literally, and begin to read it critically and intelligently. You know there are some important messages that we can understand and agree on.” I opened my Bible to Leviticus 19:17 and read in a clear voice, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And this time my words sounded strong and confident, and were definitely my own.
Biography taken from www.lindavillarosa.com
I am a journalist, author, editor and now novelist. For several years, I edited the health pages for the New York Times, working on health coverage for Science Times and for the newspaper at large. I was also the executive editor of Essence Magazine—two different times--where I wrote or edited a number of award-winning articles that I am extremely proud of.
As a contributing reporter, I have written many articles for the Times, several of which ran on the newspaper’s front page. I’ve also contributed articles, profiles and reviews to a number of national publications, including Glamour, Health, Latina, the New York Times Book Review, O Magazine, Vibe and Woman’s Day. Whenever I get the inspiration, I write a column called “Outside the Lines,” which appears on afterellen.com. I also contribute to theroot.com.
I have won lots of awards from organizations, including The American Medical Writers’ Association, The Arthur Ashe Institute, Lincoln University, the New York Association of Black Journalists, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists’ Association and the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center.
Most recently, I have provided editorial consulting to a number of companies and organizations. For American Express Publishing, I launched a newsletter for television host Dr. Phil. For the Kaiser Family Foundation, I was honored to train journalists from around the world to better cover the international HIV/AIDS epidemic and cover the International AIDS conferences in Barcelona, Bangkok and Toronto. I also conceive, write and edit beauty and lifestyle publications for the Meredith Corporation.
I am the author or co-author of three books, including Body & Soul: The Black Women’s Guide to Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being. When I get the opportunity, I work behind the scenes helping other authors complete proposals and package and write their books. My first novel, Passing for Black, was released in 2008 and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.
A graduate of the University of Colorado, I also spent a year at Harvard University as a journalism fellow. I am the program director of the journalism department at the City College of New York where I teach writing and media studies. I live in Brooklyn with my partner and two children. My mom, Clara Villarosa, is the retired founder and co-owner of the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem.