"Greenleaf" Makes Space On TV For Queer Black People In Church
Of any show on television, the OWN series lands nearest to an honest representation of my experience as a gay black man still struggling with what the church asked of me.
In a pivotal scene from the second episode in Season 2 of the OWN TV series Greenleaf, Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge), the newly installed associate pastor of the fictional Memphis megachurch Calvary, approaches Carlton Cruise (Parnell Damone Marcano) — the church’s out gay music director — in Carlton’s driveway. Carlton, who has just been fired by Grace’s mother, Lady Mae, after marrying his partner, rolls out from beneath the undercarriage of a muscle car clad in flannel, a drastic change from the brightly colored print shirts he usually wears for service.
“I’m sick about this,” Grace tells Carlton. He assures her that he knew it was a risk getting married, and that unlike the last two times he’s been fired from a church, he won’t be bringing a workplace discrimination suit against Calvary. It’s then that Grace confronts Carlton with a question of deeper moral implication: “But will you keep coming to church?”
It’s a moment that demonstrates what the show does best: addressing the church’s unresolved attitude toward homosexuality in a refreshingly nuanced way. By distilling the predicament of many queer people with histories in the black church, Greenleaf joins a small cadre of TV shows, Fox’s Star and Empire among them, interested in thoughtfully exploring black LGBT narratives on television.
Greenleaf was created by former Six Feet Under and Lost writer Craig Wright, who was once a minister himself. In a phone interview, he said that he does see normalizing queerness in black communities as an important facet of the show’s impact. “That's not why the show exists,” he said, “but I feel like it's slowly happening. This is one of the raw nerves that the show is designed to poke.”
The series provides an opportunity to interrogate the church’s unsteady stance on homosexuality. Greenleaf measures the cost of piety and silence for LGBT people, and takes an earnest, mature look at the remaining tensions, and legacy, of queer black people in the black church — including those, like me, who have left it behind.
Greenleaf centers around Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), his manipulative wife Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield), and their three children: headstrong Grace, browbeaten Jacob, and meek Charity. Together, the bishop and first lady preside over a sprawling megachurch, grappling with the consequences of intrafamilial sexual abuse, corruption, and competition for parishioners within the city’s broader church landscape. The show, now in its second season, premiered in June 2016 with over 3 million viewers — the best series debut ever for the fledgling OWN network, and the most-watched cable show on the night it first aired.
A network spokesperson emphasized that Greenleaf is successful with African-American women viewers in its time slot, but the show’s ratings have seen a slight overall decline so far in Season 2, which suggests that Greenleaf isn’t yet finding an audience outside that niche. Among my friends, a group comprised mostly of gay black men, I still find myself having to reassure skeptics before they’ll give it a try.
“No, really,” I’ve said, on more than one occasion. “It’s good. None of that Tyler Perry mess. Like GOOD. For real.”
When gay black men consider Greenleaf, many of us are reckoning with our own legacies of departure.
In response, they’ll look at me in dismay and disbelief. And I understand why. Because when gay black men consider Greenleaf, many of us are reckoning with our own legacies of departure from congregations as tightly knit as the one depicted in the show — congregations that loved us, but wanted our silence in return, a muting of the impulse that we believe to be immutable.
I’m not surprised that men like me would be skeptical of seeing themselves represented on television, a medium which has never mustered much interest in depicting our stories beyond using them as tools for instructing or entertaining others. But behind that cynicism in this case, I imagine, might be a hurt, and a nostalgia for the churches like Calvary that once drew us in close, and then told us we were damned. It’s a reluctance to tune into a rehashing of those memories every week.
I’ve had this conversation among enough of my gay black friends in the city, the former sweet little boys from whichever Baptist or COGIC or CME Church, from whatever small Southern town they came from, to know how much they miss it — the hand of Miss So-and-So on the nape of their neck, her “good job, baby”s. That affirmation was our first coin, that which we accept now in cash or check only, in order to make rent; many of us recall those sanctuaries and pulpits as our earliest training grounds, and yet we hold ourselves rigid against this nostalgia. Because such petting, we know, costs something. Many of us left behind homes and families and religions to learn this. Have been doing so for decades, in fact.
Formerly one of those sweet little boys myself, I watch Greenleaf from my apartment in Brooklyn, nostalgic for the accents, and cackling at all the conniving. But mostly I watch because the show — which centers on Grace Greenleaf’s return to her affluent family’s compound — is really a show about the drama of leaving and returning. That’s a story I’d heard about black gay men throughout the South, or maybe felt in their absence, until I recognized it written in my future, too.
Greenleaf spent most of last season investigating the sexual abuse of two generations of McCready women (Lady Mae and her daughter Faith) at the hands of two generations of McCready men — Lady Mae’s father, Henry, and her brother, Mac. The show seemed committed to unmasking a toxic tendency among some church communities to respond to sexual assault with silence, and the show’s gay characters generally took a backseat to this storyline.
The gay character given the most airtime on Greenleaf last season was son-in-law Kevin Satterlee (Tye White), the husband of the youngest Greenleaf daughter, Charity. Kevin struggles with his burgeoning sexual attraction to men, which puts both his marriage and his job at Calvary at risk. When Charity gets pregnant, Kevin’s tense posturing eventually gives way to an admission of his yearnings. In last season’s finale, Kevin grips a gay conversion pamphlet, in tears, begging Charity to stay in the marriage. Charity sagely answers that you can’t change who you are.
Such moments, while dramatic, felt like a rehashing of the bloodless, undying "down-low" narrative that casts gay men as negligent and ultimately selfish. It’s the show’s less deeply explored gay thread about music director Carlton, an out gay man reckoning with the spiritual turmoil of staying at Calvary in hopes of changing the institution, that actually has more transformative potential for queer viewers.
When Carlton arrives in Season 1, he doesn’t shrink from explaining his bumpy career trajectory: As an out gay man, he’s been fired twice from other local congregations. As Charity’s career as a gospel artist takes off under his guidance, he quickly becomes her main confidant, winning him a measure of acceptance inside the Calvary world. But his marriage to his partner, at the start of Season 2, draws the ire of the church’s board. Carlton is modest in his Sunday behavior, but doesn’t hide his affection for his partner; a kiss on his husband’s cheek draws scowls from a cluster of deacons. When viewed against all of the conniving from the McCreadys, Carlton’s forthrightness feels more courageous and more holy.
Carlton's narrative also works within the world of the show to add a layer of meaning to Kevin's storyline — something the show's writers are mindful of. “Apart from the general goodness of portraying a character like Carlton, he also serves a valuable purpose,” Wright told me. Though Kevin had begun to appear spineless by the end of last season, Carlton’s firing helped to cast him in a more sympathetic light, “because we understand what it can cost a man to be gay and out within this community. Firing Carlton is actually a very helpful little click in the clock of Kevin's evolution as a character and our ability to sympathize with him.”
Because of that earned sympathy, Kevin’s scenes this season are cast in a different light. At a conversion therapy meeting in “A Mother’s Love,” Kevin receives Ipecac syrup to induce vomiting in order to train his body from feeling desire for other men. Suddenly the audience has a new understanding of the depth of his suffering and it’s easier to see why he can’t bring himself to tell his mother that he’s gay, even though she intuits as such. His attempts at repairing his relationship with Charity in “Revival” the fourth episode thus appear as less of a farce, as does their heartbreaking decision to separate.
Near the end of last season, Carlton all but disappeared, relegated to gleefully toting pastel gift bags for Charity and Kevin’s impending twins. But as Greenleaf has progressed, its writers have unearthed what makes it feel so vital to a lapsed choir boy like me: a depiction of black queer life from multiple angles, that is not merely outwardly sensational.
I’m still unsure whether I’ve left the church, which according to Revelations 3:16 — “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” — means that I have, in fact, already left the church. I never took to the Bible as literature, but there are some verses of scripture that linger in my memory: the one above about there being no room for half stepping, and the ones about who should and shouldn’t be laying with men — Romans 1: 26-28; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13. Those were the ones I looked up and down for exceptions, finding none.
As a teenager, I accepted my place within a legacy of departing, joined a tradition of gay black men in a silent but stubborn dispute with their mothers. My mother and I sat in silence for 27 years, and even then, I could only tell her by phone, 18 hours away. Even then, I heard reluctance in her voice, at having to say it, finally: that although her calls would still be as regular as her love, her God (as far as she knew) did not accept my sexuality. And I felt the guilt for making her say it to me. We slunk off from there, she to her corner, I to mine. I still go to church with her when I’m back home in Arkansas, but she’s stopped asking whether I attend services on Sundays when I’m in Brooklyn. She’s never managed to ask about my love life.
They had to suck it up and go home, to their mothers, no matter what had been said. Who else was going to bury them?
Black gay men have been leaving for decades — the men a now-middle-aged Carlton might have grown up with, men who fled their homes a generation ago and often returned after years spent away in cities, spinning disco records and gowns from cloth and even whole new languages into being. I never knew these men, but have heard of them from older friends. They talk about the old lovers who disappeared on buses years ago, returning home, AIDS having wasted their bodies and the fear of death doing similar work on their pride. They had to suck it up and go home, to their mothers, no matter what had been said. Who else was going to bury them?
I remember those men when watching Greenleaf, wondering how many of those funerals Carlton might have performed for. I remember them whenever a new video of a gospel artist condemning my gay family surfaces — a whole generation of men who were rebuked, and then mourned, but too late. I pick out vestiges of the legacy that men like me have left in the theatrical nature of gospel music, and the exuberance it has injected into the tradition of black church worship. As writer Kalefa Sanneh wrote in a 2010 New Yorker profile of out gospel singer Tonéx, “For most of its history, gospel music has had two missions: to smuggle secular thrills into church, and to smuggle spiritual fervor out of it.” But as Carlton reminds Grace outside his home, church folks will “love you all week, so long as they can shove you back in that closet come Sunday morning.”
Greenleaf normalizes the presence of LGBT people in the church, but it also forces me to reckon with the legacy of black gay men departing. Of course, there’s the joy of reveling in my “church kween” identity — schooled in the evasions and elisions necessary for navigating this spiritual terrain. But by imagining how a person might navigate the church as an out gay person, the show works at something deeper: challenging the silences in which my mother and I, and the black church at large, have grown too comfortable.
If Season 1 of Greenleaf was about gagging at the hijinks of the church, then my relationship to it in Season 2 has deepened. The show has given me the opportunity to grieve all the communities I might have imagined for myself, but never found — as ephemeral as the feeling at a tea dance when some deep gospel house comes over the stereo. Not the wailing, rolling-in-the-aisle, 'bout-to-turn-over-the-casket kind of grieving (believe me, some of the best spectacles I've witnessed have been at funerals) but the kind that happens at the repast, where people are laughing and remembering and tearing up a little.
When I interviewed Craig Wright, he told me that he thinks about Six Feet Under as having “executed a social sleight of hand” in that it normalized gay narratives within a show that purported to be about something else. And, he said, he would be glad if Greenleaf can do the same in a new cultural context.
“If, in the long run, someone were to say about Greenleaf … ‘Wow, that show seemed to be about one thing, but when I look back at it, what I really take away from it is that it normalized homosexuality within the black community as just a fact of life on television for five years,’ I would be very very proud,” Wright said. “And I'd think the show would've done its job.”
Black LGBT folk like me need this normalizing, to see beyond the shock of ourselves existing in the church. And in the landscape of mainstream entertainment today, Wright’s series lands nearest to an honest representation of the complexity confronting black churches and the queer people within them. TV shows like Lee Daniels’ Star and Empire, depictions of black people in pursuit of fame and then once they've attained it, are doing their own radical work to reinscribe queer artists and artistry into their rightful place within black popular music. But to me, Greenleaf does a more remarkable thing. It teases at something more intimate, and more unusual onscreen, and gives it enough nuanced attention that you can watch the show and feel you’ve actually glimpsed that rarest of things: a gay black man, living.
Lady Mae is Grace's mother. An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to Lady Mae as Grace's sister.