“I have trouble reconciling a theology that says that God is present in the midst of all of this, that somehow the people who continue to seem to lose are the folks who are most vulnerable. That, to me, is skewed.”
Growing up, Darnell L. Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire, “was a church boy who maintained a theology that was queer-antagonistic.” He went to Princeton Theological Seminary in search of a safe place to question his religion fully, to ask the questions he didn’t feel safe asking at his own church. While studies consistently show that the majority of the LGBTQ+ community are religious, it is also true that these religious institutions are the source of a great ammount of trauma for queer people.
“My ability to push back against what I consider to be violent theologies, theologies that kill the spirit and which can often lead, at least in my case, to incidences of suicidal ideation because you’re taught to believe that this God who is love somehow withholds their love from you,” he says on this week’s LGBTQ&A podcast. “I went there to really save myself and was saved by being in a space where I could actually dissent and critique the theologies and all the things I had been taught.”
Since then Moore has turned his fierce and inordinate curiosity on everything he’s done, as evidenced in his critically-acclaimed memoir, No Ashes in the Fire, and his newest project, a podcast about the gay and queer Black male experience, Being Seen.
To celebrate Being Seen’s debut, Darnell L. Moore spoke with the LGBTQ&A podcast about how this current moment is affecting his spirituality, the myth that queer people are not and can not also be religious, and the effect that HIV/AIDS had on him growing up in the ’80s.
Jeffrey Masters: How has your relationship to your faith changed with everything that’s been going on in the world?
Darnell L. Moore: I will just be very honest. I have a hard time reconciling how all of the various forms of violence, how this material hate that so many folk who exist on the edge of the edge of the margins, who exist on the underside of what bell hooks calls “white supremacist, heteropatriarchal capitalism”… I have trouble reconciling a theology that says that God is present in the midst of all of this, that somehow the people who continue to seem to lose are the folks who are most vulnerable. That, to me, is skewed.
And that’s the actual problem of most Christian theology: this idea that the person who suffers the most is somehow upheld as a person who is closest to the God image. No. No, no, no, no. That is a psychology that makes it possible for some people to believe that we ought to endure suffering by virtue in order to somehow be redeemed or somehow be seen. And that to me is problematic. So if anything, I’ve had more questions.
JM: Is there a part of the teachings of the church you’ve been returning to most often?
DM: The notion of community. This year has been a storm within a storm within a storm within a storm, but I’m also very cognizant that for Black queer, trans, nonbinary people, it isn’t new.
I know that I am here because of the community of people who surround me. That, to me, is an aspect of spiritual tradition or spirituality that I find remarkable. Also, there’s a notion of right critique to talk about Christ in a way that the cross was an instrument of the state that it would put people on. It was a tactic of a nation state. It was the jail cell. It was the gas chamber. It was Abu Ghraib. It was the detention center. It was the cage. And that is what Jesus was placed on. That is what the Roman empire put Jesus on.
In my mind, if there is a political message in the gospel…Christ was killed by the state and rose up again. When I think about abolitionism as it’s talked about in this moment, that’s what I think about. Abolitionism is not, as Ruthie Wilson Gilmore says, it’s not just about the removal of the things that harm us, a naming of those things and the removal of them, a destruction of it. It’s about creating what needs to go into place of the shit that doesn’t work. And for me, that is what’s offered through that theology.
JM: You received a Masters in Theological Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. At that time, did you think you were going to become a minister?
DM: I should also be very clear that I was a church boy who maintained a theology that was queer-antagonistic, even as I was coming into myself as a queer person. Part of the reason why I went to seminary was to be able to be in a space where I could ask the type of questions that I did not necessarily feel empowered or safe enough to ask within the churches that I had been part of. So I went to seminary because I was like, “At least I can be here and lift up all of these sort of Aquarius-esque questions that I have about what I’m being taught.”
And I always say that seminary really saved me.
My ability to push back against what I consider to be violent theologies, theologies that kill the spirit and which can often lead, at least in my case, to incidences of suicidal ideation because you’re taught to believe that this God who is love somehow withholds their love from you. So yeah, I went there to really save myself and was saved by being in a space where I could actually dissent and critique the theologies and all the things I had been taught.
JM: It’s sad to me because on the whole, such a large majority of queer people are people of faith.
DM: Yeah. I mean, there’s this idea that to be queer, to be trans, to be nonbinary, to be sexually-othered is to somehow not be a person who does not have thoughts, ideas, connections to spirit, to God, to gods, to religious traditions, to practices.
It took a lot for me to leave the church that was family for me. But I wasn’t willing to be in a space that was harming me, even if I loved all of those things, even while I missed all of those traditions.
JM: Another big piece of your story is the impact of HIV/AIDS. You write that growing up, being gay and having HIV were synonymous in your mind. You didn’t use protection because of the feeling of inevitability around HIV.
DM: Yeah. I grew up very early on thinking, “I am gay, therefore AIDS is going to be my lot.” Now imagine how that factors into our decision makings, our ideas of self, our ideas of who we are as people. It was almost it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It wasn’t a prophecy that we announced over ourselves, but one that the world did, that the state did, that the church did, that our families did.
I would be shocked when I would get to be tested and they’d tell me that I was negative and I would go, “What? How? How?” I literally would be like, “What?” Which isn’t to say that I was trying to put myself in a position to contract HIV. But it was to say that the psychology of stigma, the weightiness of stigmatization and self-hatred that was grown out of what was being taught to me in the world, totally influenced how I moved in those spaces and how I thought about myself.
JM: That makes me think about the current stat that 50 percent of Black gay men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes. When we talk about that, we need to not frame it as something that’s inevitable, to also talk about safety and how not to get it.
DM: That’s one of the things that I try to press a lot. The sort of danger warning narrative doesn’t help because what we’re saying is, “Don’t you do this. Don’t you do that,” as opposed to, “What is it that’s at the core of yourself when we talk about safe sex?” People don’t really talk about that.
I ask questions like, “What is it about sex without a condom that you like? What does that make you feel? What are you seeking out? What are you missing? What are your desires? What’s your intimacy?” Those are a different set of questions that can lead to a different framing. That’s different than just, “Don’t do this.”
And we’re not a monolith, but particularly as Black men who are engaged with other men in the world, what do you need in your relationship? What makes your heart beat? What makes you feel safe? And that framing is very different than the framing of an inevitability that I often believe clouds people’s minds and almost make them feel like, “What else is there but this as an end?”
JM: HIV/AIDS was so present for you growing up. How often do you stil think about it today?
DM: Not as much as I did before, but a big part of my fears had much to do with my sexual activity. It was all about sexual activity. When I was out there just fucking around, that was on my mind. I think about it in a different way now. I think about a care of the body. And I think about things like consent. I’m thinking about intimacy and what it looks like to create a loving, caring, maybe it doesn’t have to be loving, but a hot sexual experience that allows for mutual consent, that allows for two people or whoever else to make decisions about their bodies that can mitigate against harm.
But I’m also an HIV-negative person who for a lot of years felt guilty that I somehow felt like I escaped a thing that a lot of people I love was not able to. And that’s not to say that I can escape that. I’m thoughtful about the realities of HIV and its impact on us, but in ways that I’ve made it a god or at least inevitable, overwhelmingly daunting thing in my life that so much so that it drove my reactions, my ways of being, my forms of relation that yeah, I’m in a different place.
Darnell L. Moore hosts the new podcast, Being Seen, produced by Harley & Co., ViiV Healthcare, and Darnell L. Moore.