Last week I attended a church member’s funeral. Hues of black and brown formed a beautiful palette as the saints marched in their white-and-black vestments. White for the sacredness of the one to whom the service was dedicated, and black for their anguish. The preacher read Scriptures as the family processioned into the church. This was no ordinary funeral; it was a homegoing—or a celebration of life, a passing from this plane to the next, from labor to reward.
There will be many more funerals in the coming days. On Sunday, June 12, news surfaced that 49 were killed and 53 injured by Omar Mateen at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Fueled by toxic masculinity, homophobia and terroristic fervor, Mateen used a semi-automatic rifle and a 9 mm handgun to afflict the bodies of Latinx, black and Afro-Latinx LGBTQ individuals, their families and their friends.
In trying to make sense of the destabilizing chaos, some intimated that Mateen was gay and had internalized homophobia. Others noted that homophobic rhetoric from sacred texts and U.S. politics was the accelerant that set Mateen’s troubled masculinity ablaze. Indeed, queer-antagonistic culture, theologies and policies beget LGBTQ violence.
This violence affects not only queer people but also the people they love. CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed the parents of shooting victim Shane Tomlinson, who discussed the fear of being denied a funeral service at a church for their gay son. His mom told Lemon: “My son has been in church his whole life, and let me tell you, he loved the Lord. … He always asked for God’s direction. [My concern was] they wouldn’t give him a service because he was gay, because of how some churches feel about the gay community.”
We do not know what prompted the predominately white Refuge Church to hold Shane’s funeral, given their lead pastor’s anti-gay stance. But we do know that Shane’s parents did fear being denied a proper homegoing for their son, and rightfully so. In 2014, Julion Evans’ funeral was cancelled just 24 hours before it was due to take place because the church discovered that he was gay. Last year, Vanessa Collier’s funeral was stopped mid-service because the pastor could not bear to see images of Vanessa and her partner sharing love. Many more queer and trans people have been denied funerals or buried in ways that they did not identify in life. Some queer people’s partners are even disallowed from attending their partners’ funerals or they are forced to conceal their love for the deceased.
The church continues to exploit queer people while failing to acknowledge queer humanity. Individuals often cite the black church choir to illustrate this point, but that is reductionist. Queer people do more than sing. They preach and hide their sexual identities. They give tithes and serve as trustees. Queer people keep the church doors open, even when churches are homophobic.
The suggestion that homegoings are a heterosexual privilege should also give us pause, given the queer history of black funerals. In Christine Turner’s Homegoings (2013), we learn that queer people did the “dirty” work of adorning black bodies that had been lynched, raped and mutilated by white racists. The tradition can be traced back to the African continent, when Africans used ancestral rituals to send loved ones back to God/Goddess.
I attended my first homegoing when I was 3 years old. My great-grandmother had passed. Every day for the first few years of my own life, she mothered me the way only a great-grandmother could. Her homegoing service is a lasting memory. I can recall an aunt taking me to her casket so that I could give Grandma a kiss. Shortly after, the morticians sealed her in. Though Grandma had left us long before that moment, she hadn’t “transitioned” until her casket closed for the last time. When her body was lowered into the ground—“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”—it was then that she had “gone home.”
Homegoings are sacred. They give us space to mourn with kin. There is crying and rejoicing, but most importantly, there is sanctuary. Toni Morrison writes, “Done within the context of community, therefore safe.”
Shane was murdered by a domestic terrorist radicalized by America’s infatuation with the violation of women, the dehumanization of the poor, and the sadistic machinations of queer and trans death. His loved ones seek sanctuary at Refuge Church, while the families of so many other victims face funeral price gouging or the Westboro Baptist Church's violent protests.
If you have to fear the church, then, by default, it is not a sanctuary. That we must worry how Shane and others will “go home” in peace, shows us that the church is not a sanctuary. That the church is hesitant to be present in these devastating times shows us that it is not a sanctuary. As such, gay clubs will continue to be sanctuaries—even when homophobes desecrate them—because in those spaces Pharisees and Sadducees are nonexistent, and the queer power of the Holy One rests in and on all who dance and love freely.