The Gay History of Gospel

Paul Harvey

The New Yorker this week features a fascinating piece (subscription required) about the gospel singer Anthony Charles Williams II, known as Tonéx, and more broadly about the gay history of gospel as a genre alongside the well-known condemnations of homosexuality from the black pulpit. I believe this could be extended further; this story seems to me a subset of the suspicion of the arts more generally among a lot of conservative Protestants (including the enquiring eyes focused on how the choir director behaves or dresses, and at the waify looking boys playing the handbells). Anyway, the abstract is below, and aside from the specific issue raised by Tonéx's coming out, the article delivers a nice short historical musicology lecture on black gospel. A podcast with the author is here.

ABSTRACT: PROFILE of gospel singer Tonéx. Anthony Charles Williams II has never had a comfortable relationship with the industry that made him famous. Fans know him as Tonéx. His eccentric style and vertiginous high notes helped make him one of the most acclaimed praise singers of the past decade, and, for a time, one of the most successful. He had a certain hip-hop swagger and the status of a sex symbol. A boisterous live double CD, “Out the Box,” won him six trophies at the 2005 Stellar Awards, gospel’s most prestigious event. Tonéx was a welcome guest at all the biggest black churches, a regular presence on BET’s gospel shows, and a headliner at gospel festivals. He has released dozens of CDs, which contain some of the strangest and most seductive Christian pop music since the glory days of James Cleveland; his most evident musical forbears are adventurous pop stars such as Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson, and Erykah Badu. He made it a habit to tweak old-fashioned, upstanding churchgoers. In 2005, Tonéx was divorced, after four years of marriage to Yvette Graham. This past September, the television host known as Lexi broadcast an interview with Tonéx on the Word Network, a gospel channel, in which he made his clearest public statements about his sexual orientation. He is, within the church world, the first high-profile gospel singer in history to come out of the closet. Within hours, he started to realize what he had done. His relationship with the mainstream gospel industry was effectively over. Tonéx was brought up in the church. The Williams family belonged to the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (P.A.W.), and his father, A. C. Williams, founded Truth Apostolic Community Church. Mentions the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Nearly all the Pentecostal gospel stars were COGIC. Mentions T. L. Carter. In the nineties, Tonéx was signed by a local Christian label called Rescue, and then by Jive Records. Mentions his first album, “Pronounced Toe-Nay” (2000) and his second album, “Out the Box” (2004). Tonéx sensed early on that he was attracted to other boys, and he spent the better part of three decades trying to figure out what that might mean for him. Along the way, he has honed a style of his own, a sly but ecstatic form of electronic pop. Early last year, he made a major-label comeback with “Unspoken,” but the album was largely ignored by the gospel industry. By going public, and by suggesting that a homosexual relationship can be as godly (or ungodly) as a heterosexual one, Tonéx went from being just another sinner to being a high-profile heretic. Mentions Long Island pastor Donnie McClurkin. As a stock character in African-American folklore, the gay choir director probably predates gospel music. Mentions Alex Bradford, Prophet Jones, and Rev. James Cleveland. In Bishop Yvette Flunder’s view, gospel music is gay music, with vanishingly few exceptions; she estimates that the proportion of gospel performers who are, or have been, same-gender-loving might be as high as ninety per cent. Gospel music has offered generations of same-gender-loving singers a place to call home, in exchange for their obedience, or their silence. By talking plainly about his sexual identity, Tonéx has scrambled his professional identity.


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