Religion as a contributing factor to depression in Black gay men
By Antoine Craigwell
In February this year, when D’Andre turned 41, he says, “I was lonely and I was angry about being alone and I decided that if my life didn’t improve by the time my next birthday rolled around, I am going to commit suicide.” It was to end being alone and feelings of loneliness that he would find some way to end his life, most likely, drive his car at a high speed and crash it into a wall, intending not to survive.
For D’Andre (a name used to protect the identity of a real person), an African American high school teacher, born and raised in Houston, TX, the circumstances leading up to his resolve are complex and multi-layered. His story of dealing with his depression, which he describes as an intense feeling of sadness washing over him, an overpowering sense of helplessness, and accompanied by anger, lasting for a long time, is rooted in his childhood experiences. In his recounting, he spoke of coming from an ultra conservative fundamentalist evangelical Christian denomination led by his father, a pastor, in a rural town in the American south. The intertwining of religion, the African American culture – expectations and demands, and of society, influenced and significantly contributed to his depression.
In his socks, D’Andre stands at just about 5-feet, 11-inches, weighing a solid 180 lbs, not fat or flab, but because he runs and works out at a gym, he has an athletic look. His original complexion is light brown, but with the sun in Houston, he has become many shades darker. With closely cropped hair, faded on the sides and back, a nicely trimmed moustache with connecting goatee to a short beard, and as the baby of the family, he had four sisters and one brother; one sister died. They all know he’s gay, but in his family, as with any difficult topic, he says, “we don’t talk about it.”
“I was diagnosed with depression when I moved to Chicago in 2006. At the time I was dating someone and he just stopped calling me. He disappeared. He didn’t return any of my phone calls, he didn’t return any of my e-mails, he just totally disappeared. I was angry about that and I felt really sad. I remembered getting a card from a friend who was seeing a therapist and I remembered that this is the second time that this guy had actually done this. I wondered what was wrong with me to make this guy disappear on me for a second time. I called the therapist and set up an appointment. I first checked to make sure that I was covered with my insurance because I couldn’t afford to see a therapist on my own. Toward the end of the first session, he asked me a few questions about my family history, and he asked me why I had come to see him. At the end he told me that I was clinically depressed. I was a bit shocked because I didn’t think that someone like me would get depression. I was the one person always saying that Black people don’t get depression and if we do get depression we just shake it off. It’s a temporary thing, you don’t need to see a doctor or you don’t need to take anti-depressants for it because it was something that you deal with and coming from a deep religious background it was something you could just pray away. Following that revelation, I started seeing this therapist regularly,” D’Andre says.
As far back as he could remember, when he was a child, his father was a strict Pentecostal preacher and his brand of religion was essentially that a person only went to heaven by what he or she didn’t do – didn’t listen to R&B, didn’t go to the movies, and didn’t celebrate holidays. His religion wasn’t the Seventh Day Adventist type, says D’Andre. His was the apostolic kind of religion, which is more fundamentalist or a stricter conservative form of apostolicism to the extreme.
“I remember as a kid that I did whatever my daddy told me and I did it more out of fear rather than respect. I remember when I was younger, he made everyone in the house address him as “pastor” instead of calling him daddy or dad, or even pops. I can count on my two hands how many times I got a whopping. I made sure to tow the line because I didn’t want their wrath and the wrath of God coming down on me,” he says.
D’Andre says that church dominated his life: he had to be in church for Sunday morning and evening services, and had to be there for Wednesday and Friday services, too. The only time he had an excuse to be away was if he had a game or if he had a job. And, even though he had a job, he was supposed to ask the manager for time off or an adjusted schedule to have church nights off. It was brutal at times, he says.
“The kind of gospel that my father preached, he was more concerned about talking about who was wrong and who was going to go to hell instead of talking about God’s love and how a person could get to heaven. He was very strict and he was legalistic. I was afraid to do anything. I was afraid to defy my father because there is a text in the Bible where it said that if you don’t respect your parents that you will live half your days. I didn’t want to get cut off. I didn’t want to die early being that I was gay,” he says.
But in dealing with his emerging sexual identity, D’Andre says that when he was about 11 or 12-years old, and recognizing that his hormones had started kicking in, he knew that was attracted to men, but was taught that such feelings were evil, that they were an abomination. To compensate, he channeled the feelings into the women at church where he would pretend to be interested in them and would talk to them on the phone. Every time talk of intimacy would come up, he says he would hide behind the Bible and say, “that’s not right and you could go to hell for that.”
“I would hit them with the scripture and really, what I was doing, I was hiding my true desire, using the Bible as a cover. As I grew older, about a year later, I realized that I was looking at guys differently. I was looking at them out of curiosity and I was always drawn to the good-looking guys, those who were athletic. While I would just look at them, I would never act on the feelings. I would look at them and around that age, I started to masturbate. I would try to get a female image in my head, but if I did have a female image in my head, there would have to be a man in that image. The man would have to be having sex with the woman and I would really be focusing in on the man. As my teenage years progressed, I became exposed to pornography. I don’t remember exactly how. It was Black heterosexual porn and I would watch those tapes and I would focus more on the guy than on the girl. I would be turned on by the woman’s reaction only as it related to the man and I could remember feeling that I wish he was doing that with me. I held those images in my mind until I was a junior in high school,” says D’Andre.
Christianity plays a significant and important role in the lives of the Black community, whether from the U.S, the Caribbean, or Africa. For many, since the days of slavery, the power of the Church, of God, and more specifically, the love of Jesus, have become ingrained into the social consciousness. History is replete with stories and accounts of how the slaves used religion, supplanting their traditional African practices with Christianity, as a way to appease the slave masters, understand what their masters and mistresses were about, and in the later years of slavery, as a means to obtain literacy. Following the abolition and emancipation of slavery, in the U.S. South, for example, the Jim Crow laws were enacted to demarcate and segregate Blacks from Whites. Falling back on their natural resources and innate abilities, the Black community developed strategic coping mechanisms to deal with the powerful racial discrimination that followed, by establishing several Baptist churches.
Fast forwarding to present day, whether or not the Church is a refuge for a Black male or female, is subject to vigorous debate and that depends on with whom it is held. There are some who argue that in the Black community, mostly women flock to churches as it provides a social setting for them to congregate, network and share information. Others suggest that Black men only go to church under pressure from their spouses, girl friends or at the extreme, to satisfy their women so they could have guilt-free sex later. And there are others who suggest that Black men go to church and become very actively involved as a way to mask or hide their depression, most often brought about by irreconcilable struggles with their identity, masculinity and sexuality.
When the current pope, Benedict XVI, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was head of the Roman Catholic Church’s Office of Doctrine and Faith, he signed a letter in 1986: “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” published by the Catholic Truth Society to all the bishops of the church, worldwide. In the letter, Cardinal Ratzinger said, “It is within this context, then, that it can be clearly seen that the phenomenon of homosexuality, complex as it is, and with its many consequences for society and ecclesial life, is a proper focus for the Church’s pastoral care. It thus requires of her ministers attentive study, active concern and honest, theologically well-balanced counsel.”
Referring to the, “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics”, published in 1975, Cardinal Ratzinger said that this document stressed the duty of trying to understand the homosexual condition and he noted that culpability for homosexual acts should only be judged with prudence. In the letter, he said, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith took note of the distinction commonly drawn between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions. These he described as “deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being “intrinsically disordered”, and able in no case to be approved of (cf. n. 8, § 4).”
“In the discussion which followed the publication of the Declaration, however, an overly benign interpretation was given to the homosexual condition itself, some going so far as to call it neutral, or even good. Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
“Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.”
South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in response to and a direct challenge to the hate, homophobia and violence openly and subtly perpetuated by Christian religious leaders in African countries, said in his opinion article, “In Africa, a step backward in human rights” published in the Washington Post in March that, “Hate has no place in the house of God. No one should be excluded from our love, our compassion or our concern because of race or gender, faith or ethnicity — or because of their sexual orientation.”
The archbishop continued, “Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are part of so many families. They are part of the human family. They are part of God’s family. And of course they are part of the African family… An even larger offense is that it is being done in the name of God.
Show me where Christ said, “Love thy fellow man, except for the gay ones.” Gay people, too, are made in my God’s image. I would never worship a homophobic God. “But they are sinners,” I can hear the preachers and politicians say. “They are choosing a life of sin for which they must be punished.” My scientist and medical friends have shared with me a reality that so many gay people have confirmed, I now know it in my heart to be true. No one chooses to be gay. Sexual orientation, like skin color, is another feature of our diversity as a human family. Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people? Does God love his dark- or his light-skinned children less? The brave more than the timid? And does any of us know the mind of God so well that we can decide for him who is included, and who is excluded, from the circle of his love?”
In the article, “Sex & Sexuality: One Man’s Story About Religious Life And What Seminaries Really Teach About Sex” written by a former Jesuit priest, Charles O’Byrne, and published in the September 2002 issue of Playboy, addresses the issue of sex and sexuality within the Catholic Church. As one of the “soldiers” or “defenders of the faith”, O’Byrne in his article presents what he recognized to be the sexual hypocrisy in the church and in his mind, replaced it with “ambiguity” to help him deal with realizing his vocation to religious life and the priesthood. In his article he asks: “What did Jesus have to say about sex? From the evidence we have, one thing is certain: He said little about human sexuality and nothing about masturbation, contraception, premarital sex or homosexual love. What was Jesus’ sexuality? Was he gay or straight? Was he sexually active? As a matter of scriptural record, we just don’t know. There are hints about what his life was like. He traveled with young men and women, often sleeping under the stars. He wasn’t averse to physical affection. In John 12:1-8, for example, one of his disciples, Mary (not his mother), anointed his body with perfumed oil, shortly before Christ’s [his] crucifixion. John, believed to be the youngest of the apostles and Jesus’ favorite, rested his head on Jesus’ breast (John 13:23).”
O’Bryne continues, saying, “Judging by the historical record, Jesus liked women and they liked him. Women were present at the Last Supper; and, 40-odd days later, they were present again when the church was born at the feast of Pentecost. He enjoyed their company, regarding them as disciples. When Jesus died there were three people loyal to him at the foot of the cross—two women and one man (John 19:25-26). The absence of any condemnation of sex says a great deal when contrasted with Jesus’ actions and with his opinions on any number of issues. In other words, his gospel of love had priorities other than disparaging sexuality.”
But, O’Bryne, who resigned as the chief of staff to New York Governor David Patterson, says, over time the church has created an essentially fanciful, fabricated interpretation of Jesus and his beliefs, “The church spun the archetypal figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph into chaste, asexual creatures. Church teaching is that Jesus was a heterosexual male who never had a sexual experience. The church extended Mary’s virginity to her entire life. How did the church end up straying so far from its origins and become almost pathologically anti-sexual? One can blame a man who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries who came to be called Saint Augustine of Hippo. Augustine indulged his senses as a youth, much to the dismay of his mother, Monica. He frequented the sexual free for-alls in the baths of Carthage and Rome, and felt good about it. He had a favorite mistress and fathered a son. All the while, Monica prayed that her son would change his ways. And he did. At age 32, suddenly consumed by guilt, Augustine abandoned sex and devoted himself to the church, becoming a bishop and an influential teacher. Monica became a saint.
“The trouble for successive generations of Catholics was that Augustine set about spreading his guilt around. He shunned what he had experienced in the early part of his life, and his writings introduced a sense of dualism, a tension between body and spirit that dominated Western thought for centuries. Augustine’s most benevolent take on sex is that it’s a distraction from God. At its worst, Augustinian notions of sex involve corruption and moral decay. He still influences the church’s perspective on human sexuality. Woven into Augustine’s repressive themes is the church’s adoption of natural law as a fundamental principle. Natural law is a human invention, based on the Aristotelian notion that each of us has in our hearts an understanding of what is right and what is wrong, what is natural and what is unnatural. When it comes to sex, the argument goes, man and woman were created to be together in a monogamous relationship for the purpose of procreation. With that as its paradigm, the church has, over the centuries, defined and condemned as unnatural every other form of sexual expression and relationship.”
The subject of depression in Black gay men is one that hardly ever registers, even as a blip, on the national radar of mental health issues. As Louis Graham, MPH, says that along with there being insufficient studies into the mental health state of Black gay men, that although the most robust study of depression among Black gay men shows that Black men experience less depression than White gay men, Black gay men experience more suicidology.
Graham, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Public Health, School of Health and Human Performance at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, says, “I argue however, that we are measuring depression incorrectly among Black gay men. We cannot use the same tools to measure depression among Black gay men that we use among White gay men, because depression looks differently in Black gay men and Black gay men express symptomology differently. Depression accompanies suicidology in 90 to 95-percent of the cases, so it is highly unlikely that Black gay men experience depression less than White gay men do if they experience more suicidology.”
Graham argues that the reason why it looks as if Black gay men experience less depression is because the measurement tools developed for, by, and normed on White gay men are not accurate and precise enough to pick up depression among Black gay men. The challenge, he says, of a random sample from broadly generalizable data is problematic because national random sample surveys don’t include sexuality information, don’t oversample Black sexual minority men enough to get significant results, don’t address issues specific to Black sexual minority men, or there are measurement issues. Consequently, he adds, this is one of only a couple studies to look exclusively among Black sexual minority men at these particular issues.
He recently concluded data collection for his dissertation and a quantitative study funded by the National Center for Primary Care. The study, conducted between February and April 2010, sampled 110 Black sexual minority men from the Triad area in North Carolina, and revealed that 33 men or 30 percent of the men screened were depressed, and 36 men or 33 percent said they experienced anxiety. Each group, Graham says, indicated rates higher than in the general population among white gay men, and Black heterosexual men. There was a 52-percent variance in depression in relation to violence, discrimination, and harassment (VDH), he says, and an additional 13-percent variance in depression related to internalized homonegativity in the men. With respect to variances in anxiety, internalized homonegativity accounted for 46-percent and VDH, 7-percent variance.
The level or degree of functional/active coping skills, Graham says, does not appear to play a significant role in blunting or addressing the effects of VDH and internalized homonegativity on depression and anxiety. This is to say, VDH and internalized homonegativity are so strong that even good or healthy coping skills do not help outcomes.
D’Andre grew up, attended college, and even earned his masters in sociology, where through research into the various scripture passages and other texts he was able to find answers to reconciling his religion, his sexual identity and had begun the process of self acceptance.
“I decided to look up for myself those Bible passages that supposedly condemn homosexuality. I began pouring over texts and many books that have been written, reading the history of that time, and talking with some religious scholars to understand what different things meant. I was able to reconcile it because I am who God made me to be and I don’t have to apologize for that. My sexuality has nothing to do with whether or not I go to heaven or hell,” he says.
He adds, that Jesus never mentioned sexuality, it was only an apostle who mentioned, and it was in a certain context. There are passages, he says, from Leviticus with many out dated quotes that people disregard, except when they get to one of those where sexuality is touched on and then all of a sudden that part is relevant but nothing else in the passage is. He says he read St. Paul’s Letters to the Romans and understood the context of the statements.
“If I reconcile being a child of God and I know that what I do is not going to send me to hell because if it does, then what I don’t do, will also send me to hell. So, sexuality is not a determinant of whether I go to heaven or hell,” he says.
One Monday night, he says, when he was in college, after he had attended one of the local churches where they had talked about God not liking homosexuals and God was going to condemn homosexuals to hell fire, “I remember that Monday night, when I arrived home, I anointed myself with oil and I got down on the floor and I prayed to God. I said, “God you do this, you tell me what I need to do, I need to hear an answer from you.” I prayed for a good hour and a half. All the nights were out, no television, there was no noise. I just prayed and after I prayed, I got up and I went to bed and I had a dream, I don’t know what the dream was and I couldn’t remember what it was. All I remember was that I was awakened and I could hear someone saying, that its okay. I felt a wetness on the sheet, looked under it and discovered that I had had a massive orgasm. I had to change the sheets and took a shower. From then, I never questioned my sexuality, the Bible, and my religious beliefs,” he says.