Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

To be gay, Christian and black in Harlem

West African asylum seekers face a new kind of discrimination in the US

Religion, Spirituality & Ethics

NEW YORK — As a gay man in Togo, where homosexuality is punishable by up to three years in prison, Rodrigue (who asked that his last name be withheld because of concerns for his family’s safety) felt in danger. Though the law is rarely enforced, violence against gay men is perceived as a viable and available option among the general public. Rodrigue speaks of young men he has known who have been attacked by acquaintances on the street after school. He says that he was never physically threatened in Togo, then he reluctantly adds, “except by my family.”

“My uncle and aunt threatened to kill me, and it got really crazy.”

The turning point for Rodrigue was when his uncle physically attacked him and Rodrigue ran away. His uncle contacted the police, and from that point on, Rodrigue was effectively a wanted man.

Rodrigue left Togo and sought asylum in Harlem in New York.
Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

Rodrigue moved to Harlem four years ago, when he was offered a U.N. fellowship. He moved into the International House near Columbia University and embraced his hopeful new life in New York. Though he was supposed to return to Togo four months later, he never went back.

He is part of a subcommunity of gay West African immigrants — a small fraction of the burgeoning West African population in Harlem, which has led to a stretch of 116th Street being called Little West Africa. Many LGBT West African immigrants fear persecution in their home countries and have sought asylum in the U.S.

“It was a pretty clandestine life,” he recalls. “I had to try to act ‘normal.’ Some people there are out, but it’s very rare. And dangerous.”

Talking about the roots of the homophobia ubiquitous in Togo, Rodrigue turns to the subject of religion. “[My family] thought it was devilish and strange, and they thought I could ‘contaminate’ my cousins. It was so brutal.” He goes on to explain the religious geography of Togo: The southern half of the country is Christian, and the northern half is Muslim. “My family is Christian. I was raised Christian.” While homophobia in West Africa has become a separate phenomenon, he says that it is often born of religion.

In Harlem, Rodrigue discovered what is effectively a microcosm of the complex national dynamic involving conservative Christianity, race and homosexuality. There, black churches grapple with issues of race and sexuality daily. And when young, gay, West African men and women arrive in the U.S., they find a society that may accept their sexuality but often takes issue with the color of their skin.

Harlem has a history of being home to a vibrant and open community. In the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the neighborhood embraced gay culture in nightclubs (among them the euphemistic Clam House), and numerous LGBT luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Bessie Smith and James Baldwin called it home. Today, gay men and women gather openly in the neighborhood’s restaurants and nightclubs, gyms and bookstores.

Even more storied in Harlem history is the Christian community. Traditionally black churches line the avenues. The friction between black gay men and the religious community in the U.S. is well documented. As Aaron Douglas Weaver wrote in Christian Ethics Today, 70 percent of black voters backed Prop 8 in California in 2008, banning gay marriage in the state until it was overturned by court order. Weaver notes that though the black church has “foundational values of freedom, justice, and equality … perhaps no issue reveals the black church’s complex relationship with these foundational values [more] than gay rights.”

Paradoxically, Weaver notes, theologians have called the church both a “vanguard to social change” and a “stubborn antagonist” of social change.

There are more than 400 places of worship in Harlem. When Rodrigue moved there, the variety of churches — from very conservative to very liberal — felt like a luxury. Still, he was curious how his sexuality and Christianity would coexist here.  

Beware of those who affirm you in private but don’t affirm you in public.

Mike Walrond

pastor, First Corinthian First Baptist Church

On Easter Sunday in Harlem, not only the variety of churches but the sheer volume of them is breathtaking. Outside First Corinthian First Baptist Church, on 115th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, the line to get in wraps around the block.

“Beware of those who affirm you in private but don’t affirm you in public,” Pastor Mike Walrond advises from the pulpit. He is alluding to Nicodemus and Joseph, private believers who didn’t publicly affirm Jesus until after his death. But the danger of disparate public and private relationships speaks to Rodrigue’s journey — the necessity of leading a clandestine life in Togo, hiding a component of his identity in his home and his church, which in turn led him to overstay his visa for his U.N. fellowship and seek asylum.

Walrond’s biblical interpretation allows for congregants of all colors and sexual orientations. In the Bible, he says, “You find Jesus working and doing ministry with communities that were ostracized and marginalized.” His Jesus is one preaching a “love ethic.” The congregation at First Corinthian is both vast and, according to the pastor, diverse, including African and West Indian immigrants as well as gay members. 

Atlah World Missionary Church has become notorious for the anti-gay messages on its marquee on Lenox Avenue.
Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

Just a few blocks away is Atlah World Missionary Church, which has become notorious for the anti-gay messages written on its marquee on Lenox Avenue. There the Rev. James David Manning preaches that places like Togo “rightly” consider homosexuality a criminal offense and readily compares it to robbery. The “crime” men like Rodrigue are committing, he says, is as bad as robbing a bank.

In an interview, he remarks, “The Bible says that man that lieth with man should be stoned.” He also says the term “gay” is a misnomer and instead uses “sodomite,” which gets to the “ugly truth.” Manning’s congregation is largely black Americans, with some West Indians, African immigrants and whites.

Manning speaks with righteous indignation and seems sure that he has Jesus — and by extension, God — on his side. He cites Jesus’ endorsement of obeying the law — which at the time outlawed homosexuality — as a denunciation of LGBT men and women.

Manning’s message isn’t just about sex; it’s also about color. “The white sodomites are moving into the Harlem community and many of them under the Spike Lee title of ‘jungle fever.’” Concerned about the “decimation of the black family structure,” he pins the responsibility on gay men, white gay men in particular. In Manning’s eyes, the repercussions of Harlem’s fast gentrification are not only economic but sociosexual.

Just northwest of Atlah, on 123rd Street, there is an enclave of African Christianity, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. It is a hive of activity, with people streaming up and down the stairs. The Rev. Barima Appiah-Dankwa, the minister there for two years, has experienced Harlem as welcoming and said the Ghanaian community in turn “contributes to the culture to make it more lively and habitable. We work within it.” Of course, he says, gentrification has a serious impact on immigrant populations in Harlem. White people often go uptown seeking more affordable rents, driving up the market. In the current economic climate, he says, “it is having an impact. Life in Harlem is becoming more expensive. In the not-too-distant future, it will have an effect on the church, because people may move away.”

In terms of the bigoted laws against gay brothers and sisters in Africa, he notes that Ghana does not ban homosexuality. Regarding his opinion on the subject, he says, “Human beings are entitled to their own personal and individual opinions, and everyone has a chance to live his or her life. I don’t see [homosexuality] as a problem.”

Rodrigue misses his family in Togo, but he says can’t imagine going back. Life in the U.S. has many possibilities and fewer restrictions. Even if he has experienced a new type of discrimination: racism.

Here, Rodrigue is more conscious of his dark skin color, even if it doesn’t have the same high-stakes repercussions as being gay in Togo. “Being in Togo, I was always fearful of someone breaking my face on the street,” he says. “No one is attacking me on the street because I’m black.” Nigerian-born gay rights activist Michael Ighodoro agrees, saying, “Before I came to America, I didn’t know I was black.” 

Rodrigue is understated when it comes to his victimization, even generous. “It’s not always pleasing to be treated differently,” he admits. “I am very good at trying to understand people … racism and discrimination against gay people — they are really close.”

Though his fellow gay West African immigrants have experienced violent instances of homophobia at home and racism here, Rodrigue says, “we don’t really talk about it.”

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.

President Barack Obama

There has long been a debate among civil rights activists over whether LGBT rights are part of the cause. When President Barack Obama was campaigning in 2008, he spoke at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and said that black people have often been on the “receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man.” He then invoked King’s vision of an inclusive “beloved community,” saying, “We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.”

Walrond also acknowledges the problem. “There are things that are detrimental to our ideals. Racism is woven into the fabric of this country,” he says. Racism and homophobia seem to be competing forms of bigotry, and too often activists do not widen their activism to include other groups’ interests. He cites an “obvious irony” that so many activists do not see gay rights as a civil rights issue, and he believes the civil rights movement is a struggle not just for black Americans’ rights. “It’s dangerous for people to compare their oppression to see whose oppression is worse. When oppressed people begin to compare their oppression, they then don’t engage in critiquing the systemic structures that reinforce the oppression in the first place.”

For gay West African asylum seekers, these different iterations of oppression exist together in the same body.

While West African asylum seekers may have found apparent — even legal — peace in the U.S., it doesn’t necessarily mean they have found internal peace. Rodrigue echoes a common refrain: the difficulty of feeling foreign, the frustration with expressing oneself in an unfamiliar language.

That said, the possibilities for the future are vast. He is taking classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, has a healthy social life and is dating a guy he really likes, Jesse, a native New Yorker and recent Harlem transplant. A black man and a white man hand in hand on the streets of Harlem — the embodiment of the union that Manning so fears.

Still, Rodrigue has been able to find a church family that has given him a sense of belonging. He says his current church is “the most progressive church I have ever seen. Half of that church is gay. That is something I have never experienced before. It is amazing that I can be a part of this.” It is a hopeful message for young men who are ostracized by their communities and their countries.

 Where in Harlem is this idyllic church?

“My church?” He laughs. “It’s downtown on 31st Street.” 

Rodrigue, a gay West African immigrant, and his boyfriend, Jesse, in Rodrigue’s Harlem apartment.
Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America