Written by Da’Shaun Harrison
If you are Black, you have likely heard it. “You are not depressed; that is a spirit! Go pray.” If you are queer, you have likely heard it. “That homosexuality is a demonic spirit, an abomination and it must be cast out!” And if you are like me—both Black and queer—you have heard both of these things, simultaneously. What happens, though, when we interrogate the point at which they meet? What happens when we examine the health, both mental and physical, of a Black queer person who is subjected to this heterosexist, ableist rhetoric on a frequent basis?
Recently I have been wrestling with an inundating amount of queer-antagonism and most of it has been at the hands of Christians. Not-so-coincidentally, I have also been struggling with severe anxiety. For me, and for every person who sits at the intersection of Black, and queer, and disabled, the indivisible connection between one’s deteriorating mental health and their fluctuating physical health to attacks made on their mind, spirit, and body via Christian dogma is not a hard one to draw. In fact, when I began to reflect on the moments where my mental and physical health were at their worst, I realized that I was also in unavoidable, insufferable Christian environments; forced to endure the pain of existing freely as Black, queer, and disabled in spaces that generally teach that all three are antithetical to God’s existence.
When I identified as Christian and attended church, I would listen to the preacher from the pew as they spewed anti-queer rhetoric from the pulpit—a place they referred to as holy, thus giving them the authority to speak such vile language in the name of God. “All these homosexuals walking ‘round here like sissies need deliverance,” they would say. “These young girls don’t know whether they’re women or men, and the men don’t know how to be men,” they declared. I watched the congregation cheer, scream, and shout in agreement as the preacher exclaimed, “these homosexuals are lost and perverted!” Preachers spent minutes, sometimes entire sermons, damning queerness and queer folks to hell. However, these same preachers, when not behind the podium, spoke to the queer kids in the church as if they were not the purveyors of their very perdition. I was an observant child, just as I am now, and I descried that they wholeheartedly believed that it was possible to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” The intention here is not to sift the [Black] Church’s theology: these “teachings”, this dogma often leads to the faltering mental and physical health of young, Black queer folk. These tenets forced my younger self to quickly learn that if I was to be accepted in a space that I thought was safe for me, I had to choose safety over comfort. I denounced ‘homosexuality’; I, at least publicly, ignored all hopes of ever existing as queer; I led praise and worship, sang on the choir, preached, and adapted to the space(s) that I was in. This did not end well for me. Choosing safety over comfort led to an internalizing of anti-queerness. This would play a role in my journey to depression and suicide ideations.
At 9 years old, I attempted suicide for the first of what would become three times in my 21 years of living. Several things led up to this moment, but the incessant dehumanization from the Church and its occupants paralyzed me. Still, for years, I suffered through this alone. I was told that depression is an evil spirit; one that I could pray away, much like they instructed queer folks to do with their queerness. I was told that I was crazy; I was told that I did not pray enough; I was told that I had yet to encounter the ‘Holy Spirit’, all while my mind, body, and soul were suffering. I was yearning for a moment of freedom and could not get it because “mental health was a demonic thing.” The [Black] Church refuses to recognize its anti-queer teachings, through conversion therapy and ‘tarrying services’—services with the specific intent to perform exorcisms, more culturally referred to as the ‘casting out of demons’—as a direct link to queer folks’ degenerating mental health. This was true for me. Though my depression and anxiety do stem from neurotransmitter abnormalities, and while I am neurodivergent—meaning my brain functions in a way that is vastly different from society’s understanding of ‘normal’—unchecked Christian teachings that advocate for my death play a large part in the development and continuation of my depression and anxiety.
If one claims to care at all about the mental and/or physical well-being of an individual, or individuals, but is actively and openly anti-queer/(trans)misogynistic, they need to do themselves and all of us queer folk a favor and stop being dishonest. Being concerned with our mental health does not look like “praying for our deliverance” or “binding and loosing” our queer or trans identities. Being concerned about our mental health does not look like engaging in anti-queer/trans ‘jokes’, as these microaggressive jokes lead to the macro-aggressive material conditions of our oppression: homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, harassment, and murder. Being concerned with our mental health does not look like claiming to love us while “disagreeing” with (and thus praying against) our right to exist. It does not look like condemning who and how we choose to love—whereby I mean who we choose to have sex with, because the lot of Christians reduce us to heartless, sex-driven beings, incapable of loving (or being loved, for that matter). It does not look like ignoring our existences, our identities, just because we make you uncomfortable. Being concerned with our mental health does not look like blaming our ills on our lack of love for/obedience to their god(s).
I am not hard pressed to accept prayers for my physical healing from people who pray against my existence; (un)knowingly contributing to my mental and physical health issues. Because, while they may think that mental health is “just a spirit”, or just something that can be prayed away, the materialization of my depreciating mental health and its connection to my physical health is inextricable. Poor mental health can lead to chronic physical health conditions. In concert, chronic physical conditions can lead to major chronic mental health conditions. As someone who lives with chronic major depressive disorder, severe anxiety, and a chronic heart condition, I can attest to the fact that our all-around health is dependent upon both our mental and physical wellness. In other words, my mental and physical health are tied together and if one dares to say that they love me while damning a part of me to an eternal pit of fire and anguish, they are complicit in the worsening of my mental and physical health conditions.
In 2009, The American Psychological Association released a report detailing the effects of these beliefs being imposed on queer youth:
“Some individuals’ distress took the form of a crisis of faith in which their religious beliefs that a same-sex sexual orientation and religious goodness are diametrically opposed led them to question their faith and themselves. Spiritual struggles also occurred for religious sexual minorities due to struggling with conservatively religious family, friends, and communities who thought differently than they did. The distress experienced by religious individuals appeared intense, for not only did they face sexual stigma from society at large but also messages from their faith that they were deficient, sinful, deviant, and possibly unworthy of salvation unless they changed sexual orientation.”
The report details that all of these thoughts/circumstances/struggles did, indeed, come with mental health issues. Yet, despite the ample amount of evidence that it is ineffective and dangerous, the Church continues to perform exorcisms and conversion therapy, producing more Andrew Caldwells—convinced that they have done away with queerness while suffering the ramifications of Christian domination. This form of supremacy has long been the cause for the disproportionately higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide in the [Black] queer and trans communities. Queer and trans youth suffer physical and mental abuse from their parents; working queer and trans people endure the fear of being fired if ever outed at their jobs; queer and trans women experience the fear of walking down the street knowing they can be harassed by police at any given time, and all of this in the name of their parents’, their bosses’, their government’s evangelicalism.
Black queer and trans folks are human beings and I’m uninterested in petitioning anyone to recognize us as such or for anyone’s respect. I am, however, demanding that they stop walking in a half-truth and exist in this full truth: they do not care about our mental or physical health. If they did, their spiritual practices and interpersonal relations would change drastically. Through all of this, what remains true is one cannot truly be praying for my well-being if they are actively invested in systems that dominate my will/desire/capability to be well.