Spotlight On: Sylvester

Mighty Real

I’ve decided to start a new series on dedicated to people who deserve a “spotlight” for their contributions to the fight for human equality and equity, popular culture and art.

I was so excited when I found out that TVone was dedicating an episode of the series Unsung to Disco Legend Sylvester. Sylvester was always interesting to me for one, as my Chicago upbringing has blessed me with a refined appreciation for good disco music, but I was also fascinated with artist himself. Sylvester was the first commercially successful, openly gay, transgender Black music artist, an accomplishment that,  arguably, has not been duplicated since.

The documentary talks about his church upbringing, his move to San Francisco where his career and, according to him, his real life started, and how he became a star. One interesting fact about Sylvester is that, like many black musical artists, his singing career began in the church. Even before he came out, Sylvester’s church community was not kind about his more feminine appearance and demeanor. Rejected from his home church, through his performances he incorporated aspects of the black church experience.

In 2008 I was lucky enough to attend a workshop facilitated by Dr. Jamie Washington and Vernon Wall. Something that Dr. Washington said came back to me while I was watching the special, and it was this:

“When you come out, you’re not allowed to keep God.”

What he meant by this is that one of the first things that gays and lesbians think about when making the decision to “come out” is their spiritual communities. From the idea of “Sexual Misconduct” in Buddhism to more explicit language against homosexuality in other faiths, most houses of worship are not welcoming of openly gay and lesbian members. Many gay and lesbian people look for a spiritual path that embraces their full selves, which includes their same-sex attractions and relationships. Sylvester did eventually find a church that embraced various forms of sexual identity and expression before he passed away in 1988.

Telling LGBT people that they have to give up God to be who they are feels like emotional terrorism to me, just like threatening to disown our gay/lesbian children is. I can say this because I was blessed with an upbringing that did not teach me to be fearful or judgmental of people for who they are, and I know that Sylvester grew up in a time that was very different in some respects, and not so different in others. The black church in particular owes a great debt to LGBT members. It sounds stereotypical, but many church members who take leadership roles in creative ministries such as the choir, dance and theater are LGBT, and it’s unfair to accept their talents while rejecting their identities.

I’m not asking houses of worship to change their fundamental doctrines or to start performing gay marriage ceremonies. I understand if your value system does not agree with same-sex relationships. But if we don’t turn away unwed mothers, philandering church officials, or collection-plate dipping ushers, we should demonstrate the same understanding and grace to LGBT members. I have a hard time believing that God would ever punish you for loving someone for any reason. In fact, I know of a book that gives evidence to the contrary.

So, I salute you Sylvester, for loving your disco children enough to be yourself:  Beautiful and fabulous.

Sylvester – You Make Me Feel Mighty Real


What do you think?