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Linda Villarosa

Over the past 30 years, you've let us know when an ESSENCE article challenged you, enlightened you, angered you or touched your very soul. We revisit...
From Essence, May 01 2000 by Joy Duckett Cain

MAY 1991

Homosexuality has found little compassion in our community; when broached at all, the topic is usually dismissed with a smirk or a sneer. Linda and Clara Villarosa, however, put a very human face on the experience of coming out of the closet, sharing how one person's coming out affects the entire family. The eldest child in a middle-class family, Linda had been the "good" girl who got the good grades, did the right things and tried not to make waves. In college, however, Linda accepted what she'd long suspected: She was gay. In describing her parents' reaction to her revelation, Linda wrote, "My mother, Clara, looked sick, and my father's eyes filled with tears. This news really broke him, destroying the perfect image that he had of me. He was afraid that I didn't like men and that I didn't love him. My mother, an adolescent therapist at the time, took a more practical tack: She thought I could be fixed."

Clara confessed anger. "The more Linda began to try to explore herself and identify as a lesbian, the angrier I got," she wrote. "How could my daughter do this to me?... I was devastated and blamed myself." In time, the story went on, Clara--who'd never stopped loving her daughter--came to accept Linda for the person she was and Linda became stronger and more comfortable in her own skin. "I've stopped being so afraid of being rejected by people who find out I'm gay," Linda stated. "The closet is dark and lonely and not somewhere I plan to hide away."

After the article appeared, Linda couldn't have hidden if she'd tried. Suddenly she and Clara were deluged with requests to speak to various groups, to counsel and to simply listen. Certainly Linda took her share of abuse for coming out, including hate mail and angry phone calls, but the good seems to have outweighed the bad. And to this day, Clara says, people stop by her Hue-Man Bookstore in Denver to share how the article affected them.

Meanwhile, Linda's outspokenness hasn't affected her professional career at all; an ESSENCE senior editor at the time the story appeared, Linda later became this magazine's executive editor before moving on in 1998 to The New York Times as a health editor. Now 41, Linda, who edited the book Body & Soul (HarperPerennial, $20), among others, is a freelance writer currently working out of her Brooklyn home.

One more thing: Linda's also a mom--twice over. In 1995 she and her partner decided to have a child. They chose a mutual friend, who is also gay, to be the father, and following a technique they'd read about, Linda used artificial insemination to conceive. In July 1996 her daughter, Kali, was born, followed in August 1999 by a son, Nicholas. Grandma Clara's initial concerns about society's accepting her grandchildren now revolve around little things--like whether to put two mommies in the dollhouse she's buying for them.

As for Linda, she's still opening doors. "In my neighborhood everybody knows who we are, they know our house, they let their kids come to our house," she says. "There are no secrets. We've worked on just putting out love for our neighbors and acting like we want to be accepted. And we are."

Revelations -- (an African American lesbian speaks out against condemnation by the Religious Right)  -- Essence 1995

After writing about her life as an African-American lesbian, the author found herself under attack--and squarely in the sights of a scripture-quoting Religious Right. In this essay, she reaches within to strengthen her own spiritual center and challenges us to discover the Bible's timeless message of tolerance and love

Before I came out in print, I had never had someone tell me that I was going to hell. Now people say it to me regularly. I remember the first time it happened. My mother and I had just addressed a conference of Black social workers about how families could confront their homophobia and accept lesbian and gay children. After our talk, a sad-eyed man, round-shouldered in a baggy suit, approached me. "I enjoyed hearing what you had to say," he offered, his hand extended. As I placed my hand in his, he continued, barely missing a beat, "But you re a sinner. You're going to hell." He said this calmly, through a half-smile, as though ready to add "Have a nice day."

I felt such shock at his words that I forgot to remove my hand from his. We stood there awkwardly until finally he withdrew his hand and turned away. As I watched his stoop-shouldered retreat, I felt a deep empathy for every gay or lesbian who has ever been accosted in a similar fashion, condemned simply by virtue of whom they love. I felt again the pain of rejection, the frustration of being misjudged and, beneath it all, a rising anger at the gall of this man and others like him who could so blithely call up feelings I thought I'd long ago put to rest.

The worst verbal attack came at Oregon State University, where I was to address a large group of students about being Black, lesbian and out. The trouble started before I arrived. I had requested that the organizers contact African-American student groups about attending my lecture, because I believe it's important for Blacks--Gay and straight--to know that Black lesbians exist and can be happy and out and secure in their identities. A member of the school's Black Women's Alliance, who was also friendly with the gay group on campus, agreed to make an announcement at the alliance's next meeting.

At the end of the meeting she told the other sisters that an editor from ESSENCE would be speaking the following evening. Several women clapped and nodded. "She'll be talking about what it is like to be a Black lesbian," the young woman continued. The room fell silent. Then one woman stood up and said, "Lesbianism is nastiness, and they should get a vaccine to make them normal." Spurred on, another declared, "Gays are against God, and because of my religion, I can't hear this woman speak." Finally, an exasperated sister said, "Can we please stop talking about this? I'm getting physically ill."

Thankfully, I didn't know about this exchange or I would've been too unsettled to do the lecture. Expressions of homophobia hurt deeply, but coming from other Black women the pain of rejection is particularly acute, akin to betrayal by a family member. Knowing that I would be facing such resistance from Black women in what was already a largely White audience on a conservative college campus may well have paralyzed me.

As it turned out, the lecture went fine. The question-and-answer period was particularly long. The students--gay, straight and of many races and ethnicities--seemed hungry for information. Eventually I became tired and announced that I'd answer one final question. A young White man wearing a baseball cap waved his hand frantically from the balcony. And there it was: "You and all gays are going to hell. I'm telling you this because God taught me to love you."

Then he cited a Bible passage: "Read Leviticus 20:13." Bedlam broke out in the room. In the midst of the commotion, I stood at the podium, speechless and numb. After several minutes, I managed to get things quieted down and looked out at the expectant faces before me. The challenge had been made, and all of the young gay people in that audience expected me to defend them with authority. My voice shook with outrage and a little bit of fear that I wouldn't be able to meet this challenge.

"Listen, you don't love me, you don't know me, you don't understand me," I said, barely able to keep from crying. "You're using religion to cloak your horrible message in the language of love. People like you have used religion to suppress everything you find offensive. In the past the Bible was used to justify slavery, and now you're using it to justify your fear and hatred of those of us who are living our lives as gays and lesbians."

The tension broke, and the crowd began to applaud. But I felt empty, drained by the need to remain always on guard, exhausted by the uncertainty of never knowing where the next attack would come from. Even the reporters covering the event saw through my strong front and brave smile. The next day's paper reported that as I stepped from the podium, I had seemed stunned. It was true: I was stunned. And saddened. My words had sounded hollow to me, as though I had been reading from a textbook. I hadn't felt them. Deep within, I knew I wasn't so sure of myself Where did I really stand spiritually? That heckler knew exactly how he felt and where he stood. Why didn't I?

My family had attended an integrated, "progressive" Episcopal church in Denver. There were a handful of families of color like us and lots of groovy White people, interracial couples with their adopted children of color in tow. Our choir didn't sing gospel music, but folksy spiritual ballads accompanied by the organ, guitar, and African and Native American drumming.

I don't remember learning many specific biblical lessons from our minister. With his long hair flowing over his Roman Collar, Father Hammond preached through sleepy eyes, as though he'd been out late drinking the night before. His words were inspirational and easy to understand, filled with references to pop culture: A quote from Playboy magazine could seamlessly segue into the Scriptures.

My mother taught my fourth-grade Sunday-school class, stressing discipline and open-mindedness. One Saturday morning the group of us gathered for a field trip to a nearby synagogue. We looked like a bunch of "We Are the World" poster children. "It's important to learn about the way other people worship," my mother explained, looking over our group to make sure that our two lines were straight and orderly and no noses were running.

When I was 11, I attended weeks of Thursday-night confirmation classes to further my religious studies. On confirmation day I walked down the church aisle, clutching a white prayer book in white-gloved hands. I was wearing a white dress, white lace socks and white patent-leather shoes, and had a white handkerchief pinned to my head. I don't remember one spiritual lesson from that time, but I do remember bow hard it was to stay clean in all those bleached-white clothes.

We also visited my grandmother's Baptist church on trips back to Chicago, where I was born. Getting dressed for service was a major event. My grandmother had to decide which of her many wigs and hats to wear and whether or not to put on her fur, a decision that had little to do with the temperature outside. After the frenzied preparations, we'd all pile into my grandfather's Electra 225 and float to church in the boat-size car. Once inside I'd scrunch into my grandmother's side and maneuver a way to sit by her. I knew she was important from the way heads would turn as she led the family down the aisle to our pew, and I wanted a little of that limelight.

The service really want as much fun as the preparations, mainly because of its three-hour length. Until someone got the Spirit. I'd hold my breath as the organ pounded out the same repetitive note and the singing rang louder, rising to more and more tremorous shouts. Inevitably some well-dressed woman would take to the aisle, chanting and skipping. Then two strong, well-practiced sisters, dressed in white gloves and nurses' uniforms, would walk briskly over and efficiently bring the saved soul back to this world before dispatching her into the care of family members. I would tug at Grandmother's sleeve asking questions, but she would slap my Vaselined knees together and hiss into my ear, "Stop-staring -close-your-lips-don't-bite-your-cuticles-put-your-glovesback-on." The only thing I knew for certain was that no one in our family would ever get the Spirit, because my grandmother would die of embarrassment.

From my parents' church I learned respect for difference and community, and through my grandmother's church I connected with my Southern Baptist roots. But nothing from my religious past had prepared me to deal with the continued abuse I was receiving from so-called religious people. As the attacks intensified, so did my sense of isolation, and I found myself tempted to withdraw from heterosexuals altogether. instead I decided it was time for we to begin studying the Bible.

I dug out the dusty copy of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible left over from my days in confirmation classes, and I looked up the passages that had been thrown in my face. I started with I Corinthians 6:9 and 10, which read: "Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God."

I was skeptical. I knew Corinthians had been written by the apostle Paul, a Christian missionary whose writings express the prejudices of his time. Even so, had Paul really used the word "homosexual" 2,000 years ago? Of course not. The New Testament had originally been written in Greek. In 1382 the Bible was translated into English. The King James (or authorized) Version came in 1611. The Bible I was reading had been revised 341 years later, in 1952.

I purchased a paperback copy of the King James Version and turned to I Corinthians 6:9 and 10. This earlier version never used the word "homosexual" but listed "the effeminate" in its inventory of the unrighteous, and that had been translated to mean "homosexual" in the revised version. I traced the usage of the word "effeminate." In the original Greek text, the word used was "malakos," which means "soft," as in the texture of fine clothing. Perhaps the passage meant to convey something about the pitfalls of vanity. But the King James Version interpreted "malakos" as soft like a woman, and used the term "effeminate." Derived from Latin, this word means "to take on feminine qualities," whether by performing woman's work, by behaving in a "womanly" fashion or by taking on a woman's role. Paul's disrespect for women aside, clearly something had been lost--or gained--in translation.

I decided not to spend much more time trying to sort out what the authors of the Bible were attempting to say about homosexuality--if that's even what they were talking about--in the context of social systems from 20 centuries past. Even after reading Genesis 19 times, I still didn't see how the story of Sodom had anything to do with gay, sex. In that story, Lot, a holy man and resident of the evil city of Sodom, is visited by two angels. Genesis 19:4-8 reads: "The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both voting and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, Where are the men [that is, the angels] who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.' Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men.'"

Eventually the angels strike the men blind, and God rains fire and brimstone on the city and burns it down. From this story comes the word "sodomy"--a pejorative term for gay sex. Even assuming the word "know" in this passage refers to sex, it seems a stretch to use it to condemn gays and lesbians. Why isn't anybody questioning Lot for offering to turn over his virginal daughters to the mob of men? That is certainly the most troubling aspect of the incident relayed here.

Next I looked up Matthew 19:4 and 5, which say, "He who made them from the beginning made them male and female.... For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one."

Upon further reading, it was easy to see that my hecklers had taken these verses completely out of context. The passage had nothing to do with lesbians and gay men but was clearly a condemnation of divorce, an answer to the question "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" (Matthew 19:3). Verse 9 says that "whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." In case there's any question about the seriousness of adultery, Leviticus 20:10 spells it out: "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." But what did all this have to do with lesbians and gay men?

I read on. Leviticus 20:13 says, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them." I guess they could be murdered along with the divorced remarried couple from earlier Leviticus verses.

At this point, the hurt and uncertainty I had felt were being replaced by anger. It didn't take a biblical scholar to figure out that people who shout me down in lecture balls and write me letters are not sending hate mail to people who are divorced. The man who lashed out at me in Oregon is not condemning people who eat pork "And the swine . . . is unclean to you. Of their flesh you shall not eat": Leviticus 11:7-8) or shellfish ("anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales . . . is an abomination to you": Leviticus 11:10).

Neither is he carrying on about cattle breeders, farmers who grow two different crops or anyone who wears a poly-cotton blend of clothing despite Leviticus 19:19: "You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two different kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff "

These so-called righteous people take the Bible literally when it suits them, ignoring anything that doesn't easily support their narrow condemnations. And many Black people are using the Bible against their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers just as Whites used the Scriptures against our ancestors when they interpreted passages such as Ephesians 6:5--"Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling " in singleness of heart, as to "Christ"--to mean that our people should remain enslaved.

Now that I was more familiar with the intricacies of the Bible, I felt fortified intellectually but still on shaky ground spiritually. But I knew exactly what I needed to do. I had heard about Unity Fellowship Church and its lively congregation of mostly Black lesbians and gay men who worshiped on Sundays in New York City. Although I had always found reasons to avoid going, now it was time.

When I arrived that first Sunday, the room was packed with people, and close to 100 latecomers had to be turned away. The service began with testimonials. Person after person stood up to share what had happened that week: breakups, gay bashings, rejections by parents, evictions from apartments, illness, sadness, loneliness, addiction, sorrow. Pain filled the room, Black pain, gay, pain. These were people who longed to be part of the larger African-American community but had felt the sting of rejection; many had been exiled from the Black congregations they were raised in.

But when the pastor, Elder Zachary Jones, marched into the room to the tune of "We've Come This Far by Faith," the mood in the room was transformed into one of joy. "It doesn't have anything to do with who you sleep with, but with what's in your heart," Reverend Zach shouted over the low hum of the choir. "Who says God doesn't love gay people? There's love in this room!" And there was.

A measure of healing had begun. His simple words struck a chord in me, and I felt relieved and cleansed of the bad feelings I had harbored about the people who had attacked me.

Fortified in mind and spirit by my connection with this community, I felt ready to take on the world. And an opportunity soon presented itself. I was giving a talk at a Black cultural center, and after recounting how it felt to be Black and lesbian, I began fielding questions. An African-American woman tentatively raised her hand. She was in her mid-thirties, turned out in an expensive, corporate-looking suit and bright gold jewelry, her hair freshly done in braided extensions. "You seem like a really nice woman, and I enjoyed hearing your story," she began slowly. "But as a Christian woman I need to share this with you. I went through a period in my life when I thought I was attracted to women. But then I discovered Jesus Christ. By reading the Bible, I realized that homosexuality is unnatural and that I was a sinner. If I continued in the life, I would be condemned."

"Where does the Bible say that?" I asked her.

Opening her purse, she pulled out a small, worn copy of the New Testament and began to read from a marked passage: " For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.' Romans 1, verses 26 and 27."

I listened as she read. When she had finished, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my own copy of the Bible. " The women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire.' I Timothy, chapter 2, verse 9," I read. "And 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12 say, Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent by speaking out today, I guess we're both sinning."

"Wait, that's not fair," she said, her expression at once confused and angry. "It's not right to take the Bible out of context like that."

"Why?" I countered. "That's what you're doing."

Even as I hit her close to home, my heart reached out to this woman. "Listen," I said softly "I don't want to do this. All of us need to stop taking the Bible literally and begin to read it critically and intelligently. You know, there are some important messages that we an can understand and agree on." I opened my Bible to Leviticus 19:17 and 18, "You shall not hate your brother in your It heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." And this time my words sounded strong and co dent, and were definitely my own.

Adapted from Afrekete: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Writing (Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1995), edited by Catherine E. McKinley and Joyce DeLaney.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Essence Communications Inc.

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by: Alicia Banks

Pseudo-christian gaybashers use the bible as a primer for hatred. Hatred is their most revered “godly” value. Homosexuals are their favorite persons to hate. ©2001