Preaching Beyond That Choir
Is Austin ready for Bishop Yvette Flunder's good news of radical inclusivity?
She's spent a life in the cloth, the third generation of a family that has served in the Church of God in Christ. She's the founder of San Francisco's City of Refuge United Church of Christ on a mission to unite the power of the word with the urgency of social action. Her social action glowed in the national spotlight this past year, when she defended queer youth and the LGBT community in the face of some incendiary remarks made by one Donnie McClurkin (the "ex-gay" minister and gospel singer who has performed for both the 2004 Republican National Convention and Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign). She was also confidante, dear friend, and spiritual adviser to one Sylvester James, best known sans last name, whose hits "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)" won the singer's crown as "Queen of Disco" for all eternity. She's coming to Austin for the Multifaith Pride Service. Of course we wanted to speak with her.
Austin Chronicle: Let's start with a term frequently associated with you and your work. Tell us about "radical inclusivity."
Yvette Flunder: By that I mean a theology that takes a look at biblical text as well as in the history of – particularly the Christian church – all religions that both exclude and include. I encourage folks to take another look at all the ways in which religions has been used to create exclusivity. And let's reform our ideas – and I mean that in every sense of the word – reform our ideas to make our understandings of religion more inclusive.
AC: Let's turn that on its head, 'cause there's nothing more fun than talking to a preacher about preaching to the choir. Are you ever compelled to talk about exclusivity that goes on within our own LGBT culture? For example, those pushes in society to preach – and I don't mean that in a spiritual sense – the doctrine of presenting a face of normalcy so we might fit right in.
YF: One of the great errors in how we are viewed as the same-gender-loving and transgender community is that we are monolithic; that's a huge mistake. There are people who see us that way. The fact that we have some common goals, such as having our marriages and families affirmed, being able to serve in the military and be open, you know? While we have some common goals, it does not mean we have all things in common –by any stretch of the imagination. And our work with regard to justice and equal rights for same-gender-loving people has also got to include our doing the hard homework that we need to do as a same-gender community. It's hard work because we have got to go back and look at the intersections of race and gender, of class, and of culture. Sometimes the work of our own gay rights is almost like a sedative: It causes us to forget that we haven't done our own hard work yet.
We have an opportunity to have something to work on that we're all very passionate about. Rightly so, passionate about it, but simultaneously, what really are the deep justice issues, internally. The ones that are really causing our people to experience abuse within the community. I have worked or been in churches that are predominantly gay – and affirming, of course, of gay people – who have difficulty affirming trans people. I've been in environments where there were predominantly women – who are gay – who have real issues with men – who are gay. I've certainly been in places where there were people who were upper-class gay people. Who thought very pejoratively about anyone in a lower class. And class, of course, exhibits itself in issues of racism and issues of internalized homophobia. You know, people who are more out than other people. I've been in the trans community where the people who've crossed over well: Trans people with privilege thought very little about trans people who didn't have privilege – who didn't have the money for surgery and hormone therapy and couldn't cross over well.
So we have these issues. Before we can really give ourselves wholeheartedly to the work of equality and dealing with people who hate us because we're same-gender-loving people, we would do well to look to ourselves and make sure that we're not carrying a dysfunction or numerous levels of dysfunction into our freedom fight. That's incredibly important.
I talk about marriage a great deal here in California, and my partner and I have been married now, legally, since October of last year – during the window of time when we could marry in California. We've been together; we've celebrated 26 years on the 20th of May, two days ago.
AC: Congratulations, that's beautiful.
YF: Thank you kindly. I think about the people who see marriage as a cause du jour, you know? I wonder to myself whether or not people really understand what it is that we're saying that we desire. Have we done the work that needs to be done around relationships, for example, or are we going to essentially mimic the dysfunction of a failed institution? Because marriage has not worked well for straight people statistically. It just has not worked well; most everybody is working on a second marriage or a third marriage. Cyclical marriages are the reality for many straight people. So what is it exactly that we're asking for? And what is it exactly that we intend to do with it once we get it? That will improve the institution, not just give us the same rights – we're due those. We're due equal rights under the law, and our relationships are due all of the things that come with being taxpaying citizens of this country. On a higher – and I would go so far as to say a moral – scale, my concern about not the contract but the solemn vow, if that's what it is that we're doing, do we understand what we're doing? And have we done the preparation to have healthy relationships? Those are some of the things I think we need to work on within our community. So while we're talking about equality, essentially we can model equality by the way that we live and are. It's such an oxymoron for someone to be out siding for the rights of same-gender-loving people and simultaneously prejudiced and sexist and racist and classist all at the same time. Something is really wrong with that picture.
AC: You and I have a friend in common: LZ Love.
YF: [Excitedly] Okay!
AC: And both of you knew Sylvester!
YF: Well Syl and I ... I called him Syl – S-Y-L. Sylvester and I are from the same denomination. We were both raised in the Church of God in Christ, in Pentecostal churches. He in Los Angeles, and my folks were here in San Francisco. I knew something of the struggle of being raised in a very fundamentalist Pentecostal church and of being a same-gender-loving person simultaneously – and also the dichotomy of the fact that we were not alone. There were several same-gender-loving people in the church. But you had to learn how to do it. It was a dance, you know? You had to learn how to be gay in the subculture of the church. But, you'd never say it. It was a true "don't ask, don't tell" environment. You know, in a truer sense of the word.
Syl called me one day and said: "Girl, come over and let's fry some fish. Let's fry and sit down and talk." And he said to me, "It's amazing how the same people that turned me out, turned me out." He learned to practice as a young gay man with a bunch of church folks. Simultaneously, when he got too real and he stopped being willing to play the game, then they started distancing themselves from him. And that's sort of the lay of the land, that's kind of the way that it goes, you know? And that's a sad truth. So you can stay as long as you play, as long as you play the game, but if you don't, if you become too real, if you become too self-affirming, if you start using the words, if you start saying who you are or speaking words of affirmation about people who are gay and lesbian in the church, you gotta go. And that was a part of his reality. He walked a lot of paths, a lot of faith paths trying to find a way to feel fulfilled. On another occasion, he said, "The thing I really miss the most is my Jesus." To which I said to him, "You don't have to live without your Jesus." And that was the beginning of his coming back to worship. He started kind of in the back and then worked his way back to the front. And I was very happy that he and [his partner, architect] Rick [Cramner] both began to frequent worships. And when Rick became symptomatic [with HIV], we had some real moments. Eventually Rick passed away. I was with Sylvester when he got Rick's ashes. And we were sitting at his kitchen table, and he was shaking the box kind of back and forth, and he could hear the sound of something rattling inside and asked me, "What's that?" He wanted to know was that bones or what was that? And I said, "That's his toe tag," the tag that they give you to distinguish who the person is. And he said, "Can you imagine such a great man being reduced to a toe tag?" And so we talked for a long time about that, and that was when we started talking about his own death and this fabulous red kimono on the wall that he had gotten from Asia.
AC: I remember the kimono from the book [The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco, by Joshua Gamson.]!
YF: He wore it to his service. I think one of the other incredible things that Sylvester did was when he knew he was coming to die. And he reconciled his relationship with God, what he believed it to be. That's very important, particularly at the point at which it was apparent to him that he was imminently terminal. He was an incredible man. He began making phone calls to everybody that he really loved. He wanted to give ... these are his words, he said: "I wanna give away my drag. I don't want people coming to get it!" And I'm gonna tell you the truth, he did something for me that I pray that God give me the ability to do. I want to be fully cognitive of the fact that my death is coming when it's coming, because I want to give all my stuff away to the people I want to have it!
So he had a bunch of us in the house to organize things in stacks, if you get my drift – for different people, based on their personality, and what they meant to him and how close he was to them. Then he'd call them and ask them to come over, and he said some things to them, some final parting words, and gave them his stuff. I thought it was just incredible. He had so much stuff! And truly, honestly, he really was a queen. Really, really, really a queen. So those are just some reflections of some of the things that I remember very well about him and his journey.
Sylvester was in many ways a revolutionary; he was in many ways a prophet, well before his time. I think that he actually had a ministry call, he just didn't really know what to call it, and there was no place for it. But he did the hard work in terms of causing people to feel affirmed in their sexuality and gathering them together for parties to celebrate that. Well, it's really what ought to be happening in and around our church and religious institutions. But he did it in the clubs, and he did it in the venues, and it was beautiful. It was just beautiful.
AC: I think it would be pure denial not to acknowledge the quality of Sylvester's intent and the purity of that voice as having a hugely spiritual component. And his music, aside from being the thing you got out on the floor and jammed to, also just touching deeply within the body, deeply stirring emotions. I can listen to "Mighty Real" 10 times in a row, and I can be reduced to tears with that song.
YF: I understand. It's gospel, the truest sense of the word; it takes a truth of some sort and gives it wings. That is gospel, and that is what Sylvester sang. "Mighty Real" is a worship song. "Mighty Real" is an affirmation – that I'm in agreement with who it is that I'm created to be and that I'm not fake and that I'm not a mistake and I'm not a birth defect. I am fully and completely all that my creator intended that I be. He embodied it in a statement: "You make me feel mighty real." And that's right, and that's the way it should be.
AC: When gay kids today ask me, "Now, who exactly was Sylvester?" I say, "Okay, 'We Are Family' is our 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee,' but 'Mighty Real' is our national anthem."
YF: There you go!
Bishop Yvette Flunder is the keynote speaker at tonight's Multifaith Pride Service, "We Are the Light of Love" (Thursday, June 3), at Unity Church of the Hills, 9905 Anderson Mill, 335-4449. www.unityhills.org/rainbowministry.
The Sylvester Connection
The two-line bio on the Pride Web page that culminates with "Bishop Flunder is a dynamic speaker, in demand nationwide," was not so helpful. I knew I knew that name, so I decided to dig. I knew it had something to do with Donnie McClurkin. So I typed "Yvette Flunder" along with the name of the unkind ex-gay minister into Google. Bingo. That was it. Her name came up in response to McClurkin's nasty remarks at a Church of God in Christ convocation in late 2009 about young gospel singer Tonéx, who had come out just a few months prior, admitting his attraction to men. McClurkin was adding to a petty dog-pile of what seemed to be a "the ladies doth protest too much" knee jerk from within the gospel community. Bishop Flunder responded with grace and care:
"My deep concern is for those young people who are part of the COGIC and for their families who have now been driven deeper into the closet by experiences like this. The closet is a dangerous place, where theological, and physical self-abuse runs rampant. ... I am encouraging these young people to find their voices and not run to the shadows to live in fear like my generation has. Watch the signs, change is possible. God is greater than any denomination and bigger than the narrow theologies that seek to hold us hostage. I am excited about our future and I am determined to let folks know that there are safe places to land."
I knew I had to talk to her. As I was preparing for our last-minute interview (just a week or so ago), the COGIC connection clicked. So many pop icons began singing in church (the Staple Singers, Cissy and Whitney Houston, etc.), and many struggled with the secular manifestation of their talents (Marvin Gaye, Aretha, Al Green, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles). On more than a whim, I typed "Yvette Flunder" and "Sylvester" into the search engine. Whoot, there it was! It all came back to me. I remembered her from the Sylvester biography. She was a good friend to the disco diva from their early years, relating their similar COGIC backgrounds all the way through the singer's success and ultimately to his passing.
How insanely coincidental. Sylvester was on my mind a lot as we prepared this Pride supplement. Sandra Bernhard's early Nineties cover of Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" informed my personal coming-out process. Sandra happens to be coming to town (and is interviewed herein). And then there's this week's cover story (see "This Is My Life,") on brilliant and beautiful Austin artist LZ Love. The link between Bishop Flunder, Ms. Bernhard, and Ms. Love is Sylvester, the singer so adept at the duality of praising through the body while offering praises from the soul. We leave you to the feature on Love to better understand her Sylvester connection.
For those of us for whom music is religion and a song can serve as a rite of passage, "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" is carnal confirmation.