By Robert Marovich

The Beverly Arts Center will open its Pride Month Celebration Sunday, June 9, with Shout OUT: A Tribute to Gays in Gospel Music.

The joyous program, written and produced by Lucy Smith and Cheryl Corley, will explore the lives and music of gospel and rock ‘n’ roll legends such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Reverend James Cleveland, Little Richard, Clara Ward, Willmer “Little Ax” Broadnax, and Billy Preston.

Smith, a jazz vocalist, songwriter, and bandleader, will lead the Lucy Smith Quintet on one of her original compositions as well as on gospel classics like “God Has Smiled on Me,” “How I Got Over,” “That’s the Way God Planned It,” and “I’ll Tell It Wherever I Go.” In between, Corley, a Chicago-based national correspondent for NPR, will narrate brief bios on the artists, highlighting their relationship to the church and the civil rights movement.

“When it comes to the church, often there’s this awkward coexistence of the gay musicians and the anti-gay preaching, as well as the casual ridicule that the musicians experience,” Corley said, citing a New York Times article she references during the show. “So while the music itself is celebrated, the musicians have to hide their authentic selves and are often overlooked. We are respectful, but we want to shine light on the part of their identity that is important historically.”

Smith was inspired to create Shout OUT in response to a call by the Chicago Park District for programming for its Queering the Parks initiative. “It gave me an opportunity to meld the gospel music that I, growing up a Black Catholic, listened to, sang, and watched on Jubilee Showcase with a more staid church music tradition. It’s an opportunity for people to learn, to be moved, and to be fully present.”

To prepare for the show, Smith researched the artists and their music. To write the show and provide the narration, she turned to Corley, her “partner in art” and a self-proclaimed history buff. “The artists were so prolific and creative that whittling down the information to present was a wonderful chore,” Corley said.

Among the show’s many revelations is the life of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. “A lot of people don’t know about Rustin’s musical background,” Corley said. “He sang spirituals to help others find solace in as the work they did, but being openly gay and somewhat conflicted, he also needed the solace of the spirituals.”

Smith adds: “Just like the blues, gospel music soothes. It’s how a lot of folks who can’t be all that they are soothe themselves. There are so many unfortunate stories about artists who are at the top of their game but afterwards have to live their life dramatically on the down-low. We hear their passion and emotion in the music.”

As part of the Chicago Park District’s 2023 Night Out in the Parks series, Shout OUT toured the city’s south, far south, north, and northwest sides. “People loved the show,” Corley said. “Some said it should be on PBS! A lot of gay and lesbian people who shared their church hurt with us expressed how the show was affirming. It was also a revelation. They didn’t know about the personal lives about a lot of the artists we feature.”

“It brought tears of joy but also tears of anger,” Smith said. “Straight people came up to tell me that someone in their family was LGBTQIA. One of the best comments I can recall was from a woman who is a preacher. She came up to me and said, ‘My whole congregation needs to see this. And by the way, my auntie is bisexual and I love her!’”

While Smith and Corley did not experience disparaging remarks to their face, they did feel passive pushback while promoting the show to churches and senior living facilities. “I would always pitch this as Chicago history,” Smith said. “After all, Chicago is the home of gospel music, but while some places were very polite, it was clear there was no way they were going to show up.”

She continued: “Our American society uses religion to create massive schisms by specifically targeting the LGBTQ community, the trans community. That’s not the way my mom raised me as a Christian. We’re supposed to be nurturing our next generations, not sending them to the brink of suicide.”

“There is definitely room for expansion,” Smith said on the possibility of future performances of Shout OUT beyond June 9 and the addition of other gay gospel artists on the program. “I think this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“That’s why the type of response we are getting is encouraging,” Corley said. “I don’t know if it will change attitudes, but maybe it will.”

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Written by : Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.