Singer Jennifer Knapp.
Credit: Eye Photography in Nashville
(WOMENSENEWS)–“The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be.”
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s famous no-nonsense words published by Daily Beast reporter Andrew Sullivan in July have been widely interpreted as the signpost of a new era of mainstream media acceptance.
It just wasn’t considered big news.
A few days later, in a similar non-event, singer and songwriter Frank Ocean revealed his first love was a man through a post on his Tumblr blog. Following the confession, his album, “Channel Orange,” still debuted at No. 2 on Billboard.
Many religious communities, however, are still far from extending anything like this sort of tolerance. If they were, Jennifer Knapp’s life would be very different today.
Knapp was a star Christian pop singer from 1994 to 2002, selling a million records between 1998 and 2002 and performing in churches across the country. Her music earned her four Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association and two Grammy nominations.
But all that changed when Knapp announced in 2010 that she was gay–she became an instant outcast. Christian radio stopped playing her songs and Christian bookstores stopped selling her music.
“No Christian, according to the Bible, can be simultaneously gay,” said Pastor DL Foster, founder of Witness Freedom Ministries in Atlanta, Ga., which runs programs to convert gay people into becoming straight. “So Christian singers should be holy, not homosexual.”
Knapp, 38, no longer considers herself a member of the Christian music world.
A Similar Rejection
She joins the ranks of Marsha Stevens, who suffered a similar rejection decades ago. After losing a lucrative career Stevens went on to exercise her faith in other ways.
Stevens, 59, once drew thousands of fans to her concerts. She came out in 1980 during what was known as the Jesus movement. Afterwards Maranatha Music, a Christian label, dropped her. Christian music publishers pulled her music from retail and promoters canceled her concert bookings.
“I was completely taken aback by the reaction,” said Stevens. “I spent about five years saying ‘I don’t need Jesus,’ but I absolutely do. I couldn’t make myself not be a Christian.”
In the mid-1980s Stevens visited the Metropolitan Community Church in southern California, which caters to the gay population. “I thought it would be a joke, a drag show church. I was surprised to find it was just a regular church,” she said.
Stevens connected with others there who, in lower-profile ways, had suffered similar rejection. She began writing songs for the church. Since she had no place to get the songs published, she started BALM (Born Again Lesbian Music) Ministries, in Costa Mesa, Calif., which now also produces records.
“I realized there were a lot of religious people coming out who didn’t have a place to go,” said Stevens. The religious gay community, who wanted to make Christian music, found a place at BALM Ministries, she added. So far BALM has trained 35 artists, including Justin Ryan and Carolyn Marshall.
But for Stevens the rejection still isn’t over. She says she receives hate mail, often from parents who blame her for their children’s sexual orientation. “They tell me ‘I can’t believe you’ve led my child astray; she read your site and now thinks it’s OK to be gay,'” Stevens said.
Years of this type of treatment have toughened her skin. “It doesn’t hurt my heart anymore,” said Stevens. “BALM Ministries is my heart now.”
Knapp has also become a part of a similar ministry. She tours the country as a speaker and singer with Inside Out Faith, a program that aims to stop the marginalization of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered, or LGBT, people. The nonprofit organization is based in Nashville, Tenn.
Knapp performs but also speaks to the audience of her own experiences.
“I have the opportunity to effect change,” said Knapp. “What I thought would be a challenge for acceptance has actually turned out to be a chance to help others.”
LGBTs who have grown up in a religious environment are facing criticism from their faith and their families, Knapp said. “It’s about recognizing and supporting safe environments inside religious communities for LGBT people of faith to come out.”
Knapp grew up in a secular household in Kansas. But at around 20 years old, she wanted to connect with Christianity and started writing about her experience. She soon began performing at churches throughout the Midwest. Eventually she was signed by Gotee Records, a Christian label located in Nashville, Tenn., where she released three studio albums.
Knapp took a break from music in 2002 and unexpectedly fell in love with a woman. After announcing her return to music in 2010, she also told the public of her new relationship. That was the moment that changed her life.
“For the last two years I’ve been consistently asked to tell the story of what such damaging judgment does to people,” said Knapp. “I know. I’ve lived it.”
She is now unsigned and her latest independent release “Letting Go” was not played on Christian radio.
Anna Halkidis is a freelance journalist from Queens, N.Y. She also runs a music blog, http://www.musicnlove.com/.
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