'Say a Little Prayer': Black Churches and Homophobia Author E. Lynn Harris began writing about the "invisible life" of black male bisexuals years before the "down low" phenomena went high profile. Now he sets his sights on a new target: homophobia in the black church. He talks about faith, sex and sexual identity.
NPR logo

'Say a Little Prayer': Black Churches and Homophobia

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5415245/5415246" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Say a Little Prayer': Black Churches and Homophobia

'Say a Little Prayer': Black Churches and Homophobia

'Say a Little Prayer': Black Churches and Homophobia

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5415245/5415246" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Author E. Lynn Harris began writing about the "invisible life" of black male bisexuals years before the "down low" phenomena went high profile. Now he sets his sights on a new target: homophobia in the black church. He talks about faith, sex and sexual identity.


From NPR News in Washington, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

Bestselling author E. Lynn Harris is back. Now this chronicler of the inner lives of black gay and bisexual men has a new character, Chauncey Greer. Chauncey's quest, to seek a place for himself in the black church. Here's E. Lynn Harris with an excerpt from I Say a Little Prayer.

Mr. E. LYNN HARRIS (Author, I Say a Little Prayer): I felt an excitement as the chords continued to come to me and flow through my body to my fingers as they caressed the piano keys. Was it my imagination I sang? Hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, I had done something I hadn't done in years. I had written a song.

MARTIN: E. Lynn Harris, we're taking your calls. Plus, the confirmation hearings of Gen. Michael Hayden. It's TALK OF THE NATION. First, this news.

(Soundbite of the news)

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment. If you go into any African-American beauty shop in just about any city, you will likely find someone who has read one of E. Lynn Harris' novels. Harris took the fiction world by storm in 1992 when his book Invisible Life was picked up by Doubleday. This was a major coup, considering that Harris had spent $13,000 to publish the book on his own and had been selling it out of his car by word-of-mouth.

With Invisible Life, Harris invited readers to explore the lives of black bisexual and gay men, lives often lived in the shadows, kept secret especially from the women who shared their hearts and sometimes their beds, and once Harris let the secret out, readers could not get enough. Eight novels and a memoir later, Harris has made the New York Times bestseller list five times.

In his latest effort, I Say a Little Prayer, Harris delves into the familiar yet hidden territory of homosexuality and the black church. His main character is Chauncey Greer, a gay singer who faces the difficult choice of singing at a church revival that is being boycotted by other gays in the church, and that's not all. Chauncey must decide whether or not to reveal the secret of the revival's featured guest, Bishop Damien Upchurch, an ultra-conservative pundit and Senate hopeful.

Later in the program, President Bush's pick to head the CIA faces tough questions about domestic spying during his confirmation hearing today. We'll hear what he says. But first, faith, sexual identity, and the church. If you have a question for E. Lynn Harris about his work or the relationship of gays to the black church, give us a call or send us an email. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Author E. Lynn Harris is a visiting professor and writer-in-residence in the creative writing and African-American literature program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He joins us now from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Mr. HARRIS: Good afternoon, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, I cannot help myself. What does the E stand for?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I used to keep that a secret, but since I put it in my memoir, I'll share it with you. It's Everett.

MARTIN: Everett, okay.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: That doesn't seem like a very big secret, compared to other secrets that people keep.

Mr. HARRIS: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Now, you've written nine books in what, 14, 15 years, but we haven't hear from you in the last three years. What have you been doing? What have you been up to?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, you know, I've been teaching, like you said in the introduction, at the University of Arkansas. What was supposed to be one semester has turned into six, and I'll be returning in the fall.

MARTIN: Were you depleted somehow from all these books that you have been churning out in these last couple of years? I mean, you've been so productive. I mean, was it in part that you needed a break?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I didn't think that I needed a break. I was, you know, actually working on a novel when I went to the university, but as it turned out, I really did need a break, and also I was concentrating on being a good professor or a great professor, and that took a lot of, you know, time.

MARTIN: Why did you start writing? I'm sure that some of the folks listening to us today know all about you and have read every word that you've ever written, but for those who haven't, why did you start writing?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, Michel, I started writing in a lot of ways to save my life. I mean, and then I state in memoir that writing, in effect, saved my life. In about 1990, '91 timeframe, I experienced a major bout of depression. I had lost of lot of friends. I was dealing with issues of my sexuality and really working in a career that I was not happy with.

And through a lot of therapy and a lot of prayer and what have you, I came to the conclusion that I needed to do something that I was willing to do for free, and that turned out to be writing. When I started writing Invisible Life, it just really lifted the weight off of my shoulder, you know, and I found something that I was passionate about, as I found later with teaching.

MARTIN: When you write your books, are you working out issues that are puzzling to you, something that you are struggling with yourself? Or by the time you sit down to write, have you pretty much decided, you know, what you think and is a more a matter of sharing conclusions that you've come to, sharing sort of the journey that you've been on with people?

Mr. HARRIS: No, I, not since I consider writing therapy, I always try to address issues that are important to me. You know, it took me seven years to write my memoir. Even some of my novels that people might consider controversial or funny are things that I'm concerned with.

You know, take for instance, I wrote a novel called, you know, If This World Were Mine, that was basically about friendships. I looked around and recognized all the female friends that I had and how important they were in my life, so I wanted to write a book that celebrated, you know, friendships in the African-American community.

MARTIN: So given that your latest book is about the struggle for gays to find a place in the church, can we assume then this is something that you have struggled with?

Mr. HARRIS: Oh, absolutely, and I'll tell you a funny story. Not, it's not a funny story, but how this book came to be. I was living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and had some of my adult friends who I went to for adult conversation. Dr. Derrick Greg(ph) and his wife had been inviting me to their church, and I really told them I wasn't with the church program these days.

But one Sunday they convinced me to go, and I went to this church in Fayetteville, and I was just overcome with how warm and loving this church was, and it reminded me of what I missed, you know, growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and how I missed that. And it seemed to me that the minister was speaking directly to me, and that afternoon I went home and put the novel that I was working on in the drawer and started writing I Say a Little Prayer.

MARTIN: You write that, there's some of scenes that's just, in this book, are just, you know, heartbreaking, and you describe, and I don't wanna give away some of the plot twists because that's, you know, part of the pleasure of reading the book is that these little twists and turns that you take, but you describe a situation where a mother is at a meeting of gay and lesbian Christians who are trying to decide how to deal with this, the invitation of this man who's very anti-gay to their church.

And they want to organize a day of absence to demonstrate to the church just how important they are as members and just how many there are, and you describe in this book a situation where the mother of a gay child is refused the right to hold the funeral for her child in the church that she has belonged to her whole life. Was that based on some, on a real incident?

Mr. HARRIS: Not to my knowledge. It didn't happen to any of my friends, but, you know, I have heard of incidents where the church, you know, have, you know, turned away a lot of gay members, especially at the beginning of the AIDS crisis when people had so many questions about it. They didn't know how you could catch it, and people wanted to stay as far away from it as they possibly could.

MARTIN: Let's talk to a caller. Let's go to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Can you hear me?

MARTIN: We sure can, Jeff. How are you?

JEFF: Hi. I'm from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I love the show. I've listened for quite some time. Well, I myself am gay, and one of my closest friends, he is biracial, actually. Still there?

MARTIN: Sure, of course. We're listening.

JEFF: Yep, well, anyway, he's had some issues. For example, he's dealt with a lot of homophobia from, you know, the black side of his family, his father, and to the point where he's almost felt as if he's kind of had to assimilate more into the quote unquote "white world" of gay culture to fit in because he always felt that that was the only way he could ever truly fit in, which has been very interesting and - you know?

MARTIN: Yeah, Lynn - oh, Jeff, thank you so much for calling.

JEFF: Yep, no problem.

MARTIN: Lynn, do you think that that might be a common feeling, that there might be more...

Mr. HARRIS: Well, you know, Michel...

MARTIN: ...overt hostility in the black community?

Mr. HARRIS: I get asked that question a lot. Is there more homophobia in the black community than, say, in other communities? And I, for the most part, I try to defend my community because I think we're a group of very, very loving people. I think the problem is, is that we haven't talked about it enough, you know, and so we can get to a comfort level where people can be allowed to be themselves.

I think with a lot of my novels, people talk about the down low and what have you, but the church is still that one institution where there's still, I wouldn't say outright discrimination, but I know - I mean, a lot of ministers make it perfectly clear how they feel about it.

MARTIN: Help folk understand why it's so important to you and to your character, Chauncey Greer, to have a church home. I think some would say, well, you know what, if that's an unwelcoming environment, just don't go there anymore. You know, go to the gym instead or something like that.

Mr. HARRIS: Well...

MARTIN: So help people understand you know why.

Mr. HARRIS: ...it's a part of a fabric of who, you know, I am as an individual, and a lot of other African Americans. The church has always been very, very important to me. You know, I remember - that's one of the things I remember about my childhood; it was a place of solace. You know, just like I knew at a very young age that I was gay, I knew at a very young age that I believed in God. And the way that I showed that was to, you know, celebrate my religion by attending church.

It was something that I used to look forward to. It was a part of my week, you know, Bible study on Wednesday and church on Sunday. But as I became more comfortable with myself, it was - I got to the point where I wasn't going to go some place where I didn't feel welcome, or that, you know, people thought I was damned to hell just because of saying who I was and living my life that way.

MARTIN: How does that work in your life now? Is it something that you feel will be perpetually in conflict, your sexual identity versus your faith?

Mr. HARRIS: No, you know...

MARTIN: Yourself as a man of faith?

Mr. HARRIS: My faith right now is better than it's ever been because it's more intimate. I mean, I feel like I have a more personal relationship with God, simply because I've taken this journey of writing about things that people didn't really want to talk about. People always ask me where do I get my courage from. My courage, you know, comes from my faith in God.

You know, if I thought about, you know, what people might say or what could've happened with Invisible Life, then I probably never would've wrote the book. I probably wouldn't have written this book. And this book came just like a gift, because I know, you know, a lot of people feel very, very strongly about their faith and about their God, and about what the Bible says, and what's right and what's wrong. You know, I'm willing to say I might be wrong, but I'm also willing to say I think this is the way God wants me, you know, to lead my life.

MARTIN: How did you come to that sense of peace? Because for some people this is a very fraught issue. It's very - it's a very difficult issue for most of the major denominations of the world who are struggling with the question of, you know, how to welcome folk of different sexual orientations into their - how did you resolve this? And we need to be - you need to be succinct, if you can, because we need to take a short break.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, for me it was seeing God perform other miracles in my life, taking other things from my life that I wasn't happy with. You know, to see that power made me realize that he knew where I was and that the thing about praying, and the thing about, you know, getting rid of things could actually happen. You know, in my memoir, I talk a lot about praying to - for him to remove the feelings that I had when it came to my sexuality. And it never changed, it never changed.

MARTIN: Let's talk about that some more after the break. We're talking with author E. Lynn Harris. His new novel is called I Say A Little Prayer. And we're taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You can send us email. The address is talk@npr.org.

I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

We're talking with E. Lynn Harris about his new novel, I Say A Little Prayer. It delves into the complicated territory of homosexuality and the black church.

If you have a question for E. Lynn Harris about his books, or the relationship of gays to the black church, give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

Lynn, before the break you were saying that you sometimes used to pray to be different.

Mr. HARRIS: To be straight, yeah. I did for the most of my adult life and my, you know, early 20s and early 30s. I just, you know, I wanted to quote unquote "be normal," if you will.

MARTIN: Why? I mean why did you - you just felt the stigma would be too great too bear?

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: You just didn't want all the drama that comes with being different?

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, I just felt life would be easier. You know...

MARTIN: And when that prayer wasn't answered, what did that - did that affect your faith or what? How did that all work?

Mr. HARRIS: No, you know, it didn't. You know, it did, you know, I wouldn't say it was the primary reason for my depression. You know, I kind of grew up in this home with a single mom and I've always wanted to make my mom proud. And I just thought that this, you know, wouldn't be something that she would be happy with, in that, you know, I couldn't do what I think my community expected of me, you know, get married and have kids and be a contributing citizen to my community.

MARTIN: I'm sure...

Mr. HARRIS: I felt like I had let a lot of people down.

MARTIN: I'm sure that's a common experience. Let's go to a caller. Let's go to Rockford, Illinois. Michael?

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes.

MARTIN: Welcome.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

MARTIN: What's on your mind?

MICHAEL: Yes, I just wanted to say, you know, his first book that I read, one of the first two was Just as I Am and Invisible Life. And as an African-American male dealing with the issue of my sexuality, it was very reassuring to get a positive voice, and especially I can relate so well to the Raymond character and all that he went through in life. And I just wanted to say I thank Mr. Harris for being out there and expressing that other side to show that there are positive males out there, homosexual males, doing the right thing in life, looking for love and looking for acceptance.

MARTIN: Michael, thank you for calling.

MICHAEL: All right.

MARTIN: Lynn, I noticed that in your - one of the things that's rich about your latest book, I Say A Little Prayer, is that you have characters all across the spectrum. I mean, you have characters who are very anti-gay, and you have characters who are very comfortable with their sexuality, and you have characters who are very much struggling with, you know, what it means to be a gay man. But I wanted to ask you about the fact that you have a lot of sex in this book.

Mr. HARRIS: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: You know, you write about sex parties and you write about one night stands, and many of your characters are very promiscuous. And I'm assuming that you're hoping to reach a churchgoing audience, you're hoping, in part, to encourage a sense of tolerance, right? But did you...

Mr. HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: But did you consider that you may have played into a stereotype about promiscuity that is exactly the thing that persons of faith find objectionable about gays?

Mr. HARRIS: The point that I was trying to make is that Chauncey recognizes that he's a flawed character, that there are things in his life that he wants out, you know, with some of the things that I've gone with. And this, I think, happens in different processes or different periods of your life. I don't think we'll, any of us will leave here as a perfect individual, but we work through it by trying to get rid of some of the things we don't really like about ourselves. Those - the promiscuity I don't think is something that Chauncey is very proud of.

MARTIN: Do you have any sympathy for the position of some in the African-American community who feel that marriage in the black community is so under siege that - you know, African Americans used to have among the highest rates of marriage in the country and now they have among the lowest. And there are some who believe that endorsing gays or embracing gays or validating being gay would somehow threaten marriage further. Do you have - I know you're familiar with this argument because you discuss it in the book. Do you have any sympathy for that point of view?

Mr. HARRIS: Oh most definitely, Michel. I have sympathy for everyone's point of view. That's the wonderful thing about this country we live in, is that everyone is entitled to their point of view. And I understand the argument. But I think what happens is, with that being the prevalent feeling of the community, a lot of men go into marriages knowing full well that they're gay or bisexual without their wives knowing. And in the end, you know, who suffers? The women. Do we want a bunch of marriages that could fall at any time if the man, you know, decides he's going to go back, you know?

MARTIN: Let's go to Tempe, Arizona, and Enchantia(ph), Enchantia, welcome.

ENCHANTIA (Caller): Hello.

MARTIN: Hello, what's your question?

ENCHANTIA: My question is I wanted to comment on how appreciative I am that Mr. Harris has written the book. One of my very good friends happens to be bisexual. And he's very active in the church, as well as in the gay community. And when he got his degree in religious studies, he would go back to his pastor at the AME Church and they would go through all of these debates about how there was no biblical basis in the Bible to be persecuted in the gay community, in the church, and preaching against it the way that he was.

And he really ended up severing his relationship with the church. He had won a scholarship that they never disbursed to him. And just all kinds of things happened that arose out of the conflict when he really did try to speak out for the rights of gay people in the church, and also for the doctrine that Jesus preached was love and acceptance, and how they were going against that.

MARTIN: Thank you, Enchantia. Thank you for calling.

EUNCHANTIA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mr. Harris, I'm guessing you've heard a lot of stories like that.

Mr. HARRIS: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. You know, a lot of people, you know, on the opposite side of that, Michel, that bothers me in terms of the gay community, you know, I used to go to a really, one of the mega-churches in Washington, DC, and the minister would preach the sermon and people would be standing up and encouraging him and clapping and what have you, and then later on in the afternoon I would see these same people, these same men, in the gay bar. And I just didn't know what that said about, you know, us as individuals or people. You know, and I would sit there...

MARTIN: What do you make of that? What do you make of that?

Mr. HARRIS: I would sit there through it too because I didn't want to bring attention to myself. It was - it finally took me hearing that sermon, when I finally just walked out of church and said no, I'm not, I don't have to listen to this.

MARTIN: Now, I know that you're a writer and you don't consider yourself a political person per se, but do you think that if gays gained the right to be legally married that it would alleviate the need of so many people to lead double lives?

Mr. HARRIS: I don't know, Michel, and one reason I say I don't know is because, you know, I made this statement on an earlier show, even today, that - and I don't know how this is going to sound, but I'm not a big proponent of the institution of marriage. Even if I were heterosexual, I don't think that I would be married. And so I don't feel real strongly about it either way.

MARTIN: Why? Why is that that you aren't a proponent of marriage? Do you feel that you just haven't seen an example of one that worked? Or just tell me a little bit more.

Mr. HARRIS: Oh no, I've seen a lot of examples in my own family. You know, a lot of my uncles and aunts of have been married for years. You know, they haven't been perfect marriages, but they've kept their families together and, you know, I'm sure there've been a lot of happy moments. I mean, I consider myself, you know, a romantic. I haven't always been lucky in love and maybe that's why I feel that way, you know, because I haven't had, you know, the kind of relationship that I grew up dreaming about.

MARTIN: What - you know, one of the things that the church - the church offers support. That's one of the things you talk about, in your characters, they crave the support and the affirmation of the church. But one of the things that the church also does is challenge, it challenges people to adhere to a certain standard of conduct. So the question I would have is, if people are challenging your conduct in a certain way, when do you consider it appropriate to be obedient to the instruction of the church? And when do you feel that you can substitute your own judgment about what is appropriate?

Mr. HARRIS: When it doesn't interfere you - interfere or keep you from living an authentic life. When those things prevent you from being who you really are, then I think it's a conflict, and one that I'm just not willing to make anymore. Because I've gone through the periods where, you know, I would stop having, you know, sex, wouldn't drink, wouldn't do anything that I thought God might, you know, look down upon. And during those times I was pretty miserable.

MARTIN: Let's go to Battle Creek, Michigan, and Lynn. Welcome, Lynn.

LYNN (Caller): Hi, thank you. I'm wondering how the premise of Say A Little Prayer would apply to other churches, not just Southern black churches.

MARTIN: Okay, thank you, Lynn. What do you think, Lynn?

Mr. HARRIS: That's an interesting thing. Unfortunately, I'm only familiar with, you know, the African-American church. I know the Catholic Church probably deals with it a lot, you know, with the recent thing that's been going on with priests and what have you. But I'm not, you know, knowledgeable enough about the Catholic Church to see how it is. I have had friends who have, you know, converted to Catholicism and they seem to find more peace with their sexuality when they converted to being Catholic.

MARTIN: I'm talking to Lynn, caller, right now. Lynn, caller, what do you think? Well, because both of you are named Lynn. That's why it's confusing. So, Lynn, caller, what do you think? What's your thought on that?

LYNN: Well...

MARTIN: Do you think - I mean, I know you probably haven't read the book yet, because it's just been published; but given what we're discussing, what do you think?

LYNN: Well, it - bringing up the Catholic Church, it seems like that religion says you are not welcomed here. And I'm trying to understand, I guess, how the premise of the story would just pertain to southern Black Churches, and I'm thinking it probably applies to just about all.

MARTIN: Okay, Lynn, thank you so much for calling. Lynn, writer, you have to stay, you can't leave yet. Do you find - do you - I want to sort of continue the discussion we had about when you're willing to accede to the church's authority and when you're not. And you're saying that, you know, there were times when you could have denied yourself certain things, but isn't conduct -isn't asking for a certain kind of conduct, in part, what morality is?

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. I do, but also, you know, you're sexuality's a part of who you are, too, as an individual, you know. I can't legally - even if I was interested in, you know, getting married in this country, right now, there are a lot of things that I do that people, you know, may view as, you know, as just disgusting, for lack of a better word. But I know what's in my heart, you know. I've lived through the shame, you know, and now I kind of embrace who I am.

MARTIN: A number of your characters are really struggling not just for acceptance, but for love. They want kind of a profound and abiding love. Do you believe that that's harder for gays to find?

Mr. HARRIS: If I was being truthful, Michel, I would absolutely have to say yes.

MARTIN: Why? Why is that, do you think?

Mr. HARRIS: I think we don't have any kind of role models. We don't have anything to look back on and say that this is possible. And I think that that causes, you know, a lot of difficulty.

There are no role models. There are no set patterns other than to say I love this person; but how do I show my love and continue, you know, to live a life that has some semblance of normalcy from what the public says.

MARTIN: Your book is a bit of a - well, it's very rich in the sense that some of the characters have very kind of strong public utterances, which are, at times, at variance with their private conduct. And I'm trying to avoid, you know, giving away, as I said, some of the plot twists I think that would make it an enjoyable read.

But do you think that that's a common phenomenon? That persons who are very sort of publicly - take one stance about issues of sexual identity, in fact, have kind of a different sort of private conduct.

And do you have any sense of why they would act that way? I know that this is - you've struggled, you know, to reconcile your own kind of life; but, to my knowledge, you've never gone out and kind of condemned gay people and then changed your mind about that. So why - what does your writer's mind tell you about why someone would do that?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, Michel, you know, I might have to disagree with you on that. When I was in college, you know, I pledged a fraternity and I was involved in really kind of a hazing of someone who we thought and who we kind of knew was gay, you know. And I was involved and that is something that I'm very, very embarrassed by.

But I was doing that to protect myself. I know full well why I participated in that and it's one of the great shames of my life. And I know that heterosexual men, African-American, white or whatever community, are not really concerned with the sex lives of gay men.

And anyone who focuses - spends so much time focusing on that aspect, I tend to believe they're hiding something. Women ask me all the time, how can you tell? I say if somebody's so concerned with the lives of people who they shouldn't have any kind of a - not necessarily association but affiliation with, then something's up.

MARTIN: Let me just pause here to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to another caller. Let's go to Milwaukee and Keith. Keith, welcome. Keith are you there? Welcome. Well, I think we may have lost Keith. Sorry. Okay, so let's go to Houston, let's go to Meghan in Houston.

MEGHAN (Caller): Hi.


MEGHAN: How are you guys doing today?

MARTIN: Great. What's on your mind, Meghan?

Mr. HARRIS: Great.

MEGHAN: I was just wondering from - I am definitely a Christian and I'm a heterosexual, and I was wondering how you reconcile certain verses with your lifestyle; because you are saying that you feel like God likes the way you're living your life and I know, like for me, if I was having sex outside of marriage, heterosexual or homosexual, it doesn't matter, I know scripturally that would be wrong. Not that God would dislike me or that I wasn't a Christian anymore, but I would have a hard time saying I felt at peace with my lifestyle, because it does say, scripturally, that that isn't right. So I was wondering how you interpreted those verses or how you were seeing that situation?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, I don't consider myself a Biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination. And I - like I said earlier, I'm willing to admit that I might be wrong. I personally don't think that I am, because, you know, I've been given this gift of writing, I've been given this gift of life.

MEGHAN: Right.

Mr. HARRIS: And I've felt this way, you know, for as long as I felt like I had control of my feelings. And I just feel like, you know, my God can take away anything that, you know, that displeases him.

MEGHAN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Meghan, may I ask you a question?

MEGHAN: Definitely.

MARTIN: When you read the Bible and you come across certain passages that seem archaic to you, for example, there are certain punishments, you know, prescribed for conduct that we would not employ, you know we would not kill somebody for, you know, disrespecting his or her parents; you know, we would not - we don't permit, you know, polygamy; we don't - there are certain things, you know, we don't build our houses of worship according to the percepts kind of laid down in the Bible. How do you interpret the - like, say, a passage in Paul where he says, you know, slaves be obedient to your masters. How do you interpret those passages?

MEGHAN: I think that, as far as passages like that, the New Testament kind of removes the old law, you know. So like Old Testament law and things like, you know, men can't shave the sides of their beard and things like that were Moses' law that Jesus gave to Moses, and so when Jesus came and died those things were covered so we weren't held to the old law anymore.

Now, it doesn't mean that we can just live however we want and there are new things that God has told us. But I just - from my standpoint, I feel like there are things in scripture that it does say are wrong, sex outside of marriage, homosexual or heterosexual is definitely laid down as wrong, and so I know...

MARTIN: Meghan, I'm so sorry. We're going to have to take a short break. Thank you so much for calling us.

MEGHAN: No problem.

MARTIN: Thanks. When we come back we'll talk more with E. Lynn Harris; plus, domestic spying and the President's nominee to lead the CIA.

I'm Michel Martin. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following today here at NPR News.

Hundred of insurgents attacked a southern town in Afghanistan today, and fighting flared in other parts of the country, as well. Scores of people were killed in the violence. And federal agents are digging up a horse farm in Michigan just west of Detroit. They're searching for the body of former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. The FBI says the search could take a couple of weeks.

As always, you can hear details of those stories and much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION it's science Friday. And Ira Flatow will be here with a discussion on sustainable cities and urban design. How can aging cities revitalize themselves while still paying attention to the environment? That's tomorrow's TALK OF THE NATION science Friday.

In a few minutes, from the NSA to the CIA: General Michael Hayden faces a Senate confirmation hearing today and some tough questions. But first, E. Lynn Harris and his new book dealing with the complicated issue of homosexuality and the black church.

And I want to go to another caller in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Deborah(ph). Deborah, welcome.

DEBORAH (Caller): Hi, how are you?

MARTIN: Very well.

DEBORAH: I just want to first say, E. Lynn, your books are wonderful; I've read every last one of them. And one of the things that I've enjoyed so much about your books is your development of characters, particularly the African-American middle class, your representation of that. And what motivated you to take that role, rather than just middle of the road kind of folks?

MARTIN: Thank you, Deborah.

Mr. HARRIS: Well, Deborah, thank you. I really appreciate those kind and encouraging words. I care so much about my community, you know, both male and female, straight and gay and what have you. And when I have the opportunity to put them in books, I want to show them in the light in which I've seen, you know, a lot of my people live. I didn't grow up middle class.

I always aspired to be middle class, and that's why I always put my characters in that way. There was a teacher in Louisville, Kentucky who was teaching my books and she got in a lot of trouble about it and she said that she wanted her students to see - it didn't - you know, the sex maybe bothered them a little, but she wanted her students to see how African-Americans could and do live.

MARTIN: Thank you, Deborah.

DEBORAH: That's been one of the pleasures of reading your books, the development. And your characters have become like friends. I mean, we wait for the books, because we want to know what's happening to our friends and so...

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you I appreciate that.

DEBORAH: ...for your continued support of us in the African-American community.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you. Deborah, we're going to let you go just because your phone line seems to be breaking up. Lynn you know what, you had a lot of food in this book. I must tell you that it was hard getting through it, because every page a guy's cooking some fabulous meal of (unintelligible) and some smothered chicken and, you know, please, give us a break here. Do you like to cook?

Mr. HARRIS: I love food Michel, what can I say?

MARTIN: Okay. What...

Mr. HARRIS: I haven't eaten today, but I love food.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. What - do you have another book percolating around in your head there?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, yeah, actually I - the book that I was working on before I wrote The Great Pretenders is going to be a mother and son story. It won't deal with the issues of sexuality, because both the main characters are heterosexual. But I - one of the things I found interesting in my teaching at the University of Arkansas, I had a lot of students athletes, and I always found fascinating their relationships with their mothers.

And so I've written a book that's yet to be titled that, you know, deals with that relationship with a mother and a son who are very, very close and what happens when secrets, you know, are revealed.

MARTIN: I think we have time for one more call, so let's go to Milwaukee and Keith. Keith, welcome. Keith, are you with us?

KEITH (Caller): I am here.

MARTIN: What's on your mind?

KEITH: I'm a white Catholic, very conservative Catholic Church. I just ended a relationship of five years with a black Pentecostal, and it was over exactly what we've been talking about today. Namely, my Catholic Church, even though a very conservative church who disagrees with us on gay relationships, welcomed us with open arms; whereas, I wasn't even allowed in the parking lot of my partner's church. And...

MARTIN: What do you mean you weren't allowed in the parking lot? People literally told you you couldn't...?

KEITH: Not quite. Perhaps there's a little bit of hyperbole there. But the couple of times that I did arrive at the church to pick my partner up, there were stares, you know. And so to answer the prior caller, Lynn(ph), I think there is a big difference. Even though black churches and white churches might have the same doctrine, with respect to looking at gay relationships, I think there's a much bigger tendency in the black church to make it an attack on the person; whereas, in the white churches, at least in my Catholic experience, it's more an attack on the idea.


KEITH: And I'm interested in what Lynn thinks about that.

MARTIN: Okay. Keith, thank you so much for calling.

What do you think about that?

Professor E. LYNN HARRIS: Do you want me to try to answer that, Michel?

MARTIN: Yes. Sure. Of course.

Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. I think what Keith is saying has a lot of valid points. I mean, that's - I've always said that I'm willing to be wrong about it, and willing to be, you know - but I don't want it to be so hateful. And that's what I've seen in the churches. You know, the caller earlier talked about the different scriptures, and you mentioned this, and everybody always brings up Leviticus, and there are a lot of things in Leviticus about - even where to buy your slaves, you know, in the passages where they deal with homosexuality.

MARTIN: E. Lynn Harris, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: E. Lynn Harris is a visiting professor and writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing and African-American Literature Program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. His latest novel is called, I Say a Little Prayer.

Thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. HARRIS: Thank you.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.