Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman of Greensboro, N.C. came to LGBT advocacy from an intersection that many lesbian, gay and transgender individuals are familiar with – a place where their wellbeing is threatened by emotional, psychological and spiritual distress.
It was at that intersection that Spearman would meet Jane Clementi in 2011 and it is at that juncture from which he will be working with the Tyler Clementi Foundation in a new capacity.
Spearman, who serves as president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has been active within the Civil Rights Movement for most of his adult life. (See his extensive bio at our website’s Leadership page)
The spark that ignited what would become a passion for LGBT advocacy came one evening about 30 years ago as he was serving as campus minister for Livingstone College, a private historically black college affiliated with the AME Zion denomination and located in Salisbury, N.C.
A student came to him that evening in 1999 and informed Spearman that he was going to end his own life.
From his conversation with the young man that evening Spearman came face-to-face with that conflict which has vexed untold numbers of gay, lesbian and transgender youth – when their well-being is threatened by certain religious teaching that deems them broken and incapable of obtaining the spiritual peace Christianity purports to offer its adherents.
Spearman at that moment realized that what he and so many others in his denomination and other denominations had taught about “homosexuality” was woefully inadequate – now in hindsight harmful – for his effort to counsel the young man.
He realized that evening that the thoughts he conveyed to the young man could mean the difference between the young man living or dying. More pointedly, speaking words of condemnation that was predominant in most faith communities at the time indeed could have been fatal.
From that profound moment forward, Spearman became dedicated to gaining a better understanding of sexual orientation, gender identity and their intersection with Christian ethics.
In 2010 while serving as pastor at a church in western North Carolina, Spearman attended an event at which a local gay rights advocate was holding a public dialogue about a book addressing the plight of gay youth. Longtime LGBT advocate Mitchell Gold had recently published a book about the negative role religion played in the lives of so many of America’s gay, lesbian and transgender youth.
Spearman later had a conversation with Gold and shared his own story. Gold invited Spearman to become active with an organization he had founded and whose mission was the same focus of his book – raising awareness about the negative health outcomes for LGBT youth and the role outdated and misguided religious teaching played in creating the emotional, psychological and spiritual trauma.
In 2011, Spearman traveled with Gold and members of several LGBT advocacy organizations to Arizona for that year’s Southern Baptist Convention where they met with the Southern Baptist leadership.
The following year, Spearman joined the executive director of Gold’s organization for a meeting with Jane Clementi, who had expressed an interest in learning more about the organization’s work within faith communities. Clementi herself was on her own journey in respect to the role negative religious messages have on LGBT youth.
Spearman recalled how Clementi had invited a friend whose child was gay and her church was not affirming – as Clementi’s own church at the time of Tyler’s death. The horrendous conflict that is created for LGBT youth, their parents and other family members was a focus of their conversation that day.
For both Spearman and Clementi, it has remained and continued to be a focus of their advocacy efforts.
Spearman since his meeting with Clementi has continued his advocacy and in particular helping other pastors and faith leaders grapple with the conflict that he himself once had to resolve.
His formula for helping others achieve that resolution involves not as much his own words or understanding but rather from the foundational principle behind Christian ethics – God’s love and God as love. If a person’s faith is centered on that foundation, Spearman asks how can it then co-exist as justification for division, marginalization, bullying or causing other forms of harm. In the stillness and the quietness with God, with love, Spearman believes the answer will come for those who seek it.
That answer will produce a paradigm shift in a person’s perspective – as the one he himself experienced many years ago. Spearman has seen it transform thinking through the conversations he has had with persons of faith and other pastors that he has counseled, such as Rev. William Barber, who served as his predecessor at the NAACP-NC and who has become an ardent faith voice within the LGBT community.
Spearman’s own voice as an LGBT advocate has been amplified since assuming his role as NAACP-NC’s president as he has spoken at numerous events as an LGBT advocate during his tenure in the post.
It’s a voice that Clementi welcomes to the Foundation, which has components of affirming faith messaging in various aspects of the organization’s programming.
Clementi says raising awareness about the role negative religious messages can play in creating harmful health outcomes for LGBT youth has been a focus of the organization.
She recognizes that negative religious messages account for a good portion, if not most, of the harmful attitudes and perspectives about sexual orientation and gender identity in LGBT youth’s social environments. Clementi believes promoting the affirming faith perspective is crucial to its efforts to end bullying and promoting positive health outcomes associated with LGBT youth.
Both Spearman and Clementi recognize a welcomed degree of progress that is being made in addressing negative religious perspectives around sexual orientation and gender identity. Both see a religious-social environment in which more and more churches are becoming LGBT- affirming churches.
But they also know much work is needed when it comes to that intersection of religious teaching and how people think about LGBTQ people and issues. Three cases currently before the U.S. Supreme Court involving LGBT civil rights invoke discussions – particular among conservatives – about using religious belief as justification for discrimination.
Clementi has seen how similar discussions can filter into other social environments and to children who then think it is OK to use religious teaching as justification to bully LGBT kids.
It also works to instill attitudes that suggest LGBT youth are broken and excluded from love – and from God as love. Those attitudes are the ones Spearman in his work with the Foundation will be changing.
Clementi believes he’s the perfect one for that role.
Brent Childers who served as executive director of Faith In America from 2006-2015 and as faith program director for EqualityNC from 2015 to 2019. A former print journalist, he currently enjoys freelance writing.