- Above the Skyline: Reverend Tsietsi Thandekiso and the founding of an African gay church by Graeme Reid
Graeme Reid’s Above the Skyline is a compelling ethnographic account about an African church that created a ‘home’ for Christians who have same-sex desire and homosexual lifestyles. Founded in the mid-1990s in Johannesburg, South Africa and lead by the charismatic gay Reverend Tsietsi Thandekiso, the Hope and Unity Metropolitan Community Church (HUMCC) preached Pentecostal Worship of a God who loves all humans irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identities. While ‘heterosexual participation was the exception’ (8), the church was not meant to be an exclusive place for LGBT members. The Reverend’s embracing nature and undisputed spiritual leadership is described in great detail by the author who conducted his fieldwork from 1995 to 1997. Although the personality and activities of Reverend Tsietsi Thandekiso are the central focus in the book, Reid also succeeds in providing a vivid and balanced account of the social, political and gender dynamics in this predominately African church community. Above the Skyline offers valuable insights into the challenges facing Christian LGBT members. Providing rich ethnographic detail, the book is altogether a very accessible resource to students and staff in the humanities and in fact, to anyone interested in the complexities of LGBT Christianity in South Africa.
The book is structured into ten chapters and a postscript based on the prevalent themes emerging from the participant observation perspective of the author. The first chapter introduces the reader to the particular spiritual basis of the church and its inception. The second chapter provides classical anthropological introspection and offers some anecdotes to introduce [End Page 138] significant church members. In Chapters Three and Four, Reid describes in close detail how the church developed a theology that reconciled the conventionally perceived as dissonant identities of a ‘gay’/‘lesbian’ and ‘Christian’ person. The Reverend devised a broad conception of the term ‘home’ which signified, perhaps most importantly, being able to integrate, reconcile and to be comfortable with one’s Christian gay identity. ‘Being at home’ symbolised this comfort, but ‘being at home’ in the HUMCC also meant embracing church activities, while ‘being at home’ in one’s family meant holding good relationships with parents and the family [notwithstanding potential rejections]. The central metaphor in the theological teachings of the church is the concept of ‘healing’ but unlike in other Pentecostal traditions where healing primarily refers to physical, emotional or spiritual health, ‘healing’ in the HUMCC also related to social and political elements that inhibited a homosexual Christian identity. Hence, as the author of this book aptly summarises: ‘“Salvation” and “coming out of the closet” were both aspect of “healing” that demonstrated the transformative power of metaphor on reconciling potentially conflicting identities’ (68).
In Chapter Five, Reid describes the performance of gender identities in the context of a beauty pageant organised by Reverend Thandekiso. While contrasting the rigid and dichotomous construction of social and sexual identities suggested in the seminal work of McLean and Ngcobo (1994): skesana and injonga (the former representing the feminine male partner and the latter retaining a male social identity in a gay relationship), with the church’s mission, Reid attempts quite successfully to discuss the shifting ideas about homosexuality and gender identity. The building up to the event of the pageant and its multiple dynamics are described painstakingly and may not find the interest of all readers, but through this the author manages to describe the identity model of the church’s gender ideals, namely the stepping away from the dichotomised model of skesana and injonga in order to give way to a gendered-structured model that allows both partners in a male same-sex relationship to be men and two lesbian partners to be women. As a gender scholar in South African one can appreciate the progressive nature of the HUMCC’s stand at the time. While Reid’s account refers to the mid 1990s, there is no doubt that even today, a multitude of current African homosexual relationships in...