Little Richard, whose greatest contribution to the pop music canon is arguably “Tutti Frutti”, is no longer gay or pro-LGBTQ.
In an early October interview for Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a Christian nonprofit based in Illinois, the legendary singer said, “God, Jesus, he made men, he made women, women, you know? And you’ve got to live the way God wants you to live.”
It’s a strange turn of events for the 84-year-old pop recluse. Just two years ago, there was rampant speculation he was on the brink of death. After an alleged hip surgery, he bowed out of the spotlight to recover. But soon, word spread that he was gravely ill and living out his last days. Now, he has reemerged to show he’s alive and well…and denouncing homosexuality.
Though he is an unparalleled musician whose place in history is forever solidified (he was admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986), his songs are inextricably linked with his sexuality and flamboyance. As he once told famed director John Waters, he is the “founder of gay.”
But that same Waters interview revealed a struggle that Little Richard has dealt with his entire life. Born Richard Wayne Penniman in Macon, Georgia, his upbringing and successful career have always been at odds. He has bounced back and forth between devout religion and outright hedonism for decades. He spent a period of his life as a minister but also as a sexual voyeur—a life full of contradictions.
And like the state of his life, he often pivots on his views of LGBTQ people, and to some extent, his views of himself. His struggle is indicative of prevailing beliefs in the Black community. Many of our family members, especially those with deep roots in the church, still think you can pray the gay away. Just look at the Kim Burrell scandal from earlier this year. Of course, she faced a firestorm of backlash and lost endorsements for her anti-gay comments. But her views were reflective of the greater Black religious community. And there’s a high price to pay for those beliefs, both for the belief holder and the people upon which those beliefs are forced.
Think of Little Richard. Here, we have a music legend with an untouchable legacy who, despite success and acceptance, is still so conflicted, even in his 80s, that he is disowning an integral part of his persona. Think of the message this sends to the believers, who think they can bring these gay souls back home. Even more so, think of the risk of denial, which The Advocate covered in great detail in 2015.
On the surface, it is amusing to poke fun at Little Richard. His peculiar resurfacing is certainly one of the year’s most WTF moments; And nobody’s buying this act—that the “Tutti Frutti”-singing, makeup-wearing, self-proclaimed “founder of gay” is now walking a straight line.
But there is a deeper meaning here. These beliefs do great psychological damage that can last a lifetime, and can prevent people from living as their full, authentic selves regardless of how successful they are. Even in an era when LGBTQ acceptance is at an all-time high, those signs of progress aren’t significant enough to outweigh the psychological damage that has taken place over a person’s entire life. Our community has to stop believing they can pray the gay away and that they can continue to shun and discredit their queer brothers and sisters. This isn’t about the good book, or Bible interpretations, or longstanding church traditions. People’s lives are at stake here.
And though Little Richard may still be with us, he’s not really with us. That’s the true casualty in all of this.