Donnie McClurkin is one of gospel music's biggest stars: his albums have sold millions of copies, he's appeared in films and hosts a weekly radio show aired on 100 stations nationwide, and he even has his own brand of pound cake. But McClurkin — who routinely claims to have been saved from the "curse" of the gay life he once led — has also drawn fire for his homophobic sermons. Which makes him a curious choice to headline a City of Boston–produced event here later this summer, the annual GospelFest on City Hall Plaza.
McClurkin is no stranger to controversy. Barack Obama was scorned by gay-rights supporters when he appeared with McClurkin at campaign events in South Carolina during the 2007 presidential primary season. But it's unclear whether Mayor Tom Menino's Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events had any inkling about McClurkin's past controversies when it booked him for the July 18 event, which is the 10th edition of the festival.
Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce initially said she wasn't familiar with McClurkin or the GospelFest lineup, and did not respond to a subsequent request for comment.
Clearly, though, the choice of the Grammy-winning McClurkin for the free concert puts Menino in a bind, says local activist and Bay Windows columnist Reverend Irene Monroe.
"Our mayor is pro-gay and pro-same-sex marriage," she says. Yet at the same time, McClurkin appeals to "the black Christian conservative community — which is a strong voting constituency."
McClurkin has said that his past homosexuality was the result of being raped, at the ages of eight and 13, by male relatives — but that he has since been "delivered." Last fall, after a singer called Tonéx became the first gospel star to come out of the closet, McClurkin took to the podium at a Memphis religious convention and raged against the "perversion" of homosexuality, something he called the result of "failed" parenting. A YouTube video of the event shows McClurkin speaking in tongues and urging teenagers in the audience to declare that they "don't want to be an effeminate man, I don't want to be a hard woman, I don't want to be in homosexuality, bisexuality, trisexuality . . ."
McClurkin and his "ex-gay" message has no place at a taxpayer-funded community event, says Monroe. "Our mayor and city hall represent all of its residents, not just Christian conservatives," she says. "It's fine to have a gospel singer, but given his history, it's a denunciation of inclusion."
Monroe also says there's little possibility that McClurkin could walk onto the City Hall Plaza stage and simply belt out his hits without discussing politics or his personal life.
"In gospel, it's not enough to just sing," she says, "we want to hear the narrative. What I think will happen is that once [city officials] know more about Donnie McClurkin they'll tactfully find a way for him not to make it to the stage. Instead they'll find an equal and viable substitute. I think the mayor's office will do a wonderful job handling it."
Otherwise, warns Monroe, "the queer community will come out and boo."