Pastor forced to step down from his church after doing drag on HBO show

Former pastor Craig Duke received a barrage of hate following his appearance on an episode of HBO’s “We’re Here”

A small-town pastor putting on a drag show sounds like the perfect recipe for a heartwarming story about a community coming together. But in the wake of pastor Craig Duke’s appearance on the HBO show We’re Here, a divided congregation and barrage of hateful emails have led him to have to leave his church. 

Duke, who is a pastor at Newburgh United Methodist Church near Evansville, Indiana, appeared on We’re Here, in which RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara and Shangela Laquifa Wadley travel to small towns and teach local community members how to perform in drag. As one of the chosen “drag daughters,” Duke performed under the drag moniker “Joan of Arc O’Hara” alongside Eureka in a bright pink wig and white robe to Kesha’s “We Are Who We Are.”

While he expressed in the episode that he knew the show would probably offend some members of his local community, Duke said he hoped his appearance would be a bridge for his daughter (who is pansexual), for the church he serves, “for the denomination I love, and for me. 

“And I’m hoping that my voice will become stronger,” he added.

But soon after the episode aired on Nov. 8, Duke says that he started receiving emails from congregants. “Some would use the term ‘disgust,’ ‘anger,’ ‘disappointment,’ ‘shame’ of my putting on a dress and being a part of that experience,” he tells Religion News Service. This was apparently enough to prompt the church’s staff-parish relations committee to insist that Duke, who is straight and cisgender, ask for a new assignment. 

Reassignments within the church are relatively normal, and in the interim period before he moved on, Duke had planned to lead a bible study on sexuality with the intent of creating a dialogue. But another negative email from a congregant, which he described as “bullying” and “attacking,” prompted him to speed up his departure. 

Duke tells Religion News Service that the controversy began negatively impacting his health and well-being. “It just got to the point where the conflict, the anger grew too much, and so for my mental health, too,” he says. “I started to back away, and I told my district superintendent that the conflict was so much, it was at such a level from some, that I was unable to be an effective leader.”

Despite the hate, Duke noted that he has received plenty of emails expressing support from within the congregation. Following the announcement that he would no longer be a pastor, supporters set up a GoFundMe, which has thus far raised more than USD$58,000. The fundraiser received a burst of support after Duke’s “drag mother” O’Hara shared a link to the campaign, adding: “Craig is an amazing person and deserves the same love that he shares with everyone around him.”

“I experienced as much love and acceptance, and dare I say more, within the drag culture and the LGBTQ community than most people would experience within the settings of the church,” Duke tells the New York Times. “Not one person questioned what I was doing there; it was complete acceptance.”

There has been a longstanding dispute over LGBTQ2S+ acceptance within the Methodist Church. In advance of a global meeting of delegates scheduled for 2020, a group of leaders within the church introduced a proposal to split the church into two denominations: one that continues to ban same-sex marriage and LGBTQ2S+ clergy and one that does not. But the decision has been delayed due to the ongoing pandemic; it’s currently set to be debated next year. 

Regardless of the church’s stance, Duke tells Religion News Service that he is committed to his message of support and love. “My message all along has been: ‘God loves you, period, as you are, where you are.’ Not, ‘God loves you if.’ God loves you unconditionally, and that hasn’t changed,” he says.

Oliver Haug

Contributing editor Oliver Haug (they/them) is a freelance writer based in the Bay Area, California. Their work focuses on LGBTQ2S+ issues and sexual politics, and has appeared in Bitch, them, Ms and elsewhere.

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