In May 2015, Ahmad Greene-Hayes challenged people on Twitter to think critically about sexuality, abuse and the Black church using the hashtag #BlackChurchSex. It trended nationwide and opened up a safe place for people to publicly wrestle with topics typically considered uncomfortable, especially in association with religion.

“I grew up in the Pentecostal Baptist context that was very strict and socially and sexually repressive,” says the 22-year-old who will be a doctoral candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey in the fall. “In many ways, we weren’t allowed any conversation about sex [in church].”

Twitter testimonies that flooded his time line included stories of rape, child molestation and forced pregnancy. Greene-Hayes also says that many of the participants shared his concerns about the ways certain gender and sexual identities are privileged or shamed in their churches. 

“People tweeted about how Black male preachers infantilize Black women by valorizing virginity and asexuality, while lusting after Black women’s bodies from the pulpit. There was also discussion of how certain kinds of queerness are accepted and affirmed while others are demonized,” he says. “The conversation was life changing, convicting and liberating.”

Greene-Hayes believes suppression of these topics when he was growing up caused him harm and confusion. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse himself (unrelated to the church), he dedicates much of his ministry and activism to addressing abusers who are protected from accountability and the church’s failure to provide support for survivors. Through #BlackChurchSex, he gave a voice to those who had been shamed or ignored by members of their faith.

A week after the hashtag first trended, Kimberly Foster, founder of the website For Harriet, moderated a #BlackChurchSex Google hangout. The discussion focused on a Black woman-centered theology that allows all people the freedom to worship and embrace their sexuality as they see fit.

Fellow debate participant Candace Simpson, 25, a student of divinity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, wanted to share the importance of positive sexual health practices “because lives are at stake.”

She says the LGBT youth of color experience increased rates of suicide, homelessness and sexual assault. Simpson, who identifies as “queer,” put a callout on the hashtag to offer support to young people like herself. The response was overwhelming.

My grandmother hates me, one message she received stated.

“I was startled because of the vulnerability [the young people] expressed to me—a stranger,” Simpson says. “I see how easy it is for someone to prey upon our youth because they have no one else to turn to. If for no other reason, we must be more supportive of careful, faithful and liberating conversations about sexuality with our children.”

Nearly one year after #BlackChurchSex began, Greene-Hayes launched a two-day event, co-sponsored by Princeton Theological Seminary, called “Love Thyself: Black Bodies and Religious Spaces.” A series of workshops and panels explored how the church can become more accepting of sexual and gender expressions.

“If the church is really invested in the healing of people, it would ensure its places of worship function as hospitals for the soul rather than death chambers,” says activist and Mic News Senior Editor Darnell L. Moore, one of the seminar’s panelists.

Greene-Hayes sees the battle for equity in the church as a fight against age-old principles and norms. “Racism, sexism, homophobia—these are all forces that the church is warring against,” he says. “Patriarchy will be the biggest thing to confront. For a Black male preacher such as Jamal Bryant [of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore] to say from his pulpit, ‘These hos ain’t loyal’ [citing a song lyric in reference to women]; for him to call men ‘sanctified sissies,’ those are acts of violence against Black people.”

Although Greene-Hayes acknowledges that “there are some spaces that are just never going to change,” he sees these conversations about gender and sexual politics as critical opportunities for the church to reexamine itself and become the healing and liberating space it ought to be.

“At its best, [the Black church] is a beautiful place,” he says. “Theologians such as Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman learned the same Bible that was used to enslave them could be used for their liberation.”