Preferred Citation: Hawkeswood, William G. One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6t1nb4dd/


 
3— "One Big Family": Community and the Social Networks of Gay Black Men

3—
"One Big Family":
Community and the Social Networks of Gay Black Men

The gay black community in Harlem is made up of people of all socioeconomic classes, all age groups, and several religions. It is not formally structured or institutionalized, nor is it geographically discrete or stable in membership. People are connected to each other through a series of interdependent social networks and through participation in gay social events or institutions (see chap. 4).

The interrelated social networks of gay men in Harlem may each comprise between twenty and sixty members, including gay and non-gay friends, lifelong neighborhood contacts, business acquaintances, church affiliates, and kinship members. People of all ages and both genders are represented in each social network. They all come together to socialize, celebrate family events, and provide financial and emotional support in times of need.

However, each informant named a close circle of gay friends as the most frequently contacted people within his social network. Most of these people were seen or talked to daily, or at least several times a week. Such close gay members of each individual's social network become his "family" and are accorded familial titles. In this manner, everyone is related to someone else, by fictive kin relationships. These gay men socially construct such a "family" as a metaphor for the entire gay black community.


53

Social Networks

In Harlem, I have found social networks of family and friends that comprise all sorts of people, both men and women, of all ages, each contributing in different ways. The heterogeneity of these networks extends Stack's (1974) model beyond welfare-dependent women to include all people in the black community.

Because I focus here on gay black men, the social networks I map are male-centered. Men appear to contribute disproportionately, each network having a core of gay black men engaged in reciprocal exchange of money and good deeds. However, these networks also contain men and women, kin and non-kin, gay and non-gay members.

All of the informants in this study socialize almost exclusively in Harlem.[1] They patronize gay bars and clubs, especially later at night and on the weekends. They also go to "mixed" bars, to cabarets and jazz clubs, to the movies or the Apollo, or, most often, visit friends, gay and non-gay, in their homes, to eat, drink, and play cards.

Most of my informants have large social networks that include at least twenty or more people with whom they interact several times a week. Almost all of these people also live in Harlem, some hanging out in the same "scene" or going to the same church. Many are friends from the same block or building where they grew up. The men met most of their gay friends in their social networks through school or college, or in the social institutions of the gay scene. Some met friends in church.

These social networks have very little formal structure in their membership or in the types of activities they inspire. Attempts to organize these gay men into structured social and political clubs have not been successful, yet they do support Harlem-wide, and citywide, black gay organizations.

The personal networks of the different gay men I interviewed are indeed typical of the networks of most urban dwellers. They comprise both family members and friends, on two levels: close gay friends as an inner core group, and a larger group including kin and other friends surrounding the core.[2] This is not typical of many mainstream (white) gay men in New York City, who by and large live apart from their consanguineous kin in other cities or states.[3] However, although many gay black men are immigrants to the city, their networks often


54

include a wide range of consanguineous kin who are "close" and in frequent contact. Louis compares his black kin to the kin of white people.

LOUIS : Part of the problem is that they are cut off too. I mean if I need something and I can't quite make it then I know my Mama's gonna help me. Or my brother. Or even one of my cousins. But when white folks have children, they lose touch with all the rest of their families. You know, they have to make it on their own. Not us. We got fierce family for that.

The social networks of these black men are usually established early in life and encompass not only close kin, odd distant kin members, fictive kin, neighbors, and former school friends but also friends made in the course of social and work lives.

In Harlem, each network includes gay and non-gay relatives, friends, neighbors, and most notably gay men of different socioeconomic classes.

CLEVELAND : These boys are alright. They don't have the background, you know, to do no better. But they alright. Mostly they honest and they do anything for you. I'd rather have them as friends than half those pretentious sissies.

Because the social networks cut across class lines, they differ from the type of network Stack (1974) has described. One result of this is that more financial resources are available here in each network because so many members are employed in well-paying jobs. Rather than an adaptive response to survival problems, these networks appear to be a common cultural phenomenon in black society, embracing all types of people in differing socioeconomic groups.

These men have maintained some sort of contact over the years even with friends who have moved away.

LIONEL : I ain't seen Bee for some years, since his lover took him over to the Bronx. But his mother lives on my block, so I always hear what theys up to. You do that now. Now this epidemic thing is here. You just like to know where everyone is, y'know.

Two years ago, Willis heard that Frankie, a good friend from high school and disco days, had passed away from a drug overdose. He hadn't seen Frankie either in several years, but when Willis heard about his death, he visited Frankie's mother to extend his condolences.

WILLIS : Man, when I walked up inside there, it was like goin' back to school. All the old gang was there. D—— and W—— and R——. They was all there.


55

I just started to cry. We talked and talked. All about the old days. Now that's not that long ago, mind you. But you know, back in the early seventies, when disco was just startin'. We used to all go out together and hang out at the Loft and the Flamingo and shit. We had big fun. Man, I miss them days. They all gone now. I often wonder where all those crazy people went. All those wild people from those days. Most of them probably gone too. Too much drugs. And too much sex.

Thus the social networks that most of these men have developed throughout Harlem provide not only a variety of social events to attend, such as birthday parties and card games, but also the financial and emotional support that are so much a necessity of life in New York City. Those whose incomes are not substantial or who have nearby friends, neighbors, and especially family members whose incomes are insignificant are all tied together in a network of mutual support.[4]

Several of the men in this community are single parents raising between one and four children. In networks comprising their lovers, other single gay parents, sometimes male and female non-gay kin, and always other single gay men, these fathers are able to maintain their full-time employment and their apartments and raise and educate their children. These black men are employed, educated (40 percent had attended college), rent or own their own homes (and 20 percent own cars), were raised largely by both of their own parents or one parent and a kin member of the opposite sex, and maintain close and regular ties to their churches.

Willis and Son

Since he gave up work, Willis struggles from welfare check to welfare check. He says he misses the regular wages, which he earned while employed on Wall Street. Now on welfare in order to stay home and take care of his son, he misses the freedom that his salary gave him to pay for odd luxury items that made life worthwhile. Now he carefully budgets his money to cover rent and food. But unexpected expenses do arise, such as when his son gets ill or needs new shoes or a winter jacket.

Willis's paternal grandmother and an older, single brother live nearby, and they will baby-sit for him or, if their budgets permit,


56

"lend" him ten or twenty dollars: "They knows I take care of my kid. They can see I'm not wastin' my money." His mother and sister live in the Bronx, and he visits with them now and then, baby-sitting for them, having meals with them, and generally keeping in touch, "'cause you never know when you need them."

Willis also has two girlfriends from school days, both single parents living in Harlem, for whom he also baby-sits. One of them works, and she pays him a few dollars for baby-sitting during the week. On weekends they all take turns "covering" for each other so that they can have some free time. Willis's ex-lover also lends a hand financially when he can. He's a student in college. Willis also has two single male friends, one gay and one non-gay, who take him and his son out to the movies or the beach, which Willis says helps him out mentally: "They give me a break. A chance to get out of the neighborhood. Away from all this madness."

Willis says that raising a child is a full-time occupation, and sometimes he gets sick of it. But he knows that in the future he will have someone there for him. Men in Willis's life have been irregular features, and his two attempts to settle down with women have ended disastrously. His son's mother is currently wandering the streets on crack. Willis says she is pregnant again, and he would like to adopt the child to give his son a real brother. Baby-sitting and sharing meals and the little cash that comes their way are the main activities that tie Willis and his gay friends and kin together.

Byron's Family

Byron is likewise tied into a network of friends for financial and emotional support. He, his eldest son, his family members, and his single gay friends, who lend him financial and emotional support, are all employed. The ease with which money flows into Byron's family, as well as the extraordinary child-care support Byron receives from kin and non-kin, is typical of most of the social networks I mapped.

Byron has been raising his four children by himself for over ten years now. His eldest son works with him in his newly established catering business. Byron works five nights a week as a chef in a restaurant in Harlem and has begun to cater for private parties in the


57

neighborhood. His son helps prepare and serve the food. The other three children are still in high school. He has them in after-school programs at the YMCA in Harlem, where one son is in a drama club and the other two children are involved in sports.

An unmarried brother who lives in the neighborhood often stops by in the evenings to take care of the children. He is a schoolteacher and helps them with their homework. Byron hopes that the three children in school will all attend college. Byron's mother also lives close by and lends a hand taking care of the children. She played a significant role in their upbringing, cooking and making clothes for them, and taking them to church when they were younger.

Byron's two best friends, Edward and Nate, who are also gay, often look after the children and take them to concerts and the park. The children like their "uncles," who, they say, spoil them. Although Byron has always been financially independent, he says that he could not have maintained a decent family life for the children without the support of his family and friends.

Cleveland's Buddies

Unencumbered single gay men are also involved in social networks for support or to lend assistance. Some help raise their sisters' children,[5] often living with them, and even help finance the education of nieces and nephews, younger siblings, or other gay men. Most single gay men help other gay men who need financial or emotional support in times of difficulty, such as illness or temporary unemployment.

Cleveland's social network includes mostly gay men. Except for a brother and sister, and her husband, who live in the Bronx and whom he sees once every few months, everyone with whom he interacts, even friends from work, is gay. He lives by himself but has a lover, Randy, and together they entertain gay friends at Cleveland's home. They have gay friends over for dinner after church on Sundays, and sometimes during the week they will invite friends over to watch a movie or play cards.

Through the bar scene, which plays an important role in Cleveland's social life, he has met most of the men in this study at one time or another. He maintains close ties with Shawn and his lover,


58

Lee, who often accompany him and Randy to dance socials and church dinners and picnics. Cleveland's closest friend is Orville, whom he had met at church. They meet two or three times a week at each other's homes for dinner. Orville "ain't usin' " the bar scene, so Cleveland makes a special effort to keep in touch with "the old soldier." At a bar or at a dance social, Cleveland regularly sees Carl, whom he knows from South Carolina; Hamilton, a dancer; his Zodiac soul mates Roman and Nate, whom he met at the bars; and others whom he met at church. His network also includes friends from his immediate neighborhood, a group that includes two or three hustlers. He often provides these men with shelter and, in return, has them do household tasks. All of these men have dinner at Cleveland's quite regularly and accompany him and Randy to other social events such as drag shows, talent contests, and dances. When Roly asked Cleveland to bring some friends to his birthday bash at a rented community hall, Cleveland called on six friends from this group to accompany him and actually ended up with a troupe of ten.

Cleveland is a financially independent man. He is well known in the community as one of its wealthier members. He owns property in New York and down South and is a substantial investor. "He's a financial wizard," says Hamilton, who depends frequently on his best friend for financial aid ("up to $3,000 a year").

Hamilton is a dancer and choreographer who has had some major successes in his career. As he becomes older, he dances less with the companies he once freelanced with and has been trying to establish his own company. But in New York City the competition is tough not only in the dance world but also in the area of black arts. Twenty years ago, he remembers, money was readily available for black artists, but today there are "too many with their hands out" and not enough continuous support. He has known Cleveland for many years, ever since the latter first came to Harlem.

Occasionally Cleveland will write a check for Hamilton, to pay his electric bill or his rent. Most of the time, but not always, Hamilton pays him back. Sometimes, when Cleveland suspects that Hamilton is down about something, he'll slip him a few dollars to buy a drink or something to smoke. Often Hamilton will pass some of this money on to Andy, a gay friend from the neighborhood who has fallen on hard times after losing his job as a building superintendent. Andy now hustles in the gay bars in Harlem, mainly to get somewhere to sleep so that he does not have to go back to the shelters. He also gets dona-


59

tions from Cleveland directly, and this is why Hamilton does not mind sharing Cleveland's gifts with him.

Hamilton's parents still live in Harlem, and he visits them occasionally but feels he cannot rely on them for support at his age, forty-three, and because his three sisters depend on their help to raise their children. Hamilton is particularly close to one of these sisters, and he sometimes houses her and her son to help her through a "rough patch."

Cleveland also helps Carl, since he was raised by Carl's parents down South. Carl works nights as a postal worker and lives with his ex-wife and their two children, whom he helps to raise. Unfortunately, a serious problem with drugs eats up his paychecks and his wife frequently throws him out of the house. "That's when uncle [Cleveland] becomes real important," he says. Carl will stay a few days with Cleveland, until he can persuade his wife to let him come back. He is close to his children, as is Cleveland, who often sends money to the wife to buy clothes for them. Cleveland says that he looks after Carl not only because he comes from the same town in South Carolina but because, no matter what, he always turns up at work. "He makes an honest effort. I only wish he'd get off them drugs."

"Miss Donny"

Some men in this gay community in Harlem do come from "broken homes," from single-parent families, or from families that are welfare-dependent. Some of these men who are openly gay, even in the yards of their projects, and who are frequently out of work will hustle their sexual favors. Some of them depend on their social networks of gay friends for "coins" to buy drinks, cigarettes, or meals. Some seek shelter, but most are housed with kin or other gay men.

Donny is a "gay godmother," as he calls himself. He buys meals for many of the unemployed hustlers, who address him as "Miss Donny." He always offers them drinks and cigarettes in the bar and has admitted treating them to hotel rooms occasionally, always denying any sexual content in the relationships. He does have his own home and a lover. Donny's generosity is also known to extend to his close gay


60

friends: he has paid Barry's rent on many occasions, as the latter's low-paying job does not suffice. Donny says he does not mind helping his friends make ends meet, because they are the best friends in the world: "We don't want for nothing. Wilson and I have a nice home. Mother's set up nice. So why not share it?" Donny works as an insurance agent, travels all over the country frequently, and makes a lot of money (between $50,000 and $75,000 per year). He holidays every year in the Caribbean, where Aruba is his favorite island. One year he took Colin, the barman, down "to the islands" on an all-expenses-paid holiday.

Louis's Kith and Kin

Louis maintains close, at least weekly, contact with his mother and his three sisters. He is supporting his youngest sister through college. He attends all the birthday celebrations of his nieces and nephews and never forgets a baptism or a graduation. He is also in daily contact with three of his neighbors, who know he and Paul are lovers. One of them is an elderly lady, and sometimes he will pick things up for her at the store. He also keeps in contact with an elderly couple down on 140th Street, where he grew up. They are the grandparents of one of his elementary school friends, whom he also sees periodically.

Living in the neighborhood where he grew up, Louis is constantly running into old schoolmates. A couple of girls he attended high school with live nearby with their husbands and children. Sometimes he and Paul go to their homes for dinner or to play cards, and sometimes they attend neighborhood socials together. Louis also socializes with gay friends he has met at college and thereafter. Sherman, one of the respondents in this study, is an old gay friend of Louis's from high school. During college years at gay bars and discos, Louis made friends with Demond, Shawn, Harry, and Jerome, all of whom he socializes with at least once a week in the gay bars or at card games. All of these gay friends, as well as his non-gay friends and family members, know one another and share different social events with each other. More recently, Louis has befriended Quint, Darrell, Quincy, and Freddy, who are younger gay men. They socialize with Louis and Paul at least once a week, usually in the bars. In fact, Louis


61

and Paul are helping Freddy complete his high school equivalency diploma.

Much of the socializing with their gay friends occurs in the gay bars in Harlem and at jazz clubs, talent shows (where Louis sings), and dance socials. Again, this network of friends exemplifies the heterogeneity of the membership of the social networks of gay black men in general. Louis's loyalty, and financial and other assistance, extends beyond his immediate family to his lover's family, neighbor, former gay and non-gay school friends, and to his many friends in the gay community. Within the network of his gay friends are men from a variety of socioeconomic groups.

Community Organization

Because each individual constructs around himself a social network of different members, no two networks are exactly alike and the opportunities for leaders to emerge in the community are rare. Moreover, since the community lacks political organization, no structured leadership positions have evolved.

Some people, like Cleveland and Louis, are well-known members of the gay community in Harlem because of their regular attendance at social events and presence in social institutions. Their charismatic personalities may also be a drawing card, but generally it is their other qualities—such as artistic talent or occupation—that attract a wide circle of friends to them and give them some social clout. For example, Louis, Francis (a popular entertainer), Colin (a barman), or Thurman (a millionaire socialite in Harlem at large) can easily whip up a large group of people for a benefit concert or to support a talent show participant. Likewise, they have no difficulty selling tickets for dances or boat rides, as people flock to them to be in their social set.

However, the large citywide gay black social clubs (really select members-only committees) that exist for the organization of social events do provide individuals with the opportunity to become especially respected members of the community, if not leaders. Membership on these committees is by invitation only, and invitees are carefully screened. To be a member of one of these organizing committees attracts a lot of prestige not only within the gay community in


62

Harlem but also among black gay people throughout the metropolitan area.

Clarence is one such select member. He engages a large following out of my informant network for his club's social events. He is a quiet, unassuming man, but his social position does give him some clout. He has been known to have people barred from clubs, and his support for a benefit or charity or a local political candidate can influence the way people act or vote. Clarence's social network in the gay community in Harlem is quite extensive and stretches across most social classes and a number of geographically distinct neighborhoods.

The gay black community has no organizational or institutional base save for the gay social clubs, bars, and special social events (see chap. 4). Rather, it is built on the social networks of its members, who are linked together in fictive or real kin relationships into the symbolic "family" that includes all gay men in Harlem.

Fictive Kin

All of my informants' social networks include friends as well as consanguineous kin. These friends may be from the same town down South or long standing neighbors who live in the same building. More often than not, single gay men become "family" members of the extended kin networks of established gay friends.

CLIFTON : When I arrived here [from Jamaica] Adrian and Carter just took me in. They had me over to dinner a couple of times, and before I knew it, their cousins and aunts were asking me to parties and dinners. They've been so good to me. Just like real brothers.

Absorbing strangers into the kin group exemplifies the black concept of family, which extends to include all other black folks. This model, applied within the gay community, includes all gay friends and especially those new in town.

HAYWARD : A—— and his friends have taken me all over the city. They've shown me where to shop and where to look for men. Honey, I couldn't'a made it in New York without them. His mother even took me to her church. Now she has me goin' to Atlantic City with her and her sisters.

It is in this context that the use of kin terms for close gay friends becomes apparent. Most of my informants referred to friends or


63

neighbors by kinship terms. Carl often calls Cleveland "uncle" because Cleveland was a close friend of Carl's parents in their hometown in South Carolina and because he acts as a role model for Carl within the gay world. Such "fictive kin" terms and the relationships they stand for have been claimed as a distinctly black cultural trait.[6] However, fictive kin are also found in other urban communities and in many other, non-black cultures.[7] Gay society provides a good example.[8] The gay expressions "family" for members of the gay community, "sisters" for close gay friends, and "mother" and "daughter" for especially close friends are used by gay men the world over.[9] However, gay men in Harlem probably use these terms for close friends because the model for an extended "family" of fictive kin is already established in black culture.[10]

Gay black men also use familial labels such as "mother" for non-gay friends: an older aunt or female neighbor, for example, who has played a role in the individual's socialization. "Uncle" designates an older man, sometimes also gay, who had been a role model when the individual was younger. In fact, most older friends are affectionately addressed as "uncle" or "aunt."

BARRY : Aunt A——. She's not my real aunt. Not really. She just a neighborhood girlfriend of my mother's. But I like her so much when I was a kid. We'd always be up in her house. She was like a second mother to me.

This practice shows how the social construction of gay black culture lies at the intersection of both gay and black cultures. Among groups of gay men in the community, for example, the black expression "cousin" is used to define some fictive kin relationship between gay and non-gay male aquaintances who have come from the same building, block, or school in Harlem or who share the same political or religious orientation. Thus the metaphor of "family" is extended beyond the boundaries of the gay community to link the gay population to the larger "family" network that encompasses the entire black community.

Community as "Family"

Personal social networks are the backbone of the gay community in Harlem. It is through these networks that notices


64

about social events, community news, and gossip travel and that support is mustered in times of need. Dance socials and boat rides organized by the major citywide black gay social clubs are advertised through the networks. News of illness or death is disseminated through them. Invitations to dinner parties, card games, talent contests, birthday parties, or fundraisers are issued through personal contacts in the networks. At any of these types of gatherings, or at any of the social institutions important to gay men in Harlem, such as the bars and jazz clubs, these personal gay social networks come together, allowing people to renew acquaintances and to locate others in the wider social scene that forms the gay community.

The ways in which gay men in Harlem construct this community make them feel they belong to a group of people who share the same aspirations, sense of security, friendships, and sexual preferences as themselves.[11] Gay black men in Harlem refer to their community, this collection of interrelated social networks, as their "family." This conceptualization enhances the emotional meaning of their membership in the group, or gay community, and is expressed verbally by the members in the use of kinship terms for each other. "Mother," "sister," "brother," "aunt," "uncle," "cousin," "husband," and "children" are all commonly used to indicate the status of an individual in the gay community or the fictive kinship relationship between the speaker and another person. The sense of belonging to such a family invokes a loyalty to other members of the gay population. This loyalty is comparable to the loyalty expressed toward real kin and kinship groups in Harlem.

One of the times this loyalty is most evident is at a funeral. On a wet Friday morning, Louis called me: "Miss Francis gone, honey!" When Francis passed away, some confusion reigned as to how to dress him for his "final performance." Francis had been singing in drag around the country for thirty-five years and had a wide following with gay black men and other non-gay supporters of drag in many cities. This was evidenced by the large number of people who attended the funeral who had flown, bused, or driven to New York to pay their respects.

The wake the evening before the funeral filled the small funeral director's chapel and overflowed onto the street. Much attention was drawn to this huge crowd of men, some most obviously in drag. At the same time, the Baptist church next door was holding a revival. Busloads of southern women dressed in white and bearing huge hats


65

mixed with the drag queens on the sidewalk. Some of these ladies entered the funeral home to see the "famous jazz singer."

The wake continued with food and drinks at Francis's apartment, all through the night until the 10:00 funeral service the next morning. The small Baptist church was filled to overflowing. Approximately four hundred people attended, demonstrating the strength of the "family." The service stretched over three hours to accommodate all the tributes from friends, neighbors, family members, and fellow drag performers from Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, and Birmingham. A prominent Baptist preacher from a large church uptown came to lead the service. Almost all of the 156 informants from this study were in attendance, even though many had difficulty getting time off from work. "I ain't gonna miss this show for nothing," Louis told me. "[Paul's] got the [video] camera and we're gonna record this one. I know these girls are gonna carry on. Just their drag. It's gonna be fierce."

Both Louis and Paul left work to attend. They secured seats inside the church for me and a few others. The most dramatic moment came when, a half-hour into the service, an older man in drag entered the church and, fanning himself, slowly approached the open casket. As the choir sang, he draped himself across the casket and wailed, "Sister, sister, if only I could talk to ya, one more time!"

Summary

Gay men in Harlem are linked together in social networks of friendship and support. Regular employment and the redistribution of large sums of money between men in these networks are features of urban gay black social networks that we do not see in earlier models of social networks of female-centered households. In fact, the contribution of men to other men, and to women and children, in the social networks I found in Harlem is quite substantial, crossing class lines and even reaching beyond the gay community.

The members of these social networks are interrelated (through membership) and interdependent (socially, financially, and emotionally), leading to the formation of a community. Enhancing this sense of community, and a loyalty to its membership, is the symbolic construction of "family" as a metaphor for that community. This family


66

finds its expression in the classification of members into kinship statuses and in the relationships of interdependency between members.

It is at major social events and in the social institutions of gay life in Harlem that the symbolic construction of gay community in Harlem is most evident. Social network members meet their "sisters" and "mothers" at bars and clubs, at dinner parties, and in church, thereby reaffirming their membership in the social network, their family, and the gay black community. In fact, the bars and jazz clubs are where gay black culture finds its most open public expression.


67

3— "One Big Family": Community and the Social Networks of Gay Black Men
 

Preferred Citation: Hawkeswood, William G. One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6t1nb4dd/