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/


 
4— "Close to Home": The Organization of the Gay Scene in Harlem

4—
"Close to Home":
The Organization of the Gay Scene in Harlem

In Harlem, a discrete gay society exists, although it is integrated to some degree with the surrounding city, especially economically, and its members do participate in mainstream black and gay social activities. Yet it has all the attributes of any other subculture in the city: its own residential membership, its own social institutions, its own calendar of social and cultural events, its own folklore and cultural heroes. The community is even in the process of establishing its own historical archives. But the chief feature of the community is the "scene," a variety of public places where gay men meet and spend their leisure time.

The social lives of gay men in Harlem are played out in this public arena that is physically integrated with the neighborhood in which they live. Unlike the gay scenes in most urban settings, in Harlem the gay scene is located "close to home." This proximity to family and lifelong, non-gay friends and neighbors has special significance for these gay men. Many of them do not conceal their gay identity and lead openly gay lives alongside their families. Their gay lifestyle is integrated into their daily lives in Harlem: in the gay scene in downtown Harlem and in the churches, libraries, theaters, jazz clubs, and other social organizations of mainstream Harlem society. The focal points for the expression of gay culture in Harlem, however, are the exclusively gay social institutions: the gay bars, the gay bathhouse, the jazz clubs, which feature gay artists and gay talent contests, the


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dances, the boat rides, the drag balls, the private parties, and the card games. Of these, the most important are the gay bars.

The Gay Bars

Gay bars in Harlem are places to go to find and enjoy the company of other gay black men, to meet and make new friends, to give and receive news, to talk and gossip, to relax, to drink or "smoke" (reefer), to find out where the parties are, or to "score." Because many gay men live alone, boredom and loneliness are the two most frequently expressed motivations for patrons coming to the bars during the week. The desire to relax and to find a sex partner are also common reasons.

On weekends, most of the patrons use the bar as a place to gather with friends before going to dinner, a party, the theater, or the movies, or before heading downtown to a disco, to other gay bars, or out "cruising." Often friends meet after going out for dinner or attending the theater,[1] after a dance social or a boat ride, after work or school, after shopping, or after church on Sundays. Essentially, the attraction for men who frequent the bar scene is the company of like spirits: the presence of other gay black men.

In the gay bars in Harlem, the atmosphere is even more electric than in the cruise bars downtown on Christopher Street. They are louder, brighter, full of movement and laughter. Yet as one gets familiar with them, they become more sociable, warmer, more human, "more real," as Donny would say.

Mickey's Place

Mickey's Place, a small bar uptown on Sugar Hill, looks like any other storefront: an awning across the sidewalk, a locked door three steps down from the pavement, and a large window across the front.

By midnight one Friday in January the small bar area was crowded: full of gesticulating men in heavy coats, continuous conversation, and the soft crooning of Billie Holiday on the jukebox in the back room. A


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row of older regulars occupied the barstools and chatted with Murphy, the barman, and one of the bargirls.[2] Each one of these patrons gathered around them a circle of friends, usually younger gay men. The gossip and repartee were ceaseless. Frequently a seated patron called out to an acquaintance seated farther down the bar and bellowed some reference to "girlfriend's" hairdo or "garments." The language deteriorated to name-calling, and the insults intensified until someone's mother was (jokingly) insulted. Such "contests" resulted in rounds of drinks being purchased, much laughter, and a reshuffle of the standing population.

At Mickey's Place there is seating at the bar for only about a dozen people and not too much room behind them for groups to assemble. But at the back of the bar area a small portico gives way to a large, dark, smoke-filled back room, where small groups of friends sit around tables, waited on by the barman, "conversatin' " quietly and smoking reefer. A gentle atmosphere prevails in the back room, even though the babble of the front bar is clearly discernible.

Occasionally someone will get up and move from the back room into the bar area. Sometimes someone will venture into the back room from the bar, only to beat a hasty retreat on realizing that no one is visible in the unlit room. Ambrose did so one night. He had been drinking downtown on 125th Street for some hours before "twirling on into" Mickey's Place around midnight. He "served" the "girls" at the bar some great "data" and proceeded into the darkness through the portico. Two or three steps in, he accidentally tripped over a table and ended up in the lap of a much younger man, Cameron. Cecil's voice was easily identified as he screamed for "ha ta git offa ma man!" In the half light shining through the portico, one could see young Cameron's embarrassment. Ambrose is not so tall, but he is a little rotund. And, of course, he made a great fuss in the few moments he enjoyed Cameron's lap. The entire back room launched into hysteria, so that one gained the impression hundreds of people were sitting right there in the dark.

Gilbert joined Harry, Wallace, and Roger, who had preceded him uptown by cab. Gilbert, who works for the Housing and Urban Development Department downtown, heads straight for the bars after work every night. He knows he can while away the time, seeing his friends as they come by and catch up on the "tea." Gilbert has a younger roommate to help defray the high rent he has to pay in his new apartment, but they do not get along all that well. Gilbert had


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hoped that a roommate would be company for him so that he could stay home more often, not spend so much money, and not be tempted to sleep around.

GILBERT : That temptation is strong. Jesus, keep me near the cross! Some of these boys are so cute. I love to play with them. Y'know, joke around with them in the bar. And I would love to take some of them home. But now you think twice about it. You know. You don't want to touch them really. You don't know where they been. And there ain't much left around that's my age. They all settled down. Or dead and gone.

Gilbert had a lover through much of his twenties, but the man left him for one of Gilbert's close friends. He runs into them often and "gets upset by it." Since their breakup ten years ago, Gilbert has been hanging out in the bars in Harlem and spending time with friends. He rarely meets anyone whom he would really like to date but does have a couple of young men he takes home for sex.[3]

GILBERT : I been seein' Roger and Wendell for years. They all right. I know them well. They're always in there [the bar]. I guess we're friends. I do spend a lot of time with them. And they good too. They do things for me. Go to the store, and help me fix things at home. So I don't mind them comin' home now and then. Just sometimes, y'know. Every now and then.

Harry and Wallace were friends from school days, had been raised in the same neighborhood, and had been "running buddies" (hanging out together) ever since. Wallace, at thirty-six, was still in search of the right man but had succumbed to the comfort of good friends in the bar circuit. He and Gilbert spend many evenings together commiserating over lost loves and bemoaning the lack of "real men" (potential lovers) about town.

Harry was a lot more adventurous. He was well connected in the underworld and a favorite with all the hustlers. He often provided the dope on a night out and could be seen almost always surrounded by a group of eager friends, like Wallace, Barry, or Roman, and always by some of the hustlers: Larry, Herbie, and Darnell had all been school friends or acquaintances of his, with whom he still kept in touch. In the often dangerous streets of Harlem at night, these hustlers formed a network of protection around many of my informants. In the scene, if any of the other gay men got into arguments or fights on the street, a group of hustlers always appeared to help out.

HARRY : These boys can make the difference between surviving out here and not. If I didn't know them, I wouldn't be alive now. I'm sure of that. The


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times they've helped me out, y'know. So I do them a favor once in a while. Buy them a drink. Share a joint. Occasionally I'd take them home. Y'know. Feed them. Wash them up. Let them get a good night's sleep. They're family, y'know. They've been around these streets with me. They grew up with me. They're like brothers to me. And they do take care of me.

Harry has a well-paying job as an office supervisor for a supermarket chain which enables him to maintain the hectic social schedule he pursues in and around Harlem. He attends all the social functions that attract a gay crowd and supports gay friends in talent contests and drag shows. He loves to dance and "used to do all those big old discos downtown. But they're all gone now. So I just stay close to home." His roommate is a dancer, and he helps support him as he struggles to establish his own dance company.

Wallace, who works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, shares an apartment with a co-worker who is also gay. His roommate has a lover in Jersey, so he spends his weekends there. Wallace doesn't mind, because it leaves the place quiet for him, and it means he can come and go at all hours of the day and night.

Usually Wallace and Harry leave Mickey's Place around six or seven on a Saturday morning, take in breakfast at M&G's (a restaurant on 125th Street), and go on home as the sun rises. Most of the evening at Mickey's Place is spent talking about people's pasts and gossiping about different people who wander in and out of the back room. Sometimes plans are laid for forthcoming dances. On this particular evening, Harry decided that he would go uptown to purchase the tickets, and everyone would reimburse him later. So at midnight he left.

Roger then took center stage. Wallace and Gilbert started teasing him about getting too old to hustle and too well known to be exciting or trusted. Gilbert remarked, "Ain't none of us want you for a husband, honey." The exchange was resolved when Roger said that he'd rather marry a woman than either of them, because "I knows what you like. I done had you already." Then he got up and visited another table. Such insults, almost ritual in gay repartee, appear to be confined to very close friends within the gay population.[4]

The laughter attracted Barry, Gilbert's best friend and former roommate. Some dispute over rent had split the two up years ago, but, when their respective lovers left them, they turned to each other for support. "I always complain about him, I know," Gilbert remarked. "He is hopeless with his money. I guess he needs someone


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to take care of him. But he's a good pal. I wouldn't want anything to happen to him." In these bars, the night passes away filled with stories of past sexual conquests, gossip about prominent black entertainers, and name-dropping. During this particular evening, Earl dropped by the table and talked about his piano playing for Aretha Franklin, and Francis told about the time he sang a medley with Ruth Brown at the Baby Grand Club. Fenton passed by, handing out flyers advertising his fashion show the following Thursday evening at a studio in midtown. At thirty-six, his career as a fashion designer was just beginning to take off in the fashion world, and this was to be his first big media-covered event. Door charges, and the fact that the event was downtown, would probably discourage most of this uptown crowd from supporting him. But all would eagerly await news of his success.

Harry returned to Mickey's Place about 2:00 A.M. and distributed the tickets. He brought Carson with him. They had met on the street, and because Carson was so high, Harry thought it best to bring him inside. Harry later told me, "That child's a mess. She's always out there cruising those straight boys. They'll hurt her. We'll be reading about her in the news."[5] When interviewed, Gilbert concurred: "Oh, it ain't the first time. She been through it all before. I remember the time she got arrested." Apparently, Carson had been accidentally caught up in a street fight between two men and had ended up in a jail cell overnight, until he had calmed down enough for the police to understand his protest. Although he knew one of the men intimately and had been walking with him when he was attacked, Carson refuses to acknowledge him anymore, and he no longer ventures into the same neighborhood. He opines that it is dangerous to love "such boys."

CARSON : You best off not even dealin' with them. You know you're in trouble from the minute you meet them. They won't let you go. Nowhere. They follow you everywhere. Now, I don't mind someone being all jealous over me. That's kinda nice. But if you want to finish it up, you are in trouble deep."[6]

Around 4:00 A.M. Gilbert announced that he was hungry, and almost everyone else at the table agreed. Harry stepped out to call a cab to take them down to 125th Street and get breakfast before calling it a night. The farewell procedure lasted some thirty minutes as they said goodnight to friends at other tables in the back room and then to friends seated at the bar. Francis, who was dressed in drag, made the biggest fuss, jokingly calling out to the few hustlers


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seated around the bar, and to other unknown clientele, that they were leaving unattended, and did anyone fancy this one or that. His deep, booming voice, coupled with the sexual innuendo, caused much laughter. However, no one took him up on the offer as he escorted his friends out the door and into the freezing morning.

These comings and goings highlight the bar as the focus of gay social life in Harlem.[7] Of course, they are also key institutions in the socialization process of becoming gay. All of my informants noted the importance of the gay bar to them as they came out, not only as a safe haven away from family and mainstream society but also as a place where one could learn about being gay. The bars are integrated, stable institutions that operate almost as "living rooms" for this community.[8] The bar becomes a second home for this family of gay men.

Pete's Paradise

Other proof of the importance of the gay bar to the social life of gay men in Harlem is revealed on special occasions. The bars attract large crowds on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, as friends gather to socialize. But on a major holiday eve, these bars are packed tight with patrons from all over Harlem. Many are men who rarely venture into the scene. Of course, all of the regular clientele appear. As Louis notes, "I spend Christmas with my folks. But New Year's is mine. I always spend New Year's Eve with my girlfriends. I'm usually at [Pete's Paradise]."

By 9:00 P.M. on New Year's Eve, 1987, one of the most popular gay bars in Harlem was already crowded.[9] After being buzzed through the door,[10] patrons were confronted with a huge Christmas tree, covered in lights, and the jukebox blaring Bing Crosby's version of "White Christmas." The interior of the bar, with red walls and ceiling, a red and black linoleum floor, and mirrors everywhere, was brighter than usual and felt very warm. The radiators were working. The room was crowded, and much energy was being expended whenever a good dance tune came on the jukebox. In fact, people danced rarely in this bar, but on this New Year's Eve everyone was "getting down."

Donny and Barry jived to an early hit of Tina Turner's, and when


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Michael Jackson burst forth, a line of guys, all the way to the back of the bar, began moonwalking.[11] Nicholas and Emmett led the field, and some of the hustlers joined in. This appeared to be the best evening in the bar for some time. A few weeks before, the bar staff had been held up twice and all the patrons were stripped of their cash and jewelry. It has taken a while for the small community who frequented the establishment to return, but New Year's Eve brought everybody out.

There also seemed to be many people from the neighborhood who rarely socialized in the scene. Roman, a Southerner who has been living in Harlem for almost thirty years, had gathered a group of friends around him. He was soon joined by Cleveland, Louis, and Paul. The group swelled as the evening pressed toward midnight, and the gossiping and singing became quite boisterous. Elaine poured everyone an extra shot, which helped to encourage the celebration. She was the favorite bartender of all of my informants who drank at this tavern and always knew the latest news about any of her "fans," as she called the clientele. She was reliable when it came to leaving messages for others; in fact, without her as a communications base, the entire social networks of several of these men would have collapsed. Because of the scattered nature of the gay social networks in Harlem, the staff in any bar become the actual heart of communication between friends. Messages are phoned in or dropped off, and parcels or gifts are left behind the bar. Certain of the bar staff always know where the regulars can be found at any time. Thus these individuals are nodal points of communication for many social networks, and Elaine is the most popular. Her information is always reliable, and she can be trusted to convey messages accurately. As Cleveland noted, she is well tipped for her service. On her birthday in August, when she provided bottles of champagne for her favorite patrons, the crew served up plates of food along the bar.

Before midnight on New Year's Eve, Elaine was at it again. She lined up a dozen champagne glasses along her portion of the bar and filled them with an expensive bubbly. These were passed to selected fans, in preparation for the New Year's toast. By midnight it was getting difficult to move in the bar. It was freezing cold outside, so the bar seemed even more crowded, with the clientele bulked up in heavy coats. Lester and Gerard, two older gentlemen, wore floor-length fur coats. Darnell remarked to me that they were known on the street as "the fur queens" because they were forever wearing their fur coats to church, to the bars, and even to brunch on Sundays.


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Binga arrived "feeling it." He was the "African Queen" in the community. At social gatherings he always came swathed in African cloth and chunky brooches and beads made of wood, brass, or silver. This particular evening he complemented his khaki harem pants, black woolen jacket, and black boots with a long strip of gold, green, and purple Asante cloth draped over his left shoulder. And a similarly colored kufi. Not given to socializing, Binga bought his cocktail and stood back, leaning on the "meat rack",[12] observing the colorful parade. Louis, as usual, passed comment about Binga's use of makeup: "Girlfriend won't quit with Miss Revlon!"

Those lucky enough to have seats were able to remove their coats and drape them over the backs of their stools. This further cluttered the narrow area behind the bar. But all the pushing and crowding was conducted with a grand air of congeniality. A new year was about to dawn, and it could not be worse than the last. Friends had passed, friends were ill, bars had closed, and "fag bashing" was on the rise. And this was to be a presidential election year (1988). That can make a difference in America.[13] A sense of excitement and the possibility of change always heightens the air of expectancy that a New Year's Eve brings. Suddenly, Thurman, the head barman, screamed "Happy New Year!" at the top of his voice, and the crowd began singing "Auld Lang Syne."

Spending an important event like New Year's Eve in a gay bar is a significant statement about the importance of the gay family to each of the men present. It also stresses the importance of the institutionalized settings of the gay social scene to the members of this particular community.

Other Bars and Clubs

Many gay men socialize in non-gay neighborhood bars and jazz clubs scattered up and down the avenues of Harlem. Some of these clubs have been in existence a very long time and have been referred to in the literature of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance.[14] Garber (1989) has also drawn attention to descriptions of such clubs in the works of Blair Niles and Wallace Thurman.

Gay men patronize these bars and clubs for a variety of reasons besides those cited above: non-gay clubs suit them when in mixed company, when drinking or visiting with non-gay kin, or when a favorite


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singer or jazz band is performing. Sometimes they visit a neighborhood bar because a friend works there or simply because it is close to home.

During my sojourn in Harlem, three such clubs were especially popular with my informants. One, a small, dark, neighborhood "lounge" on Lenox Avenue, was the haunt of drag queens, who on more than one occasion scored unsuspecting tricks (that is, they met men for sex without the men realizing that the queens were not women). Another was a large piano bar, which was popular with jazz aficionados and hosted guest musicians and singers, charging a cover for backroom performances by artists such as Ruth Brown and Art Blakey. Once a month this club hosted a talent contest in which some of my informants participated, and it frequently turned its stage over to groups of gay performers. Well-known drag queens from Chicago or Atlanta drew large crowds. These events would be advertised in the Amsterdam News and on flyers posted in the street. The third club, which I will call Mary's Lounge, was a small neighborhood tavern that served live jazz on the weekends to a noisy, packed-in clientele.

Mary's Lounge

After attending a poetry reading by black gay men at the Studio Museum on 125th Street, Cato and some friends "bumped on up" into Mary's Lounge. It was a freezing cold Friday night in autumn, and the windows of the bar were all steamed up. Stepping up from the street, they entered the crowded room. Cato recognized a few of the men seated at the near end of the bar. He also knew the barman, Colin, who extended his hand in welcome as Cato approached the counter to buy drinks. They briefly discussed the drag ball that Colin was helping to organize. He described his new outfit for the ball, which a fashion-designer friend had especially created for this year's pageant and drag contest. And he admonished, "You'd better be there. I'm counting on all the support I can get. I want that trip to Aruba, baby!"

Meanwhile, Cato's "friend" had located the only empty table and secured some vacant chairs. Cato and his other friends "perched" on the seats, crammed in among the dozen or so tables that covered the carpeted half of the bar. Along the other side, the leather-topped bar counter stretched to the rear of the room. All the available barstools


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were occupied, and clients stood two and three deep behind them. To the left of the entrance, a small podium housed a three-piece jazz band: a lead guitarist who sang, a keyboard player who smiled while conversing with the two or three couples attempting to dance in the entranceway, and a white drummer. Each song was greeted with enthusiastic applause and much shouting. Most of the tables were occupied by couples, men and women drinking cocktails and conversing. Many of these people appeared to be familiar with each other.

Cato, like many other gay men in Harlem, uses the bars as a meeting place for friends before or after an event such as the poetry reading or as a place to make friends. Perhaps the most important use for the bars is as a meeting place for potential sex partners or lovers "lookin' for a husband." Cato says he cannot afford to keep anyone and would prefer an older man who is financially independent, who needs a good "wife" to cook and keep house, and who may even keep him. Mary's Lounge is where he has the most success. The bar is known as a place where the older gay crowd hangs out. Cocktails are a little more expensive here, so Cato believes that the older men who drink here will have some money. Ideally they will have enough left over to spend on him. But on this particular evening Cato wanted to wind down after his performance, listen to some music, and catch up with his friends.

Tobias was standing at the bar engaged in conversation with a few friends. He looked over their shoulders and cruised Cato. Eventually he came over and introduced himself to Cato and his friends. Cato spent a couple hours discussing with Tobias and his friends his new apartment and his forthcoming collection of poetry, the first solo publication he has produced. He has long been recognized as one of the black gay community's best young poets, which makes his parents and brothers proud. One brother has attended one of the many public readings in which Cato has participated, both in Harlem and downtown in the mainstream gay community. He finds that working full-time as a health-care consultant is too time-consuming, even though the money is more than satisfactory, because he would rather devote more time to his writing. Cato has written plays in the past, although none have been performed, and would like to pursue playwriting as a career.

At only one other table sat a group of men alone, and these were gay men Cato knew from another nearby bar. One of them, Moses, came over and chatted briefly with Cato. He was entertaining friends from out of town and was awaiting members of his "gang" to join him. His "gang" consists of fellow "church girls," a group of gay


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male friends who have known each other for many years and who attend church together every Sunday at A.M.E. Zion. They often gather at a gay bar after church and await a rival group from Abyssinian Baptist, a block away. This large group of men, usually numbering between ten and twenty on any Sunday, spends the afternoon and early evening drinking cocktails and debating the relevant merits of each others' faiths. As the drinking wears on, the debating becomes more argumentative, and everybody else in the bar, including the hustlers, knows it is best to give the "girls" a wide berth, unless one is also drunk or able to withstand the loud and vitriolic abuse that is usually hurled among the debaters. On other nights of the week, when they avoid religious debate, the church girls can be convivial company. Using the bar as a meeting place after church, the church girls are able to keep in touch with friends from other churches and inform each other of church events such as picnics and conventions. Sometimes they plan to attend church reunions or revivals in the South where they or their parents had been born.

Moses had been raised in the church in Alabama and Harlem. His father had been a deacon at A.M.E. Zion, and he and his brother are among the church's strongest financial supporters. At fifty-three, he owns his own mortuary business and home and is well known in the gay community as a generous patron of the needy. He has a small select group of "boys" whom he helps support on a continuing basis, and he has a steady flow of visitors at the bar who sell him groceries, furniture, and clothing.[15] On most Sundays he hosts an after-church dinner at his brownstone, before leading the "girls" downtown to the bar on 125th Street.

This particular evening his visitors from out of town were acquaintances he had met at churches he had visited or been associated with in Washington, D.C., and Cleveland, Ohio. He has a network of church friends, mainly gay church members, across the country and frequently hosts them or holidays with them. This evening he intended to take this group of four on a tour of the gay bars in Harlem and had enlisted his best friends, Sidney and Cecil, to serve as chaperones.

Moses and the church girls are a relatively well established group of older men.[16] They are an example of the different types of men and the different socioeconomic groups that frequent the gay scene in Harlem. Through the gay social scene they come into contact with similarly diverse gay men. And through contacts made in the bars they


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extend their social networks to include gay men who may come to depend on their financial aid. "I met all o' these sissies in here," Moses commented. "It's where I met all o' my friends. If it weren't for the bars I dunno where I'd go. I wouldna have the friends I has now."

Such gatherings at the bars, especially on a weekend evening, were a typical night out for those of my informants who "worked" the bar scene. These outings often lasted until dawn.[17] During the night, one could keep in touch with one's friends, gather quite a group around oneself, and set up a party at someone's apartment. Thus the bars, gay or mixed, become the focus of the social lives of gay men who frequent the scene.

Card Games

Playing cards is a major source of entertainment in Harlem and an important focus of gay social life in Harlem. Card games provide an avenue of entertainment and participation in gay life for those gay men who do not frequent the scene. For those men who do visit the gay bars and clubs, the card games provide an alternative venue for socializing with friends.

Although some card games are casually organized during a night out, others are planned, and some are permanent dates on the calendar. While in a bar, a casual invitation to play cards is usually welcomed. It is a chance to stop barhopping yet continue partying, get something to eat, catch up on news of and from friends, and "carry on" all night.

Paul and Louis host a card game once every two weeks, on a Wednesday evening. Paul prefers bidwiss, but the group also plays Uno and 500. Louis informed me that when he first met Paul the cardplayers would meet every week, but after they moved in together, he decided that having that crowd around every week was too much.

LOUIS : I know he likes his cards. But it was too much. You get them eating you out of house and home. I mean I don't mind playing, but I used to go out and let them fend for themselves. They're growed up men. They can get their own food and shit. They used to have me runnin' around servin' drinks and shit, and all the time I'd be emptying ashtrays and cooking. I got fed up with it all. So I told Paul to carry on, but just don't expect me to run around


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after them all the time. I mean none of them invited us for dinner. Not then anyway. Now he has the same three or four each week, and they're our best friends, so I don't mind. And it's not like it's every week. So I don't mind as much.

Wilbur, Brian, and Sherman, a former school friend of Louis, are Paul's regular partners. The four have become tight friends. All drink after work at the same bar in Harlem and accompany one another, with their respective lovers or boyfriends, to major gay social events in the community. They play cards every week, every second Wednesday at Henry's and every other Sunday at Wilbur's. These regular card games provide this group of friends with a way of maintaining their close friendship away from the gay scene. During the games, the players discuss their private and business lives and seek and proffer advice.

Ambrose's Card Party

It was after midnight by the time the group of friends reached Ambrose's large and beautifully decorated apartment on 138th Street. Ambrose had inherited it from his mother who had passed away fifteen years ago. He had lived with her all his life and had been very close to her. He keeps the house much the way it was when his mother was alive. His maternal grandparents had been "society folks" when they purchased the home in the 1920s. His grandmother, "a real church woman," had a reputation as a "fierce hostess" and, as a friend of Ethel Waters, A'Lelia Walker, the Powells, and the James Weldon Johnsons, was a favorite of the formal party set in Harlem during the Renaissance years. Ambrose has collected a substantial number of photographs, both of his family and of Harlem and Harlemites during those years. These he proudly displays in small wooden frames around the walls of his "parlor," a large living room furnished with heavy Victorian armchairs and art deco fixtures, lamps, and flower stands. Heavy velvet curtains and large vases of garden flowers create an atmosphere right out of Van der Zee's photographs. Recently renovated carpeting and wallpaper maintain this 1920s look.

Three card tables were assembled in the parlor by the "boys." Harry busied himself at the bar in the dining room, while Adrian and


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Wallace helped unpack the vast tubs of fried chicken that Ambrose had purchased on the way home. Ambrose was busy in the refrigerator, hauling out trays of sweet potato pudding, macaroni and cheese, and potato salad.

Music blaring, drinks all around, and plates passed, the party got under way. Ambrose slipped upstairs to "climb into something more comfortable," and Harry began to organize the card tables. The twelve players were just the right number for three tables of bidwiss, Uno, or 500. Harry and Wallace began a game of Uno with Mitch and Adrian, while another team set up a bidwiss game. Roger and Sal vied for Ambrose's attention. Their flattering pursuit of him all evening long was the source of much entertaining repartee, especially among Ambrose's "girlfriends"—Barry, Adrian, and Clifton—who were no doubt a little jealous. Such repartee continued at each table, and even between the tables, as the victors of different hands of cards were cursed out by the losers or gossipy snipes were made about friends at another table. Clifton was especially skillful at "reading" Ambrose for the undue attention he was gleaning from Sal. Often Ambrose stood up and sashayed around the tables with his head held high and cigarette holder stretched aloft, rather than verbally acknowledge Clifton's latest retort. Such "carry on" drew quips and shrieks from everyone else as they scattered to cover the cards in their hands. The shouting and laughter, combined with the loud music, must have kept the neighbors awake for blocks around.

This particular evening, the games lasted two or three hours, until Clifton and Adrian decided they needed their rest. At that point, more food was served, Ambrose and Sal retired, and Harry took charge of the cleanup. A few players left, but others continued to play cards until dawn. Such long nights of play were frequent for many of my informants, whether they belonged to the bar scene or not. After many major social events, groups of friends would wind down playing cards, or, as on the boat rides, such games were an integral part of the day's proceedings.

Major Social Events

Many gay men in Harlem have occupations and networks of kin and friends that keep them out of the neighborhood or


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offer alternate sources of entertainment. They may visit a gay bar or a jazz club on occasion, or join a regular card game. However, they remain connected to their gay "brothers" in other ways. Their main link to the gay scene in Harlem is most likely to be one of the major social events of the gay calendar in Harlem. In other words, dance socials, the annual drag ball, or one of the several summertime boat rides will attract even those gay men who do not frequent the bars.

Large social events are organized by citywide black gay clubs. The clubs themselves have small "memberships." For example, the Good Times Club has a membership of about fifteen gay men. They serve as an organizing committee for dances and other social events. One is invited, after strict scrutiny, to join such a committee.[18] Most of the committee members are Harlem residents. More recently, three gay women have been inducted into the Good Times Club as associate members. All of these members are prominent citizens in the community, professional or business persons. When a social event is advertised by flyer or word of mouth, much clamoring ensues as the gay population vies for tickets, on sale from the committee members only.

The Dance

In a large, rented ballroom, I attended my first of many dances. I had been invited by Cleveland and Randy, in a small party they had put together to help fill one of Clarence's tables. Our party included two other couples: Timothy and Kent, and Shawn and Lee. Clarence has been a club member for many years and is a respected elder in the community. He and his lover hosted about eight tables of ten to twenty people at this particular dance. A cash bar proffered a full range of liquors, beers, and punch, but Clarence and his lover covered their guests' tables with platters of fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, banana pudding, and fresh fruit. These large tables surrounded a dance floor on which over a hundred people performed at any one time. Music was spun by "Mr. Blues," a master disc jockey. He and his two assistants played a wide range of music, mostly R&B, house,[19] and some Caribbean salsa. Occasionally they would mix in a slow tune, or a cha-cha or rhumba, which would bring out the "serious dancers." Male couples and female couples,


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most of whom arrived together or in groups of couples, danced the evening away, until the disc jockey turned down the lights and concluded with an extended fox-trot at around 2:30 A.M.

The guests at this and similar functions were always well dressed, some in suits and evening gowns, some in more recent styles and bright colors. Everyone could dance different ballroom steps. The atmosphere was congenial, and most of the people appeared to know one another. Many of them were unfamiliar to me at the beginning because they were not active in the scene in Harlem. But most lived in Harlem, or were originally from Harlem and now living in New Jersey or Brooklyn.

Orville, who recently moved to Brooklyn after retiring, has been attending the Good Times Club dances for twenty years. He also attends the Unity Club socials, which he says are similar but have an even more mixed crowd in terms of age and residence. The Unity Club committee has members from Queens, Long Island, and New Jersey, as well as Brooklyn and Harlem. Orville feels more comfortable at the Good Times Club functions because they are attended by a larger number of older men and women, friends he has known from around Harlem during the fifty years he has lived there. For men like himself who do not spend time in the scene and who do not like the bars, these dance socials are the best way to make friends and meet potential boyfriends. He noted that sex is always available in the parks and the bathhouse, but if one wants to meet someone special, the dance social is the place to be. Nowadays he attends regularly because the dances provide him with an opportunity to meet up with friends from all over the city. He regrets moving out to Brooklyn six months ago because he is so far away from his friends. But now he is living close to a niece and nephew who take care of him. He has a small apartment in Brownsville and finds life in Brooklyn more peaceful and less expensive. Besides attending the dances and other social functions these large clubs host, he visits friends in Harlem during the week and frequently attends church in Harlem, staying on for dinner at different friends' homes.

These dances have been a fixture in gay life in Harlem for forty or fifty years, according to my informants. Not only are they regarded as formal occasions, in the sense that it is time to dress up and behave properly, but they offer a chance to meet with friends in a congenial setting away from the cruising or sexually oriented social institutions of the gay scene.


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The Boat Ride

One of Orville's favorite outings is the annual boat ride organized by the Trouser League. This is the oldest of the citywide black gay social clubs and the most popular because it hosts the best-attended events and has a wide range of activities—dances, raffles, and picnics, as well as the boat rides.

Louis is a friend of the president of the league and is able to obtain a large number of tickets. Thus he can assemble a large group of friends for his table. On one ride he organized a group of twenty of us, including three friends from Washington, D.C. For weeks beforehand, Louis planned a menu and organized the rest of us to bring different dishes. For all of those attending, this outing proved expensive. Tickets were $15 to $20 a head, food and liquor had to be supplied, new clothes bought, and the whole show coordinated: this involved telephone calls, car rentals, and the purchase of special furniture and other party supplies, which then had to be delivered, initially to Henry's, then to the boat.

The night before, Louis and I went shopping for new outfits. By then the weather patterns were set and we knew what clothes would be the most comfortable for the all-day journey. As well as bringing sumptuous displays of food on elegant tableware, guests need to be properly attired in casual but fashionable clothes. An unwritten competition exists between tables as to who can outdo their neighbors for types and presentation of food, cocktails, and fashions.

Louis and Paul rented a car on the Friday evening and began loading it with the three tables for the food and cards. At 6:00 A.M. on Saturday, Louis dropped Paul off at the boat so that he could stand in line to get on board early and choose a good place to put the tables. He set the tables up at a prominent position, on the second of three floors, at the entranceway between an enclosed disco and the rear deck. A cool breeze at this location helped keep everyone fresh on the humid August afternoon. Two large tables bore the Virginia ham, ribs, fried chicken, potato salad, cold cuts, rolls, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, baked potatoes, candied yams, stuffed turkey, and every conceivable kind of liquor. A third table was placed nearby, around which Paul, Barry, Brian, and Wilbur commenced playing cards. They attracted a large group of onlookers, who replaced the original players when they wanted to take a break. Alcohol and reefer


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soothed the expanding group as others on board came to join the party. All day people strolled around the decks, visiting friends or taking in the sun and breeze on the uncovered top deck. Some spent most of the time on board dancing at two discos on different floors. Meanwhile, the boat sailed up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie before turning around and heading back to midtown Manhattan. The constant drinking and eating, from the 9:00 A.M. departure until the 6:00 P.M. return, proved a little too much for some, who lay back in their deck chairs and went to sleep.

On the return to land, Louis's guests reassembled at a bar in Harlem, viewed Polaroid photos that had been taken, and told stories of what had happened. Some of my informants in the bar who had adamantly refused to be trapped on a dayliner cruise with a whole lot of "sissies" were among the most eager to know who had said and done what on the trip, who had taken whom, and who had disembarked with whom. The description of the day's events and much analysis occupied the travelers until midnight or so, when Louis decided the car should be unpacked and everyone needed to go home, shower, and get some rest.

The significance of these social occasions can only be measured by witnessing the affirmation of gay black men's friendship networks and their pride in who and what they are. Word of mouth through the social networks of gay men ensures that this social institution is well supported. While many bemoan the long day and hard work involved, and, of course, the small fortune it costs, twelve months later they are eagerly planning the next trip.

The Drag Ball

The annual black-tie drag ball was originally inspired by the female impersonator Phil Black over fifty years ago (Garber 1989:331).[20] His name still appears on the invitations and tickets. Writing about these balls as they took place in the 1920s, Garber notes,

Drag balls, part of the American homosexual underground for decades, had developed from clandestine private events into lavish formal affairs attended by thousands. The Harlem balls in particular were anticipated with great excitement by both Blacks and Whites. The largest were annual events at the


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regal Rockland Palace, which held up to 6,000 people. Only slightly smaller were the ones given irregularly at the dazzling Savoy Ballroom, with its crystal chandeliers and elegant marble staircase. The organizers would obtain a police permit making the ball, and its participants, legal for the evening. The highlight of the event was the beauty contest, in which the fashionably dressed drags would vie for the title Queen of the Ball. (1983:12)

The drag balls still are magnificent affairs, drawing between six hundred and two thousand attendees. Both men and women participate in drag. At each ball, a competition is held. Drag queens parade on a walkway, as if in a fashion show, wearing magnificent gowns and posing before a panel of gay and non-gay judges. A Queen of the Ball is chosen, and her prizes include travel (usually to the Caribbean) and "cash dollars." Again a feast is presented, and copious quantities of alcohol are consumed. For weeks afterward, costumes and people and partners are discussed, until each year's ball becomes legendary in the folklore of the gay scene.

Harlem, like many other cities with large black populations in the United States, has a long history of drag performances, "costume balls," and famous female impersonators. Several prominent drag queens visit Harlem from time to time, performing at jazz clubs and piano bars. One of Chicago's most successful queens, "Rochelle," performed regularly at the Baby Grand on 125th Street, supported by a cast of local queens led by the infamous "Miss Ruth Brown." While there is some intermingling between the transvestite and trans-sexual drag populations and the gay population in Harlem at balls or talent shows, normally the two groups socialize apart. Usually the drag queens work the bars and streets and frequent non-gay bars to score "tricks." "Honey," Francis explained, "we need real [non-gay] men."[21] Two or three "lounges" on Lenox and Seventh avenues are favorite haunts of these queens.

Many drag queens, however, do not hang out in the bars. Most drag queens I met lived in relationships with other men and worked regular jobs. Two queens I came to know worked as doctor's receptionists, one in a hospital, the other in private practice. They described themselves as "transsexuals," and one of them held a nurse's aide certificate. By far the majority of drag queens in Harlem are transvestites who will dress in drag on the weekends or on special occasions such as the drag ball. The remainder of the time they dress and act as ordinary men.

Apart from appearances at the occasional social event, men in drag


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are rarely seen at social functions with gay men. Half a dozen drag queens frequented the gay bars during the period of this research, but most were drinking on their way to or from tricking in the neighborhood. Drag queens in Harlem, as elsewhere, have their own social institutions, which are separate from the "gay scene."

Private Parties

Another event favored by gay men which has a long history in Harlem is the "rent party" (see n.13, chap. 2). These events no longer excite the social imagination as they once did (Garber 1989:321). Today rent parties are more intimate. The invitees are well known to the host and are usually gay friends and family members. For security reasons alone, these parties are not open to the public or advertised in bars and clubs as they once were.

But private parties are the favored social event in Harlem for many gay men. These events may be a holdover from earlier days when gay social life was closeted, or at least not exercised in public. They may also be the result of earlier, more rigid class divisions in Harlem society, which we do not see so obviously today. Now parties are enjoying a renewed vigor as a result of the AIDS epidemic, which has encouraged many people to stay away from the bar scene and the drug abuse and indiscriminate sex associated with it.

In fact, according to these informants, most gay men in Harlem do not socialize in the public scene. They attend private rent, birthday, or anniversary parties, and it is here that they make friends, expand their social networks, and meet potential lovers. Admittedly, introductions into this somewhat private world are more difficult to get. Contacts are established in the home neighborhood, at school or college, in the bars, the bathhouse, downtown clubs, or the parks. Once a newcomer is initiated into the private party scene, invitations abound, helping to fill his social calendar on most weekend evenings.

Some parties are very small private affairs, others large catered events thrown in rented accommodations such as a community center hall or the common rooms in an apartment complex or the projects. Invitations to such parties are rarely printed. Usually they are issued personally and extend to any guests the invitee wishes to bring along. Thus a host can expect twenty or thirty personal invitees to result in


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two or three times that number of actual attendees. Frequently, I would be included in such group invitations and end up being a member of a party of ten or twelve people. Although food and drinks were usually supplied, guests would always take along some alcohol.

The importance of these parties lies not so much in the reasons for the particular celebration as in the fact that for most gay men in Harlem they are the primary forms of their gay social life. If most men do not frequent the public social scene, then we can assume that these parties become the focal point of the social lives of whole networks of friends.

Roly's Birthday Bash

After his birthday bash at a community center, Roly told me that he had ended up with twice as much alcohol as he had started with. His sixtieth birthday was a huge affair with a disco and live music, catered dinner, and two bars. He invited seventy-five people, gay men and lesbians, and catered for two hundred. Over 250 showed up. There was enough food and drink to go around, and the party lasted until 3:00 A.M. Although it must have cost hundreds of dollars, Roly explained that one reaches sixty only once and that this would be his last preretirement party.

Cleveland informed me that Roly has held such affairs several times in the past and that was why this particular party was so well attended. After this event, many of the guests reassembled at one of three or four gay bars in the neighborhood and continued to party until dawn. Again, many gay men at this and other parties make or renew friendships, reestablish contact with the community and its grapevine, and forge or reinforce links to the gay scene by after-party barhopping.

The Changing Scene

By now (1990) Harlem has only three or four exclusively gay bars. Many have closed because of slack attendance or from pressure exerted by neighboring businesses. AIDS, drugs, espe-


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cially crack, and the encroaching gentrification of 125th Street and "SoHar" are also cited as possible causes.[22]

Colin remembers when there were at least a dozen bars scattered up and down Lenox, St. Nicholas, Seventh, and Eighth avenues. The Big Apple and the Apollo Bar were very popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. He also recalls that at that time gay people in Harlem were enjoying some freedom, although the police would raid the bars and parks quite frequently.

COLIN : I think we get harassed more now that people know about us. This gay liberation has been good and bad. I know we've won some official respect, but these young kids on the street get over [get the better of] the gay kids all the time. Mind you, its usually nothing more than a bit of verbal abuse. You don't get the kids gettin' bashed up like down in the Village.

Two of the current bars have been situated in their present locations for some years, although under changing management and different names. Colin doubts that they will ever be closed. However, many gay people drink in or follow the jazz sessions at other bars in Harlem, so that there may be several other bars that cater to a mixed crowd at any given time.

Whether the vagaries of time or commercial whim change the setting, gay life in Harlem will persist. I am assured by my informants that although some places do go out of business from time to time, other locales emerge as gay institutions. At the time of writing, two or three other bars were becoming venues for gay socializing: one up on Amsterdam Avenue and two others between 140th and 149th streets.

Summary

Harlem's gay social life is organized around a variety of gay and mixed social institutions and a calendar of gay social events and private gatherings including card games, dances, boat rides, and private parties. Significantly, the social institutions of the gay scene in Harlem are located within the residential area of most of their clientele. They are, as Cicero says, "close to home."[23] This is an important factor in the conscious construction of identity for these gay black men, as they see black culture as central to their existence.


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4— "Close to Home": The Organization of the Gay Scene in Harlem
 

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/