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/


 
9— "One of the Children": Being a Gay Black Man in Harlem

9—
"One of the Children":
Being a Gay Black Man in Harlem

This ethnography is about gay black identity: its expression in the lifestyle, social organization, and family life of men in Harlem. Its findings provide broader contextualization of gay black experience and challenge received wisdom concerning black men, sexuality, and AIDS.

Being Gay and Black

Respondents included in this study reside in Harlem, conduct their gay social lives in Harlem, and prefer other black men as sexual partners. The fact that these men reside in a black community rather than a gay community is significant, especially when one of the world's most famous "gay ghettos" is located minutes away and when most of them have the means to make the move. The respondents socialize almost exclusively with other black people in their residential neighborhoods in Harlem. Members of their social networks include gay and non-gay friends and kin, who by and large also live in Harlem. Because family and friends are black and live in Harlem, and because social institutions central to being black are in Harlem, these gay black men choose to stay "close to home." In doing so, they are often choosing to avoid direct confrontation with issues of race and racism and to be with those who love and nurture them. Thus individual preference is reinforced by racial and social constraints.


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Family and church remain the most significant aspects of the lives of these black men, much the same way that they are important to most black people, especially in Harlem. Ties among kin and fellow churchgoers are close and constantly pursued. The social networks of informants, which include kin and fictive kin, become important means of economic, social, and emotional survival.

But being black means more than this. It is more than just an issue of color. In other words, while race or skin color may be a defining or limiting factor, being black is a cultural identity. Some knowledge of black folklore and history and of contemporary cultural traits, including an interest in things African and an ability to participate in black "styles" of clothing, hair, speech, and dance, are also important aspects of being black.

All of these factors allow for the conclusion that these gay men perceive themselves first as black men. Their gayness is of secondary importance to their identity, even though, I argue, they express their different status in the black community through their sexuality. They overcome both the stereotypical exaggeration of the masculinity of black men and the assumed passivity of being "sissy" and become a different kind of black man. They express this difference both openly through their publicly gay social lives and privately in their assumption of the masculine role in the sexual encounter.

At the intersection of gay and black cultures, gay black men have constructed a culture of their own by drawing on distinctive elements of both. For many men in this study, sexuality is the only aspect of their identity that is different from other black men. For other gay men in Harlem, however, being gay means more than just being homosexual. Being gay means being involved in a community in which identity is expressed through membership in specific social institutions and through ways of living.

Because they feel tolerated, close to kin and other people in church, and secure in their hometown, these men are open about their sexuality and gayness. This open expression allows them to maintain their own status and niche in black society. A gay black man in Harlem is still a black man, just different from other black men in the community.

Reinforcing this sense of difference within the black community is a growing consciousness of gay black participation in the history of Harlem. Knowledge of gay life in earlier times in Harlem seems scant among my informants, mainly because the history of gay life in Har-


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lem has not been recorded. This lack of attention to the gay past is being remedied through the collation of a catalog under the auspices of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.[1] Researchers are reading early editions of newspapers and magazines published in or about black society in New York and are extracting the very rare references to gay black life from police records.

The Harlem Renaissance is increasingly regarded as an important era in gay black history.[2] Some references to "homosexuality" and a "homosexual scene" are made in the novels and poetry of the time. During the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem saw the blossoming of the arts in black society. Many artists, writers, painters, and musicians were drawn from all over the country to this newly established arts mecca. Not only did black arts flourish but the artistry of black Americans reached into general American society, attracting the support of many wealthy white patrons and establishing the value of black artistry to American culture.

Many of the Renaissance writers were overtly gay. Richard Bruce Nugent and Countee Cullen had reputations widely publicized yet publicly ignored (Garber 1983:14–16, 1989:327; Lewis 1989:76–77, 196). Wallace Thurman has been described as "effeminate" and his police record of public lewdness has been exposed (Lewis 1989: 236, 279). His novel Infants of the Spring is perhaps the most openly "homosexual" of all the works of this period. Also, many of these artists, including Claude McKay and Raymond Barthé, were known as bisexuals (Garber 1989:327).

Much controversy exists concerning the sexuality of some of these heroes, as black society is trying to establish the significance of this artistic period in the history of American letters and black culture. For example, the sexuality of Langston Hughes remains the subject of debate,[3] yet his work obviously raises gay issues (see "Cafe: 3 A.M. " and "Poem for F.S.").[4] What is most significant is not the rumors of the presence of these men in gay establishments during their lifetime, nor indeed that they may have been homosexual or gay, but that gay black men today, in their attempts to create and validate a cultural identity uniquely their own, have made cultural icons of these artists.

This was the thrust of Isaac Julien's extraordinary black-and-white docudrama on gay black life in the 1920s, Looking for Langston .[5] This movie sought to compare the ambiguity surrounding Hughes's sexual identity with the ambiguity surrounding gay black identity today, as gay black men seek a place and a voice for themselves within the


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emerging gay culture of the Western world. That Julien, basing the storyline on Nugent's short story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade" (1926),[6] invokes Hughes's name and sexuality is significant for extending the legend of this and other historic figures in gay folklore.

Many other significant gay men, black and white, were important to the Harlem Renaissance as intellectual mentors and fundraisers. Alexander Gumby, Alain Locke, Harold Jackman, and Carl Van Vechten[7] were well-known homosexuals who promoted the literary effervescence of the Renaissance (Garber 1983:14, 1989:327–328; Lewis 1989:288). They too have become important legends in gay folklore in Harlem.

On a day-to-day basis, differences today between gay black men and other black men are expressed in Harlem through a distinctive style—a style that draws on both black and gay cultures and finds its expression on the streets of Harlem and in the bars and clubs of the gay social scene. This fusion of black and gay cultures offers a rare glimpse at the social construction of a new cultural identity.

LOUIS : You learn all that on the street. And especially in the Life. You know. The children will give you fashion: clothes, hairstyles, jewelry, makeup, shoes, music, dance. They'll give you pose. Talk. No one can read you like a queen! No one can serve [wear] fashion like a queen! No one can dance like a queen! Now, you learn all this on the street.

One current example of original gay black expression is the "Gumby hairdo"—a razor-cut hairstyle, flat-topped and curving upward at the front. First appearing in black gay discos in 1986–1987, these haircuts, created by gay hairdressers in salons throughout Harlem, are now worn by black and Hispanic men everywhere. At the same time, gay black men brought bicycle clothing into the disco scene. Spandex shorts, bicycle caps, and bicycle pouches (waist or "fanny" bags) became de rigueur in black gay clubs in 1986. By 1987 white gays were wearing them, and in the summer of 1988, non-gay Hispanic and black and white men and women were wearing these items like a uniform. In 1989 the idea of rolling up an extra inch or two of leg length in blue jeans made an appearance in the gay black scene. In 1990 the style was absorbed by white gays and even by non-gay black men.

While much of this creativity in "style" has its roots in the gay black community, often these men will take an idea from black culture, change it, expand it, or simply use it in an innovative manner.


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This transformational process is typical of many American subcultures that are socially constructed and develop in opposition to mainstream society. Various expressions and gestures among gay black men have their roots in black society. "Editing," for example, is a dramatic demonstration of conversational wit that has its roots in the black church. It assimilates the behavior of "shouters" who call out a word or sound of approval in response to the preacher's urgings during a sermon. Much of this verbal behavior, as well as the use of such female kin terminology as "sister," "mother," "daughter," and especially "girlfriend," has come from playing with gender roles that have been observed in frequent interaction with women in their families and churches.

At the time of this writing, "snapping" is still a gay black phenomenon. A single finger snap means approval or adds emphasis to a point being made verbally. A series of three snaps, or a single snap executed in an archlike wave of the hand above the head, indicates exceptional approval or agreement. While "reading," or redressing another for errant behavior or gossip, my informants often snapped directly in front of the face of the addressee or executed a series of snaps from head to toe in front and behind the addressee to stress the strength of their objections.[8]

"Vogueing," a particularly energetic and skillful dance performance, was introduced to New York's gay black community by gay black men from Atlanta in 1986.[9] As Jackie Goldsby (1989:34) notes, "As a dance, it's unorthodox. Kids use classical movements—some aerials, spins, and splits—but it looks untrained, natural. Vogueing shows that blacks and Latins can produce an art form that's our own." Originally appearing at Tracks, a gay disco in Chelsea, voguers struck fashion-model poses in time to the music. A large following ensured their popularity as they performed on the stage adjacent to the dance floor. Their success is due in part to a tradition in black and gay black dance halls and discos of individual members of the audience standing apart from the general crowd and performing dance routines. In some clubs, low platforms around the main dance floor serve as stages for these performers. Some such dancers earn reputations that lead to large followings. The Paradise Garage, one of New York's most famous black gay clubs in the 1980s, encouraged such performances.[10]

LIONEL : The place I learnt everything about myself was at the Garage. That's where you saw everything. I mean everything. Everything you could ever imagine. It was a powerful place. Any style of music or clothes or drugs or dance,


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especially dance. That's where it come from. . . . The Garage? It was a club to die for. We lived in the Garage. All weekend. It was a party for life. I have never seen so many fierce-looking men in one place at one time. It was over! I miss that place so much. I miss the people. I don't know where they've all gone now. I often wonder that.

By 1989 many gay men had adopted the practice of vogueing, then created a faster and more vigorous version. Their performances have even reached the monthly gay dances at Columbia University. As news spread throughout campus of the voguers' presence at the dances, many people turned up to watch their extraordinary gymnastic feats.

RICHMOND : Honey, let me tell you. They are too much. I mean, when we were doing it [in Atlanta], it was all about Miss Thing. Carrying on giving the children great fashions. And posing. Elegantly. Now these children have taken it to the limit, do you hear me. I mean I can vogue, honey, but not like that. Those children are crazy. All flyin' around the dance floor. They gonna hurt themselves.

At several nightclubs in the city, voguers have developed dance competitions, often held in concert with other significant gay events, fashion shows, or drag balls. Groups of young black and now Hispanic gay men organize themselves into "houses."[11] They often become affiliated with a particular gay bar in the South Bronx, midtown Manhattan, or in one instance Harlem. The "House of Xtravaganza" is one of the originals and the one with the most notorious reputation in Harlem. By 1989 several vogueing competitions were being held for trophies, and various nightclubs around Manhattan sought different "houses" to perform. The houses are named for fashion houses and goddesses—for example, the "House of Chanel," the "House of St. Laurent," and the "House of Labeija." They are renowned for clothing styles as much as for dance capabilities: the "House of Africa," for example, has "the fiercest voguers," and the "House of Fields" is sponsored by a Greenwich Village clothing retailer.

The music that developed at this time, to which the voguers perform their distinctive style of dance, is called "house music." It is now the preferred disco music at most clubs in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, where it is touted as original. "Like its predecessors, disco and club, house is a scene as well as a music, black as well as gay. . . . House, disco, and club are not the only black music that gays have been involved in producing. . . . Still, the sound, the beat, and the rhythm have risen up from the dancing sensibilities of urban gay Afro-Americans" (Thomas 1989:25).


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All of the expressive elements of gay black culture mentioned so far in this chapter are found in the gay black community and on the streets of Harlem. Gradually they diffuse into mainstream gay culture, but all of my informants insist that these elements have their roots in black society.

Because the gay black community exists within black society, much of what is expressively gay draws on elements of black culture, especially family and church. Gay black men frequent many of the cultural events and institutions of mainstream black society. One significant example is the Jazzmobile Festival in Riverside Park and the Harlem Day Parade every fall. In 1989 a group of gay blacks marched under their own banner in the parade for the first time. Although none of the informants in this study participated, almost all of them saw the group in the parade and cheered them on. Also, some of these men are jazz singers of some reputation in Harlem and sing in many non-gay jazz clubs. Gay black men also strongly support Harlem Week and the Studio Museum on 125th Street, and they actively participate in community programs such as after-school sports programs at churches in Harlem, arts programs at the YMCA, and fund-raising with groups like Men Who Cook.[12] It is through such participation that these men are exposed to black culture, contribute to it, and construct their own culture.

Community for most black people in Harlem comprises individual social networks of kinfolk and neighbors. Based on this model, gay black men have created a community consisting of their social networks of other gay black men. While this community also includes non-gay kin and friends, it is the core group of gay friends, who refer to each other by kin terms, that forms its backbone. Gay black men symbolically refer to this community they have constructed as "family," as in "We are family," "He's family," or "He's one of the children." Gay black men depend on these networks for emotional, physical, and economic survival. Members of the networks exchange money and other commodities, as well as child care services if they are raising children. Their interdependence fits well with the model of a support system that Stack (1974) has described for women in "the flats."

Commitment to these networks has increased during the years of the AIDS epidemic. Their networks have provided them both with the emotional support necessary to withstand the psychological impact of the epidemic as they witness its effects on their non-gay rela-


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tives and friends and with a discrete circle of potential sexual partners that, it appears, has spared them from, or at least delayed, the actual arrival of HIV in their midst.

The sociological impact of the AIDS epidemic is somewhat obvious. Primarily, this group of gay men has responded by regulating membership in their specific social networks and, therefore, the gay black community as a whole. This has meant that the pool of potential sex partners has been restricted. While gay black men have not necessarily pursued safer sex, the social construction of barriers around the community seems to have helped them avoid contracting the HIV virus.

Yet friends and acquaintances have been dying from AIDS for a long time in Harlem. The image of AIDS as a "gay disease" has been challenged by the reality of its epidemiology in the broader black community. In Harlem, heterosexuals die from AIDS. While gay black men, who read that AIDS is a gay disease, are somewhat confused, they are able to see that AIDS is indeed an issue not only for them but also for intravenous drug users and their sex partners.

Some members of this discrete gay black population are involved with caregiving and organizing and participating in the funerals of people who have died from AIDS. However, the epidemic has remained at arm's length for many and has not taken any of the gay "family" members. The psychological impact, however, has been quite devastating. Apart from the effects of bereavement and the stress associated with caring for the terminally ill, gay black men worry about the possibility of contracting HIV and the possible upsurge of anti-gay sentiment in the neighborhood as a result of the general misperception of AIDS as a gay disease.

Conclusion

This initial ethnographic foray has revealed a distinct gay black culture within mainstream black society. By describing the social lives of these men and analyzing significant factors in their socialization, we can see that they take an active role in forming their identities. This is an important consideration when existing theories of identity development present socialization as a passive process for the individual. Assumptions surrounding issues of their sexuality have


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been challenged as well. These men are very much aware of their difference in black society, and they manipulate and negotiate that difference to distinguish themselves from other types of more marginalized men.

The impact of the AIDS epidemic on the members of the community has been measured, showing how pockets of at-risk individuals have thus far managed to avoid contact with HIV. Nevertheless, this population exists in an extremely vulnerable situation in New York City. It would be hoped that, in the rush to study, reach out, and rescue the IV drug user, and in the vitally important thrust to educate women about AIDS in Harlem, time is found to reach out and educate this special community of gay men. The need for such education has become especially urgent since two gay bars around 125th Street in Harlem have recently closed due to gentrification. Some of these gay men may enter the mainstream gay community to pursue their gay social lives. In fact, several of them attended the Gay Pride Parade in 1990. Participation in mainstream gay society in New York City may eventually increase their risk of exposure to HIV.

The minority outreach programs of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Minority Task Force on AIDS are the best avenues for intervention programs.[13] They should reach into the gay community through its social institutions, such as the remaining bars and bathhouse (Stall et al. 1990), as well as the churches, the central organizing institutions in the black community, since that is where the largest population of gay black men can be found (Greaves 1987; Quimby and Friedman 1989).

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to reach into the gay black population would be to "snowball" the social networks of selected gay men. These networks have been portrayed above as the essence of gay social organization in Harlem. Such networks of support would facilitate the education, intervention, and prevention efforts of outreach programs (Greaves 1987; Schinke, Holden, and Moncher 1989).

Black politicians should also be encouraged to speak out about AIDS, to support education efforts among their constituents, and to lobby for improved health services in the community (Tauer 1989). Yet when they spoke out against a needle-exchange program being established in and by the city and state of New York (Dalton 1989), it became evident that they too needed to become educated about AIDS in the black community. In fact, they need also to lobby for


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improved access to drug rehabilitation programs and for health care facilities designed to engage in the treatment and care of people living with AIDS (Williams and Hopps 1988).

I only hope that I have been able to capture some of the complexity and extraordinary vitality of a vibrant, colorful, and expressive culture and to convey the importance of social networks and personal relationships to the survival of a population of men often neglected not only by social science but by American society at large. A more comprehensive historical study could highlight the extraordinary contribution to black and American culture made by gay black men (and women). This focus would undoubtedly be supported by the collection of life histories of prominent gay black men and women and the people who shared their lives. Fortunately, some record of the lives of Richard Bruce Nugent and Bayard Rustin was established before they passed in 1987 (Garber 1983; Chauncey and Kennedy 1987; Jeanmarie 1988).

Comparison with the gay populations of other black communities, such as Brooklyn's Fort Greene and East New York's Brownsville, and parts of other major cities that are reputed to support large gay black populations (e.g., Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Birmingham, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Los Angeles) would further our understanding of the extraordinary status of these men in their own communities.

Within black society, these gay black men exist as a close-knit community. In a series of socially constructed, interconnected social networks, they think of, talk about, and refer to themselves as a "family." As a member of this "family," each individual can lay claim to being "one of the children."

GILBERT : Honey, they all family. Miss [Cleveland], Miss [Sherman]. But you know, my closest sisters are [Harry, Barry, and Donny]. Them three are my blood, honey. They my closest family. But all these girls are family, honey. All these children.

By so defining themselves, they establish their niche in black society while asserting a sense of dignity about their dual identities as gay black men. In a larger society divided by racism and homophobia, this "family" is a powerful symbol of the degree to which gay black men acknowledge that they all have a place in the community and are all connected by a space they share and lives that intertwine.


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9— "One of the Children": Being a Gay Black Man 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/