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1— "He's Family": An Introduction
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"He's Family":
An Introduction

They my brothers. They all my brothers. Well, some of them be my sisters, you know. The close girlfriends. But we're all one big family. "We are family!" That's how I think of us. That's the way we be treatin' each other. Just like we was one big family.

The gay community in Harlem includes members 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 one other through series of interdependent social networks and through participation in gay social events or institutions. 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. During the two years it took me to complete the research for this book, I was honored to be considered a member of the "family."

Late in the winter of 1985, Rex,[1] a fellow Columbian and a journalism student from Trinidad, invited me and Martin, a black gay friend from Washington, D.C., to join him for drinks in a bar on 125th Street in Harlem. This street is a major shopping and nightlife center. Always crowded and noisy with traffic and people, and colorful


with neon lights, the street conceals the Harlem of popular conception: not until you step into the surrounding neighborhoods do you see broken sidewalks, neglected red-brick brownstones, abandoned tenements, and street corner people. After a four-block walk into the cold wind, we reached the awning over the narrow entrance to Pete's Paradise. We had been told little about the bar, except that it was "pretty rough," that drugs and sex were readily available there, and that we shouldn't stay too late, because the neighborhood got "real rough" after midnight.

I remember my first impressions well. The bar seemed cavernous: long, crowded, and smoke-filled. It had red walls and ceiling and dim lighting. I was very conscious that people were looking at me, the only white man in the place. The jukebox roared sixties Motown music, and some of the clientele were dancing. One young man approached Rex, and they disappeared toward the back of the bar, leaving Martin and me alone. We stood with our beers, leaning on the railing along the wall opposite the bar. We were both a little anxious, until an older gentleman approached and introduced himself. He was a large man, dressed in a white sweater and white corduroys, wearing a white kufi .[2] He asked us where we were from and chatted briefly with Martin about D.C. He offered to buy us another beer, but we declined, noting we had to go home to study.

We left, quickly, and stopped a couple of blocks away in a pizzeria to regroup. After we had ordered food and played the jukebox, Rex appeared, apologizing for deserting us in the bar. Some repartee ensued concerning his activities during his absence, then we set about analyzing our experiences at Pete's Paradise. Rex noted that we were probably perceived by some of the patrons as drug dealers trying to move in on someone else's territory—a fantasy in his mind only, I hoped. All in all, we felt very excited about our "adventure," and I was especially thrilled to have made my first foray into "Harlem, U.S.A.," a special corner of the United States that I had read and heard so much about. Yet two and a half years would pass before I would go back, and then under the formal pretext of conducting fieldwork.

In the meantime I made friends in New York with a black gay choreographer. His social network of black gay artists became an integral part of my personal social network. And I made friends with another black man from Brooklyn. I visited him frequently in East New York, now notorious for its high levels of drug-related crime; over the past


five years it has replaced the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant as the consummate black ghetto in New York City. Concurrently, I attended courses in urban anthropology at Columbia University, which borders Harlem. One of these, "The Social Anthropology of Contemporary American Society," focused on the urban poor in America. Reading Hannerz, Liebow, Stack, Kornblum, Piven and Cloward, and Clark, among others, aroused my anthropological interest in black society. And all during this time I maintained a residence on the western edge of Harlem, shopping on 125th Street and 7th Avenue, socializing in bars and clubs on St. Nicholas, Seventh, and Lenox avenues, and eventually conducting research between 110th and 160th streets.

I was also working during this time as an interviewer on a large research project studying the AIDS epidemic,[3] and eventually I came to realize that the respondent sample in that study was somewhat skewed: 87 percent of the sample were white gay men; only 6 percent were black (Martin and Dean 1990). New York City, which defines the geographical limits of that study (that is, the five boroughs), is now over 50 percent non-white. Even the gay scene boasts a more visible black population than the sample evidenced. Also, according to statistics published by New York City's Department of Health, AIDS is spreading most rapidly in the black and Hispanic communities within the five boroughs (New York City Department of Health 1989). Given these facts, I became interested in studying the identities of gay black men and the impact of AIDS on their lives and communities.

Gay black men are as yet a missing population in the literature on black society. They are an interesting population not just because they are a newly discovered "tribe," exploited in a recent fashionable trend by the gay media and documentary filmmakers, but because they offer an opportunity for the social scientist to investigate the intersection of two presumably distinct and contradictory identities, both born out of oppression and resistance.

In fact, black men generally have been neglected or relegated to a marginal position in the literature on black society. When they are the focus of ethnographic study, one type of black man—the street corner man—is described. Where black men have been mentioned in the social science literature,[4] in the media,[5] or in fiction,[6] they have been painted as unemployable drifters (Anderson 1978), absentee fathers


(Stack 1974), and substance abusers (MacLeod 1987; Sullivan 1989)—veritable "street corner men" (Liebow 1967). When black men write about themselves, what little that has been published in scattered anthologies of fiction is painfully realistic in its attempts to locate black men in American society.[7] Even in this literature and in the statistical accounts of black life provided by sociologists, psychologists, and census tracts,[8] black men remain marginal to black society.

Most of the sociological literature on black society has been influenced by the Chicago school of sociology. That school sought to present black society as an ordered cultural unit (because it had been, and still is, described as being disordered; see Moynihan 1965, 1986). The search for order and structure in the apparent chaos of urban ghetto life resulted in descriptions of geographically discrete communities in much the same way that anthropologists have traditionally defined and described societies in Africa, the South Pacific, and elsewhere. The resulting ethnographies provide neat maps of social relations within black communities; the populations of the communities are also neatly categorized according to socioeconomic strata and other sociologically definable variables, to further order the structure of ghetto life. From my own experience and research, I find that these kinds of ethnographies do not reflect the variety of social relations in black urban life.

Gerald Suttles's (1968) analysis of a Chicago slum set the stage for sociological and anthropological ethnographic exercises seeking to confirm that the "moral order" Suttles proposed existed.[9] Suttles's work obviously influenced the ethnographic work of R. Lincoln Keiser (1969) and Elijah Anderson (1978). While Keiser's ethnography of a Chicago gang is colorful, it is concerned only with the group's interaction with other gangs. All the men described live on the streets, and other people in the community are omitted. Anderson's ethnography of a black bar deals with black men "regulars," "wineheads," and "hoodlums" who live on the streets of the neighborhood and utilize the bar as the focal point of their social life. We are left with a picture of a highly structured black community, but one in which black men seem irresponsible, unemployable, and unattached to other people. Other types of men in this particular community are ignored.[10] We do not see fathers actively involved in child care or men who hold regular jobs.

Elliott Liebow's (1967) ethnography is a detailed account of the lives of a group of men who hang out on a street corner in Washington, D.C. It describes how they have internalized social roles prescribed for them by the broader community. The ethnography also reveals how


these men have developed a system of "shadow values" which provides social and psychological support for individuals whenever they fail to perform to their own expectations. The study is an excellent analysis of these particular black men's lives, but again neglects the roles of other, nonmarginal black men in the community. Such work has left social scientists with little information about black men in general or about their roles and relationships in the black community. They give us the mistaken impression that all black men are street corner drifters or unemployed and unemployable hustlers who father children somewhat randomly.

In anthropology, there are several works that attempt to contextualize life in the ghetto. Ulf Hannerz's (1969) description of a black ghetto in Washington, D.C., addresses the different types of people who live there. Again we see street corner men, but Hannerz tries to go beyond them. He sees other men in other "lifestyles" as "mainstreamers" and "swingers," but his description and analysis of those groups are not detailed. In fact, his work gives the impression that "mainstreamers" are a minority.[11]

Hannerz's focus is really on the family. Presumably these are the black "matriarchal families" to which Daniel Patrick Moynihan was referring in his controversial analysis.[12] Decades of research have been aimed at correcting Moynihan's distorted view of black families and contesting his shortsighted predictions on the future of blacks in America. Elmer Martin and Joanne Martin, among his detractors, have presented the "strength-resiliency perspective" (Martin and Martin 1978:103). In their analysis of broad "extended families" and the interdependence of individual family units within the kin network, most especially in the urban environment, they found substantial emotional, financial, and other material support for individuals and "sub-extended families." Early on, Andrew Billingsley leveled the most significant criticism of Moynihan's work. He contended that Moynihan reached "faulty and inverse conclusions" due to lack of theoretical direction and limited data (Billingsley 1968:200). Billingsley argued that heritage, extended family, and class had to be taken into account in any meaningful analysis of the black family. These issues have been dealt with more substantially over the years by other researchers.[13]

Hannerz focuses on women, presenting all men as sexually "straight" and sometimes socially pathological. Carol Stack maintains this focus in her excellent ethnography All Our Kin (1974), which describes the structure of relations between female-headed


households. Her work on the strategies of survival in black kinship networks is probably the most significant contribution to the literature on the strength and adaptability of the black family. Her focus on women led to an analysis of the exchange systems they had developed to link both kin and non-kin in reciprocal networks of sharing and mutual help. However, because she highlights female-headed households where women oversee cash flow and child care, men appear only sporadically. These households socialize young men by mother's instruction, based on her perceptions of what is masculine. Men are present (often relatives, rarely fathers), but they are not consistently involved in family affairs. One gets the impression, once again, that they are drifters or street corner men. Admittedly, Stack's ethnography focuses on women and their roles, but it marginalizes black men by omission.

Bettylou Valentine's (1978) work seeks to redress this shortcoming somewhat. The families in her study depend on sources of income other than welfare alone. Here men are present. They work long hours at several jobs, and they play an important role in the socialization of their children. But they are frequently absent, either working or making themselves scarce in the face of the "man" as social welfare agent, census taker, or social scientist. Nevertheless, families are important and we see hardworking men and women in stable unions struggling to maintain them.

My experiences in East New York, Brooklyn, and Harlem have confirmed this. A two-year period of data collection, the fieldwork for this project, further supported my perception that most black men, and gay black men in particular, are anything but street corner men. This is not to say that street corner men do not exist. They do, even within the gay black population. But they are not such a prominent feature of black society from an insider's point of view. They are marginal members of an intense, historical, expressive culture (Gay and Baber 1987) that has ramifications for American society far beyond the boundaries of the black community (Drake 1987).

Most black men, and gay black men, whom I have encountered, are well educated by American standards, religious, employed, good fathers, and major contributors to their families' incomes and their children's socialization. I am not denying the poor their rightful place in the scheme of things. So much has been written about them, especially in black society, and frequently by and for social policy makers, albeit falling on deaf ears, that to reiterate their story here would be


redundant.[14] But because the literature on the poor is so vast, it creates an impression that they are the majority, especially in the black community. However, there is little reliable evidence for this. For example, 78 percent of the sample in this study, which includes college educated and employed people, did not participate in the last census, so how reliable can census-based statistical analyses of black society be? Reynolds Farley and Walter R. Allen's (1987) figures on income, education, and employment are based on nationwide data and do not necessarily represent the uniqueness of Harlem. In fact, even on the nationwide scale, Farley and Allen (1987:293) note that approximately 25 percent of blacks are using food stamps, Medicaid, and publicly subsidized housing. They also note that 86 percent of black men have an income, 73 percent are employed, and only 19 percent are unemployed (ibid.: 225, 330).[15]

Likewise, the social science literature on gay men in America rarely focuses on minority groups. Studies of gay society present descriptions of the gay social scene or psychological analyses of gay identity but do not consider the dynamics of the ethnic and racial composition of the gay population. This tendency has been carried over into the literature on AIDS in gay society, in which ethnic minorities are rarely mentioned (Altman 1986). Black gay men in particular are absent from the growing social science literature on gay society. My background reading and archival research has yielded no anthropological or sociological reports on a gay black community.[16] Even literature within gay studies and on AIDS has scant offerings on this population.[17] Most social science literature describes and analyzes the social setting of gay life but rarely deals with the inhabitants. In anthropology, most of the literature consists of papers on the existence of homosexuality, gays, and transvestites or transsexuals in different cultures and the social construction of sexuality in those cultures.[18]

In the literature on urban gay communities, especially in the United States, ethnic minorities are also missing. Laud Humphreys's (1975) pioneering work on sexual activity does not locate the "scene" of this behavior within the larger community of his informants, nor does it discuss other aspects of the "gay" lives of the individuals involved. However, his book was the first sociological ethnography focusing on homosexual behavior.[19] Other sociological efforts tended to be more descriptive of physical settings than analytical, especially when referring to the gay scene in New York City (Canavan 1984; Delph 1978; Soares 1979).


Within anthropology, a few ethnographic forays have been made into gay society in America. Esther Newton's (1979) work on drag queens provides interesting data on an often neglected and maligned subculture. Her ethnography deals with the "symbolic geography" of male and female styles as enacted in the homosexual concepts of "drag" and "camp" but ignores issues of ethnicity within the population. As my research has confirmed, drag is very popular in the black community, and much of what is called "camp" has been influenced by the strong presence of black men in the world of drag performance.

Kenneth Read's (1980) study of social behavior in a gay bar derives its importance not so much from the "thick description" of his subject matter as from the exercise of symbolic anthropological analysis. It provides a rare insight into the ways gay men experience their daily lives on the West Coast. His ethnography clearly indicates a diversity of lifestyles embraced by those gay men, and his analysis shows how gay lifestyles symbolically mirror those of heterosexuals. Yet, even here, ethnic diversity remains a hidden or unanalyzed dimension of gay life.

One of the few references to black gay men appears in Dennis Altman's (1971) work on the gay liberation movement. He analyzes the oppression that that movement sought to overcome and compares it to the black and women's movements of the same era. Altman also raises the issue of racism and the frequency of its expression in the gay world, indicating how it mirrors racism in mainstream American society. Yet we learn nothing about black gay men per se. In his work on AIDS, Altman (1986) noted again that gay social life in the United States is racially segregated. He also noted that this segregation appeared "odd" given that gays now argue that their "sexual identity is, by itself, the basis for a sense of community" (D. Altman 1986:100–101). Altman does not pursue the issue of race any further,[20] not so much because he believes race is an irrelevant issue in the gay community but because black gay men are an instance of an "invisible minority" within another minority, the gay population.

Gay black men do surface in the contributions of Eric Garber (1983, 1989). He has published interesting papers on the participation of gays in the Harlem Renaissance. In them, he describes literary Harlem of the 1920s and "considers the effect of the intersection of racial and sexual oppressions in creating a distinctive black gay subculture" (Garber 1989:318). While he makes no attempt to delineate this subculture, he does identify gay artists of the period and the liter-


ary works of the time in which reference was made to gay characters (for example, Claude McKay's Home to Harlem , published in 1928). In literature, gay black culture is legitimated, yet no ethnography exists delineating the gay community or the gay identity of the individuals who make up gay black society.[21]

What identity is and how it is developed and sustained have been the topic of social-scientific analysis for some time. Within anthropology, A. L. Epstein's (1978) work on the sociological aspects of identity has its roots in work by E. H. Erikson (1968) and Fredrik Barth (1969). Barth provided an alternative perspective on identity as a process of group boundary maintenance.[22] "Ethnic ascription" exists, he notes, when a person is classified by his or her "origin and background." Diacritical features of such an identity include "dress, language, house-form, or general style of life," as well as the "standards of morality and excellence by which performance is judged" (Barth 1969:13–14). These characteristics of ethnic identity vary in significance from social group to social group. What is important is that they define an exclusive group that exists in opposition to all others. These people express identity during social interaction with other people by "overt signals or signs" and by their "basic value orientations." Their characteristics are diagnostic for membership and can be manipulated by members of a group to signal membership and exclusion. Such groups need not have territorial counterparts. Barth calls for an analysis of the way that such expression of identity is continued and continually validated.

For Erikson and Epstein, who believed that identity formation is a psychosocial process,[23] sociological aspects of identity become apparent during the study of culture transmission and group boundary maintenance. They include not only manifestations of group boundary maintenance (for example, those expressed as symbols of ethnicity) but also statuses and roles, expressive cultural traits, religious and political beliefs, and moral attitudes. These culturally defined traits are transmitted during socialization and inform the development of identity.

Academic discussions of gay men always include one fundamental aspect of their identity: the central fact of homosexual behavior.[24] Many psychologists believe that an individual's homosexuality is a naturally determined aspect of one's being.[25] Psychology and biology, they assert, are more determinant of sexual orientation than the social environment. Other social scientists, however, believe that


"sexual desires are learned and that sexual identities come to be fashioned through an individual's interaction with others" (Halperin 1990:41–42). When sociologists began to study the "gay community," psychologists were pressed to reexamine their views of homosexuality, and sociological factors of gay identity development gained more attention.[26]

In 1971 Barry Dank noted that gay men exposed to knowledge of homosexuality gleaned from social experiences (sociosexual interaction with other homosexuals, attendance at homosexual social institutions, and reading homosexual newspapers) were able to overcome negative "public labeling" (and other mainstream societal restraints) and to develop a psychologically and socially satisfying positive identity (Dank 1979).[27]

Other social scientists have noted the interaction of culture and individual experience in the formation of gay identity. The most constructive approach to the study of the sociological aspects of gay identity formation has come from Humphreys (1979) and Thomas Weinberg (1983). Taking a symbolic-interactionist approach, Weinberg concludes that gay identity is a product of "personal" (intimate) and other levels of social interaction, and Humphreys resolves that, while a degree of voluntarism is involved in the development of a gay identity, there are indeed "highly determinative" cultural factors, such as socioeconomic, ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds and even the range of available sexual orientations, which limit the personal construction of that identity and levels of participation in gay life.[28] Thus, a variety of sociocultural and psychological variables influence the construction of a social identity.[29]

Although understanding the development of a gay identity is difficult from a sociological point of view alone (Halperin 1990:53),[30] a sociocultural approach that examines the context within which the social construction of gay identity occurs is important for understanding that identity. To quote Kenneth Plummer,

While there is now a vast literature on homosexuality, most of it is firmly in the clinical tradition and usually concerned with the question of primary aetiology. I have demonstrated some of the drawbacks of such an approach by stressing that homosexuality cannot be adequately understood apart from the meanings constructed around it in a predominantly hostile society. (1975:199–200)[31]

Social interactionists, like Plummer,[32] have opened the way for an approach that seeks not only to explore the development of the gay


identity and gay culture but also to focus on questions of cultural meaning.

Meaning is more important than actual sexual behavior in the development of a homosexual identity. Actual sexual experiences with other males is neither a necessary nor a sufficient factor in labeling oneself as homosexual, and sexual relations with women do not necessarily lead to a "bisexual" or "heterosexual" self-definition. "Doing" does not necessarily eventuate in "being." (Weinberg 1983:300)

Since a whole variety of cultural factors influence such meaning, they challenge the typologies (homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual) with which we have restricted our comprehension of the diversity of conceptualizations and experiences of human sexuality. By focusing on sexual behavior and socialization—that is, on the social interaction of individuals—we can begin to reconstruct alternative images of sexuality. Collecting data on sexual behavior, reconsidering sexual typologies, and analyzing socialization experiences are necessary steps in obtaining a fuller understanding of the meaning of sexuality for a given population. Revealing the cultural meaning of sexuality for gay black men will not only inform us of the importance of sexuality to them but also yield a greater understanding of their community.

Gay black culture, then, allows for the exploration of a number of issues that confront the social scientist: race, class, regional culture, urban subcultures, gender roles, and sexuality. Usually anthropologists who work on identity focus on or work within one of these issues. The study of gay black culture allows for the investigation of all of these issues and their relationship to identity. The intersection of sexuality, race, and class in particular is important to the presumed double identity of gay black men.

This study adds another dimension to the discourse on gay identity. It focuses on the intersection of racial identity and gay identity as two culturally definable phenomena that come together in gay black men and on how such men express and manipulate each in differing circumstances. Focusing on the gay black man in Harlem, this study demonstrates the importance of the individual's incorporation of sociocultural variables into an identity.

What unfolds here is an analysis of both the gay and the black aspects of the identity of gay black men and how these men negotiate their status in society. My initial assumption that gay black men would "codeswitch" between being gay and being black was challenged by these men. While there may be some ambivalence about


identity for black men in mainstream gay society, gay black men in Harlem choose to identify themselves as black men first, using the gay identity as a status marker within black society.

Social-organizational and social-interaction theory[33] underlie my analysis of this gay black male community's relationship with outside, dominant groups:[34] black society, which geographically engulfs it; the gay community in which it is an "invisible minority"; and mainstream American society, whose neglect of both dimensions belies ignorance. Drawing heavily on the theory of the social organization of the family[35] and symbolic approaches to the study of community,[36] I analyze social relations between the members of this population and their kinfolk. The inclusion of fictive kin in the resulting social networks[37] and the maintenance of these networks evolve as important foci of the investigation. It is through such symbolic constructions of community that individual members within the gay community are able to refer to each other by saying, "He's family."[38] Symbolic anthropological approaches to "community" in Harlem help reveal the meaning of this metaphor by which members of the gay black community identify themselves and their interrelatedness.

Gay black men's sense of community and identity depends on their understanding of their sexuality. They regard being gay as a distinctive element of their identity, one that positions them in a unique niche in black society. In addition, it has important implications for these men as they confront the AIDS epidemic.[39] My ethnographic research on gay black culture explores the sociocultural context of gay black men's double identity, being black and gay in America, and of the impact of AIDS in their community.

Black Gay Men and Gay Black Men

Men who are both black and gay live scattered throughout New York City. To find a community of such men could have been a vast undertaking. But with a little ethnographic foraging, I was able to identify two general groups: those who live scattered throughout the city and who socialize by and large in mainstream gay areas (that is, black gay men); and those who live and socialize within the geographic confines of a black neighborhood (that is, gay black men). My research focuses on the latter group.


Black men are a highly visible component of New York City's large gay population. Their presence in the gay social life of New York City has been long-standing and prominent, especially in such milestone events as the Stonewall riots on Christopher Street[40] and the formation of the Third World Gay Revolution,[41] both in 1969. Today their participation in annual gay pride parades in New York, their involvement in the formation of exclusively black social organizations, and their continued presence in mainstream gay social life, in the bars and discos and gay social clubs of the city, is ever increasing.[42] What is important to note is that most of these men live in the Village, Brooklyn, the Bronx, or nearby New Jersey cities—Jersey City, Hoboken, and Newark in particular.

Today, black gay men are becoming organized in many ways in New York City. Several branches of national gay organizations, such as Men of All Colors Together (MACT), have large numbers of black gay members. Black gay men have also infused many other city-based organizations—for example, Maranatha, a church group; the Lavender Light Black and People of All Colors Lesbian and Gay Gospel Choir; and Friends and Neighbors of Brooklyn. Black gay men have become important social leaders in fundraising organizations such as Men Who Cook and in providing the essential services at the Minority Task Force on AIDS. Black gay men have also established an organization, Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), that boasts some Harlem members, although most are from Brooklyn, Newark, and other New Jersey cities.

As well, this population has set about creating its own artistic expression. News publications and journals such as BLK, BGM, B&G, Blacklight, Blackheart, and Black/Out have emerged around the country. Art exhibitions around the city and poetry readings at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center and the Studio Museum in Harlem have promoted their presence in both the gay and the black communities. A writers' collective, Other Countries, has risen to prominence in the literary world in New York, publishing an excellent first anthology (Johnson, Robinson, and Taylor 1988).

However, I decided to label the population in this study "gay black men" because they reside in a black community and their social network members and sexual partners are also black, choices that enable them to affirm their identity as black men—black men who are also gay. Although I met black gay men from all over the metropolitan area—indeed, from all over the country—who used to live and still


occasionally socialize in Harlem as well as black gay men who live in Harlem but socialize in Brooklyn, Newark, or New Rochelle, the informants I eventually selected to concentrate on for life history collection had to meet certain criteria: they had to live in Harlem, socialize in the gay scene in Harlem, and prefer black men as sex partners.

The Study

Because black men have been misrepresented or omitted from earlier ethnographic accounts of black society, I presumed that they had been hard to reach. Therefore, I undertook intensive research of the participant-observer kind in order to gain access to "core black culture" (Gwaltney 1980, 1981). I chose to analyze the social construction of a gay black identity and the social status of gay black men in a black community by focusing on the cultural aspects of identity formation and investigating the social practices and social relations that sustain that identity.

In early 1987, I raised my ideas for a book on gay black culture with three friends. Two of these men, one of whom has since passed away, were especially excited and have been a source of constant encouragement and verification of my findings. The third friend, from out of town, visits Harlem frequently and has many friends there. In the summer of 1987 he took me into the bars and introduced me to his friends.

I had used this method of making initial contact before, especially in complex urban settings. An introduction as a "friend" facilitates the outsider's entrée, especially in a population that is politicized to the extent that it is very distrustful of outsiders of a different color, race, or ethnic group, or those who may even unwittingly represent the "system," the "man," or the governmental power structure.

After initial contacts and explanations were made in bars and clubs in Harlem, I asked my new friends to introduce me to their friends, in and out of the "scene." Thus I was able to "snowball" people's social networks.[43] The idea of random sampling an amorphous and "invisible" population of gay black men within Harlem would otherwise have proven impracticable.

Some informants I met only in the bars. I was introduced to some, others approached me, or I approached them directly. One infor-


mant, a hustler, proved an invaluable networker, introducing me to many important contacts and to several of the other hustlers who frequented these places. With his assistance I was able to comprehend the significance of the hustler population in the wider gay community in Harlem. The staff of two of the bars provided support and contacts. They introduced me to their regular patrons, often cliques of men who formed social groups based on different occupations or church affiliations.

Some of my initial contacts in the gay scene provided me with introductions to gay men outside of the scene: in their residential neighborhoods, at their churches, or at other private social functions such as dances, card games, dinner parties, and boat rides. Meeting friends, relatives, and lovers, I was able to break away from the scene—the bars and clubs—and reach into people's homes, daily lives, and social networks. This I hoped would provide a better contextualization of the black lives I was to describe and analyze than had been previously attempted by other social scientists. Many aspects of black people's social lives have not been studied, especially life at home and in the workplace. The persistence of the street in the ethnography of black society represents a superficiality on the part of ethnographers.

One key informant, Cleveland, was initially a little cautious about introducing me to his close gay friends. Yet he and his lover, Randy, escorted me to private functions (dances in particular) and to church and invited me to their homes for meals, where they introduced me to several other informants. From these introductions, I was able to meet additional friends at other dinners and card games. In the gay scene itself, Cleveland introduced me to many of the men who became my key informants.

One of the benefits of accumulating a sample population in this "snowball" manner is the maintenance of contact. I was regularly informed of important social events and was thus able to observe and participate in their social lives and in the dissemination of information among the network's members. I was always able to locate any member of the extended network through other contacts and invariably was able to hear at least what somebody was up to. This became important when verification of information was necessary. It also meant that I was able to stay in touch with members when they took a leave of absence from the social scene or if they left town for any length of time.

By the end of the fieldwork period, the network of informants who had contributed to this study comprised 193 people. Among these


were 156 gay black men, 57 of whom completed extensive life history interviews. I call this subsample of 57 men "respondents," and a few of these men became key informants. Thirty-seven non-gay people contributed to the study also: they included family members of my informant group, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and clergymen.

For the duration of the study, all 193 informants lived in Harlem, in an area bounded by Riverside Drive and Third Avenue and 110th and 164th streets. All of them socialize in Harlem, either in the social institutions of the gay scene or in the private homes of friends in their extended social networks. This is not to say that they all socialize exclusively in Harlem, as, like many New York City residents, they have kith and kin spread throughout Manhattan and the other boroughs, even in Westchester County towns and New Jersey. But these gay black men pursue their gay lives in Harlem. As well, all of these men prefer black men as sex partners. Some have experienced sex across race lines, but their preference keeps them active one way or another in Harlem.

My introduction to potential informants by friends also proved to be essential in gaining entrée into many settings. Many social institutions in Harlem have locked doors, through which only the recognizable are permitted entrance. On first visit it was therefore essential to arrive in the company of someone who was already familiar, not only with acceptable procedures of behavior but also with the operators of the institution. This, in fact, was how I gained entrée into the four gay bars, the three jazz clubs, and the bathhouse where I was to conduct much of my participant observation.

To meet people, and to gain their confidence so that I could be admitted into their personal social networks, it was important that I spend time in the social institutions and in the company of community members. Overall, I spent almost two years in the field. The first six months were spent meeting people, explaining my intentions, and defining the community within which I had decided to work. This initial period also allowed me to test the feasibility of the project and some of my ideas and assumptions.

By creating a social network of informants around myself, I was able to observe and participate in the everyday lives of the gay black men I wished to describe. I was invited to dance socials, birthday parties, dinner parties, and card games, and often for meals, at which my research would be the main topic of discussion. I attended drag balls, boat rides, and talent nights at jazz clubs, as well as art exhibitions, shows at the Apollo, and shopping expeditions on 125th Street.


These social experiences enabled me to map the extent of gay life in Harlem. My work was further facilitated by my residence in the area and by my day-to-day interaction with my informants in the stores where they shopped and on the streets where they lived.

This participant observation was bolstered by the collection of life histories. Fifty-seven respondents were guided through a loosely structured interview that lasted between two and six hours. These interviews were taped and transcribed and provided much of the data that are presented and analyzed in the pages that follow. Conversations and more detailed discussions were conducted with a further 136 informants, who provided extra information or corroborated the data already collected. Usually, prior to my introduction to informants, my presence in the community had been explained. At the point of introduction, I was able to discuss any ethical considerations that may have concerned the informants.

While Black society is part of a larger society that supports institutionalized homophobia,[44] I found greater levels of tolerance in Harlem than I had expected.[45] In any event, I did not wish to attract unwarranted attention to this population. I was aware of the fact that the larger black community of which gay black men are an integral part is their hometown. Although it became apparent that most of the members of this community were open about their gayness, I could not presume that all their family members and neighbors knew that they were gay. In fact, a few of my informants were not out to their neighbors, for whatever reason, and some were not out to their family members, who also lived in the area. Discretion in their presence was always uppermost in my mind. In two instances when I met informants on the street in the company of other people, I was ignored. One informant later apologized, noting that he was not out to the family member he was with (his grandmother) and that introducing me might have been problematic.

In the social scene in Harlem, large quantities of illicit substances are consumed, quite openly in some places. This itself could have posed a problem, especially on the two occasions when plainclothes policemen entered one particular bar. In this instance my presence was a blessing: the policemen's attention was directed at me and away from the other clientele. Nonetheless, my mere presence in such a scene could have had serious repercussions for the continuation of the research. Consequently, I offered total anonymity to all of my informants and have pursued this throughout the entire undertaking.


Most important, as a white man, albeit a foreigner, my outsider status was constantly confirmed by my skin color. On one particular occasion, eighteen months into the fieldwork, a patron in one bar complained about my presence, calling me a "white motherfuckin' Jew." The very large gentleman was considerably drunk, and he was consoled by three of my informants, much to my relief. For the first time in many years of anthropological research in many different racial and ethnic communities—in fact, for the first time in my life—I was confronted publicly with the issue of race. However, my informants bid me stay, assuring me that I was very much a part of the "family." Fortunately, none of us have seen the gentleman since he left the bar, a half-hour after the incident.

I was, of course, concerned that any involvement on an intimate level would destroy the confidence I had built with other members of the community. It would also threaten the continuation of the research. However, the fact that these men prefer other black men as sex partners deflected any interest in me as a potential partner.

As a representative of Columbia University, a large institution that does not figure too favorably in the opinions of its neighbors, I found it necessary to conceal my academic affiliation on many occasions. This I felt was an extension of the overall attitude of neighborhood people toward anyone visiting from a position in the white power structure of New York City. Columbia University was definitely felt to be a part of that power structure.[46]

Most of my informants would assure me before I entered a new scene that I would be treated amicably, and this was always true. People in Harlem have been extremely friendly and hospitable, everywhere and on every occasion, despite knowing in advance who I was and what I was doing.

The Ethnography

The composition of an ethnographic study is influenced by many factors, not the least of which is the ethnographer's own biases. As always, I have endeavored to present my subjects' stories in their own words, utilizing their concepts and perceptions of themselves. This is why I rely so heavily on lengthy quotations from interviews and notes. Extracting words or sentences detracts from


the quality of the fuller expression being conveyed by the speaker. Enough is lost in the translation of verbal expression into the written word. This is especially true here, where black diction is such a vibrant, expressive art form.

The structure of this ethnography follows what I hope is a logical progression for the reader as he or she becomes acquainted with gay black men, their society, and their identities. The division of information into the following chapter topics is the result of my impressions of the significance of these topics for my informants.

Chapter 2 describes the informants and the variety of lives led by gay black men in Harlem. Chapter 3 investigates the social networks of these men and describes the symbolic construction of the gay community in Harlem. Chapter 4 describes the social world of gay life in Harlem as the locus for expression of a gay black identity. These three chapters present the impressive nature of gay black life as I encountered and experienced it.

Chapter 5 delineates the aspects of black culture that gay black men have indicated are significant for the construction of their black identity. I rely on the extensive literature that exists in many academic disciplines, including folklore and fiction, to further illustrate what these men mean. Chapter 6 performs the same exercise in relation to gay culture. Itself a relatively recent social construct, much of "gay sensibility" (Bronski 1984) has not yet reached uptown. But the substantial politicization of gay men in Harlem (by virtue of their double identity) attests to the significance of this new culture for these men. Chapter 7 defines the importance of sexuality to the construction of gay black identity, deconstructing in the process the received image of the black male in the literature on sexuality (Hernton 1965) and reconstructing an alternative picture.

Chapter 8 addresses the impact of the AIDS epidemic, currently invading black society disproportionately within the U.S. population. In New York City in the 1980s, the study of a gay population of any race or ethnicity inevitably raises issues surrounding AIDS. This chapter reflects my interest in that impact on the established social networks of these gay black men and how they and the members of their social networks have coped with the disease.[47]

Chapter 9 summarizes the development of a social identity, the gay black identity, as it has been constructed historically by gay black men in Harlem, and how this identity is being negotiated and maintained in contemporary black society.


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1— "He's Family": An Introduction
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