Preferred Citation: Hawkeswood, William G. One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

6— "Gay Is Lovin' Men": Gay Identity in Harlem

"Gay Is Lovin' Men":
Gay Identity in Harlem

Many black Americans manage multiple identities. In white-dominated corporate America, for example, black executives may find it expeditious to play down their black identity. In the cultural context of American society, gay black men often are adept at identifying as American, black, or gay, as the occasion demands, and negotiate between one identity and another depending on context.

In Harlem, where a wide range of types of people are accepted, being gay is not necessarily regarded as being deviant. (Compare this with being gay in mainstream white America, where white gay men are trying to overcome the deviant label by pursuing the status of gay as "ethnic" in order to rationalize and justify the equality of their existence alongside other Americans.)[1] Being gay in Harlem means being different, but in a community characterized by diversity.[2]

Whatever the psychological dimensions of a gay identity, it too, like black identity, comprises social and cultural dimensions. These social and cultural elements of gay life and their importance to the construction and maintenance of gay identity are the subject of this chapter.

Being Gay

FRANCIS : Gay is lovin' men, honey. All kinds o' men. Lovin' men. Now, that's bein' gay.

In Harlem, gay men primarily regard being gay as synonymous with being homosexual. Same-sex sexual behavior was invariably raised as


the single practice that distinguished gay men from other types of men ("bisexual" and "straight") in Harlem.

ROLAND : [A gay man] has sex with the same sex. With other men. He prefers to have sex with other men.

GILBERT : [A gay man is] a man who is interested in another man, sexually. He can be feminine or masculine. It doesn't matter. Some men like different things in sex. But they're all gay.

LESLIE : [A gay man is] a man who has sex with another man. It usually involves emotional commitment. A lover relationship.

The most important aspect of gay identity for these gay black men is sexual behavior. It is the one common attribute they share as gay men. All of my respondents indicated that in order to be gay, that is, to be distinguishable from non-gay people, one had to engage in homosexual intercourse with another man.

For some men, however, having a gay identity meant more than just having sex with other men. Being gay also included participation in a gay social life.[3]

BYRON : [A gay man] is homosexual. He has gay friends. He goes to gay places. Does gay things.

LUTHER : Gay means homosexual, you know. A man who likes to have sex with other men, and who lives a gay lifestyle. He has gay friends and does gay things. Like goes to discos and parties.

GILBERT : A gay man has sex with other men. Hangs out in the scene. Has gay friends. He's out to his family.

ORVILLE : [A gay man is] a homosexual. But it really refers to younger men.

NATE : Most of them are sissies. Real women. I mean, most gay men act and carry on like women. Now you have the hos [whores] and the church women, the wife type and the nymphomaniac. That's what gay men are like.

SHERMAN : Sometimes [a gay man is] a flamboyant male. A man who dresses well. Has great compassion. He lives a gay lifestyle. In gay bars, and parties. He can also be conservative, though. You know, a quiet man. It depends on his personality. And his role in the community. They're all different types of men actually.

LOUIS : To me, personally, it means that you live a separate lifestyle. It's more than just the sex. Gay sex is important. An important part of it. But it's not all. Because being gay means that you do other gay things too. Like having other gay friends. Going to gay places. I mean you really could see that in the seventies. You know, 'cause all the discos were really gay. That was a gay thing. And gay liberation. That told us so much about being gay. So you could see


things that were gay. Just gay. Different to the rest of New York. So being gay is all that too. It's history now, too. We have a history.

Many gay black men in Harlem agree that engaging in homosexual behavior was the starting point of their homosexual identity formation.[4] Such homosexual experiences are followed by a variety of social experiences that lead the individual into the gay world. It is in this "cultural scene," composed of both private and public contexts, that the individual learns how to be gay.

The life history of Louis that I give below is an attempt to show how a gay social and political identity emerged in a man raised in a prosperous and stable black family, the kind rarely mentioned in the literature on black society.

Louis was born in 1950, the third of five children and the elder son of May and Charlie Williams. Charlie was a prosperous realtor, born and raised in Harlem. He had completed high school and worked all his life in his uncle's business, which he was eventually to inherit. He hoped one of his sons would take it over, but one was interested in the arts and the other in basketball. May had come north from Georgia, following in the footsteps of two older sisters. One of them had been a successful jazz singer in the after-hours world of wartime Harlem but had succumbed to alcohol "and stuff" in 1946. That was about the time that her other sister had started taking her to Convent Baptist Church, "with all those monied folks." That's where she met the handsome Charlie. "You seen Louis. You ain't seen nothing," she once remarked. "You think Louis is pretty. Child, you shoulda seen his Daddy!"

Charlie's parents weren't too sure about a southern girl as a wife for their city son, but she regularly went to church, so that helped. They contributed to the couple's first home, in a tenement just north of 110th Street. Four children in four years meant that the family quickly outgrew their first apartment, but by then Charlie was doing quite well with "Uncle's help," so the family moved to 140th Street. This is the home that figures earliest in Louis's childhood memories.

The apartment was huge. It had a long entranceway, off which one could enter the three bedrooms or the two bathrooms. In the "rear" were a large living room with an alcove where the television was located, a dining room, and a large kitchen, which housed a breakfast table. Louis shared a bedroom with his younger brother. His two sisters at that time shared a bedroom also. (Louis's third sister was born


some fourteen years after him.) He recalls that he got along well with his brother. Both of the boys were out and about a lot. His brother played ball in the park most evenings and weekends, and Louis was able to have his friends over to play in the bedroom. Mostly they played cards or read, and sometimes his best friends would stay the night.

Louis's parents entertained a lot. He suspects that was because of his father's contacts in the business world. His mother was a wonderful cook. He remembers her peach cobbler with special affection. And he insists, "An' nobody, just nobody, cooks ribs like Ma!" On Sundays, Louis's aunt and her church friends would come to eat. That was always a great time to be home, because his aunt would bring over gifts for the children. Mostly they would be small toys or candy, but once she gave the children a bicycle, and Louis was put in charge.

Louis remembers his older sisters were always in school. Naomi and Rona had many friends who were always coming around. He didn't like them too much because they were always making noise and teasing him. His sisters were always allowed to stay up later and watch television. When Naomi was in eighth grade she had a boyfriend, Willie. He was a basketball player whom Louis admired very much. He was tall and dark and very handsome. He favored Isaac, Louis's younger brother, because Isaac was so good at playing ball. Louis also liked to play, but he was heavier and couldn't match Willie or Isaac on the court. But he persisted because he liked Willie so much. Willie and Naomi eventually married after they finished high school, and Willie became a successful professional ball player.

Ruth also married and has four children as well. She and her family live in New Rochelle, near Louis's mother. His brother lives in D.C. and works on and off as an electrician's assistant. "God knows how many nieces and nephews I got in D.C. Isaac has a different woman he's livin' with every time I see him. His trouble is that he's so fine and all these girls chase after him!"

Louis remembers the summers as a child especially. He would be allowed to play in the playground on the corner. It had swings and "things to climb all over." Trees shaded the mothers, grandmothers, and older sisters who took care of the children "in the park." His favorite part of the playground was where the fountain sprayed over the children. Sometimes if he and his sisters were really lucky his mother


would take them to Riverside Park or Central Park. One summer he remembers going to the Bronx Zoo. But it was hot and smelly. He remembers riding the elephant and watching the monkeys, but overall it "wasn't all that."

Louis had two very close friends during his early years at 140th Street. His best friend, Billy, lived in the same building, downstairs. Billy was a quiet child. He always liked to read, and sometimes he'd watch television with Louis. In fact, anything that Louis did Billy liked to do as well. Louis liked his friend. He was very good-looking and always supportive of Louis and his wild dreams. Early in life Louis had decided that he would become a famous singer or film star. He used to dress up and pretend to act parts, sometimes in front of the mirror, but most often in front of Billy. Billy would always cheer and clap, and sometimes tell Louis how he could do something better. Louis and Billy attended the same elementary school, a few blocks away from where they lived. They used to walk to and from school every day. One of Louis's older sisters would escort them. Another friend, Johnny, whom Louis had met at school, would join them on the way. Johnny was a year older than Louis and Billy, physically much bigger and more rugged in appearance. Even at elementary school, the girls followed Johnny around. He played basketball and football at school and always drew a large crowd to watch him perform. This was how Louis had heard of him and eventually got to know him. Louis also liked to play basketball, and he and Johnny became a very popular pair both on and off the court.

Louis notes that around about sixth grade he realized that his feelings for his two closest friends were different from the feelings he had toward a lot of his other friends and acquaintances at school and in the immediate neighborhood. He didn't understand them at the time, but at some point, in a bathroom at school, Johnny approached him and touched him. Louis recalls, "I always remember how good that felt. I mean I felt sick inside, you know. I suddenly felt I was in love or something. I just know I felt wonderful."

At some point over the next few months, as their sexual involvement increased, Louis told Johnny that he was in love with him and that he wanted to marry him. Louis had just simply decided that this was the person with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He compared the simplicity of his love at that time to the love of Fabian and Annette, or Bobby and Debbie, in the movies. But he says that it


did consume him and made him intensely jealous of all the girls who hung around Johnny at school. He used to get mad at Johnny for even talking with the girls. And Johnny used to get mad at him, eventually saying that Louis was worse than a girl. It was this statement of Johnny's that caused Louis to think that he really was different. Up to this point, Louis's upbringing typifies that of many of my informants who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. His introduction to same-sex behavior at the hands of a schoolmate is also typical. That experience was the turning point for him and others, an "awakening" as Willis called it, because the realization hit home that they were "different."

In the early 1960s, the word gay wasn't used to describe homosexual men in Harlem. But Louis remembers, when he was in high school, the first time that someone called him "homo."

LOUIS : I had been hanging around with Johnny so much and really sticking close by, so close I guess it was obvious that the two of us were too close. What pissed me off most was that Johnny heard it too and didn't do nothing. I mean he was my hero and I was hurtin' and I guess I expected him to fight this guy.

Louis stayed home from school the next day, feigning illness. That evening when Johnny came over Louis told him that he didn't want to see him anymore. Johnny told him to "get over it," that he had to understand that he, Louis, really was a "homo." Louis was very distressed. He didn't know what it meant. He knew that he was different, but he was happy the way he was. He knew that something was bad about being a "homo," but he felt he had no one but his good friend Johnny to talk to about it. They never did have sex again, but they remained close friends until Johnny went to high school in the Bronx.

Thereafter, Louis concentrated his efforts on his friendship with Billy. Billy was attractive but not as "manly" as Johnny. But there was something that Louis felt about him too. One day on the way home from school, the boys went to Riverside Park to watch the older guys play basketball. They were there quite late, when Billy told Louis to wait a while. Billy went off down by the river and didn't come back for a long time. Just as Louis was about to go looking for him, Billy emerged from the bushes with a man. Looking back, Louis thinks the guy wasn't all that old, but at that time he thought the guy was too old to be hanging out with Billy. Immediately Louis thought that Billy was up to something. On the way home he asked Billy what


was going on. But Billy was evasive. He told Louis that the guy was a friend from the neighborhood. But Louis hadn't seen him before. He persisted until Billy finally told him what they were doing. Louis was shocked and pleased. He couldn't wait to blurt out that he and Johnny were doing the same stuff. Billy said he knew but that he hadn't talked to Louis about it because he wasn't sure whether they could still be friends.

Sometime after that evening, Billy took Louis down to the park and eventually, after seeing the same man again, took Louis into the bushes. Louis enjoyed having sex with Billy but said it wasn't the same as with Johnny. He played a different role. And Billy was too close a friend (and confidant) for them to get into too much. They decided not to do it again but to be special friends. "Girlfriends!" Louis laughed.

This initial sexual encounter typically cements a lifelong commitment between two gay friends. Several informants related similar incidents in their development as gay men. Also, we see here the beginning of a gay social network that was to expand through high school and college years. Typically many of these friendships are maintained in adult life.

Louis and Billy both attended George Washington High School in Harlem. They were in the same class right through school, and both were better than average students. Louis won a scholarship to go to college, but Billy did not even graduate.

LOUIS : Most of our crowd just studied. We all liked our books. None of us was really sports-oriented. We left that to the boys! We supported them and all, 'cause we liked the sports, and the boys, but we only did that because we wanted them. You know. If we got up to anything those days it would be on the way home from school. 'Cause once I was home I wasn't comin' back out. Not in those days. It was "Do your homework, boy!" But it got me into books, and dreaming. Hours and hours of dreaming. That's why I'm here today. Doin' what I'm doin'. Because of those years.

Occasionally at school Louis would engage in sex, usually with some younger guy. He had two good places to take boys when he wanted to have sex—one in the gymnasium, the other down a tree-filled bank.

LOUIS : I didn't do much at school, really. Not really. I mean I got caught once and that made me cautious. I was having a good time too. The best I'd ever had. And this kid was screaming. He was screaming so loud that's what at-


tracted them. One of the teachers and some students, I think from the basketball team, came and caught us.

But Louis and Billy discovered (or heard about from friends at the same school) several places they could go and see or participate in sex on the way home from school.

LOUIS : Our favorite were the parks. You could spend hours there, just watching. And some fine motherfuckers would come on up in there. I even had sex once with the captain of the school basketball team. I fucked him real good. He never spoke to me at school, but I had him. If only all those sissies, and those girls, knew that! . . . I had a teacher. I had some prominent people from around Harlem. I had a TV star.

One particular park seems to have been their favorite. It also features in the life histories of many of the other gay black men I met in Harlem. For some of them it is still an important meeting place for sexual encounters, although the current drug epidemic in Harlem has made the gay area of the park somewhat unsafe. Louis and Billy would go there two or three times a week on the way home from school. They spent hours wandering around the paths and watching older men engage in sex. Louis recalls that it was quite an education. Although he had worked out what to do, actually to see the particular act take place was quite thrilling. Occasionally, the guys would go to the park on the weekends. But Louis thought that it was too crowded, and they might have been recognized: "They was all up in there. Everyone. You never know who you gonna run into. And it was too crowded. I didn't like that. They was comin' at you from every direction." But the park was where Louis first engaged in oral sex—"a scary thing, the first time"—and where he and Billy made many of the friendships with gay people their own age that persist today. Public settings for sex such as this feature prominently in the life histories of many gay men. Apart from the fact that access was free, and no age limit was enforced (as for bars), sexual experience was gained, anonymously, and entry into gay life established.

About this time, 1969–1970, the word gay became familiar to Louis and his friends. During the summer before their last year in high school, some gay people had rioted downtown, night after night, and fought for their rights to hang out together, to be gay together, and to have sex and relationships with whom they liked. These, of course, were the Stonewall riots, a memorable event in history for gay people the world over. What this event did for Louis and


other young gay men in Harlem was to enlighten them about the fact that a whole section of town was gay. Just as Harlem was for blacks, so Greenwich Village was for gays. Louis used to think that he had been born into the wrong part of town. He should have been born and raised in Greenwich Village.

LOUIS : I used to dream that I had been born in Greenwich Village to these two fierce gay men. They had a beautiful house and I had a very happy life. I dreamt I went to a gay school and met all these beautiful boys, and I fell in love and got married.

But Louis had never been to Greenwich Village.

In July or August 1969, before entering their senior year at high school, Louis Williams and Billy Pritchard emerged from the Interborough Rapid Transit subway line at Christopher Street for the first time. Louis recalls it as a colorful sight.

LOUIS : The place was full of hippies. I mean I'd seen them on TV, but here they were live. Hundreds of them holding hands and kissing each other. And a lot of them were men kissing men. I remember us like country boys, standing and staring. All these men. Even black ones. And black and white ones together. I remember that really affecting me. To see black and white men together. That was a trip.

The guys didn't venture too far from the subway. They found the Stonewall Inn, in Sheridan Square, and paid homage along with the many others who were milling around outside the boarded-up bar. They soon returned to the subway, having explored enough for a first visit and because they were a little scared in case they got into trouble. Being raised with a heightened awareness of racial differences, they were not sure how they would be accepted downtown. The fact that black and white men were together questioned basic assumptions that Louis held about life. Although being gay obviously cuts across racial barriers and has instilled in Louis a sense of pride in being gay, he has never had a white friend, let alone a white lover.

An important event in the development of being gay for all the informants was a "first visit" to a gay section of town or to a gay bar. All expressed some sense of relief, not just at the security of being away from prying family or suspected homophobic neighbors but at the discovery of others like themselves, doing normal things like dancing, drinking, kissing, holding hands, relaxing, and having a good time.


When school started again, Louis and Billy shared their experiences with their gay friends at school. There was much talk about setting up a gay liberation club at school, but they were not sure how "scandalous" that might be. Harlem wasn't ready for them, yet. Some years later such a club was formed at that high school, and on the club's unofficial "honors list" are the names of Louis and Billy, as Stonewallers.

The last year at high school was difficult. Louis wanted to go to college and was aiming at a private school in upstate New York, a liberal arts college that would provide him with the education he would need to become a star. But gay life was developing all over the city. More parks and bars, and even the bathhouse, in Harlem, beckoned to him. Louis remembers it all "bursting forth."

LOUIS : It was really me bursting forth on all of it. I mean suddenly I found all these things to do. I started drinking a lot, and going to the bars down on 125th Street. There were a whole lot of them. And all the noise and bright lights of the gay scene at that time. And all the men. I could have sex anywhere, anytime, with anyone I wanted. People begged me to go home with them. But I never did. I mean I had sex with them all right, but I wouldn't go to their homes. I was frightened they wouldn't let me go. And I didn't know who'd be at home with them. But I had a ball.

Louis didn't fall in love at this time—fortunately, he says—so he was able to strike a balance between going out, mainly at night and on the weekends, when it was all happening, and staying in when schoolwork demanded it. However, his friend Billy did fall in love.

LOUIS : Billy met a guy who was working at Macy's. He was handsome, and he had lots of money. At least we thought so. Anyway, I've forgotten his name, but he used to take us out. We'd go to parties all over town, even to his friends' in Brooklyn. Sometimes we'd stay out all night. But that was mainly when we went to the discos. We were trying all sorts of drugs and drinking. But I said only on the weekends. That was where Billy went wrong. He was going out with these guys all through the week. He didn't come to school. Until he got into real trouble. And his parents found out. And he got a beating. So, he moved out and lived with that guy in Brooklyn. I used to see him sometimes, but I haven't seen him in years now. I don't even know if he's alive.

It was at this time that the education, career plans, and other dreams of many of the gay men I interviewed were derailed. The 1970s, and all that those years meant for gay men in New York City, undoubtedly played a part. Gay liberation, emerging gay social and


political organizations, and the establishment of a large gay scene of bars, clubs, and discos provided these men with places to be gay. Suddenly many men found that they could live "gay" lives, even openly, in the company of many like souls. Most of this new lifestyle, however, was conducted late at night because of the marginalization of gay culture by mainstream New York society (and because many gay men wished to remain discreet). This after-hours lifestyle often interfered with other aspects of gay men's lives. Many did not realize that it would cost them money, time, and sometimes their jobs or schooling.

According to Louis's mother, Billy's expulsion from school and his running away from home was the moment when she realized that Louis too was possibly gay. However, after that incident, Louis settled down, stayed home more often, and studied hard. This reduced her concerns about his gayness. She noted that he was young, and it might be a stage that he was going through or a matter of his hanging out with a wild crowd. She never discussed the issue with him and soon forgot about it.

Louis says that Billy's moving away meant that he did not go out as much and that staying at home probably did help his schoolwork. He was delighted in the spring of 1970 to hear that he was going to college. He was so excited about his good fortune that he had trouble settling down to the last weeks of school.

The next four years were a mixture of pleasure and pain. College days provided Louis with an opportunity to shine academically, especially with his acting, directing, and writing. He also enjoyed an active sports life, but his interest was mainly in the other players. Louis described many of the sexual encounters he enjoyed at college. The dormitory situation provided the growing network of gay friends with many opportunities to engage in sexual encounters. Some of these men went on to marry and have families, but many of them, with whom Louis keeps in touch, remained gay. In his junior year, Louis met Terrence, a "tall, handsome, light-skinned boy" who was a superb basketball player and a gentle, understanding friend. They became buddies on and off the court. Eventually they became lovers. Through the following summer, which Louis spent in Washington, D.C., where Terrence came from, the two developed the basis of what was to become a ten-year affair.

After college, Louis moved to D.C. for six years and lived with Terrence. They were a popular couple in the gay community and well known in the discos and bars. They both worked office jobs for differ-


ent government departments. Louis recalls this as the happiest time of his life. He had the security of a relationship and of a well-paying, full-time job. Unlike many of their friends in D.C. who were struggling to break free from family constraints and improve their socioeconomic status, Louis and Terrence had it made. However, after six years, during which Louis freely admits to a very promiscuous sex life outside of the relationship, the yearning to return to the arts became too great. Not foreseeing the opportunities he desired in D.C., Louis set his sights on New York. Fortunately, Terrence was a willing partner, and the couple moved to New York City in 1981. Louis's constant unemployment, the cost of living in the city, and continued promiscuity, especially on Louis's part, tore the couple apart. Terrence returned to D.C. Although they remain the best of friends and visit each other frequently, Louis is sometimes remorseful. Both men have moved on to other relationships, but Louis remembers that one with Terrence as being exemplary.

Socialization and Coming Out

Socialization through social interaction has been the theoretical perspective adopted by many of the social scientists who have written about homosexual and gay men.[5] According to these social scientists, gay life, gay desire and sexual behavior, and the social etiquette of being gay are learned socially in the gay scene.[6] Some of my informants' experience supports this view.

GILBERT : Everything I learned from her. Mother [an older gay black man] taught me how to dress and how to pick up men.

LEONARD : Most of what I know about actually being gay came from hanging out in the scene. You know, gay talk.

For some researchers the process of entering and interacting in the gay scene and assimilating "gay" behavior is called "coming out," the final stage of gay identity acquisition.[7]

For most of the informants in this study "coming out" means much more than just entering the "gay scene." Coming out is a major event in their lives: they have to make a conscious effort to inform family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers of their homosexuality, as


well as participate in "the Life." When they ventured to inform their families and friends about their gay identities, most were received with compassion and continued friendship. There were, of course, a variety of responses to the discovery of a gay son. In a few instances, some family members or friends chose not to deal with the issue further but still maintained social relations with the gay man in question. Thus, in Harlem, signs of disapproval are mild, if present at all.

ARNEL : It wasn't till some time after [high school] that one of the [three] guys [I had sex with] said we were all homosexuals. Then we knew we were different. . . . I had my daughter much later. When I had finished college. I was just sick of all this running around. And all these goddam men that you can't trust. So, I just started this friendship with this girl. She knew what the story was. We got sexual, only a few times, and now we has a kid. She's gone off to California, and me and Mom are raising her. But I didn't come out till after all that. I just didn't want to upset my mother. I love her dearly. Will do anything for her. To protect her. And I didn't want to upset her. But when S—— left me, and with the child, and I didn't really care, I thought I'd better explain the whole relationship to my mother. Well, she was a bit upset, but she said I was still her son and she still loved me. . . . Yes, I told them [his father, three brothers, and two sisters] after I told my mother. My father won't hear of it. It's not discussed in his presence. And the others just don't care. I mean it don't bother them. Even when I went back to Barbados and told Grandma, and my cousins, they don't care. You see, it doesn't affect their lives, so it doesn't mean anything to them. Well, now of course, they always askin' after my health. But I mean it really didn't affect our relationships.

Often the coming out process is provoked by the actions of others. Usually family members or close friends who may suspect an individual is gay will actually ask about it.

LOUIS : My brother asked me actually. I guess he'd heard something from someone. You know how us black folks is. You can't keep no secrets from no one! So I thought, well, I ain't gonna lie to my brother. We was pretty close, and he really looked up to me. But I thought, if it destroyed our relationship, bad luck! So I told him. Then I thought what a relief. It felt good. Especially 'cause you know, he didn't go off on me or anything. He took it quite calmly. And he knew a lot of my friends and be liked all o' us. So I guess he just accepted it. Then I thought well I'd better tell the rest of them, otherwise they gonna hear it from all over. So that same night I called my mother and sisters together and sat them down. I poured Mama a cocktail and just told them. The girls giggled a bit. And Mama gave me a hug and said she sorta knew. They thought it was alright. So that was that. . . . I don't lie to nobody. My co-workers, you know the ones that I work with every day, they know. And the neighbors know that [Paul] and I are together. You know, like when I


got mugged that time and they helped me. I'm sure they wouldn't have bothered if I hadn't been more open and friendly to them.

However, for many gay men in Harlem, coming out was not a major concern, because their homosexuality, and later their gay identity, had always been assumed by family and friends. There was no need to "come out." Folks in their social networks had gradually taken for granted their sexual orientation.

DONNY : I was always a sissy, honey. I mean I always had girlfriends. You know, hanging out with the girls. I can remember Daddy sayin' that it wasn't healthy for a boychild to be hangin' round with all them girls. I used to do their hair and their nails. And go clothes shopping with them. You know, on Saturdays, we'd go out and buy clothes for them to wear. And at school all my friends were girls. Now some of the boys were jealous of that. Because I'd have all these girlfriends. But that was OK, 'cause I'd have all the boys hanging around and askin' me 'bout the girls, you know. But I'd have my hair done. And all my clothes were latest fashion. And I guess a bit too much for most of the kids. You know, they could tell I was gay. Even before I knew it. But I didn't think it was bad. You know like anything was wrong or anything. I just was like that. . . . I think because I thought it was natural then they all thought it was natural. No one ever caused any trouble. Sometimes the kids will call out "sissy" or "faggot," but I'd just say, "So what?" . . . I'm just myself. I carry on like this all the lime. My brothers and sisters know. I think they probably heard the kids at school or on the block, you nobody talkin' about me. So, they just knew. I didn't have to tell nobody. Everyone just kinda knew.

Sometimes, this gradual assumption on the part of family and friends concerning a man's sexual orientation resulted from a man's participation in a prolonged relationship with a lover, especially if the relationship was live-in.[8]

STANLEY : I've always had a lover. Always. Ever since I left school I've been livin' with one lover or the other. I think that's how they found out. I mean, look at [London]. He's a real sissy. I mean, the way that child carries on. Well, I guess we were all like that too when we were younger. So, it has to be obvious. They have to know. . . . I did actually tell my mother. When this AIDS thing happened. But she knew already. She told me she knew because all my friends were like that. All the children I'd be bringin' home. They were all sissies. So she could tell. And she would party with us sometimes. And the children'd be carryin' on. So I didn't have to come out. All the family knew. So it was no big deal.

Some gay black men lead fulfilling lives as gay men without coming out to family or friends. Protecting family from any distress they may


endure after finding out a son or brother is gay is the most frequently cited reason for not coming out to parents and siblings.

CECIL : My parents were so old by the time I decided to tell them that I thought in the end why do they need to be upset at this age. If they don't know by now it's not going to affect them by not knowing at all. I've been thinkin' about telling my sister, but she can be shady at times. So, I will, but not till after Mama and Daddy is gone.

Not wishing to offend people or their religious sentiments is another reason for not coming out to friends and co-workers. A gay man will be especially unwilling to come out if he suspects that people will not understand or if he fears they will not be tolerant.

QUINT : My brother knows. He was the one that took me into the Life. So we know about each other. But no one else in the family knows. No one. That's like it's our secret. . . . There's no need to go rockin' the boat. They don't understand things like that. Not down South. Especially with all that church stuff. They don't understand. . . . No one at the bank knows. I haven't told them. It's not their need to know. When I go out with them, I drink with them and dance with the girls. You know, but it is hard sometimes 'cause the girls in the office might wanna go out wit' you. And you keep turnin' them down. So they may be gettin' a bit suspicious. But I ain't tellin' them. It's my business.

As Quint says, the question of his sexuality and what he does in private is his business. No one needs to know.

Those who live away from their families, or maintain separate gay social networks, often feel no necessity to "rock the boat."[9]

CLEVELAND : All my friends are up here. All of them are in Harlem. I don't go out with anyone downtown. They don't come up here. I mean, if we go out after work, then we go to a bar for a drink. Somewhere near work. They don't come up here. And we don't go down there. . . . Yeah, they're two separate worlds.

Gay black men often raise this duality when they discuss their gay identity as opposed to their black identity, which has a visible dimension and cannot be hidden.[10]

As the quotations above indicate, "coming out" was not a major challenge for many of the gay men in Harlem. When it was, their experiences were often similar to the experiences reported for gay men elsewhere in the United States.[11]

The relatively calm response to news that a son is gay stems from the fact that being gay is not on the whole regarded as deviant in Harlem. And while some people do regard homosexuality as aberrant,


the overtones are not as dramatic as in mainstream American society. Difference, not deviance, is the primary basis for social categorization. This is not to say that deviance is not recognized in Harlem. Truly deviant categories of people include those who live on the margins of black society and disrupt the lives of folks as they go about their daily business, for example, drug dealers and crackheads. Attitudes toward gays are best encapsulated in the following comment by a non-gay female Baptist churchgoer, who finds the sexual behavior between two people less important than companionship and other forms of social interaction.

MONA : It don' matter to me. You be what you want, son. It's you that has to make peace with the Lord. . . . For me, I's just pleased you got someone. That's what's important. Don' matter who. As long as you got someone.

Issues of sexual preference apparently are not a paramount concern to black people whose society has already been marginalized by mainstream white America.


The desire to enter into homosexual relations informs much of the expressive behavior of gay men, especially in gay public places. Many of the verbal and nonverbal expressions gay men utilize in the process of meeting potential sex partners bear some sexual innuendo.[12] Their "performance" in public settings indicates to gays and non-gays alike that they are homosexual, that they are expressly interested in a particular person, and that they are interested in a particular sex act with that person. The use of symbols (such as earrings and colored handkerchiefs) for a particular desired behavior is an important statement about identity; it indicates not only gay identity but specific sexual and social roles within gay culture.

ZACHARY : They [colored handkerchiefs hanging from a back pocket] indicated that you were active or passive in relation to a specific sex act. You know, different colors meant different acts. And if you wore it on the right it meant that you were passive, and vice versa. But more general things like the earrings were just general signs of being gay.

Gay men use many other verbal and nonverbal gestures to express interest in a potential sex partner. Often one man will approach another


and ask directly if he is interested in having sex. Usually, however, the process of "cruising"—of showing interest and eventually picking up someone—involves a series of nonverbal introductory gestures.

ROMAN : [It's the] way he walks. And talks. Way he looks at other men. They get the message that you're interested. It's the way you carry yourself. And the things you say and do. Like, using your tongue to show him you want him. Touching him in a special way. Very affectionate.

WILBERT : [It's] not so much what he wears. Rather in the way he does things. Like walk. Or the things we do to pick up men. The small talk when we meet men. The way we look at one another. The way we touch. Or use our bodies. Like the one we saw that night on the bar. Sticking his butt out. He heard us talkin' about it. . . . And he knew we was lookin' at it. . . . Those sort of things indicate that you're gay.

Eye contact is the most frequently cited cruising gesture. Walking in the street, in a crowded store or disco, and most especially at a gay social gathering, or in a bar, gay men regard such stares as the first step in cruising. Asking someone for a cigarette or a light and buying someone a drink are also very common introductory gestures.[13]

All of these gestures add up to a wide variety of expressly sexual signs (see also Fast 1978; Read 1980). Yet most of these gestures, which appear to be more openly expressed in the gay scene in Harlem than elsewhere, indicate much more than just sexual interest. They indicate gender roles as expressed in gay society.


Verbal and nonverbal messages not only indicate that an actor is gay but also usually reflect feminine or masculine role playing as dictated by the dominant heterosexual culture in which gay black lives are practiced. Many of the expressive elements of gay black culture elicited from my informants were explained as defining gender roles within gay society and within sexual relationships.

GREGORY : They'll do things like talk with female pronouns, or do womanly things, like stand with their hands on their hips, especially when they read someone. That'll give the general impression that they're gay. And to some men that they're interested in being the feminine part of a sexual relationship.

NATE : Some will give you sort of effeminate moves that show they sissies. Like stares, or sticking their tongue out. Or switching their butt. . . . It means


they're different to other men. They do things unmanly. By society's judgment. That's why a whole lotta people don't like gays. Because they break the rules of behavior. . . . That's what I like about the Life. Now, I'm quiet. I hang out and gets me my stuff. But I stand on the sidelines and watch these people. They're so entertaining. Straight life must be so boring. Because everyone conforms. These gay kids carry on. They give you the wrong colors at the wrong time. They give you dance and great tea [gossip]. And their whole delivery is not how men are supposed to do it.

Kenneth Read's (1980) study is significant in the literature on gay society. His description of the bar as a stage sets the scene for his analysis of social interactions between bar patrons as ritual—for example, the obligatory repartee between "male" hustlers and "female" drag queens. Read's dramaturgical analysis of the social roles of these bar patrons as "players" (for example, King, who is "ordinarily masculine," and Pocahontas, who "has assumed all the visible attributes of a woman's role") illuminates his thesis that these men's performance of gender roles is but an act—a "symbolic enactment" of the heterosexual male-female role dichotomy. What is most important is that these men are fully aware that they are engaged in role playing. In fact, their acting leads Read to conclude that gender roles in mainstream American society are a "cultural myth," because they are social constructions masquerading as biological truths that preclude homosexual behavior.

The list of statuses for which the homosexual is ineligible, or for which his eligibility is very questionable, is almost endless, and his ineligibility is "justified" by other myths, one after another, that embroider upon the fundamental myth of gender and its notions of natural complements and oppositions (Read 1980:164)

The social construction of male and female roles will continue to be debated as long as distinct biological differences inform people's conceptions of the sexes. Most of my informants, however, have a very clear perception of very real roles—in fact, of very real male and female identities, which they have learned from observations made during their socialization in black society. What is important about Read's study for an analysis of gay life in Harlem is that it highlights the differences between the social roles expected of masculine-acting gay men and feminine-acting gay men. In Harlem, these roles are recognized by my informants and are consciously reenacted in their role playing in the gay scene.[14]


The conscious choice to play an exaggerated feminine or masculine (butch) role in gay black society, however, is chiefly a creative expression of sexual intention; that is, the feminine "sissy" character in a gay setting may consciously act this way to attract a "butch" homosexual male simply because he believes "opposites attract."[15] This gender role playing in cruising, though, does not necessarily indicate that such roles will be continued in other areas of social life.

ROMAN : I tease them. Play with them. You know, if I want them. To show them I'm interested in them. But being girl doesn't mean I'm a woman. I'm a man. A real man. . . . I run my household. I work. I dress and act like a man. I'm a man. Only when I'm interested in another man will you see me being girl.

Performance Culture

Being recognized for one's creativity is socially important. In fact, having a sense of style and innovation are key elements of gay identity in Harlem. The expressive aspects of black culture discussed in the previous chapter and the expressive elements of gay culture being discussed here do indeed reflect extraordinary levels of creativity at the hands of the individuals involved. Indeed, gay black men are often doubly skilled in verbal and nonverbal expression. The creativity involves clothing and hair fashions, dance, vocabulary skills, and verbal agility. Some of the elements of fashion that my informants claim as gay include the following.

LUTHER : Earrings. Pinkie rings. Those colored handkerchiefs. Buttons. Colors. Clothes. Drag. Hairdos. Long nails. Shoes. Color coordination. Slang. Wrist movements. Swishing. Dancing well. Dishing. Trashing. Reading. Vogueing. Cock rings. Nipple rings. Leather adornments.

SHERMAN : I mean there are buttons. Pink triangles. AIDS buttons. But mainly it would be fashionable clothing. A bit avant-garde. The way that he may put an outfit together. The way he wears it. The way that he walks and talks. That may indicate that he's gay.

KENT : Some of them will give you fashions down. I mean they'll rock you with some of the shit they come in here with.

BARRY : Jewelry, clothes, colors, gestures, snapping, limp wrists, calling each other "girlfriend."


COLIN : He always dresses well. Sometimes in drag, you know. Wearing jewelry. Rings. Earrings. Then there's swishin' and sashayin'. And language. You know, the way the girls call each other "girlfriend" or "sister." Manicured nails. Makeup. Hairdos.

Many elements of fashion and behavior serve dual functions for gay men. Through clothing and gestures, gay men are able to conspicuously challenge prescribed standards of maleness. On another level, many of the gestures and articles of clothing mentioned by my informants contribute to a kind of visual vocabulary used by gay men to distinguish themselves from others. By recognizing and imitating these visual cues, gay black men consciously identify themselves as members of a special in-group. Having an innovative sense of style, therefore, demonstrates not only a unique creative ability but also a mastery of that visual language which separates insiders from outsiders.

Verbal Expression

In gay speech, common words or expressions take on uncommon meanings, sometimes inverting the original English meaning, sometimes highlighting an aspect of that original meaning. Such virtuosity has long been a feature of gay culture.[16]

Shade, read, tired, over, and fierce were some of the words I heard often in Harlem which retained special meaning for my gay black informants. To "throw shade" or to be "shady" means to display a skeptical attitude toward something or someone, usually by the nonverbal gesture of glancing away while rolling the eyes. It can also refer to an underhanded critique of one person by another, as Richmond meant when he said, "That whole conversation was shady. It ain't no way to talk about yo' friend." To "read" someone means that one is going to reproach the listener for some earlier activity or comment.

RICHMOND : I read the child, honey. I read her deep. She didn't have no right comin' in here and spooking me like that. She knows the door is shut for a reason. Yes, honey. Can't be she's never locked no door. You know if the door's locked then the children [gay men] are carryin' on. At least knock so they can know to pull their pants up.


If something is "tired," it is either unworthy of attention, trashy, or at best unoriginal, as in Terry's comment, "He was tired, honey. He had dirty old jeans on, and dirty sneakers." The adjective over (pronounced "o'fa") means that its subject is extraordinarily attractive and therefore the opposite of "tired." It is used most frequently in reference to someone's boyfriend or to an outfit worn at a disco and is often accompanied by a "high snap." Thus Winston noted, "That boy dancin' with Miss W——. Honey, that child was over! Did you see the thighs on him?" Finally, "fierce" has a meaning similar to "over," although it seems to be more commonly used.[17] Cletuh, for example, once commented to me, "Child, that's a fierce coat you wearin'. I'd like me a piece o' that. Who cut [made] that for you?"


Verbal expressiveness is often colorfully used in the hyperbolic embellishments of "tea" (gossip), as in the following example.[18]

DARRELL : I been with all o' them. All of them. Some of them is OK. You know, they take care of you. You know, like give you carfare. Buy you something to eat. Maybe buy you a new pair o' sneakers. Maybe you can stay with them for a while. You know, move in. I had a guy once who'd let me live with him. But his place was small, you know, so I felt bad doin' that to him. Then there was another guy who bought me a gold watch. Yeah, he was real nice. Wanted to take me to Puerto Rico with him on his holidays. But that was too much. I had to stop him.

Sexual exploits are a favorite topic of gossip, but so are clothing styles, shopping bargains, information concerning new clubs, news events, and politics, church attendance, food served at a party, television shows, the welfare of acquaintances and friends, and their love lives, and severe but witty criticism of any of the above. Quint provided us with a harsh review of a bar he had never actually visited.

QUINT : We heard from [Nicholas] that the place was alright on Tuesdays, but otherwise only the old girls go there. I mean real old. Ancient. They can't even get up and walk let alone dance. Can you imagine a disco full of ol'


queens like Miss [Moses]. All they can do is sit an' stare. They be fallin' over each other to get there, then they can't do shit once they're there. That place is too tired, child. Let's try the P.

Sarcastically criticizing a third party's behavior or dress is known as "dishing." This contrasts with "reading," which is more like a sarcastic reprimand. Both of these forms of verbal interaction are frequently found in "tea."

DONNY : Child, did you see the way that bitch read that boy. She was through [angry] with him. I don't know what the poor child had done by her, but she let loose. She read his ass.

RICHMOND : I was at Miss T——'s. We were taking tea. Oh, you shoulda heard us. We was dishing y'all. We spared none o' yo' asses. We did all o' yo' husbands. Miss D——'s. Miss M——'s. Miss K——'s. We did 'em all. Like that time when Miss D——'s boyfriend came up to the house all high and shit. She was livid. She was all dressed up and ready to go to Tracks and her husband was all fucked up [high]. Honey, Miss D—— read the boy for that. Embarrassing her like that. And in front of all o' us too. She was too much.

Most frequently, though, "tea" details the sex lives and relationships of friends and acquaintances. Below, Gilbert bemoans the fact that his best friend, Barry, asked an ex-lover of Gilbert's to a birthday party. The party was small and intimate, with large quantities of food and alcohol, good music, and conversation. But the only reference to the party was framed by Gilbert in his own interests.

GILBERT : That ain't right. You know it ain't. It ain't right that Miss Thing be doin' that shit. It was real shady o' her. She was my best friend. Now she be goin' and askin' them to her party like that. Child, she wears me out. Do you hear me. That was so shady of her.

Gilbert went on to discuss Barry's financial affairs in a bar one evening when a friend approached and indicated to Gilbert that Barry was having some problems with his landlord. The speaker had made no reference to money, but Gilbert, in the company of three or four others, saw fit to raise the issue. He was advising his other friends that, should Barry request a loan, they should not offer to bail him out, since he had not repaid loans Gilbert had made earlier.

GILBERT : She always be doin' that. You know, she needs help with that problem. She can't be goin' doin' her drugs, runnin' around wit' them boys, buyin' them drinks, and throwing grand diva parties, when she should be payin' her rent. That's the same old story wit' her. She always be doin' that.


As a senior member of the gay social scene in Harlem, Cleveland's opinions and advice were highly valued. He passed judgment on everybody's behavior in the bars and clubs, in church and at dances, and most especially in their relationships.

CLEVELAND : They always be up in church together. It don't take too much to work that out. Everyone sees them every Sunday. So they all know what's goin' on. . . . I admire her [Cecil] for tryin' to do somethin' for that boy [Cameron]. She dresses him nice. Gives him some spending money. But mark my words, he'll do something. He'll mess up. They always do. They're just plain no good. Ain't no good. And nothing you can do will change that. They just no good through and through.

Here Cleveland discusses the relationship developing between Cecil and Cameron. Cecil is a "church girl" and member of a clique of Baptist church supporters whose regular attendance and participation in church affairs in the neighborhood had earned them a special title. Cameron, a twenty-seven-year-old unemployed hustler who is kept by Cecil while struggling to overcome crack addiction, is a very popular member of the community. He is a tall, attractive man who has participated in the gay community since his high school years. A former lover had died and left him a considerable fortune (rumored to be a few hundred thousand dollars), which he squandered on drugs. Cecil met him in a bar one evening and has taken care of him since. This relationship was still going strong when I terminated the research and was well respected by other members of the community. For once, it appeared, Cleveland's predictions had not come true.

Recounting sexual conquests is one of the more common topics of "tea," especially in the social scene. Sometimes such gossip is based on the assumption that a sexual encounter has taken place. Often it involves "spooking" (catching someone in the act) or "outing" (disclosing that someone is gay). Richmond, for example, recalls, "And then the time when S—— and B—— were in bed, and Miss D—— walked in one them. . . . We laughed about that for hours. We just kept on with the stories. Right up till midnight."

Having homosexual experiences is not enough to establish one's gayness. For these gay men, being able to talk about these experiences with style and wit is also required to maintain gay social standing. As a vehicle for demonstrating knowledge and expertise and for giving advice and strong opinions on social relations among gay black men, the mastery of such "tea" is essential for the performance of a


gay black identity. Being especially clever with the language of "tea" can also bring a man prestige within the gay scene.

The Scene

Most gay black men regard active participation in the gay scene as an important means of expressing their gay identity. Socializing in bars and other public institutions, reading the gay press, and supporting gay businesses are activities that contribute to a gay "sensibility."[19]

In Harlem there are very few businesses identified as exclusively gay. Many customers may be unaware that the managers of some stores are gay, yet the businesses known to be operated by members of the gay scene, such as flower shops, hair salons, and mortuaries, are strongly supported by a gay clientele.

ZACHARY : I buy my meat from a gay butcher. I get my haircut by my dear sister B——. I go to gay films. I go to hear [Louis] and [Francis] sing. I go to the Cotton Club dances. I've seen [Hamilton] dance. I do anything if the girls are involved. That's being gay to me.

Supporting gay friends in their "endeavors" is also important to "being gay."

ORVILLE : I have always tried to support my friends in their endeavors. I always try to patronize gay stores, or places where gay people work because I feel that if someone hires an openly gay employee, then we should show our appreciation and support their business. . . . Like [Gregory}. I always go to him for my flowers. It's a bit out of my way, but he lets me phone in orders. Then I pay him when I see him.

Although no specifically black gay publication is available in Harlem, some of my informants ocasionally read mainstream gay papers, including the New York Native and Outweek .

Most important, maintaining a presence in the gay social scene is regarded as essential not only to the maintenance of that scene but also to the experience of being gay.

LESTER : Personally, I think it's important for us to keep going to the bars and places. I mean they're the main part of gay life. So many queens won't go out no more. I understand and all, but if we don't go, they're gonna close them all


down. And then where will we all go? The scene is the most important part of gay life. It's where it's all happening.

The gay bars in Harlem, although not owned by gay men, are well patronized by a gay clientele. The bathhouse is also always well attended, and various other social clubs are frequented by gay men, especially if gay employees are regularly present or if gay entertainers are performing. These institutions constitute the core of the gay "scene," and some men deem participation in it to be an essential part of one's gay social identity.

MOSES : You ain't gay 'less you go to the bars. All gay people everywhere, all over the country, men and women, they be goin' to the bars. It's like the most important part of gay life. It always has been. That's how you know someone is really gay. When they start turnin' up at a gay bar. It's always been like that, too. Even for us. I mean we all knows one another from the church. But it was at the bar that we came to know each other best. . . . It's here where we relax. That we can carry on. . . . It's a way of life. The bars are a part of that. It's part of us. It's says what we are.

Yet it is important to note that in Harlem some men find it unnecessary to frequent gay bars to maintain a gay identity.[20]

LEONARD : I have many friends like that. Sure, they're gay. They have sex with other men. It's just that they don't hang out in the bars. You know, maybe they don't drink, or they don't like the stigma of being associated with the sleaze. 'Cause it can be sleazy. Look at [Pete's Paradise]. It's really a filthy place. They haven't cleaned that place in years. Not since I've been comin' out. And you can be damn sure they haven't painted the place since it opened centuries ago. So, yeah, I don't blame them. You know, for not wanting to come out. Not when it's like that. Plus all the kids doin' their drugs and stuff. And the hustlers. They can wear you out sometimes. There's really no small, quiet, intimate type place to meet friends. It's all loud noise and music and people and drugs.

In fact, most gay men in Harlem do not frequent the gay bars and clubs there, yet they maintain social networks of gay friends in the gay community. They socialize elsewhere in Harlem, in other ways.

MILTON : Most of my friends don't know about the bars and clubs. They'll probably be most interested to hear from you! You probably know more about the scene [in Harlem] than they do. . . . Most of them are from out of town. Yes. And most of them are middle class. You know, college educated, professionals. They don't drink in bars period. Let alone these after-hours clubs around here. . . . We spend most of the time having dinner together. Going to the movies or a play. Maybe shopping on Saturdays. Going to each


other's homes for dinner. But most of the time we don't socialize in the scene. . . . What's really interesting is that many of these men, my friends, wouldn't be able to function in the bars. In the scene here. They've never been exposed to that culture. I mean they wouldn't know how to pick up a man in a bar. They don't do drugs or drink that much. I know they wouldn't enjoy themselves.[21]

Other Gay Activities

Maintaining a household, being able to cook and entertain, maintaining a busy social calendar and a large social network of close friends, keeping in contact with family, obtaining a good education, and maintaining a stable career are also important features of being gay for the gay black men in this study. These sociocultural aspects of the daily lives of gay men are seen as integral parts of their ability to function as gay men. Such activities, which contradict the popular image of being a man in Harlem, appear to be similar to those of most Americans.

WILBERT : No matter what time I get home, child, I'll always get up for work. I'm good like that. I never miss work. That's my life. If I lost my job, child, I'd be on the street. . . . Of course, you know I wouldn't. I know my mother and father won't allow that to happen. But you know what I mean. I'd be so embarrassed. What would the girls think of me. That's one thing. Gay men are always hard workers. Always.

Keeping house and an extraordinary ability to entertain with food are regarded as especially important attributes of being a gay man.

WALTER : Now, those children can cook. I mean it's more than the fact that they run that restaurant. They got that from their Mama. She was a great cook. A great entertainer. That's where they got that from. Both of them. . . . Anytime they be havin' a party, the children will be fightin' to go. 'Cause you know the children will have food down [well prepared and plentiful].

Most important, loyalty to and support of consanguineous kin are significant features of gay black life. According to my informants, this deep concern for kin is born out of being gay and a need for security.

PAUL : You look at [Louis]. He's paying for his sister to go to school [college]. A whole lotta his friends are doin' just that. Payin' for their sisters and brothers to go to school. Or helping out their best friends who're in school. Or their


kids. You know [Clarence]. He has put all his kids through school [college]. Now that's amazing. Most straight people don't do that. They don't do that at all. And not with their gay children. If you see a gay man who's educated then you can know that he has paid for his education himself.

While all of these features of their cultural lives also encapsulate the values of mainstream America (Ehrenreich 1990), these gay men feel that they more often demonstrate the values that they are taught non-gay men espouse. They are very quick to point out that straight men, white or black, do not always maintain homes, cook and clean, cater and entertain. Many of them do not maintain close contact with their families or friends, let alone seek higher education or the advancement of careers.

SHERMAN : All this shit about the American dream. What is that? I mean we [black folks] are taught at school, and in church, and on television that we should have these jobs; we should look like this; have a car like this, and have a wife and children like this, and go to church. OK, so we buy it. We get caught up in the shit. The rat race. But if you tell me, we get there. We achieve those things. Well, maybe not the wife and children. You know, we gay men. But generally, you look around and you'll see that the ones in this society that make it, according to the dream, we're the gay ones.

Louis reinforces this idea, noting his achievements and the "jealousy" of his non-gay acquaintances.

LOUIS : [Paul] and I have been saving for this car, right? So, we've got the money together in a year. All these women in my office go on. "Oh, you're so lucky. You have a house in Manhattan, and do all these trips around the country, and go to the gym, and buy all these expensive clothes." You know they're dying to say it's 'cause you're gay and you ain't got no kids. But they don't realize it's just as hard. [Paul] and I are like two big kids. It costs a lot to keep us fed and housed and goin' to school. But they're jealous. They just can't make it on their salaries. And they're married and can't go out. . . . I do not want children. Thank God I didn't have any when I was young. 'Cause it is a burden.

While inequality of pay and other economic issues, as well as familial concerns, differentiate the experiences of Louis and his female co-workers, he clearly shares their aspirations and values and has, in his own opinion as well as in theirs, gone a long way toward achieving those goals. His successes may be a result of his "single lifestyle,"[22] but gay men in Harlem are part of extensive social networks to which they contribute financially. That is, they have economic obligations to "family" as well. In some cases this striving may be the result of a


sense of insecurity vis-à-vis the individual's position in society, but most of these men agree it's because they are gay and black.

Gay History

The achievements of gay men in Harlem are as much the issue of folklore and "tea" as they are of fact. Gradually a consciousness of a historic presence of gays in Harlem is emerging, not only among gays themselves but in the broader black community as well. Knowledge of gay history[23] and significant gay individuals and participation in major gay memorial events are important features of being gay. While the lack of archival documentation indicates that a record of such people, places, and events has not been well maintained, especially in Harlem, oral history contributes to the maintenance of a proud sense of achievement.

RICHMOND : We know all those grand divas were gay. Honey, just open thine eyes and see the glory of the word! Any of Langston Hughes's poems will tell you she's gay. I mean any of her work. Now, Miss Countee Cullen and her friends, they were a different story. They were well known. And then there were all those boys that used to hang out with them. And Gladys Bentley and all the bulldaggers [lesbians]! They were famous in Harlem for twenty or thirty years. Everyone knew them. And then later, there was Stormé and Octavia and all the drag girls. In the Jewel Box Theater. The whole gay thing has been around forever in Harlem, and everyone knew about it. And, what's more, honey, they loved it![24]

The most important event in the gay social calendar in Harlem is the annual drag ball (see chap. 4). As each year's ball slides into history, it becomes a memory embellished with legends about the queens in attendance and the activities that took place.

DONNY : I wouldn't miss that ball for anything, child. It's the event of the year. Everybody goes. All of Harlem society goes. An' I makes sure I'm there. . . . [Colin] be sellin' tickets back in December and January. An' the ball ain't till April!. . . . I believe it's been goin' for fifty years.

COLIN : The girls [drag queens] are fierce. They spend months getting their gowns ready. And the [hair]dos, child. The makeup. They're truly grand.

WILBERT : They give a prize to the best "Queen of the Ball." I think they get a trip to the Caribbean. All expenses paid. . . . That's where vogueing started here in Harlem. 'Cause they have a big parade, like models on a walkway.


The girls come out and pose and carry on. And the judges judge them. That's where those young children get the vogue thing from. But these old queens are divas. Truly fabulous.

In 1988 a few gay men at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture began compiling a "gay catalog." They are assembling a library of books, articles, and news clippings that refer to gay black culture. As news of this effort has filtered through the gay community in Harlem, gay black men have begun to contribute materials. In time, these librarians hope to produce a written record of the involvement of gay people in the history of Harlem. Their efforts are regarded by many informants as important to the development of a gay society within Harlem and to the maintenance of the gay black identity.

Gay Folklore

Gay people have pursued the justification of their position in American society through the establishment, recording, and presentation of a long history.[25] Where such a record is missing, myth or information of dubious validity has emerged to claim the famous as "one of us." The sexual preference of political and religious leaders, film stars, singers, and other "greats" has been discussed and embellished. Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, and Burt Reynolds are among many Hollywood stars about whom rumors persist. Rock Hudson's homosexuality was revealed toward the end of his life, much to the surprise of the straight media.[26] The gay press retorted by saying, "What's news?" However, some stars do admit their sexual preference, for example, Marlon Brando, who admitted his bisexuality.[27]

This is also true, of course, of the black gay world. While gay historians have claimed significant black Americans as part of the gay tradition, in the name of diversity or racial equality, gay blacks have also incorporated the sex lives of prominent artists and politicians into their lore. The following are examples.

GERARD : Now we all know that [a prominent black actor] liked his white women. We all know that. But I've heard he liked his boys too. I heard he liked fair-skinned black boys. He had quite a reputation as a sex machine.[28]

ROMAN : She's [a prominent male R&B singer] in here all the time. Not so


much now like before. She used to sit at that end of the bar [near the entrance] and cruise all the children when they came in.

GARVEY : I spooked Miss [same singer as above] on Fifth Avenue with her beau. He was a fine man. Tall and light-skinned. And you could tell he had the last body. He was fine, honey. Just fine. I give [her] points for that!

GILBERT : He [a prominent married singer] used to go to [Pete's Paradise] all the time. He used to come for the drugs. You know, it was easy for him to come in and do some stuff in the bathroom, or make contacts here for him to get some stuff. But I've seen him cruising the children too. I've seen him socializing with intent! He likes his men too. I believe that he's had several of them [hustlers].

Other stories about gay men in the past abound in the bars in Harlem. Many of my informants were able to recite a tale or two about some legendary gay figure. There was the famous choreographer who was evicted in the 1960s for fighting too much with his lover and vandalizing their apartment; the television star who could not refrain from having sex in Marcus Garvey Park through the 1960s and 1970s; and the male half of a popular married singing duo who frequented the most notorious of the bars, to buy drugs and sex, in the 1980s. One prominent married politician in the 1940s was believed to maintain a separate lodging near 125th Street so that he had somewhere to take his "trade" for quick sex. Many stories abound about the legendary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. There is the "Langston Hughes chair" in one gay bar, the apartment where Countee Cullen and Harold Jackman played out their long-term affair, the solicitation of young college students by the eminent Alain Locke, and tales of the restroom and park sex of Richard Bruce Nugent and Wallace Thurman.

While the sexual orientation of some famous black men (and women) has not been questioned—for instance, police records indicate the sexual preference of Countee Cullen, his father, and Wallace Thurman (Lewis 1989)—those whose sexual identity remains a mystery are often claimed as "one of the children" (members of the gay community). What is significant is that these people, whether or not "gay" or "homosexual," have been elevated to the status of cultural icons in gay lore through the creation of legend within the gay black community. (For example, in Isaac Julien's movie Looking for Langston , the search for a cultural identity by contemporary black gay men is symbolized by the search for the true sexual identity of Langston Hughes.[29] Thus the creativity of the gay black sensibility has incorpo-


rated these members of gay black society into "the Life" and the process to legitimate the social identity of being gay.


Anti-gay actions have been experienced and witnessed by many gay men in Harlem. Both of the instances of verbal abuse that I witnessed during my fieldwork were perpetrated by teenagers.[30] Experience of some form of anti-gay discrimination is as much a part of gay black culture as are many of the elements discussed above. If all of the members of a community share or are at least aware of this sense of rejection, then it becomes important to the social construction of their identity.

PAUL : Part of bein' gay is bein' ridiculed. They just don't realize that's what makes us more stronger. Whenever I encounter that bullshit, I come away angry. Not scared, but angry. And that's when I feel the most gay.

Thus discrimination is often turned around to reassert the positive attributes of being gay.

JEVON : Any queen can tell you about that homophobia shit. I mean, all of us has experienced that shit at some time or another. Like in school, or on the street. Even nowadays some of these kids will call at you on the street. Especially if they see you goin' in and out of the bars. They know what the bars are for. They know who and what you are. They just too young yet. Wait and see. If they're that interested to say something now, wait till they're eighteen or nineteen. Then we'll see who's the faggot. Wait and see. They'll be runnin' up in there lookin' for some stuff![31]

Fear of discrimination also has its roots in the church. The church, as an important social institution in Harlem, appears contradictory in its dealings with homosexuality.

EPHRAIM : Then there was the church. You know how those girls can get upset. As long as we not makin' any fuss or protestin' or shoutin' about it they leave us alone. But all of a sudden this thing comes from nowhere, and all the preachers start sayin' how bad we are, and how it was God's way of punishing us. . . . You can see what effect it would have here. I mean all those church girls goin' back into the community and tellin' folks that the gay children are evil and its their own fault for doin' all this nonsense. I can just imagine. . . . We were very lucky, I do honestly believe that. I mean most of us are known in


the community. Most people can tell if you're gay or not. They can tell. We were lucky they didn't come after us. I often wonder about that.

Some churches, renowned for their sermons against homosexuality, condemned homosexuals and their "God-given punishment" earlier on in the AIDS epidemic. The Pentecostal and fundamentalist branches of the Protestant churches seem to be the most entrenched with homo- and AIDS-phobia, a strange situation given the fact that most of the congregation who became ill were not gay men.

LUTHER : I used to go to C. Baptist Church [a small fundamentalist church]. The Reverend H—— was pastor. I was sure he was gay. I really liked him. Then when AIDS hit us, he started on about homosexuals this and homosexuals that. I thought to myself, "This man can't be for real. What's he sayin'?" I don't go to church no more. It ain't right to be treatin' people like that. . . . Anyways, all the people gettin' AIDS at his church was the women.

However, most gay men in Harlem will be quick to note that experiences of homophobia are few and far between and that they feel more "at home" in their own neighborhood than in gay society where they are confronted with issues of race. Generally they feel that gays are more tolerated and better accepted in Harlem then they are in mainstream America.

CLYDE : I think it's because we are everywhere. We're in the schools, in the stores, in the bars, on the street, in the churches. We're everywhere. And everybody knows that. So they don't be startin' no shit.

When pressed to explain why they felt more accepted at home, most of these men mentioned that their success in surviving, maintaining jobs, and obtaining worthwhile educations owes to their social and cultural visibility as role models who attend church regularly.

BYRON : I know that my family, you know, my mother and sisters. I know they accept me. They have me and my lovers up in their homes. That's acceptance. And you know where it's from? It's from goin' to church. If I didn't sing in that choir, then they wouldn't know me.

Such men also attribute their acceptance to sexual issues not being especially significant in the black urban ghetto when compared to the more pressing issues of poverty, unemployment, poor education, teenage pregnancy, the production, distribution, and consumption of illicit narcotics, AIDS, and other health concerns.



Racism does not intrude into the daily lives of most of the informants in this study. It may have been an unconscious force in the determination of some to reside and socialize in a black community, although all of them said they live in Harlem because they prefer black men as friends and lovers and because they prefer to live closer to family and other relatives. Thus they avoid prolonged contact with whites. Their interaction with white society is sufficiently limited so that they experience discrimination along color lines infrequently. When it does happen outside Harlem, however, it serves to reinforce their primary identity as black men, for it is more often along this color line that they experience bigotry in mainstream society than alone the line of sexual preference.

Some have experienced overt displays of racism outside Harlem in mainstream New York society and at work. Not getting promoted, being followed in stores and "served attitude" by white store clerks, and being stopped in their cars by police are examples.

Within the mainstream gay scene, racism happens quite frequently, according to these men. Many informants recounted instances of racism experienced in the predominantly white gay scene downtown. This is one of the reasons they do not like to socialize downtown. Attitudes of bar staff and other gay men on the streets are others. Not only are they followed on the street, treated rudely, ignored, or barred from certain premises, they witness or hear of physical abuse against black men in the gay scene on Christopher Street.

Also, some white gay men mistakenly maintain the image that all black men are sexually aggressive and well endowed.

BASIL : Most gay men I know have been treated that way. You know it. Whenever you walk down [Christopher] Street or into a bar. All the white boys be lookin' at your crotch. Even if you're a real sissy. They be thinkin' how much of a man you are. And that's just because you black.

While many gay black men enjoy the attention they receive, they believe that it is premised on inherently racist reasoning. As Garvey said, "I feel exploited sometimes. Demands are made. Sometimes in just the way white men look at you perform. You're typecaste." The myth of the black man as a surperstud, the "great walking phallus" (Hernton 1965), has been absorbed into white gay culture through


the gay press and especially in gay pornography. The myth of the black stud as the ideal sex partner is even present in the culture of gay Harlem. However, for many of my informants who have direct experience with white gay society, this myth persists as a racist stereotype.[32]

The choice of my informants to live and socialize within the black community comes about in large part from a desire to "subtract" issues of racism from their daily lives.


Various elements of gay culture are internalized by gay men as integral aspects of their gay identity. In Harlem, having gay friends and socializing with them, participating in the gay scene, and utilizing the expressive means of gay culture figure as important influences on the adoption and maintenance of a gay identity. Other important factors bearing on gay black identity are knowledge of gay history and folklore and the experience of homophobia and racism. These social and cultural factors complicate the merely psychosexual models of gay identity development that tend to dominate literature on homosexuality.


6— "Gay Is Lovin' Men": Gay Identity in Harlem

Preferred Citation: Hawkeswood, William G. One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.