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

7— "Different to Other Men": The Meaning of Sexuality for Gay Black Men

"Different to Other Men":
The Meaning of Sexuality for Gay Black Men

In the gay black community, sexuality is explored in many ways. Besides their variety of sexual experiences, gay men frequently discuss the topic of sexuality, not only sexual performances, conquests, partners, and preferences but the more philosophical issues at the heart of gay sexuality as well. In reflective moments, many gay men ponder why they are gay, what is special about being gay, and what it all means.

When a gay black man refers to himself or someone else as being "gay," we can assume that he is at least homosexual—that is, engages in same-sex behavior.[1]

GERARD : Now you take J——. He been carryin' on in the [Mt. Morris] park since I been alive. Everyone knows he's gay. He's an old queen. But he don't be comin' in the bars and all that. Some of the children been askin' him to come to parties and things. But he ain't havin' any o' that. He just goes up in the park and carries on.

However, additional information is needed to determine whether the individual is indeed "gay"—that is, not only homosexual but a participant in the social life of the gay community around him.

Gay black men are especially concerned with their homosexuality, as they perceive their sexuality as a distinguishing feature not only of their individual personalities but as a point of differentiation from other types of black men in the black community. Just as race distin-


guishes them on one level from white gay men, their sexuality distinguishes them from other black men.

Into the Life: Gay Socialization

During the socialization of many gay black men, one major influence is that of the love relationships of their parents. Most gay men are raised in heterosexual two-parent households, and whether or not parents are in fact exclusively heterosexual, their children perceive them as such. Furthermore, since heterosexuality is the dominant image portrayed in public, gay men tend to be socialized according to heterosexual norms. If a gay man is attracted to other males as a child, consciously or not, his earliest model for interacting with men, emotionally, socially, and sexually, may be female. From watching and interacting with his mother, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, female cousins, and female friends, the gay black male may be less inclined than a non-gay male to reject feminine traits. This was the case among several of my informants.

LEE : I was always hangin' out wit' the girls. They'd be cussin' and carryin' on because Mama told them to take me with them. All they wanted to do was follow them boys around. That's where I got that from. I guess it came from them. . . . They were much older than me. Maybe ten years older. Or more. And whenever they went on a date I had to go to chaperone them. I used to watch them kissin' and carryin' on. Sometimes they'd be sittin' outside talkin' 'bout their boys, and tellin' each other what they'd be doin'. Now I was a young child. Highly impressionable. So I took it all in. I watched how they dealt with the boys. Their father [speaker's uncle] was very wealthy so there was always boys hangin' around. Those girls were a good catch. And the boys knew it.

These gay men may not only observe their female relatives interacting with men, they may also imitate them.

LOUIS : I remember my aunt tellin' my older sister to take her time with [Willie]. I remember her tellin' her that those kind of men only wanted one thing. And that was to have as many children as possible. And she'd say, "And you know what that means." But she knew what she was talkin' about. It wasn't just the babies. Or the sex. It was the fact that so many of those boys weren't around to take care of the young ones. They couldn't get themselves a


job. So she was tellin' the girls to pick and choose. Not that any of them did. They got stuck in. I just [copied them].

In order to imitate the behavior of sisters and other female relatives, some gay men adopt an interest in things feminine—for example, dressing up in women's clothes or playing with dolls.

COLIN: I always been interested in dresses, child. Ever since I was a little girl! My mother used to catch me carryin' on in her clothes and into her makeup. She used to go off on me. But later on I think she just gave up. I remember when she was older that she'd always come and see me before I did a show or some thing, like the Ball, and she'd be givin' me advice about my makeup and shit. It was fun.

Some gay men may also empathize with the emotional responses they hear female contacts recounting in their relations with men; hence the tradition of strong affinity for the divas of torch songs—Garland, Dietrich, Piaf, and Billie Holiday. To quote Shawn, "Billie's ma girl. The way she sings about her men. Mm, mm. That's my life she's singin' about. Now that's the truth."

For some gay men, their parents' heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the only example of a devoted couple. One of my informants expressed his frustration with trying to maintain this idealized model of a loving relationship.

CECIL : I don't know why I let that motherfucker get to me that way. I love him. The only way I know how. My mother taught me that. So I know it's right. But he just upsets me all the time. He's always messin' up. Shit. Or around. And it's easy for him. 'Cause these bitches [other gay men] see he's loyal to me. But they don't understand that that takes hard work. They just throw themselves at him and he just takes what he's offered. But it hurts me. I was raised proper. My Mama and my Daddy were always close and lovin'. They had a lovin' relationship. Now that ain't too much to ask for, is it? I just wish these other bitches would appreciate that he's spoken for.

Gay men are often perceived as being effeminate socially and passive sexually. Some men who are overtly effeminate in their gay social lives may in fact be modeling their behavior on that of females who played important roles in their socialization. They may feel they have to act effeminately to entice a man, regardless of what they might actually want to do with him sexually. Effeminate gay black men, "sissies" in Harlem, may also be acting on stereotypical models of gay men prescribed for them during their socialization by heterosex-


uals. Such models are undoubtedly reinforced during schooling years, as effeminate men are usually harassed by peers at that age, regardless of their role preferences in sexual encounters.[2]

While women provide early models of behavior for some, further socialization into gay life for most gay men takes place within the gay scene itself. Language, nonverbal expression, clothing styles, a sense of history and community, as well as details of sexual and other associated behaviors are all learned by talking with or observing other gay men.

DEMOND: I learnt everything I know from Miss [Francis]. She taught me everything I know about bein' gay. She knew it all. I mean there were some things I knew about myself. But she taught me so much. About dressn' up and how to carry myself. How to pick up men. How to act once I got one. She even taught me a few tricks I didn't think anyone could do. . . . When I first heard that she liked to [be active with her] men, I screamed. I said, "No you don't, Miss Thing." I always remember her. She fell out. She could hardly tell me about all those men she'd [been active with sexually]. I mean could you imagine her. She's a big woman. All dressed up in one o' her dresses, and being the top man!

The evidence thus suggests that the process of socialization for some gay black men begins in the home with non-gay family members as early role models and continues into the gay scene itself. Most gay men have been subjected to the stereotype that they are not really men. As boys, they are pressured to live up to prescribed standards of masculinity. If they sense at an early age that they are really different from other boys, some may realize that female examples of behavior are no less valid than the ones prescribed for them. For most gay men, socialization into a gay identity occurs among peers, where old stereoypes of homosexuality are challenged by new models of masculinity.

Sexual Behavior

The significance of collecting data on sexual activities is that it enables the anthropologist to deconstruct received notions concerning traditional sex typologies and to provide an insider's perspective on sex and the meaning of sexuality.

In the gay black population, two types of men are clearly defined.


This is a generalization, for, as in gay populations anywhere, a continuum is present of types of men, whether defined by social behavior or sexual activity. These types are "sissies" and "men," that is, effeminate and masculine gay men, who usually partner each other in sexual intercourse but whose difference is displayed socially in a variety of expressive media, including clothing, language, nonverbal gestures, and types of drinks.

My data on sexual behavior include both hustlers and non-hustlers (the "boys").[3] Despite their intentionally traditional masculine social behavior, hustlers are experiencing gay culture in their daily lives and they are establishing gay identities by participating in certain sexual behaviors usually defined as "gay" or "homosexual." The "boys" give all the appearance of being heterosexual men. They dress, walk, talk, and otherwise enact a butch persona. They are presumed to be exclusively dominant in the sexual ecounter; they certainly maintain that image in public. Yet according to their personal accounts and those of their sex partners, they often assume a receptive role in the sexual encounter.[4]

LOUIS : I, had him. He's a big whore. Big ass on him. I really got lost in all that stuff.

HARRY : He [Darryl] is flexible. You know. He goes both ways. But from what I know, and, honey, I know, he always bendin' over. Ask any of the boys. And the girls. He done had everybody.

The "butch" persona presented to the gay community, and indeed to the surrounding mainstream black community in Harlem, counteracts the "sissy" image presented by some gay men in the scene who are their prospective partners. Yet the presentation of gender roles in public does not necessarily follow into ensuing sexual encounters.

Likewise, data on sexual behavior were collected from the fifty-seven respondents involved in the life history collection for this study. Living an openly gay lifestyle in the environs of their hometown, many of these men are regarded as "sissies" (not altogether pejoratively) by the surrounding community. Their adoption of female gender-role traits in the gay scene not only contrasts with the expressed masculinity of the "boys" and other "men" but also confirms the presumption that gay men imitate and manipulate the gender roles that have been established in heterosexual society. Here, then, gay men are playing with ideal male and female roles. But in the sexual encounter, sexual behavior does not follow the expectations usually assigned to gender


types. In other words, sexual role playing is not a reliable indicator of gender.

In Harlem we have a population of gay black men who have no problem reconciling their sexuality with their male identity. Through socialization and social experiences among peers, they fully accept their "gay" identity. In their sexual encounters, where private acts may contradict public appearances, they challenge the ideas of what gay men are supposed to do sexually and assert that they are still "men."

Challenging Sexual Typologies

By collecting data on the actual sexual activities of individuals, we are able to redefine some of the received notions of homosexual and bisexual men and their sexual behavior and question the lines drawn between the sexual types: "heterosexual," "homosexual," and "bisexual."[5] In fact, most of my informants' sexual behavior over their lifetimes appears to have been quite fluid in terms of the received sexual topology. During their sexually active lives, they have practiced all types of sexual behavior.

Willis, who is thirty-four, is a good example. His first sexual experience was with a woman when he was fourteen. Shortly after this, he experienced his first same-sex encounter. While walking his dog in Marcus Garvey Park, he engaged in oral sex with an older man. Throughout his high school years, Willis would visit the park several times a week. Some years after school, when he was working downtown, he met up with some other gay men and began frequenting some of the gay discos of that era, especially the Loft and the Flamingo, popular with gays and blacks. At the age of twenty-eight, tired of "running around" and of several failed attempts at settling down with a male lover, Willis befriended a long-standing neighborhood girlfriend. After a few months their relationship became sexual, and his son was born in 1984. Shortly afterward, his "wife" left him to follow her newfound junkie friends, and Willis was left alone to raise his child. He has since attempted to find himself a male lover. During the period of the research, he was dating a slightly older black man and planned to move in with him. He describes himself best.

WILLIS: I'm gay. That's all. I'm just a gay man. . . . Most of the gay men I know have had sex with women. Lots of us have children to prove it. But


that's just part of growing up. Or wanting to have children, and doing something about it. We're still gay. . . . I'll always be gay. That's how I see myself.

To categorize Willis as exclusively homosexual or bisexual, or to say he made a choice to be gay, would indeed be incorrect. We need to break down the rigid sexual typologies that have caused so much inaccurate reporting and labeling of people, especially homosexuals and bisexuals. Such typologies have also encouraged ideas of deviancy and promoted oppression by those who think they are in the majority.

Sexuality and Social Status

Gay black men include homosexual behavior as an integral part of their being gay,[6] but the construction of their gay identity, as well as an understanding of what homosexuality means for them, can only be extrapolated from data on sexual behavior, socialization experiences, and an analysis of the social context of the development of these experiences.

Most of the gay black men who participated in this study are well known in the black community. They have an important niche in black society as a distinctive type of black man, although this is not necessarily a result of their sexuality alone. It is more often than not a result of their contributions to the social life of their respective communities. However, this distinction is usually expressed in terms of their sexuality.

NICHOLAS : I don't see myself as different to other men. Except, of course, I have sex with other men. And of course, I'm a different color to some other men. But it's not that important, is it? You have shown me that. You're just you, and I'm just me. The fact we're different colors doesn't matter. So it really doesn't matter if we sleep with men or women. It just doesn't matter. . . . But, of course, society thinks it matters. That's why you have prejudice. That's why folks don't be likin' white folks. That's why they has to have something to say about us gays. If you ask me, it's jealousy. Because they see the gay children being gay, even in the face of this epidemic, they're, how do they say it, they're "fabulous"! The gay children are doing just fine. So, they're different to other black folks, they're different to other black men. So, I guess there is a difference. You know, a difference between us and them, you know, the other black men. We're gay and they're not!

CLEVELAND : We're Different from other men. There's all kinds of men. And we're one kind. We're different to other men.


LOUIS : You see we are different. We have a different consciousness about what's going on in our lives. We've lived as black men too. We know it ain't easy. But we have something else that's driving us to make an effort to survive, as best we can. I thank that drive comes from the fact that we're gay. Whether it's happened to us or not, the fear of being abandoned by your friends, or family, or job, because you're gay, it makes you want to work that much harder to survive. So in the end we come out doin' OK. It ain't easy. It's like being insecure I suppose. But there you have it. We're different.

Louis distinguishes himself most emphatically from the black men "that you white folks talk about." Having read Liebow (1967), Hannerz (1969), and Stack (1974), he distinguishes between social science's rendition of black men (that is, the white idea of black men) as "street corner men"—an image constantly reinforced by both the white and black media[7] —and his own idea of gay and straight black men.

LOUIS : Nothin' pisses me off like when the white folks talk about the dying race of black men. I'm livin' proof, baby. Here I am and I'm doin' just fine. We [gay black men] may not be the kind of man you were lookin' for, but we are men nonetheless. And we're doin' fine. In fact most of the men, gay or straight, most of the men that I know are doin' OK. Some may be struggling to keep those kids in school, but we're makin' it. . . . I really don't know, Bill. I don't know where those reporters and those other writers are gettin' their stories from. Well, that's not true. You see if you come to Harlem, and walk around the street, of course you're gonna see all these hustlers and bums. That's all that's around any neighborhood. Day and night. Just hangin' out. Most of the real men are at work! Day and night. We all need two jobs to live in New York. You know that! No matter what color or class you from. So if you come snooping around the neighborhood, what do you expect to find? What kind of men would you expect to find in the middle of the daytime in any neighborhood?

Louis sees himself first as a man, then as a black man, and then as a black man who also happens to be gay.

LOUIS : Look. The only way I know to distinguish myself from other men is by sayin' I'm gay. Most of the men I know have jobs and nice homes and families and so on. OK there are the bums. Well. I hope you can see I'm different to them! But from a point of view that compares me with other men of my age and education and class, the only difference is that I'm gay. . . . Yes, that's right. Being gay is the difference between me and other men. Other things like job and that may distinguish me from other types of men, but being gay crosses all those things. You know, it's like a brotherhood between us gay men. Then there's a brotherhood between all of us black men. Say, as opposed to white men. Or Spanish men. Then, we're all men together. . . . I'm


a man, who is black and gay. That's how I describe myself. In that order: man, black, gay. But it's all one person. I'm all o' those together.

One of the reasons gay black men in Harlem openly express their gayness, especially to outsiders, is to distinguish themselves from more marginalized types of black men in the black community.

JEVON : I make sure of that, honey. I make sure of that. I don't want to attract unnecessary trouble, as you can imagine. But I sure as hell let them know that I'm gay. And that they better not mess with me unless they know what the story is. I mean really know. Don't go countin' me in with the numbers on the street. Just because I know them or hang out with them. [Don't think] I'm always on the street. No sir. Not me. I'm different. And I lets people know.

SHERMAN : Most of my family know. So it doesn't matter if Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Black sees me goin' and comin' from the [gay] bars. They all know. And they know that makes me different to the other guys runnin' out on the street. They know I'm different. Respect me different.

"Being gay" and openly expressing that in the black community brings this distinction home to other blacks. And it is reinforced by other things gay men do, such as buy homes, educate themselves, hold down good jobs, attend church, and contribute to the well-being of their extended families. Along with the open expression of their sexual orientation, their social behavior in the black community reinforces the distinction between them and other black men, whether "street corner men" or members of the black middle class. For most people in Harlem, issues of survival—getting food, paying for shelter, providing for dependent relatives, schooling children, and maintaining health—are more important than concern about people's sexuality. Thus simply being sexually different in Harlem does not generally provoke antagonism or being categorized as deviant.


In this chapter I have described the adopted sexual and gender roles of gay black men in Harlem through the study of sexual behavior. A social-interactionist perspective has enabled me to offer alternative theories on socialization and the meaning of sexuality for this population. Being gay in Harlem means more than simply engag-


ing in same-sex behavior. But it certainly includes that basic ingredient. Being openly gay is a significant social statement concerning one's status in society. Being a gay black man in Harlem means that one is different, but not less than other black men in the community. By coming out and being openly gay, gay black men are able to assert their identity in order to affirm their difference as a positive attribute.


7— "Different to Other Men": The Meaning of Sexuality for Gay Black Men

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