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

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.

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.