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

8— "This Epidemic Thing": Gay Black Men and AIDS in Harlem

"This Epidemic Thing":
Gay Black Men and AIDS in Harlem

The saddest thing about being gay? I guess it's this epidemic thing. It's changed our lives. People we know have died. All kinds of people. Men, women, children, gays, straights, old people, young people, friends, family, neighbors, school friends, church friends. It's everywhere. It's frightening. It's really scary.

In the memories of most of my informants, intravenous (IV) drug users, male and female, gay and non-gay, were the first to become ill and die of "this epidemic thing." Thus, at first at least, my informants considered AIDS an IV drug user issue[1] and by extension, because IV drug users in Harlem tend to be poor, an issue of class and poverty. The gay black men who are the focus of this study are connected socially to this IV drug user population through their extended social networks, which reach across all social classes.

The next group of people my informants saw become infected were gay black men who had regular sexual contact with "the white gay scene" (that is, mainstream gay society downtown). Their observation fits with the information, available to my informant population, in the press in New York City. This particular population of gay black men, who come from Harlem but do not include any of my informants, has been devastated by the current AIDS epidemic. In New


York City they make up almost 25 percent of the total number of gay males diagnosed as having AIDS (New York City Department of Health 1989). For this reason, the importance of measuring the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the black gay population has become urgent.[2] This is all the more important because much of the research into the sociological impact of the epidemic on the gay community in New York has focused on the white mainstream gay community.[3] The ratio of black and white respondents in these surveys does not proportionately represent the "people of color" of either the city or the gay community.

Even though some concern is now expressed for the disproportionate occurrence of HIV-AIDS in black and Hispanic populations in New York City,[4] it is still perceived as a disease of IV drug users and gay white men.[5] However, in Harlem, the nature of IV drug use has meant that HIV has been transmitted to women and children. As the AIDS epidemic caught the attention of mainstream America, particular groups of people (gay men, initially) were identified as being more "at risk" of contracting the disease. By shifting attention away from the virus itself, and onto particular people as agents of the illness, AIDS quickly became a disease that "other" people got. By singling out gay men as carriers of the disease, non-gay people could comfort themselves with the mistaken notion that difference was the cause of illness. My informants have seen that the spread of AIDS does not discriminate according to sexual identity. These gay men are not creating a scapegoatable "other." They fully expect that HIV will arrive in their midst.

This is not to say that gay men in Harlem have not died from AIDS or been diagnosed with the disease. According to my informants, the gay men who have died or are ill all had or have social and sexual connections with the mainstream gay community downtown or with gay friends and sex partners in other areas of the city that have been affected by the epidemic—for example, Spanish Harlem and the Bronx. But the discrete gay population upon which I have stumbled in Harlem limit their social and sexual lives within Harlem, and within an exclusive population of black men who seemingly have been able to remain AIDS-free even as family members and acquaintances have contracted the disease. This is not because they practice "safer sex," because they do not. Nor is it because they have refrained from certain immune system-suppressive behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, narcotic use, or poor dietary and sleep


habits. They have simply been lucky. By avoiding sexual contact with the IV drug user community (which for many has in fact been a conscious effort) and by selecting sexual partners out of a neighborhood pool of potential men, they have been protected so far from the onslaught of this epidemic.[6]

In the face of the epidemic, gay black men in Harlem have reinforced an earlier commitment to their community, their families, and to each other in their extensive and resilient social networks. Moving closer to kith and kin is but one of their many social responses to the AIDS epidemic. The social networks of gay black men have provided them with the emotional support to withstand the psychological impact of the epidemic as they witness the havoc the disease wreaks on their non-gay relatives and friends. At the same time, the gay acquaintances in these social networks have provided them with a discrete circle of potential sexual partners that may have spared them from, or at least delayed, the actual arrival of HIV in their midst. Nevertheless, the epidemic has an impact on the identity of these gay men. Repression of sexual freedom, the modification of social and sexual behavior, and the fear of increased discrimination have all influenced what it means to be gay.

Knowledge and Belief about AIDS

Forty-nine percent of the men in this study first heard about AIDS from gay friends and 46 percent from television or the written media. The remainder heard about the illness from lovers or family members. All admitted feeling shock and dismay at the news. All heard about the disease between 1979 and 1984 but most in 1981 (when it was known as GRID) or in 1982, when the illness was first given the acronym AIDS.[7]

Following on the heels of early media headlines of AIDS as a "gay cancer," the belief that this illness was a gay men's disease became well established not only among gay black men but in the black community at large.[8] Ninety-eight percent of the respondents in this study believed AIDS "largely" or "mainly" affected the gay population[8] (complemented by male and female IV drug users). A third of the informants indicated that they believed the disease to be predominantly a white gay men's issue.[9] Also, the media persist in portraying AIDS as


a disease of white gays and IV drug users (Albert 1986; Baker 1986). Reinforcing this view is the fact that in the large gay social scene in Harlem, only a few of the 156 gay black men I spoke with have known members of the gay community to have died with an AIDS-related condition since 1984.[10] Thus if they consider AIDS a "gay-related illness," they also consider it primarily "white."[11]

AIDS in Harlem

Confusion reigns when informants reflect on the disease and its origins. Although the media during the period of study did indicate that gay men were still the one category of people at highest risk for the disease in New York City,[12] the reality of the epidemic in Harlem tells another story.

The epidemiology of AIDS in Harlem and many other poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the inner city is vastly different from that elsewhere in the United States, save Miami, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. Gay black men have known mainstream gay men of all races to die from AIDS. They have seen male and female IV drug users in Harlem die from AIDS. Now they see women and children ill and dying with AIDS. My informants expressed disbelief that many saw AIDS as only a gay issue. "Let them come to Harlem. It's straight men and straight women. . . . They be the ones getting the AIDS," Kevin remarked. In Harlem, AIDS is a "disease" any black person can fall victim to, not just gay black men. In fact, straight men and women and children are more likely than gay men to become ill, mainly from IV drug use or from sex with infected men (New York City Department of Health 1989:5–6, 15–16). In Harlem, knowledge of this is based on observation of the situation; residents are well aware that the most common routes of transmission in their community are shared needles, heterosexual behavior, and births.

Yet popular beliefs that AIDS is only a gay disease have instilled fear in many gay men in Harlem, fear not only of the disease itself but also of irrational discrimination against those considered to be responsible for the spread of the virus.

TERRY : I remember us joking that we'd have to move outta town. Nobody'd be wantin' to deal with us. I honestly thought they'd close all the bars. Especially when they started to downtown. You know, close all the baths. But they


didn't do that up here. It was very confusing, really. You didn't know what to expect. It was a bit unnerving. Especially being gay.

The churches in Harlem were originally reluctant to attend to the AIDS community (Greaves 1987; Quimby and Friedman 1989), but the established Baptist and Methodist churches have shown more compassion in recent years.[13] The strong presence of gay men in these churches may well have played a major role in their change of heart. Some have now established soup kitchens and other social services for people living with AIDS.

Many social variables need to be considered when measuring the effects of AIDS on different populations. In the black community, all ages, socioeconomic groups, genders, sexual orientations, and religious and political persuasions have been affected. The fact that the condition appears to be fatal more rapidly among blacks and Hispanics could be the result of a variety of resource constraints, not the least of which is lack of access to health care.[14] And the stresses and poor nutrition related to poverty undoubtedly complicate the health issues confronting people whose immune systems have been compromised by the HIV virus (Carillo 1988).

"Risky Business"

All gay black men in Harlem with whom I spoke were well informed of the risks involved in certain behaviors with regard to contracting AIDS.

COREY : Of course, I know that shit. I know you're supposed to wear condoms, or pull out before you cum. I know that. You know, having sex is risky business. But it always has been. You just gotta do what ya gotta do.

Generally, gay men in Harlem understand the routes of transmission of AIDS and the ramifications of persisting with unsafe sex practices (May, Anderson, and Blower 1989). Yet when interviewed, none of the respondents had used condoms in their sexual encounters specifically because of AIDS. Some had used them in the past to avoid mess, in situations where other sexually transmitted diseases may have been an issue, or as contraceptives in a heterosexual encounter. Most refused to use them because they thought condoms were uncomfortable or difficult to use or interfered with the spontaneity of the sexual


encounter or because they believed their partners were not infected.[15] Moreover, their sexual encounters were often unplanned and they were not always carrying condoms. None raised the issue of risk associated with drug or alcohol use, yet most of their sexual encounters, even with lovers, occurred after drinking or drug use in bars, at parties, or at home.[16]

The continuation of unsafe sex practices may in fact reflect a supposition voiced by Merrill Singer and colleagues with regard to Latinos in Connecticut.

The Northeast Hispanic AIDS Consortium study in Hartford found that individuals who complain of receiving too much AIDS information are more likely to engage in risky behavior than those who say they get about the right amount of information. It may be that individuals who are tired of hearing about AIDS stop listening to AIDS prevention messages and are thus more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Conversely, individuals who have decided to engage in risky behaviors may be resistant to AIDS information because they do not want to hear about the potential consequences of their actions. (Singer et al. 1990)

This "overload" theory may help explain the presumed return to unsafe sex that is capturing the headlines of both the mainstream and the gay presses across the country.[17] Lack of safe sex practices in Harlem may also reflect the lack of HIV-prevention education in the neighborhood, the refusal of the churches to become engaged in such efforts for many years (The Body Positive , 1989), and existing organizations' (such as Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Minority Task Force on AIDS) inability to reach successfully into this gay community.[18] At no time during my fieldwork did flyers, posters, pamphlets, or condoms become available to members of the community in their social gathering places. Such places are regarded by researchers as vitally important loci of education (Stall, Huertin-Roberts et al. 1990). At one time a single condom was distributed to each incoming client at the local bathhouse (Bronstein 1987). By 1987 the practice had ceased. This pathetic gesture was ridiculed by clients who usually had several partners on a visit.[19]

AIDS and Discrimination

Given the increased discrimination against gay men in the United States resulting from the emergence of the AIDS epi-


demic in their population,[20] it could be expected that anti-gay behavior would also increase in the black community at large. Generally, this does not appear to be the case (Greaves 1987). In Harlem, only rarely did instances of verbal abuse convey anti-AIDS sentiment.

TIMOTHY : The only time I ever heard anybody say anything was on a street one afternoon. These kids called out, "Faggot!" as I walked by. And one of them shouted afterwards, "Yeah, and AIDS gonna get you!" . . . It upset me. I was a little scared, 'cause you dunno what these boys will get up to, especially when they run in gangs like that. You know they won't do it if they're on their own. Or if their parents are there. It's too much. But that's the only time I ever heard anything.

Although they fear increased stigmatization because of AIDS, gay men in Harlem do not view such discrimination as a major issue. However, AIDS has increased the black community's awareness of the presence of homosexuality and of the presence of gay men on the streets. According to my informants, AIDS has not led to increased "gay bashing" in Harlem, although they fear this may yet happen.

AIDS and the Gay Black Community

Although these gay black men are not becoming ill with and dying from AIDS, they are being affected by the epidemic. They are losing non-gay and gay friends, neighbors, and even kin to the disease.

Louis is well acquainted with the AIDS epidemic. He has known ten gay men who have died from AIDS and five people who are currently ill with the disease. Eight of the deaths had occurred before my fieldwork commenced in 1987. Six of these deaths were in Washington, D.C., where Louis had lived for ten years in the 1970s. Five of them were acquaintances; only one was a close friend. That friend was a former lover of one of his Washington roommates. Although he had not seen him during his illness, Louis returned to D.C. for his friend's funeral in 1985. The two deaths in New York were acquaintances from his neighborhood in Harlem. Both were men about his own age. Their deaths brought home the reality of the epidemic, especially as he watched them deteriorate.

LOUIS : Their deaths really affected me. I mean every time we saw them they looked worse. Just a long gradual thing. It was so sad to watch them die. It certainly affected me. I don't play around as much now. I think I'm just happy to be alive. And that [Paul's] alive. And I want to keep it that way.


During the period of my fieldwork, Louis attended the funerals of two more friends who had died in New York. One was an old school friend who passed away in New Rochelle. The other was the roommate of a close friend in Harlem. Neither was involved in the gay social scene in Harlem. In fact, the friend who lived in Harlem had a lover in Brooklyn, where Louis said he had socialized most often. That lover also has AIDS. Although he saw neither of these men during their illness, the fact that they are no longer alive has troubled him deeply: "I'm finally getting a sense of what it must have been like for those guys in the Village. They had all their friends die. Finally, it's coming uptown. I feel like it's arrived. Here in Harlem."

Currently, Louis knows one gay man in Harlem with AIDS. He is a twenty-four-year-old "brother" who has lived on Louis's block for some years. Louis has never seen him in the scene in Harlem and has only known him to socialize downtown. The fact that this man is so young upsets Louis, yet the epidemic is still at arm's length. Not one of Louis's close friends in Harlem has died from AIDS, let alone been diagnosed, nor have any of his relatives. The two women and two children he knows of who have AIDS are friends of his sisters and reside in Mt. Vernon, north of New York City.

Cleveland knows of four people who have died from AIDS and three people who have been diagnosed recently. A close non-gay friend from his church and a close gay friend, who was both a hustler and an IV drug user, both died in 1984. (The latter is the only member of this community of study whom I have heard about dying from AIDS). Cleveland also knew another acquaintance from church who had died, a gay man who had socialized elsewhere. He also knew a woman from his neighborhood who had died from AIDS. She was known to have been an IV drug user. The three current cases of people living with AIDS are gay men not known to him personally. One is an IV drug user, and one lives in the Bronx. None of them participate in the gay social scene in Harlem.

Of the five people whom Byron knows to have died from AIDS, two were also known by Cleveland. The other two men lived outside the neighborhood—one in Queens, and one in Spanish Harlem with his Puerto Rican lover. The woman Byron knew was an acquaintance from public school days. The four men Byron knows who are currently ill are all acquaintances he knows by sight through his church connections. (Two of them actually live in New Jersey.) He presumes that one or two of them may be gay, but he's not sure. He


also presumes that IV drug use was the mode of transmission of HIV to the two women in his neighborhood whom he knows are now ill.

Hamilton's experiences with the dance world have not been all positive. He knows five dancers who have died from AIDS, but only one in New York City. The one local man, who was not gay, and a neighborhood woman and her child who died from AIDS acquired the disease from IV drug use. The one man he knows who is ill now was an IV drug user, as are the two women from his street who have AIDS. None of the gay men living with AIDS in Harlem are members of the gay social scene in Harlem.[21]

Although all of my informants know someone who has or has died from AIDS, none of them know anyone with AIDS in this discrete gay community within Harlem. Gay friends who are sick or who have died are acquaintances who socialized elsewhere in the city. However, my informants are losing friends out of their social networks. Non-gay relatives and neighbors and mainstream gay friends have become ill or have died. Only a handful are close enough to the respondents that they feel obligated to render some sort of care.


As a result of much illness in the black community around them, especially in their own extended social networks, many gay black men have been affected by the caregiving and bereavement processes associated with AIDS. Only a few of my informants, however, are actively caring for people living with AIDS. Although some did express initial nervousness about their duties, none of my informants believed that the HIV virus could be contracted through casual contact.[22]

Willis travels to the Bronx once every two weeks to visit a friend who is living with AIDS. The friend has Kaposi's sarcoma and has had one visit to the hospital with pneumonia. He is constantly tired, very thin, and housebound. His mother, an elderly welfare recipient who lives in Harlem, visits once every two weeks. A couple other friends deliver food, but basically Willis's friend is alone. Because of this, Willis takes the time out of his hectic schedule of raising his son and trying to maintain a job to lend a hand. He cleans house for his


friend, cooks a meal, and runs errands. He spends four to six hours each visit.

The young man whom Hamilton helps out is a non-gay neighbor who lives on the block. Shortly after he was diagnosed, one of his roommates died (at twenty-four) and the other moved out. He manages to pay rent from his savings (from his former employ as a bouncer at a disco in Harlem) and from his disability checks. Friends, including Hamilton and his sister, bring him food. He spends his days at home watching television because he is too ashamed to see friends and neighbors on the street. His girlfriend has also been diagnosed, and she has moved home to Queens to her parents'. His own family has abandoned him. Between them, Hamilton and his sister feed their friend five or six nights a week. Hamilton's sister helps him clean house and does his laundry on the weekends.

The twenty-one-year-old gay son of Leonard's first cousin was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. He suffered a bad bout of pneumonia and was hospitalized for some weeks. His parents learned at that time that he was gay. Their reaction was to ignore his existence.[23] When he left the hospital he moved into the apartment of two friends in Brooklyn, only blocks from his parents' home. His parents have not visited him since. Leonard travels to Brooklyn almost every weekend to visit his cousin. He takes him walking and shopping, gives him "some cash dollars," and brings him some "home cooking." Often Leonard will also call on the young man's parents, in the hope that one day he will convince them to visit their son at least. Their religious beliefs and close attachment to the local Seventh Day Adventist Church prevent their acceptance of a gay son. Leonard says, "Their church produces more gay men than God hisself!"

Most of the respondents in this study do not have close friends, family members, or close neighbors who are living with HIV; these examples of caregiving are exceptions. The issue of caregiving is not that significant for most gay black men in Harlem.


Garvey lost his roommate to AIDS in 1984, and he is still affected by it. They had been close friends for twelve years and


had lived together for about five. His friend had rarely seen a doctor and just gradually "faded away." He died in Garvey's arms early one morning—a morning that still brings tears to Garvey's eyes.

GARVEY : He was so young, you know. So young. I knew that it would happen. For some time. He had been running around too much. I knew he was gonna get it. I prayed hard for him to recover, but nobody knew anything. There was nothing we could do. His doctor told us he should just stay home and be peaceful. . . . J—— was an artist. He made a lot of money.

Garvey's friend had had a succession of lovers, all white men, and was well known in the Christopher Street scene downtown. He lived in the discos and had been a heavy user of cocaine.

Garvey's roommate's family lives out west. When he called his friend's parents, they were very matter of fact about his death and asked Garvey to "take care of everything." Garvey organized a funeral—a wake in a funeral home on Lenox Avenue and a burial on Staten Island. He had the help of two very good friends who stayed with him, cooked for the wake, and helped him financially. The funeral arrangements cost him about $5,000—all of his savings. His friend's sister attended the funeral. She was the only member of a large family to fly in for the services. Garvey's friend had not made a will, so his sister automatically collected his money. When she left, she took the money from his friend's bank account and a life insurance policy worth "tens of thousands of dollars." She never visited the apartment, so Garvey had to go through the task of clearing out his friend's belongings. She gave Garvey no financial assistance.

GARVEY : I'm still sore about that. At least I had the money to do what I could for him. At least he had friends that came and made his farewell such a beautiful occasion. You can always rely on the children for that. They always pull through. Every time. You can rely on that. I'm happy that I did what I did. I just hope they feel satisfied when they get to spend his money.

Cleveland's buddy from the bar scene passed away from AIDS in 1984 as well. He had been a hustler and, Cleveland suspects, an IV drug user.

CLEVELAND : In those days they were dropping like flies. Even way earlier than that. Even before they said it was a gay cancer these boys [IV drug users] were dropping like flies. Your could see them deteriorate. You know, just wither up and die. When E—— passed, I really missed him. I mean he wasn't that close.


Like he never came home with me. But he would always come in the bar and keep me company. I missed him for a long time.

Cleveland attended his friend's funeral. He had come from a well-known family in Harlem, and the church was filled to overflowing. Cleveland presented his friend's mother with a "big" check (Hamilton said it was for $3,000) to cover the funeral expenses. She was a retired woman and did not have the resources for the lavish funeral that the community expected.

Of the fifty-seven respondents in the study, six had organized funerals or memorial services for non-gay family members who had died from AIDS. A further forty-one had attended funerals of acquaintances, family members, or neighbors who had passed away. Nineteen had contributed financially to their friends' funerals, and sixteen had performed at the services, singing or playing music.

WILBERT : I've played for two friends at home [Birmingham]. Now that was expected. But here, I've played for hundreds. . . . Well, not really. About forty or fifty. Most of them are people I don't know, but some of them were. You know, people I'd seen in the neighborhood. On the street. If I know it was one of the girls, child, I'd play my heart out. 'Cause I know they'll be sittin' up there lookin' down and sayin', "Play that box, girlfriend! Play it well, 'cause this is my last show!" After all, I'll have to face them up there one day. Lord willing! So I make sure I do right by them on their way out.

Wilbert related some of the typical incidents surrounding the services. He recalled that families often kept the gay friends away from the funeral, especially if the family was from out of town. Sometimes "scenes" would occur outside the church.

WILBERT : I remember one funeral. It was a sad day. I mean it was cold and wet, and a big crowd turned out. Girlfriend was a lawyer, with a white lover. So you know, she knew some people. A whole lotta white folks came uptown. Well, outside the church the mother arrives in this limo. She lives in a wealthy part of Detroit. You'd think it was her party! She served you fashions for your nerves. She carried on like Alexis Carrington! And when [the deceased man's] lover arrived, she turned her back. I heard that she sent some nephew over and asked if he would stay outside until the service was over. Apparently there was a commotion and the Reverend G—— had to step outside and calm everybody down. . . . Of course, they all came in. [The man's lover] and his friends just sat at the back. But that bitch carried on! She hadn't even seen her son in ten years![24]

Not one of my informants have been left an inheritance from family or friends who have died from AIDS. Only three had received some


sort of memento, but that had been expected in each case. According to Louis, "Our society thrives on memories. And oral history. We pass on stories about friends and things we may have done together. And the memories. That's what's most important."

The Impact

The effects of the AIDS epidemic in Harlem can be differentiated on the basis of psychological impact (Forstein 1989) and sociological impact (Patton 1985).

All of my fifty-seven respondents knew somebody who had died from AIDS. Roommates, friends, former school friends, acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, and family members are missing from people's lives. In a section of town where death is a frequent caller, these losses add to many others.[25] For every friend who has died from AIDS, my informants could list two or three others who had died from other causes, notably from drug abuse or violence. Thus while AIDS has definitely made a profound sociological impact, the losses it has brought are regarded as another very sad fact of life.

In terms of the gay social scene, the impact of AIDS has been far-reaching according to my informants. Two or three respondents have ceased drinking and drugging; bathroom sex has disappeared; park sex has all but gone; and the frequency of sexual partners has dropped off dramatically. Although safer sex practices were not an issue for many of my respondents, three have admitted they tried using condoms after the end of the study, and several who frequented the bathhouse reported that much of the unsafe sexual behavior had "calmed down." People were even using condoms there too. Many have abstained from anal intercourse altogether, although none had stopped practicing fellatio.

As a result of AIDS, five of the hustlers, who were formerly IV drug users, had kicked their habits before the study commenced. Since then, all five have taken up "crack" or "ice," since, in Larry's words, "you can't get AIDS from smoking crack."[26] Although few of the hustlers are engaging in safer sex practices, some had abstained from anal intercourse by the end of the study period.

Psychologically, the epidemic has proved very disturbing to this community. Apart from the fear of becoming ill, concern exists that


anti-gay discrimination may develop specifically because of AIDS and its presumed association with gays. The confusion surrounding the social construction of AIDS as a "gay disease,"[27] the experience of caring for persons with a terminal illness, and other bereavement issues place a psychological burden on members of this gay community. What is especially significant about the data on these issues is that they reflect the horrific impact of AIDS on Harlem. Not only has the disease itself reached women and children, gay and straight men, of all ages, classes, and neighborhoods, but it has psychologically damaged the survivors. Such damage continues to diffuse through the community as AIDS reaches more and more people.

Issues for Identity

For some in Harlem, as elsewhere, AIDS has repressed freedom of sexual expression. Modification of sexual and social behavior has also influenced gay men's sexuality and identity. For many, the importance of particular sexual acts to being gay has declined. For these men, sex is no longer the primary element of being gay.

Fear of increased discrimination expressed in the rise of homophobic "gay bashing" in the mainstream gay community has returned many gay men to the "closet." We do not know what the impact on the next generation of gay men will be, although several researchers are working currently with gay men who have come to maturity during the AIDS era.[28] It is presumed that many will not come out into gay society at all for fear of retribution due to the association of AIDS with the gay population.

Some studies suggest that the gay population in New York, and in Harlem especially, are heavier users of illicit substances than most in the general population.[29] All of my informants consume alcohol or drugs on a daily basis. While no one volunteered that AIDS and its emotional effects had caused such behavior, several could see that it may have spurred "use" on to "abuse." At the same time, the epidemic is responsible for some of the men quitting alcohol and drugs. Both Gregory and Louis have stopped drinking because of their fear of contracting the HIV virus.

ROGER : All this shit has changed things. Man, there's no more gay in being gay.


THURMAN : All the gay things have gone. The discos, the parties, the clothes, the drugs. All the good times have gone. Even the drugs. The ludes and the poppers. It's all gone.

Fundamental aspects of the identities of these gay men have been influenced, if not altered, by the presence of the AIDS epidemic in their lives.


CICERO : I have a sister and a sister-in-law with AIDS. I have a niece [age three] and a nephew [age four] with AIDS. How come? I'm a thirty-four-year-old gay man. I've done it all. I've been everywhere. I'm supposed to be the one who's sick. It's me that should be dead.

In this remark of Cicero's lies the impact of the epidemic on my informants. This discrete gay black community of Harlem has suffered little loss from the disease per se. Yet the social networks of its members have been affected; everyone knows someone who has died from AIDS or is currently living with the disease. Only a few have lost close gay friends, and always some years ago. The strongest impact on this particular community of gay black men has been psychological. The losses that have been close to many of these men have been female relatives and friends and their children.

Apart from the bereavement related to these losses, which I do not mean to belittle, there are many other side effects to this epidemic. As Cicero points out, it doesn't make sense that women and children are ill or dying, especially when compared to received knowledge about the epidemic in New York City. Information available to this population of gay men continues to portray AIDS as an issue for gay men, yet it is not directly affecting this particular population of gay men. This fact probably causes much confusion. Nevertheless, the epidemic is affecting them indirectly. And their anxiety that the epidemic can eventually strike them down has caused them to change sexual and social behaviors they normally considered important to being gay and black.[30]


8— "This Epidemic Thing": Gay Black Men and AIDS in Harlem

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