Thursday, January 05, 2006

US: On Black Gay Men, Masculinity and Our Fathers

by Max Gordon
Sapience Magazine
January 2006

This essay almost wasn’t written because I was too afraid of it. My original idea was to speak to a few of my black gay male friends about their relationships with their fathers and ask them to share their perceptions of black masculinity as gay men. The topic really deserves a book, and I knew that a piece like this would only be able to start a conversation –a vital, necessary one. By talking about our fathers, we would inevitably explore what we had been taught about masculinity; how we perceived ourselves not only as gay men but as black men, and how our relationships with heterosexual black men changed, if it all, once we came out to them as homosexuals. When the heterosexual black men we chose to come out to were our fathers, when we demanded to be respected as black gay men on our terms, how did our relationships with them change and could those relationships even exist at all? As I am not a journalist, news reporter, or talk-show host, the idea of sitting around a table and interviewing my friends while I sat back and nodded encouragingly, exploiting their insights and withholding my own, wasn’t going to get the job done. Even the idea - which appealed to my sense of self-protection - of including my own story under a pseudonym and announcing at the end of article, “By the way, one of the men I’ve written about happens to be me,” felt like an inadequate and cowardly way of offering my own experience. I would be hiding again, just as I’ve hidden family secrets and my homosexuality over the years. The bright promise of coming out of the closet is not only that a sexuality empowered by a new visibility awaits us, but that once we are liberated from one closet, all the other closets in our lives (all the places where we “play it safe” or prevaricate to protect a myth about ourselves or others) start rattling too, demanding our release. In other words, coming out makes us crave more integrity. I knew that I wasn’t going to tell everything about my relationship with my father, but whatever I wrote had to be the truth.

It’s not easy for me to talk about my father. I came out to him in a letter when I was twenty-two, after I’d already been seriously out to myself for three years. I say seriously because a part of me knew that I was gay at four and a half, when I kissed a boy who lived in our apartment building on the lips. But one’s suspicions of being homosexual, the years of inner dialogue: “Am I really going to tell him?” “There’s no way I can tell him!” all become quite different when one finally utters the words, “Dad, I’m gay.”

As I prepared to come out to my father, I realized I had no idea what kind of reaction I was going to get. I braced myself for anything and decided whatever the hell the reaction would be, I wasn’t going to risk getting it face to face. In the few short years since coming out, I’d listened to gay men describe what happened when they told their fathers they were gay. A few of their horror stories had stayed with me. One man I met in a bar had been “outed” by a stepfather who, having searched his room, found gay porn, and began beating him when he walked into the house. Forced hastily to pack a suitcase, he ran down the porch stairs with a trail of clothes following him into the street. It was the middle of the night and he had nowhere to go - a terrifying prospect at any age, but even more so at 16. Another man dispassionately recalled sitting at the dinner table as he told his family he was gay. His father calmly walked over and dumped the kitchen garbage over his head as the rest of the family watched in silence.

The letter I sent to my father left New York and traveled by post more than a thousand miles to his home in the South. I tried to predict his reaction based on our disagreements in the past and considered the range of expressions his displeasure could take; from a disappointed “look”, to savage criticism, to acts of violence. The week before the letter was finally sent, I ran a movie in my head where my father decided that my latest declaration of independence and what I assumed was disobedience (although no one had told me I couldn’t be a homosexual, exactly) had finally pushed our relationship to its nadir of exasperation and that the only satisfying reaction would be to murder me on the spot.

It wasn’t pure fantasy on my part; less than a decade before, Marvin Gaye had been shot in cold blood by his father, Marvin Gaye, Sr. during a family dispute. Comedians like Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor used standup routines to recall with humor the tumultuous, often painful relationships they’d had with their fathers: “I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out.” (Men who favored this line seemed to forget that ‘they” didn’t bring us into the world at all; and in some cases, this sense of entitlement led to the killing of their children, usually accidentally and while disciplining them.)

The experience of family violence hangs over an adult life like a personal storm cloud. You are afraid to tell the people next door to turn down their music, or to confront a stranger who cuts you in a line at the supermarket because of the constant fear of retaliation. Every confrontation, even the most rudimentary, becomes hyperbolic when mixed with your historic fear - you’re scared to say or do anything because “they might kill you.” The need for self-protection at any cost becomes increasingly pathological until finally you are a cipher, a zero, an obsequious inoffensive blob of co-dependent pudding that everyone takes advantage of - emotionally, financially and sexually. The coming-out process rocks some families not because of the homosexuality, as is usually suspected, but because of the audacity underlying the claim. (As a friend once remarked: “The reason why our families get so angry at us for coming out of the closet is because it forces them to come out of their closets too. Those who have ‘lived by the rules’ or denied themselves their own happiness are finally confronted, every life is called into question, and no one is safe.”) Within the sentence, “I am gay” are the words “I am” which inherently mean one exists, and which make some parents, and particularly some fathers, furious. As an adult, I am sometimes still scared of my father.

The letter I wrote was loving. I avoided any criticism or attack. My determined mother had opened the oven door while my little gay cake was still rising (she had dragged a confession out of me), but I decided to wait to tell my father until I felt absolutely ready. (I never felt ready.) The tone of the letter wasn’t, “I think I might be gay and what do we do about this?” or “May I please have your permission to be gay?” It was, “I’m gay and as you are a part of my life, I just thought you’d like to know….”

The letter traveled through the post and I deliberately put it out of my mind for three days. On the fourth, I inwardly cringed, knowing that unless a benevolent god had plucked my letter out of circulation, my father had to have received it by then. Whenever the phone rang, I braced myself for the raging phone call, anticipated every knock at the door. I considered that maybe he’d been so dismayed by my pronouncement that he couldn’t communicate with me over the phone and had decided to hop on a plane to confront me instead. I defended myself against his rejection with mini pep-talks as I paced the floor of my tiny apartment. Emboldening myself, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror: “Dad, I’m not asking your permission to live my life. I’m proud that I’m gay. I don’t need your approval, and I’m not afraid of you anymore.” The frightened face that blinked back wasn’t the slightest bit convinced.

What I got from my father, in the end, was the opposite of what I’d expected. We didn’t sit down and have a man-to-man discussion about my sexuality, but then again we’d never really sat down and had discussions like that about anything. My father called, or I called him. He said he’d gotten my letter - he hadn’t known before, but he still loved me, and that was that. That same year, I’d started a serious romantic relationship. Whenever my father sent me a letter or card, he always included an acknowledgement of my partner. When he rang us, he expressed a genuine interested in him and asked about his career, his family. He visited us the first time (staying in a hotel), and my partner and I sat across from him in the booth of a restaurant. He addressed us both, equitable and kind. Regardless of my frustrations with him over the years, I could never deny the part of my father that had always been a perfect gentleman, and he was on his best behavior that night. My partner warmed to him and walked away liking him, but I was unsure. Having met his disapproval, it seemed, over almost everything else I’d done, I wasn’t quite sure why this new outrage had gotten a clear pass. I waited to find out what the catch was. My partner’s liking my father recalled a familiar childhood memory of friends who asked for a ride home when I’d sometimes get picked up after school. They too were instantly charmed. The next day I always heard at school, “You’re really lucky. Your dad’s so nice….” They had no idea what happened, what was said after they ran inside and the car door slammed behind them.

In the competition for manhood and masculinity that had always been my relationship with my father, by admitting I was gay I was now declaring defeat. The voice in my head said that if the goal of some fathers is to dismantle their sons’ confidence as men - a father and a son are still men, regardless, and most men find ways to compete with each other - what was a better indication that a father has been successful in destroying his son’s manliness than by having him admit to being a homosexual? (The voice in my head was my mother’s: she’d made a comment to this effect when she heard how positive his reaction had been.) Now I really was confused; maybe his approval was a sign that I’d failed in a way I hadn’t even considered before. I thought back to past years, to when cynicism had overwhelmed my understanding of him, and a constant indignation about our relationship had taken over.

I was ten or eleven when I declared all-out emotional war on my father. During an extended family gathering, my cousin Louis and I were having a water-fight in my grandmother’s bathroom; he had just gotten out of the shower, I was waiting to step inside. We gathered handfuls of water from the sink and tossed them, slipping on the wet floor to escape from getting splashed. When my cousin finally left the bathroom to get dressed, my father asked him to find out when I planned to be finished. My response impressed me and appalled my cousin. Although we were almost the same age, Louis came from a family where the slightest hesitation when given a command, the tiniest perceived eye-roll, sarcasm or pout guaranteed a vicious beating. (I thought of Louis and this abuse when he was incarcerated several years ago.) I told Louis distinctly, “You tell my father I’ll be out of this bathroom when I’m out.”

Louis’ mouth dropped open, but he carried my suicide message, shaking his head and smiling; anticipating doom and savoring the opportunity for a little second-hand impudence without having to suffer any consequences (like kids who tattled, “Mommy, Johnny just said fuck” and then when the hand was raised, replied innocently, “I didn’t say it, I was just telling you what Johnny said”). When I had dried and dressed my father called me in for a talk and reminded me that young men don’t speak to their fathers that way. But so much had happened by then in our family, I sometimes felt seventy years old, feigning adolescent enthusiasms and responding with bits of fossilized anger caught in my voice. Now glum with boredom, I registered my father’s admonition and countered it with a sullen and vacant stare. “Can I go now?”

“Yes,” he said, looking a little unsure. “You may go now.”

I experienced a brief moment of victorious euphoria: I didn’t get whipped or grounded. I didn’t get anything, in fact, and walked away with a new surge of power (and, perhaps, the emotional roots of my alcoholism; the decision I made that day to stay just a little angry all the time and to survive pain through the psychological ingrown toenail of impenetrability). My father had the upper hand by size and title; but there is something genuinely spooky about a child who carries a constant aura of malevolence, or who, glass-eyed and smiling, has emptied himself of any will.

I am 35 now and although that day feels like a million years ago, I still can conjure up the old anger. I’m still stuck there, wary of relationships and warped by my experiences. I have spoken to my father only a handful of times this year; maybe we’ve both decided to take a bit of break from each other. Sometimes I think my father accepted my sexuality because he intuitively knew our emotional bank account was already overdrawn, that our relationship simply couldn’t afford another monumental rejection or confrontation. Perhaps he felt remorseful and his gift was his acceptance of me finally for who I was. By the time I came out to my father, I was an adult man (my driver’s license, my job and the alcohol I drank told me I was, even if my emotions told me different) who had stereotyped his father. I was probably more than a little irritated that he’d flipped the script on me, and that I didn’t get the response I expected from him after so many years. I was forced to acknowledge that my father was a more complicated man than he’d allowed me to see. It can be extraordinarily painful when your parents refuse to change, but sometimes it is even harder when they do. After so much heartbreak, it feels embarrassing to find out they do love you, even if they’ve hurt you, and to risk the old vulnerability again. You’re transported back to memories of when your dad was your hero, and he played “that” game where he pretended to be asleep and you snuck up on him and tried to take his glasses off and he turned into a monster that chased you until you screamed and Mom always warned that “someone is going to get hurt” and she was right, of course. Before bed you kissed him goodnight, sometimes at the desk where he worked late, repulsed and attracted by the rough stubble on the cheek he proffered, the cinnamon-flavored gum he chewed, and the cloying daddy-sweat mixed with aftershave. It occurred to me recently as I reflected on my relationship with my father that as adults there existed the potential for something different from what I’d known as a child; that it might be me and not my father who wasn’t ready to change, and that for accepting me fully, given his background and life experience, I’d never really bothered to say, “Dad, I appreciate your support of me as a gay man. And I’d just like to say thank you.”

When I tell my friend Mike about this writing and ask him about his father who died several years ago, our conversation takes us to a few unexpected places. Mike’s description of his father is almost cinematic in its vividness and recalls a lost era. He describes a man conservative in his dress, fastidious in his manner, and exquisitely groomed, a musician and performer who played and sang jazz and swing and Big Band for admiring audiences. I am able to envision this man as I take in Mike’s long brown face and goatee, his careful gestures, manicured hands and the deliberate manner in which he selects his words. “It was only when my father stopped performing that he began to die a slow death,” Mike says. “I learned from him that masculinity was about enduring suffering.” He recounts the first time he brought a boyfriend home to meet his parents. Mike had sent a letter ahead, coming out to them as gay and telling them that “Steve” was not just a friend, but also his lover. Through a traveling miscalculation, his parents didn’t get the letter a week ahead of his visit as Mike had originally planned, but received it after he and Steve had already arrived and had been staying for several days. “My mother read the letter, but she didn’t tell my father. It was five years before he found out. I mentioned something about Steve being my lover one day and saw the look on his face. I’d always assumed that he knew.” Mike pauses for a moment, reflects. “I was never afraid my parents would throw me out or reject me. My father, however, could never understand how I could be “out” of the closet, and I was out. He also once confided to his sister that he couldn’t imagine what two men did in bed together.” After his father’s death, Mike discovered a vast pornography collection, some of it disturbingly violent and sadistic – a shocking contrast to the reserved comportment of the man that he had always known. He was able to see that he was not the only one with sexual secrets in his family, and that a man’s life can be sexually compartmentalized and burdened by the psychological toll that concealment takes, whether he is gay or straight.

Mike’s memories of his father come with the kind of honesty that moving through grief to forgiveness allows. He helps me freely associate with my own memories: how gay boys are sometimes sexually attracted to our fathers as part of our development and how that can often add to a gay child’s feeling of being “sick” or “wrong” - unlike heterosexual boys who are told that it is “cute” and part of their development, when little boys have crushes on their mommies. A gay boy’s attraction to his father can be all the more dismaying when it comes at the exact time he craves affection and validation from him, when his sexual identity begins to take shape. We discuss the reality of boys who can’t have sexual conversations with their fathers but bond through pornography; when a son finds his father’s hidden stash of porn and feels close to him, knowing that they are probably masturbating to the same images, and that he has at least some kind of intimacy with his dad if only by proxy. He may wonder if his father, feeling powerless over his son’s gayness, means for the porn to be discovered as a way to encourage heterosexuality.

Whether the experiences are mine or Mike’s, after a while it doesn’t matter, it is all familiar - our shared truth as black gay men. Mike reminds me that a black father can choose to perceive his son’s homosexuality as something he has learned from white people, as he holds steadfast to the belief that black men can’t really be gay, only misguided. A black gay man can translate his heartbreak with his father into a sexual obsession to date exclusively white men. The white men he seeks romantically will treat him differently, he believes; and even if a white man does hurt you, it’s a different kind of pain, manageable in its unmanageability, and not archetypal like the betrayal by one’s own father. Eventually one realizes that obsessing about white men, or anyone for that matter, can’t save you, and that there are some issues of identity that a black gay man can only confront when he learns to trust and be intimate with other black men –in friendship, sexually or otherwise – and when he learns to love himself.

My friend Leyden couldn’t be more different physically from Mike. Stout and driven, he exudes robust power in a smaller, darker frame, and part of his charisma lies in the intensity of his gaze, his concentration as an artist. I ask Leyden if his father knows he’s gay, and he acknowledges that he has never come out to him officially. “But he definitely knows,” he says. As Leyden describes his relationship with his father, I can’t help but feel envy; the friendship they enjoyed in his primary years and his father’s encouragement of his artistry are rare. “Being a man, as my father defined it, meant being true to yourself, to your talent. Masculinity wasn’t about giving a woman a baby, it was about using your gifts. Everything that I am as an artist, the technical appreciation of art and development of my creativity, came from him.” Leyden remembers the turning-point in their relationship when, at nineteen, he was caught in bed with his lover. Seeing them both lying there, his father said, “I won’t have this here,” to which Leyden replied, “If you won’t have this here, then you won’t have me here.” He began putting his clothing in trash bags and left his father’s house. “I shut down after I moved out. We never had a conversation about my sexuality. It was completely ignored. I turned that reaction into shame. His rejection came with silence, and the silence was devastating.” The message about his homosexuality, as Leyden understood it, was that as long as he didn’t speak about it, his father wouldn’t have a problem. “I was the child. I didn’t understand why my father didn’t fight for the relationship. Why he didn’t say, ‘I may not understand what you’re doing, but we’re going to talk about this.’ I just didn’t get that kind of support from him.” Leyden acknowledges that in many ways he is still protecting his family, despite his disappointment. “Sometimes I feel someone will die if I tell them the truth: that I love men.” Leyden is like most gay men I know or have met, emotionally tied to his family, still his father’s son, yet somehow triumphantly alone, having been tested in extraordinary ways to forge a gay identity with almost no support. I admire his courage, but I also note the residue of sadness underneath, which, like Mike’s memories, I share.

Speaking with Leyden about his parents, I am reminded of the pervasive theory that male homosexuals come from families where the mother is overpowering and the father grows emotionally distant. I’ve applied the theory to my own life and felt the shame that if the theory was right, I was probably “perverted” by my family. I’ve talked to other gay men and felt even more discouraged as the incriminating data accumulated: most of them had distant fathers too. Only when I’ve listened to my straight male friends talk about their dads did it begin to occur to me that, with rare exceptions, emotionally distant fathers may be the only kind. As long as men are encouraged to withhold emotionally in relationships and uphold macho standards, the relationships between fathers and sons will continue to be based on fear. There is always the possibility that gay and bisexual men are not created by their fathers’ indifference, but rather, that a father may understand early that his son is gay and turn away from him. As has been argued in the nature vs. nurture discussions, a mother might become “overpowering” as a way to compensate for the father’s emotional cruelty. A father can be so competitive with his son, in fact, so determined to make him a “real man” that he all but destroys the inner “warrior” in him, the part of his psyche he needs in order to go out in the world and assert himself. As an adult, every time he approaches a vision of his life with any vigor, he may feel a backlash of depression and overwhelming sadness that recalls the terror of being constantly challenged by an aggressive father. This depression is most acute when he has to deal with feelings of homosexuality. He may believe that his masculinity is based on his sexual performance, the number of partners he has, and that some of these partners, whether he is gay or bisexual, must be women. As he feels a need to protect his precarious masculine identity in order to hide his shame that he isn’t masculine enough, or to prove he isn’t gay, he may lie to his female partners about his sexual behavior, as he continues to lie to himself.

At the time of this writing, the “down low” debate is raging. The subject comes up on talk-shows, in popular books and magazines, at work, and in a conversation I have with two black women who live in my apartment building. One tries to be more understanding but expresses her frustration: “Why won’t they tell us the truth?” The other is just flat-out mad, and not at all uncomfortable with venting her anger and rage at bisexual and gay men who are “undercover liars” - whether her opinion strikes me as homophobic or not. Halfway through the conversation, I fear that I might sound as if I’m defending the “down-low” men, although I am clear that there is no defense for a man who lies and puts a woman’s, or for that matter, another man’s health at risk. But where there may be no defense, there is still a context from which the “down low” behavior emerges, and to understand what these men are doing means investigating all aspects of sexual identity and homophobia, an exploration that is absent in these discussions. I haven’t read of churches, for example, telling their congregations to support their gay and bisexual children so that when they grow up the world will be safe enough for them to express their sexuality without their having to be pernicious or covert; empowering them so that they won’t feel the need to lie and put others at sexual risk. Where is the acknowledgement that in some cases it’s not just a simple either/or, but that the “down-low” men in question are both perpetrators and victims?

I’ve had the phrase said directly to my face by women who meant no harm but were simply stating a “fact” about dating: all the good black men are either gay, married, waiting to be born, or dead. From off-hand statements like this, one might conclude that black homosexuals are willfully depriving black families of heterosexual men. If the black American family is in trouble, it is because the American family is in trouble, and the continued pressures of racism - economic, institutional and psychological - eventually take a toll. Black gay men are just as affected by their families pain, not on the periphery, but as fathers, brothers, uncles, sons. The idea of the gay person perceived as outsider or pariah is not new; what may be new, however, is that for those of us who once felt any guilt about our prejudice, our hate is now justified, empowered by the “down-low” campaigns, which have become like black gay witch-hunts.

Our popular literature and media encourage these views. Sometimes we keep our gay mouths shut because we don’t want to spoil everyone’s good time. (“Wasn’t that movie funny?” “Don’t you just love her writing?” - “No, it wasn’t.” “No, I don’t.”) When black gays and lesbians do appear in popular entertainment at all, too often we are predators; the black lesbian who can’t take no for an answer in Spike Lee’s She’s Got to Have It; the drunk black lesbian who snatches her best friend’s breasts (“That’s when I hauled off and slapped the shit out of her so hard she fell on the floor”) in Terry McMillian’s Disappearing Acts; the nasty David in Waiting to Exhale, who walks out on his wife, wiping his heels over her self-esteem and announcing that not only is he not attracted to her anymore because she’s fat, but because he’s decided he’s no longer bisexual, he’s completely gay. Villainous gay people do exist in the world, but in popular culture there seems to be an absence of any other kind. One could conclude that black gays and lesbians are refusing to “achieve” black heterosexuality out of an aggressive selfishness. Best-selling author and multi-millionaire, McMillan has had a public confrontation with her partner Jonathan Plummer, who provided the inspiration for the male love interest in her book, When Stella Got Her Groove Back. She claimed, in the press and an appearance on Oprah, that Plummer deceived her from the beginning about his homosexuality and then had the audacity, as they prepared for divorce, to demand alimony from her. The public disclosure was timed perfectly with the publishing of her next work, and continues Oprah’s disturbingly narrow series of shows on closeted gay men who lie to women. Absent from the McMillan conversation is any discussion of the inequities of class privilege, or the fact that if McMillan were a wealthy businessman who brought home a wife twenty-three years his junior from the Caribbean, the sympathies, when observed through the lens of wealth, fame and power, might fall a little differently. The conversation would certainly be more complex than the endlessly facile “down low/just another lying nigga” variety. Yes, Stella might have gotten her groove in 1996, but people have been processing Caribbean “grooves” for years on Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Is this really the story of a disaffected love affair or an American consumer, pissed off because she didn’t get her money’s worth?

What is required is a stand like the one taken by Kanye West last summer, who spoke out publicly against homophobia, while acknowledging that he still struggles with it in his personal life. With compassion, we can have a conversation that acknowledges the rage felt at men who lie to their partners, appreciating why some men make the choices they do, while holding them accountable for those choices. Maybe then we will understand why a man might lie about his homosexuality or bisexuality because he believes, and in some cases rightly so, that he will no longer be perceived as a man when he tells the truth. For every woman who’s said, “Why can’t they just be honest with us about their bisexuality from the beginning?” there is a man who will reply, “Yeah, women say that, but tell a woman you’re interested in that you are bisexual or occasionally attracted to men, and I guarantee you, in that second, the date’s over.”

Years ago, before it closed down, I frequented a bathhouse that catered specifically to black and Latino men. One evening, I ran into an old friend there and we sat down on a bench, marveling at the men who walked past us. These gay men weren’t “queens” or “queers” as we’d always defined the term, but “real” men. Or as my friend cackled, “Men, Honey, men!” On the street, day-to-day, “real-life” men, construction-working, truck-driving men, the kind of man you’d never call “her” when you talked about him behind his back. (As in, “Do you know what she said to me at the bar last night?”) These men had broad necks and shoulders, muscles boiling under the skin, and the balls of their feet made little earthshaking booms when they walked. Even though everyone was naked under his towel, some men wore a corporate, conservative look, others had a closed, smoldering masculinity suggesting dangerous possibilities if crossed, and still others were clearly giving outright thug and gangster - the kind of man who refused to take off his shoes during sex, who set his half-finished forty-ounce on your arched back and said “Hold this” when he fucked you. They were all curious to me: Jamaican men, who wordlessly entered the booth and closed the door behind them - while dance-hall songs called for the brutal murder of “batty boys”, in the dark these men sang a different tune; eager white guys who came uptown only for sex, and were blatantly looking for “black dick” (blatant because when asked, they came right out and told you, “Hi, I’m up here looking for black dick.”) And I knew I’d seen everything when a Hassidic Jew walked by – what gave him away were the unmistakable curls of hair on each side of his head, which he’d tried to play off by tucking them behind his ears and eventually fashioning into a makeshift ponytail. I said to my friend, also a writer, “All the children are up in this camp tonight. Who are these men?” And he explained, having obviously considered the question before, “It’s a little of everything. West Indian men who feel they can’t come out in their community. Men who are bisexual and married or who face religious persecution. Some of it is prison culture. What do you do when you get out of jail, you don’t call yourself gay, you’re still attracted to women, but now you’ve got a jones for sucking dick. You want the release without the hassle. So you come here.”

In places where our fathers can’t see us, in the dark where we sometimes can’t even see ourselves, we’ve submitted to men. In the sex club or porno booths, men share sex, but occasionally, when the sex goes flat, or when an emotion other than lust or indifference intrudes, two men stand still in the dark and just hold each other. And for some, it takes this faraway place, in somebody’s dark labyrinthine basement with the lights down, the noisy house-music thumping and the door firmly locked, for two men to express tenderness and compassion for one other. Surely in these rooms at some time a man cried on another man’s shoulder about a recent break-up or abusive relationship, about feeling lonely, or not being able to be with his family during the holidays because he’d come out recently and found himself dis-invited, about recently being diagnosed as HIV-positive and not having anyone to talk to, fearing the possibility of one day being sick and dying alone. In the small space, he responded to the soothing reassurances of another man who said, “It’s okay. I’m here.” Even if they both eventually abandoned each other and showered, turned in their keys and towels, stood silently next to each other in the elevator and went separate ways when they hit the streets - “real men” once they entered the world again - they couldn’t pretend that it hadn’t occurred, that male sexual and emotional tenderness hadn’t existed, if only in private. The men who worked in the bathhouse every day of the week knew; the floor and discarded towels, still wet with the mixture of two men’s sweat, tears, semen, and shit, knew.

“Chile, please”, “Miss Thing”, “Look, Bitch,” “Gurrrrrrrrl!” I’ve said the words, hands on hips, emphasizing a phrase with snaps, signifying with a black male “girlfriend” and warning him playfully that he is about to go too far, inviting him to share in a delicious confidence. I move on the dance floor, knowing that the men surrounding it are considering me sexually as they cradle their Budweisers and Heinekens, some vaguely, others staring at my body outright. I dance to keep their attention and give them ass. And even though I say to myself, you’re a man and men shouldn’t be dancing like that, I have created a space for myself on the dance floor and they are playing my song. I clamp my hands over my knees and pump my behind suggestively, raise my hands in the air. In my psychological rear view mirror, I see my parents trailing me, flashing headlights to signal danger. To flirt at all as a gay man, their message says, to use my ass as a bargaining tool for love, means that I might die of AIDS. When I “bitch-out” like this, I imagine their disapproval - this isn’t the way they raised their son. It’s hard to ignore them, but somehow I force myself. I know they may never understand what my gay life is like, how different the rules can be and how I’ve had to learn them by myself. Besides, they’ve had their turn at love and I deserve mine too, right?

A man next to me might decide to grab my hips, rodeo style, and I roll back against him in a coquettish invitation. Or I decide to dance by myself. Someone makes room on the floor and encourages me over the music, his voice a warning: “Awright, girl.” And another commands, “You betta work, bitch”, and an older Latino man urges, “Serve it, Mommie.” The language is problematic and imprecise, for sure: am I really a bitch, a girl? Mommie? Do I have a black male reference for enticing other men sexually or do I have to turn myself into a “woman” so I can cope with the perceived loss of manliness? Can I dance freely and playfully, enjoying my body fully as a black gay man, or can I only be “fierce”, am I only able to work up any “double-dutch” enthusiasms and sassiness when I envision myself as a female? In order to be sexually empowered, I may have to turn myself into “Pam”, my fantasy black feminine alter ego who knows how to negotiate men more adroitly than I. Pam, who lives in Detroit, who wears a short Peter Pan haircut, who loves to jingle the keys to her car (already paid for) and buy her own drinks, has achieved what I haven’t: firm boundaries and the ability to tell a man no. Am I able to claim a black gay sexuality that is not perceived as a watered-down version of black heterosexual male sexuality, or a co-opted fantasy of a heterosexual black woman’s sexuality? How do I enjoy a sexuality that is my own empowered expression, and not just a reaction to prejudice I’ve learned to have about myself, to brutality I’ve experienced or historic pain?

I’m constantly searching for that gay sensuality; sex yes, but something more. A place of innocence, flirtation without violence, sex without shame. A spontaneous, improvised sexuality that I am constantly riffing on, instead of the usual playing by rote that I’ve known too well, the self-destructive sex that too often constitutes “play” - a bottle of poppers pressed up to one nostril, the ache that come from being on one’s knees for too long on the cold cement floors of porn theaters.

A few summers ago I saw a black gay man roller-skating at the outdoor rink in Central Park. The sun was oppressively bright that day, and with the halting steps that I took towards the park, you’d think I’d just been released from solitary confinement. I’d been isolating at home most of that summer, and had probably left the house that day only because a friend had dragged me out under some false pretense or insisted we meet because he was tired of hearing me complain over the phone. My skater looked about my age, in his early thirties, and wore shorts and no shirt. He had the kind of bulk that keeps me safely locked indoors, and definitely off anybody’s dance floor or skating rink when I am that fat, which I was. I’d been coping with depression for months by then, dealing - or not dealing - with some childhood memories bubbling to the surface, and my overeating was out of control, again. I crammed florets of greasy McDonald’s french fries into my mouth and repeatedly told my inner child to shut up. A friend called to go dancing, but the possibility of moving my body expressively in front of anyone at that point, especially other gay men, was out of the question. I couldn’t bear the shade I anticipated, real or imagined. (I envisioned the inevitable; me diving into the darkest corner of the bar only to run smack into a friend whom I haven’t seen in two or three years. He scans me from head to toe and says with overemphasis, “Max, how are you?”). Unfairly or not, I blamed my body dysmorphia on the Chelsea Boys. In my fantasy, they traveled in ridiculing gangs, forgiving almost any misdemeanor in their friends and lovers – lying, petty larceny, even sleeping with each other’s boyfriends – but getting fat or getting older were crimes worthy of the death penalty.

I don’t know what song was playing while he and the others skated, but in my memory of that day, it was something by Chaka Khan. He reminded me of a white man I saw dancing at the first gay bar I ever went to, and that sometimes it’s only through seeing freedom in others that we are reminded of the same possibilities within ourselves, that the trances of self-hate and shame can finally be broken. He was black, he was a man, he was gay and, like me, a father’s son. I didn’t know whether or not he was a father, but he had definitely been a gay boy who had grown up into a gay man despite the social and internalized violence that sometimes succeeded in thwarting that process. And he looked happy. What gave him the right to be free? As spiritual freedom is never given or granted to anyone, he’d obviously decided on it. Through the blurry vision of my depression, I watched and watched, and felt a sudden blast of anger – how dare he? But as my fear didn’t stop anything and he kept dancing anyway, I just stood there.

I understood in an instant that as a black gay man, I challenge cultural assumptions of race and sexuality by merely existing, and defy them any time I refuse to self-destruct. Anger could be powerful, yes, but to the extent that it ruled one’s life, as it sometimes ruled mine, it could also be a way to hide one’s deepest fears about pleasure. Chronic depression about my homosexuality and living in constant guilt and shame was like being liberated from one closet and walking straight into another. The truth was, somewhere in America, a homophobe was tossing and turning and losing sleep every time I enjoyed my God-given sensuality, every time I had a guilt-free gay orgasm. To an oppressed person, self-love is a revolutionary act, and sometimes having a good-ole’-gay time is insurrection.

The sun was bright that day, and the man was sweating. He lifted up one of his legs and turned with his hands in the air, laughing his joy. The way he moved, so womanly, and so much a man, he seemed to be saying to every bystander by kicking up his thick brown thighs, “Yes, Lord, I may be fat, I may be a sissy, and oh yes, I may be loving some arroz con pollo tonight, but right now, baby, the now that matters, I’m loving me some me.”

We’re black gay men, but we are also black men, and the time has come when we will no longer be marginalized because of our homosexuality. And every black gay man is invited; not just “the beautiful ones” whose assured masculinity can easily grace the cover of popular black heterosexual magazines (and often does, whether it is openly acknowledged or not). We need all our men, the “butches”, “the thugs”, “the elderly”, the “sissies” and the “queens” – girly-men who sometimes embarrass those of us who claim to be comfortable with gay life, whom we attempt to slam the closet door on because they are a little “too queer” for our assimilationist comfort. We are no longer available for straight black writers and filmmakers to make money by continuing to empower the popular stereotypes and biases against us; or for black churches to form coalitions with white homophobic politicians against us in order to secure a nugget of dubious political power. As we are also healing from both racist oppression and homophobia as black gay people, we more clearly see the division of an African-American community based on sexual politics, sexism or light-skinnedism as a way of keeping us divided and politically redundant, as we continue to splinter ourselves into oblivion with competitive bullshit. For us as black gay men, our fathers may have held the key to our healthy black male self-esteem, but whether they bequeathed us its legacy or whether we had to snatch it, it does belong to us: black maleness, in all its beauty, challenges, weakness and triumphs, is ours. And our contributions continue to stand with dignity.

Remembered: Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, Craig G. Harris, Donald Woods, Richard Bruce Nugent, Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, Sylvester, Bayard Rustin, Roy Gonsalves, James Baldwin, Marlon Riggs.

I’d like to thank Leyden Lewis and Mike Lee for sharing their experience in this article.

© 2006 Max Gordon
All rights reserved

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