Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gays Are Black, Too

In the black community, homosexuality is a very controversial subject. So much so that the thought of having a relaxed and meaningful conversation with a gay person is as unthinkable as shaking hands with the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Writes Shelby Sankore: in Players magazine: "Homosexuality of any kind seems to find less acceptance among Afro-Americans than other groups in this country." This negative attitude is largely based on a host of myths and stereotypes that have been perpetuated for decades.

Because of this attitude, the gay black youths I spoke with have not revealed their gayness to their families. (I've been told of cases where kids have been thrown out of the house after announcing to their parents their feelings for members of their own sex.)

A 20-year-old male college student told me, "I've never mentioned it to my mother because I have an uncle who's gay and my mother doesn't like him at all. She's turned off by it. But I don't fear being thrown out. She's very attached to me. That's why I know she would never throw me out. She would worry too much. But she would make my life miserable if I were to tell her."

This article is intended to encourage, in the words of Dr. June Dobbs Butts, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Howard University College of Medicine, the emergence in the black community of "men and women who respect one another for the ways in which we are alike as well as the ways in which we are different. Only then will we understand that our sexual similarities outweigh our sexual differences." (The emphasis is hers) For the record, Dr. Butts identifies herself as heterosexual.

Above all else, gays are part of the human family. Whether we agree with their lifestyle is unimportant. We should concern ourselves with the content of the person's character, not what he or she does in the bedroom--and with whom.

To paraphrase a National Gay Task Force pamphlet, if the person is loving and responsible today, he'll be that way tomorrow. His gayness changes nothing, except perhaps our attitude toward him.

I'm not saying I have no misgivings about some aspects of the gay lifestyle. I do. But so do the young gays I spoke with. For example, they disapprove of those gays who are into sado-machischism. They disapprove of man/boy relationships. One of them is totally opposed to cruising and prefers "a monogamous relationship. One to one."

The point is, we should be willing to allow people the freedom to choose how they will live their lives--without fear of slurs, violence, and discrimination. So long as they are forcing their lifestyle on others, why should we care?

It should be acknowledged that none of us can say for certain whether we would ever engage in a homosexual affair, just as none of us could say for certain whether we would resort to cannibalism if we found ourselves stranded in some frozen wasteland with no other  food source.

Says Truman Capote, "People are whatever they are under different circumstances, under whatever particular pressures there are."

Dr. Dorothy Harris of Penn State echoes Capote's sentiments: "Circumstances and basic human need have a lot to do with your behavior at a particular time."

It is estimated that gays represent anywhere from 10 to 13 percent of the population. No one can be sure since there are gay people who have escaped detection by  masquerading as straight people. But what if we discovered that a close friend was gay. In what ways would this alter the friendship? Would it make Jenny or Joe any less the person we've come to know and trust? Think about it.

And while you're thinking, consider this thought from Dr. Butts: "...Our minds cannot function when we are gripped by fear." Once we overcome this fear and see others as people first--be they homosexual , heterosexual, bisexual, or celibate--it will go a long way toward breaking down barriers to communication.

This article was originally published in the Oregon Journal in Portland (August 15, 1981).

Note: It was syndicated nationally by the Los Angeles Times to replace Andrew Young's column. Young had to give up his column when he ran for mayor of Atlanta. The L.A. Times editor was initially reluctant (homophobic?) to send this column out because Andrew Young never wrote about homosexuality in the black community in any of his columns.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Young Brooklyn Choreographer Has His Say

"I'm dancing," says Brendan Upson, a Brooklyn-based dancer/choreographer, "because I have something to say."

Recently [in 1987], in the "New Territory" performance series at BACA/Downtown in Brooklyn, he got the opportunity to have his "say." Two of the three pieces that night had definite social messages.

The first of the dances, "Stay Here and Keep Watch With Me," a male solo (Upson), is about a man's spiritual awakening. At one point, as he sits down in a metal folding chair, he mocks religion by lip syncing the soprano chanter on the soundtrack. But after life's adversities have beaten him down, he sees that the last laugh is on him. It is a very compelling piece, energetically performed.

The second work, an improvisation called "Energy Spot," showcased a group of teens from the El Puente Community Center in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The press release describes "Energy Spot" as depicting "how an individual is blocked from attaining her true potential because of the fears which bind her." However, I came away with the impression that these 11 bodies represented atoms interacting with one another. The El Puente dancers have great potential, although I would like to see the females shed a few pounds; the added weight breaks the flow of movement. I didn't particularly like this work. The dancers crisscrossed the performance space numerous times, making no clear statement. It became so tedious that I was glad when it ended.

Upson was wise to save the best for last. "Delirium Tremens," a satirical piece for four people, good-naturedly explores alcoholism. Upson, displaying a comedic talent, was cast as the alcoholic husband and father. As the lights went up, his head was resting on a portable TV dinner tray, shot glass nearby. His family vainly attempted to rouse him from a drunken stupor. Eventually his dependence on alcohol causes him to wind up in a detox unit. While there he encounters the dreaded "pink elephants," a sign that he is having the D.T.s [convulsions and hallucinations]. The other three dancers, who played his family members, were also the pink elephants, dressed humorously in pink and gray costumes, sunglasses, and elephant trunks. Leslie Arlette Boyce gave a standout performance as Upson's no-nonsense wife.

The piece is appropriately accompanied by New Orleans honky-tonk style music. Although the piece at times can be stereotypical in its portrayal of alcoholic behavior, Upson should be commended for dealing with such a serious subject, the comic touches notwithstanding. Fortunately, Upson knows how far to go. Those comic touches do not turn into slapstick. I was not, sad to say, clear on whether the Upson character licked his problem.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (February 20, 1988).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

From Haiti To New York: An Interview With Assotto Saint

At the age of 26, Yves Francois Lubin, known in the theatre as Assotto Saint, is a man blessed with many artistic gifts. He writes plays or what he prefers to call "theatre pieces," sculpts, paints, dances, and sings.

It's his belief that "art can transform people," that "art has to be political...that the artist has to be an activist, politician, preacher."

He has written, thus far, three plays. One of them, Risin' to the Love We Need was reviewed by the Amsterdam News critic Lionel Mitchell. "This is a play," wrote Mitchell, "about black gay men and aside from its obvious roughness, it pulls no punches." Another critic, Robert Chesley of the New York Native, had this to say: Lubin "uses language that is frequently very beautiful, and there are some very moving moments in the play."

Lubin came to this country in 1970 with his mother from his native Haiti. He is the product of a well-educated, upper middle class family. While his mother was living in Europe, Lubin was being raised by his grandparents and aunts. "From a very early age,"he says, "I liked boys. I was surrounded by macho men all over and nobody tried to change me.I don't know why. I have so many cousins. About 25, 26 cousins, and we used to play together. I used to always be the bride. I always wanted it. I give my family credit that they let me become who I was. [His family may have been tolerant of his effeminacy, but neighborhood kids were not. They would often call him "massici," the Creole word for "sissy." Even today, Lubin admits to having "effeminate ways."]

Lubin is light-skinned, has a small, well-trimmed mustache, and wears his hair moderately short. Despite his 13 years in America, he still speaks with a heavy Haitian accent.

Charles Michael Smith: You call your plays theatre pieces. What is the difference?
Yves Francois Lubin: They don't necessarily have a beginning, middle or ending. They don't have to have a structure. They're broader.

CMS: Do all of your plays--or theatre pieces--deal with being gay?
YFL: Especially with being black and gay in America in 1983. Certain people  in my family felt I was limiting my talent to work only with gay art.

CMS: Do you write for a specific audience?
YFL: I write for everybody. I deal with black gay issues because my art right now is an answer back. It's a reaction. The world is still fucked up and why not have it coming from a different perspective and see it from there?

CMS: What do you draw on for your characters?
YFL: From my fantasies, from people I've known. Mostly all my characters are composites of friends. My "Miss Thing" [an excerpt from Risin', published in Blackheart 1: Yemonja] was definitely based on a real person, Marcia Johnson, a [black] transvestite who used to be very active in the gay movement.

CMS: What writers influenced you?
YFL: James Baldwin used to be a big influence in my life. Pablo Neruda nurtured me, really nurtured me. Anne Sexton also. I'm one of those confessional [writers], letting it all out there, bleeding, very melodramatic. I wish I could restrain myself. I'm one of those people who are sometimes too open for their own good. Sometimes you have to leave a little bit for the imagination, a little bit for suspense.
One of the things I realize, especially from gay writers, is that we have to stop dealing with cock and cocksucking and deal with other issues that may not be fashionable for gay writers to deal with, like the nuclear issue. People feel that when a black leader like Jesse Jackson speaks, he has to deal only with civil rights. Bullshit. You're a human being, you're living in 1983, in the United States. You're paying taxes. You should involve yourself in all kinds of issues.

CMS: I am told that Haiti is a playground for American gay men. How much difference is there between Haitian gay life and American gay life?
YFL: It's night and day. Most Haitians you see who are gay in Haiti are prostitutes, though there is a Haitian gay life. There are celebrated artists who are gay. But gays have no power in Haiti--although I've been told that there are a few highly positioned gays in this present [Baby Doc's] government. I don't know. Whenever I go to Haiti, I go there to relax and to just lay down from all that's happening in New York.
If you're an American going to Haiti, you will not have problems. But if you're gay [and Haitian] in Haiti, you will have problems. American money is being sold in Haiti. Being an American is being a god; it means money. You can do whatever you want, whether you're gay or not. But if you're gay and Haitian, that's different: there's homophobia you have to deal with. You're a pariah in that society.

This article is an excerpt from an interview that was published in the New York Native in 1984. The interview took place in his apartment in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Surviving The Trauma Of Foster Care

About Courage by Mickey C. Fleming (Holloway House, Paper)

In his autobiography, About Courage, Mickey C. Fleming, a black gay man from Washington, D.C., relates the story of the evening he sat in a friend's home and revealed, over a glass of Riunite wine, his childhood experiences while in foster care. His friend exclaimed: "You have a great story to tell. You should write a book!" Fleming, at first rebuffed the idea with the remark: "I'm not a celebrity."

It's true , 99 percent of the autobiographies and biographies published each year are by or about the famous. To be quite honest, if this book had not been sent to me for review, I probably would have given it scant, if any, attention. Not because it dealt with foster care--an important and timely subject--but because its author, an unknown, was dropped in our midst without any introduction. After all, it's asking a lot to expect people to plunk down $2.95, plus tax, to read the life story, or confessions, of someone you never heard of.

In fact, while reading About Courage, I kept wishing that Fleming, who spent virtually all of his childhood in foster care, had introduced himself in the pages of a magazine, say Essence magazine's annual men's issue, rather than in a 224-page book. Despite all of the ups and downs in his 33 years, there still isn't enough compelling material here to warrant a lengthy retelling. A 2,000-word magazine piece would have been more fitting. His life as an absurd, self-hating, confused, and rebellious gay adolescent isn't really all that remarkable. Aside from giving current foster kids the feeling that they too can rise above their situation as well as providing them with a resilient role model (he goes on to college, later landing a job as an electrical draftsman), About Courage otherwise doesn't offer any profound insights into the foster care system or the foster child.  As a reader, it stirred no outrage in me. In fact, it would have been better if he had written about the Washington, D.C.-based orphanage, Junior Village, where he had spent some time as a child. (It was closed in 1973, after 26 years in existence, writes Fleming, "because of an alleged history of abuse of the very children it was designed to help.") All we're offered really is a succession of horror stories: his sexual victimization by the older boys at the orphanage, the on-the-job harassment of him by male co-workers because of his sexuality, his reunion with his mentally ill mother (strangely this episode is twice recounted--in Chapters 1 and 17, in almost identical words), his eviction from an apartment he shared with a resentful, irresponsible heterosexual couple who misuse the rent money he's given them.

Despite a few flaws in the book, it is clear that Mickey Fleming has writing talent. It will be interesting to see what his next book, if there is to be one, will be about. I hope it won't be a sequel. I also hope he'll use his own photo for the dust jacket and not a model's. If, in the words of one of the characters in the book, he and pop singer Prince "could pass for brothers," why the subterfuge?

This article was originally published in the Chicago-based gay and lesbian publication, Outlines (February 1990).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Beautiful African Men

Anyone who doubts the beauty of the African male should check out the YouTube video  Beautiful African Men which is a series of still photos of men from various African countries (Ghana, Congo, Nigeria, etc.). The photo gallery is set to an uptempo soundtrack. The only celebrities whose names I recognize are actors Boris Kodjoe and Idris Elba. But, famous or not, all the men are worthy of a look. Black is indeed beautiful.

Jan Ernst Matzeliger, African-American Inventor (1852-1889)

You may not know it but every time you put on a pair of shoes, you owe a debt of gratitude to the genius of Jan Ernst Matzeliger, a young black immigrant from Dutch Guiana (located on the  northeast coast of South America and now known as Surinam). Because of his efforts, the American shoe industry was revolutionized by his invention of the shoe-lasting machine.

In the 19th century, shoe lasting--attaching the upper leather of the shoe to the sole--was done by hand. The work was so slow that the hand lasters could not keep up with the pace of the machines producing other shoe parts and consequently the work would pile up. This limited the number of shoes made and caused shoe prices to soar. No one thought a machine would ever be built that could duplicate the finger work of skilled hand lasters and thus speed up production. Several models were tried and they all failed.

Then along came Matzeliger. When he arrived in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1876 (the largest shoe manufacturing center in the United States in a state responsible for more than half of the country's shoes), his mechanical skills and his previous employment as a cobbler's apprentice proved useful when he landed a job in a shoe factory. While there he learned to operate most of the machines involved in the shoemaking process. (He also attended night classes where he studied English and  became an excellent student.)

His decision to build a shoe-lasting machine made him a laughingstock. But this did not deter him. After spending as much time as he could watching the finger work of the hand lasters and studying physics and mechanics from books and experimentation,  he fashioned a model from wood, old cigar boxes, and other scrap materials. He then began building the real thing out of parts from discarded machines. He completed a second and more durable version and received a patent on it in March of 1883. In the spring of 1885, the machine underwent a successful factory test run. Because certain parts for this version had to be made to order, Matzeliger
sought the financial backing of two local businessmen who received two-thirds ownership of the machine. When additional capital was needed to begin large-scale production of the machine, two more financiers answered the call.

Matzeliger's machine became quite a success because of its capacity to turn out as many as 700 pairs of shoes a day. (The hand lasters could only do 50 pairs a day.) This improvement in productivity cut the price of shoes in half. By 1889 there was a worldwide demand for the shoe-lasting machine which eventually became known in the shoe industry as the "Niggerhead Laster," because of its inventor. (In 1888 he received a patent on a third model.)

One of Matzeliger's backers made a fortune from the machine by forming a shoe machinery company that bought up other such companies and became, as a result of this merging, a multi-million-dollar monopoly. Unfortunately for Matzeliger, it was not possible for him to share in this wealth beyond owning some stock certificates in the shoe machinery companies.

In 1886 Matzeliger caught a cold at a rained out church picnic. His weakened condition, due to lack of food and warmth (he had very little money) and ceaseless labor during the time he was designing and building the machine, caused him to contract tuberculosis, a common ailment among shoe factory workers at that time. He remained bedridden for the next three years. This prevented him from completing work on a fourth version of the shoe-lasting machine. In 1889, only three weeks short of his 37th birthday, he succumbed to his illness and was buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Lynn.

A very important tribute to his invention and to his genius came in the form of a gold medal. It was awarded posthumously at the Pan American Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1901, where the most advanced machinery of the day was put on display.

This article was originally published on the front page of the Harlem Weekly newspaper in 1983.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Rambling In The Ramble

Voice of the People
New York Daily News
450 West 33rd Street
New York, NY 10001
July 20, 1994

Dear Editor:

In Jose Lambiet's article about Central Park after dark, he referred to gay men walking past each other in search of "a date." Anyone who has ever been in the Ramble [a heavily wooded part of the park] knows that the men who frequent this area have no desire for a date. It's all about sex.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

Note: This unpublished letter was written on a scrap of paper but was never sent to the Daily News.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Black Gay Men Expressing Themselves In Print

"The white gay male movement is not equipped to help me integrate my gayness and my blackness. It has no intention of listening to what we have to say, let alone the voices of our black sisters.
"We have to change all of this. In so doing, we must form an autonomous black gay movement. ...[W]e have to reach out to the brothers who are isolated from each other, caught in a damaging web of self-images that are the negative creations of white men."--Isaac Jackson ("Some Thoughts on Black Gay Liberation," Blackheart 1: Yemonja.)

Isaac Jackson, Fred Carl, and Tony Crusor are members of the Blackheart Collective. The collective was formed "to publish black gay writers and graphic artists," said Jackson, "and then people who are writing not necessarily literature but essays as well."

Jackson, 28, grew up in New York and is the product of what he described as "a mixed marriage--Southern black and West Indian." He works for a New York media arts organization and hosts a live radio show called "Messages" on  WBAI-FM (every Thursday from 3 to 5 a.m.)

Fred Carl, also 28, is a native of New Haven, Connecticut and is co-manager of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore in Greenwich Village.

And Tony Crusor, 25, was born and raised in Chicago and is studying to be an architect.

The interview, which took place in a restaurant on Christopher Street, covered a wide range of topics of concern to the black gay male community as well as a discussion of the origin and goals of the Blackheart Collective.

Charles Michael Smith: How did the Blackheart Collective get started?
Isaac Jackson: It started in the summer of 1980 when a group of us decided that we wanted to publish something. We were tired of going to the bookstore and not reading many titles, if any at all, by black gay men. I knew a lot of people who are writers and stuff and I called people together and said "Do you want to start a collective?" Everyone did. So that's how it got started basically. We were inspired a lot by black lesbians and black feminist writers. This Bridge Called My Back [Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, editors; Watertown, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1981] really moved us a lot.

There's been precedents like Mojo, a black gay newspaper, that Calvin Lowery produced for a year or so.

CMS: What are the goals of Blackheart?
Fred Carl: To encourage black gay men to produce something in some kind of tangible way, to leave some kind of artifact behind. In the past few years, there's more and more things available by third world lesbians and or [those] who identify themselves as third world lesbians. There just isn't that much for third world gay men and that includes black gay men. We're black gay men and we figure that we would best be able to do something that came from black gay males from our experiences as a black gay man.

Tony Crusor: And it's the thing also of making a statement using literature in particular. We really think that the kinds of things that we have to say can create a kind of broader coalition involving different groups of people. Just to make the kind of statements and try to make them consistently for our own identity and try to develop the same kind of consistent manner and inspire others. In that sense that's a pretty broad goal, yet it's aiming towards beginning to fill in those gaps and really deal with making a statement that can be read and viewed by a broad group of people, not only black gay men.

FC: It's really important also because black gay men have so few things out there. In a sense, it's black gay men. It's most people, whoever might think that black gay men is this or is that or is this or is that. Black gay men are as many different things as there are black gay men. Just in terms of sensibility. We have a lot of different voices, we all have different voices. There's something that joins us. There's some experiences that's common to us because we're black gay men. Inside of that common thing, we have our own particular kind of identity and it's important that people begin to express those kinds of things to really understand what black gay men are, who black gay men are as a group. Right now, there's nothing existing to even express that difference.

IJ: We're either totally invisible or we're some stereotype.

TC: And there's also very specific issues that have been stereotypically related to black men in a very negative way. For example, the issue of violence. We could at least begin to address it and open up thought concerning that issue that generally are stereotyped to us and have some kind of discussion on it. In terms of dialogue, in terms of literature, for example, the sexual stud has to be addressed in a way where we can bring our opinion to that and to alleviate some of those stereotypes and really bring a new aspect to what's out there.

IJ: A lot of black gay men feel completely alienated from gay culture as it is due to these stereotypes that basically [are created by] white gay men. One of the things that we're trying to do by putting our own image out  [is] get our own people to understand that there are [socially] conscious black men around.

CMS: What does the name Blackheart mean?

IJ: It's a term that's borrowed from the West Indies. A blackheart man is a wise person, someone who is a little bit tuned into things that most people aren't. It [the name] wasn't used before we used it. It also, in terms of the black gay context, takes on a whole new meaning, that we're black gay men and we're about recognizing that we don't have to be competitive and hating each other and things like that.

CMS: Do you believe the black community is becoming more accepting of its gays and lesbians? I detect a great deal of homophobia.

FC: I don't know if the black community is any more or less homophobic than the general community but it certainly is.

IJ: I think it's hard to look at the community as a monolithic whole. Things are changing rapidly. A lot of people who might now normally, once they come out, leave the black community are now saying "No, I'll stay and deal with it [homophobia]." So whether or not people are more or less homophobic in the black community, there are more visible lesbians and gay men, that's for sure.

TC: More lesbian and gay men in the black community who are willing to confront the black community in general with the fact of their gayness.

IJ: It's very interesting how these things dovetail because the Stonewall thing happened because of the black [civil rights] movement. A lot of gay people forgot that and forgot that in the beginning of the [gay] movement there were a lot of ordinary black gay men and lesbians out there on the front lines.
In those days, the gay community was a lot smaller and a lot more open. If you were willing to say you were gay and walk into a bar and be friendly with people, you were accepted. In those days, people were clinging to each other for protection and survival.

CMS: What problems have you had in putting out the Blackheart journal?
IJ: Money, of course, is the bottom line. [For] the first issue, we sent out a general call. We were really deluged with writing from all over the country. The main problem was editing and selecting the best and finding the money to print it. But in this issue [the prison issue], we've had almost the opposite [result] where we really have not had that many submissions. We now have to do a lot of active solicitation and [do] the writing ourselves of the material. It's a whole different set of problems.
TC: The organizational structure is very important, too. A lot of this we're just learning ourselves and in doing that, we're finding out that the list of things that have to be done in terms of correspondence, establishing a mailbox, bank accounts--to really institutionalize it. At this point, we're learning it's something that takes the kind of experience that we're having now to acquire.

CMS: In your prison issue, what issues are you planning to address?
FC: First, to give voice to black gay men in prison, to proclaim their existence.
IJ: We want to connect people on the outside with people on the inside.
FC: Let's give them a chance to voice some of their concerns. What it's like for them to be black and gay and in jail. I'm not in jail but I live with this fear of going to jail all the time. There's a link.
TC: There's all kinds of documentation regarding the whole economics of prison. Most specially that so many people in prison are there because of economic reasons which go right to the whole race question in terms of who's economically deprived. Those whole interlinkages are so crucial to why.
FC: Most of the letters that we've gotten from guys who are in prison have been "I'm here, somebody write [to] me, please. I'll write back to anybody."
TC: If you're out and even if you are not in jail, if it becomes obvious that you're gay, you become alienated and isolated. You're not valid [in the eyes of] society.

CMS: What are your thoughts on the white images that are projected by the gay media?
IJ: There is a danger that white gay males, like white people in general, when they talk about themselves, they make it seem as if there's no one else.
TC: Exactly. But those are the people who happen to own the presses, who happen to have that control at this particular time. It's linked directly with their emphasis of projecting themselves.
FC: It's about a certain kind of image. It's about young white men. It's certainly not [an image that mirrors] the [whole] world.
Everything you see is that. Every time you pick up GQ--you want to look at nice clothes, you got see that. If you want to look at naked bodies, you got to see that. [If you look at the black stud magazines put out by Sierra Domino] and you're black and you don't have a 12-foot dick, then you're not part of that shit either.
IJ: The saga never ends.
FC: We're trying to put out something that tells a little more about what the world is for us.

CMS: What are your thoughts on the women's movement?
TC: If you look at black lesbians, they have a strong institution of writing, of putting out literature whereas black gay men have a much stronger tradition of partying, of going to the [Paradise] Garage [a now-defunct club in Greenwich Village].
FC: Women's oppression operates every single day of their lives. They have to see it. They have to deal with it constantly.They go home, they don't get a break. The women talk about developing women's problems [which] means that you take something like that and you make it mean something. Every little action that happens, that's a resistance against that oppression. It's totally personal. It's totally political. The women's movement has that history because of  the kind of thing it is.The women's movement has a history for talking about personal things and expressing personal things  in a certain way.  We [black gay men] don't have that history. Black people, black men could talk about racism, could talk about that struggle but black men [felt] that certain aspects of [their] personal life weren't affected [by oppression].
  Lesbians have always been involved in the women's movement. Gay men haven't been talking about these kinds of things and writing about them with the same level of seriousness and in the same numbers as women have.

CMS: How open are you about your gayness?
TC: It's a tactical thing. It's about choosing battles. [I've worn an earring] for years and years, even before it was cool for straight people to have it. But I choose even now to wear it which might be identified as being gay although several years ago, it was readily identified as being gay. At the school I go to, there might be a conversation where people are dumping on gay people. I have to decide at that time if it's worth my energy to even jump into the conversation and say "Have some respect for me because I'm gay and don't be putting that stuff in front of my face" or to kind of let that go and say "Well, I have other priorities right now. I need to do this and I need to do that and I don't need to put my energy there."
FC: Everywhere you go you don't scream out "I'm gay, I'm gay, I'm gay." It's clear you might get killed.

This article was originally published in the New York Native in 1983.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The 'Dam News Is 103 Years Old

The New York Amsterdam News marked its 103rd anniversary in 2012. Old timers used to refer to the paper as the 'Dam News because of its sensationalistic front-page stories.

But many prominent names in the African-American community wrote for it, among them were W. E. B. DuBois, historian J. A. Rogers, and Ted Poston, who later wrote for the then-liberal New York Post. Short story writer/novelist William Melvin Kelley's father, William Melvin Kelley, Sr., was an editor there.

As a former freelance contributor to the New York Amsterdam News, I want to wish the paper a happy anniversary. May it have 103 more years!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

An Interview With Rev. Renee McCoy, Pastor Of A Church In Exile

"Unwilling to separate our lifestyles as lesbians and gay men from our experiences as Blacks in America, we are left to bring about our own liberation without the support and expertise of the larger Black community, and without the strength and guidance of the church."--Rev. Renee McCoy, pastor, Harlem MCC Church ("We are Exiles from Our Own Communities," Insight: A Quarterly of Lesbian/Gay Christian Opinion, Vol. 4, #4, pg. 8).

Harlem Metropolitan Community Church is one of 200 churches worldwide that form the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. These churches serve the lesbian and gay community as an alternative to the traditional churches where much homophobia is present.

Rev. Renee McCoy, a native of Detroit who attended Wayne State University, saw a need for a church that addressed itself to the needs and concerns of black lesbians and gay men. In November of 1981, she founded Harlem MCC.This was a little more than two years after she arrived in New York as a student clergy from the Detroit MCC church. "I wanted to learn New York," she said explaining her move East. "I wanted to leave the Midwest. I'd been there 28 years. I was tired of it. I loved Harlem. I always wanted to work in Harlem. And I came to MCC New York in the Village and I was licensed. I was credentialed out of there. And then I started Harlem MCC right after I was credentialed."

The church began at the Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University where "we averaged 23 in attendance on Sunday which meant that sometimes our attendance went from a low of eight or nine to a high of 46, 50." But the church, said Rev. McCoy in her Morningside Avenue apartment in Harlem, decided "we wanted to be more than a Sunday church. All we had was chapel space at the seminary on Sundays and we used the [MCC] church in the Village for whatever programming we did and we visited people's homes. We wanted to provide more counseling services for the church. We wanted to do regular Bible study in one single space so that people would know we were stationary, that we were part of the Harlem community." The church then moved to Hamilton Place and 143rd Street, in a brownstone owned by a black gay man. But after one week of occupancy, he evicted Harlem MCC because "he couldn't deal with the Sunday meetings and didn't want anybody on the block to know that he was gay. We were a church in exile for two months. We met in the Village at MCC New York until we could secure a place. We found a loft and moved into the loft on November 7, 1982. At that time the attendance was up to 46. Averaging 25 people on Sunday."

More problems continued to plague the church. This time it was the attitude of some of the members of the church toward the neighborhood the church took up residence in. Unlike Morningside Heights or the Village, the neighborhood could not be used as "a hideaway. You could slip into the seminary. No one would see you. It didn't look like Harlem. Nobody knew what you were doing when you came there." Also, said Rev. McCoy, there were congregation members who expressed fear of the neighborhood. "People who were somewhat supporting the church financially could not deal with facing Harlem. They couldn't look at themselves is what it was. 'I can't park my car there,' 'I'm scared of the neighborhood,' "I'm afraid to walk in Harlem.' These are black gay people. Things got rougher at that point. The loft base that we did eventually lease during the winter didn't have heat. We had problems with the toilets. We had problems with the lights. And as a result, attendance dropped. Especially the people who had children. The amount of money lessened."

At present [1983] there are 18 members. It is a church whose members come mostly "from Harlem and the Bronx, Upper West Side of Manhattan, Midtown Manhattan, still some from Brooklyn."

Harlem MCC is now located at 356 West 123rd Street, making this their fourth move in almost two years. The community organization that is subleasing the space to them has done so, said Rev. McCoy, "as a community gesture. We can do things now that we couldn't do, like we had a cookout. It's a small, intimate space." However, she went on, "We"re looking for a permanent space that we can afford. It's rough because every time we move, we lose people. It's almost like building from the ground up." Right now, she said, the church is in need of a piano, preferably a small one.

This is an excerpt from an article that was published in the New York Native in 1983, in its special supplement called "Harlem Rising." It was one of the earliest articles I did for the paper.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Ringside Coming Out Story

The Final Bell
By M. S. Hunter (Alyson Publications, 191 pp., paperback)

Many men, especially if they're straight, would deny that boxing has a homoerotic appeal to them. But there's little doubt that it does. In M. S. Hunter's novel, The Final Bell, this appeal is mentioned early on. The "intense and intimate contact" of "nearly naked men" causes both spectator and participant to either sublimate or indulge these desires, much as modern dance does.

These same men would also deny the existence of gays in professional boxing. This belief would be instantly eradicated if gay boxers followed the example of Stormy Rhodes, the novel's black protagonist: break the silence.

Rhodes, a welterweight from the tough streets of Harlem, at the start of  The Final Bell is deep in the closet. So deep that not only is he silent about his sexuality, he's also silent about his poetry writing. "I can't have people in my profession knowing I write poetry," he tells Carlos Quesada, a gay Puerto Rican poet and airline ticket office employee, who he meets at a poetry reading and later falls in love with. [ A welterweight boxer weighs approximately 147 pounds.]

Carlos, because he has "a conservative family and a homophobic boss at work," named, interestingly Mr. Helms, is also closeted. But not for long. When Stormy wins the welterweight championship, he announces in the ring his homosexuality and kisses Carlos on national TV, which causes Carlos to wish "he could find a hole in the floor and fall through it."

From that moment on, all hell breaks loose: Stormy's trainer quits, Carlos eventually loses his job, they receive crank phone calls, and a rift develops in the Quesada family. But Stormy is convinced that he and Carlos "can take on the world." Carlos, on the other hand, is not so sure.

In all this chaos, there is a silver lining. Stormy gets his book of poetry published and becomes a hero to the gay community. His status as the first openly gay boxer lands him the grand marshal spot in New York City's Gay Pride March. Then tragedy strikes.

The Final Bell, set in 1997, would have more punch, no pun intended, if the story had been told from either Stormy's or Carlos's point of view and if Hunter weren't afraid to show explicitly two men engaged in sexual intimacy.

Hunter reveals his tin ear for African-American speech when he has Stormy say things like, "And this must be your brother Regilio what you tol' me about." He should read John Edgar Wideman.

Another flaw in the novel is Stormy's naivete, despite his "sophistication" about poetry. Wouldn't it occur to such a public figure that if he outs himself that he would be idolized in a symbol-starved gay community? And it's strange that Carlos isn't angry or standoffish for a time after being outed by his lover without his consent.

The Final Bell's best scenes, however, take place inside the ring, where Hunter's blow-by-blow descriptions are tension-filled.

This article was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (March/April 1995).

The Cult of Masculinity Unmasked

Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life
By Michelangelo Signorile
HarperCollins, 312 pp.

In a 1991 issue of the now defunct gay-oriented New York-based weekly NYQ magazine, writer Avram Finkelstein advocated for gay separation as a way to escape "the din and indoctrination of a missionary, heterosexist world." According to him, "Queer willingness to confront diversity makes us the hope for future humankind."

This rosy, utopian view of the gay male world is refuted in Michelangelo Signorile's latest book Life Outside, the culmination of two years of interviewing hundreds of gay men "of varying ages, races, classes, geographic locales, occupations, religions, and political affiliations" about what he calls the "cult of masculinity."

Signorile points out in the introduction that his study is not meant to "encompass all of urban gay life." The world he describes in the first half of the book and that goes by nicknames like "the scene" and "the hot boy party life" represents "one predominantly white, middle-class and often upper-middle-class segment of urban gay life" whose inhabitants, despite that demographic, have "a significant cultural influence on much of the gay population throughout its various racial, social, and sexual subcultures."

Divided  into two sections--"Life Inside" and "Life Outside"--the book offers us a disturbing and more honest portrait of a community populated by many men enslaved to the notion of masculine beauty and its attainment. Life Outside also introduces us to gay men who have found alternative ways of living their lives, far from the gyms and circuit party venues where the repressive doctrine of the "body thing" rules.

If gay people ever decided to follow Finkelstein's advice and "separate from straights," this new society would no doubt resemble the urban gay ghettos of today, a place where a premium is placed on those who conform to "an idealized version of physical manhood--muscles, mustaches, and tight jeans" and where "white, upper-middle-class (gay) men" are the primary movers and shakers. And despite the fact that this image is "an idealized, fragile, ephemeral form of beauty that few men can attain and none can retain," many gay men through steroid use and extensive (and expensive) plastic surgery opt for the type of body that will make them and keep them desirable in the highly competitive fast lane of the gay world.

At the root of this need to be desirable, this need to conform is low self-esteem. "I think I use my body a lot as a way of feeling good about myself," says 32-year-old Alex, a New York consultant. "I go out, I think, sometimes to feel desired and wanted and that makes me feel superior, and then it offsets my feeling bad."

The cult of masculinity isn't anything new, except in name only. It has persisted for decades. In the 1930s and 1940s, for example, Beat Generation novelist/poet Harold Norse has written in his memoir that gay men like himself "cherished and idealized" masculinity. Those who didn't pass muster--"youth, virility, and athletic good looks"--were classified as "hideolas," a word Norse coined to describe anyone he and his friends thought were hideous.

In the 1990s that attitude survives, however, it has intensified and become commodified via the mass media (e.g. Calvin Klein underwear ads). This "highly commercialized gay sexual culture," writes Signorile, a columnist for the upscale gay magazine Out (itself a part of the commodification of masculinity), "sells a particular physical aesthetic to us and demands that men conform to it."

In an attempt to undermine the cult of masculinity which threatens to further marginalize and stigmatize gay men already suffering from heterosexist repression and persecution, Signorile found men living in small towns and  in rural and suburban communities whose "simple and traditional" lifestyles mirrored their heterosexual counterparts and whose goals were to "meet someone, fall in love, and settle down." These are the men Signorile holds up as examples for the gay community to emulate.

This "deurbanization of homosexuality," as Signorile terms it, to some extent is "influenced by the overall greater acceptance of homosexuality in America." However, he points out, "the greatest influence on the deurbanization of homosexuality is the many gay men of younger generations," who prefer remaining in "the places they grew up in and want very much to live close to their families but out of the closet."

Although the first half of Life Outside (dealing with the sex, drugs, and hedonism of the fast lane) is the most riveting part of the book, Signorile's efforts have produced a work of journalism that is highly informative, cautionary, and encouraging. With its "Six Ways to Deprogram from the Cult" as a parting message, Life Outside is an important blueprint for any gay man who wants to "find another way" to live his life.

This article was submitted to the Oakland, California-based, African-American-oriented magazine Whazzup! It was not published. What appears here is a slightly edited version of the original article which was written in November of 1997.