“Love has never been a popular movement. And no one’s ever wanted, really, to be free. The world is held together, really it is held together, by the love and the passion of a very few people.”—James Baldwin
“I’ve learned to hold my head up high not in scorn nor disgrace.”—Archbishop Carl Bean
I’m at the Eagle (obviously, before COVID-19 was a thing), Atlanta’s oldest leather bar. House Godfather Ron Pullman is spinning for the gods and I am trying to pace my 50-plus self (well, more like 60-minus self).
I need to spare enough energy to traipse over to MIXX, where the House Mother Sedrick will soon minister. At the bar, I’m huddled near John Dennis, founder of Indigenous House, a major annual event that celebrates house music as an innovation of Black queer culture. John shares updates on the SGL (Same Gender Loving) Family Cruise, a well-known annual excursion, when one of his friends joins the clutch.
“There were too many queens up in there,” scowls the friend, who is well past 50. He’d survived the plague long enough to join an openly gay Black cruise party, yet his takeaway was: “Too many queens.” How ironic was the setting for this brand of shade.
We were four Black men indulging our freedom in a leather bar without having to know what that freedom cost — or who paid for it. Did he have an inkling as to how many queens living and dead made his very gay life in Atlanta possible? Not that it matters. He sees no connection to the men he trashes. In fact, it is in his troubled interest to set himself apart from them.
I can’t help but notice a negativity among Black gay men that seems more virulent, more widespread than ever. We don’t have the luxury of overlooking this affliction. This is no blaming invective. Black gay men didn’t raise themselves to believe they are defective. That was the work of their families and communities of origin. This hate turned inward is not limited to disdain for the femme within us. It is a broad mindset that refutes our goodness and undermines our greater good. It is a resistance to our own self-love and acceptance. Like a religion designed for a traumatized people, it would not take root without our shame to feed upon. It resurrects the myths we were taught about our wholly unholy nature. It reminds gay men that we are not really men. We really are “perverse,” as they say.
Furthermore, it informs us that the queen in and among us is to blame for our people’s rejection. It calls us to worship the butch and the hard-bodied, the straight adjacent, and the pinnacle of gay manhood: the revered top. The resistance scoffs that we are less accomplished, less “relationship oriented,” and otherwise less than white gay men. It convinces us that we are less worthy — so much so that many of us think and act accordingly.
Social media, particularly hook-up sites, give gay men the nerve to say things they wouldn’t dare say in person in front of wide audiences. Since the Adam4Adam days, profiles have grown more mean-spirited in rejecting the femme, the soft, round, and HIV-positive bodied.
Recently, I ran across this message and it stuck with me: “I am a total top. The Alpha and Omega. If u know you a bitch ass nigga don’t waste your time. Where the real niggas at?”
This Jack’d member refers to himself not merely as a top, but a “total top.” The “total” meaning, unlike other tops who may occasionally bottom (a disqualification according to the yet unwritten top/bottom etiquette playbook), he does not. He knows top purity bestows more than sexual allure. He has come to expect the reverence gay men often lavish on men like him. That may explain why he describes himself with a moniker Christians reserve for God.
Also, the Jack’d top shifts focus to exclude any femme men who might hit him up. His name-calling (“bitch ass”) parrots the same homophobic men who would disown him without pause, despite his top credentials — at least in the light of day. “Where the real niggas at?” he concludes. We know “real” is a definitive code for men who present as masculine, hard, thuggish. By contrast, femme (“bitch ass”) men are unreal and undesirable.
We must fully acknowledge this trauma and recognize these negative self-images as symptoms of untreated injury and pain. Contrary to popular myths of utopian white queerness, white gays also struggle with self-acceptance. But it is Black gay men who, I think, need most to be healed.
We activists talk a lot more about freedom than we do healing. One cannot be set free with a shame-sickened soul. What do our symptoms reveal about our condition and the treatment required?
In the last four decades, the bulk of Black gay men’s community involvement has been focused on battling HIV. The plague snatched away our leaders and diverted attention and resources from other significant needs. If HIV/AIDS never happened, how many Black gay men would have concentrated on mental and spiritual health, or political advocacy fields? How many careers would have been centered in Black queer arts and culture? The neglect of those needs is yet another AIDS casualty. Today, we need more Black gay men engaged in spiritual and emotional health work without obligations to HIV-centered outputs.
James Baldwin once stated that the world is held together by the love and passion of very few people. How might we apply Baldwin’s assessment to a Black queer world?
I know some of those rare souls. They perform poems, they memorialize the poets, they inform and enroll brothers into advocacy. They confront HIV criminalization and challenge “HIV disservice” (a term coined by one of these angels, Daniel D. Driffin) organizations to do better. They organize Black queer film events and hold space for us to play in and outside of the club. They love on us and we have never been more in need of this love, to be administered as a balm. Let this serve as a call for their collaborative attention to this matter. The very salvation of Black gay men depends on direct, hands-on leadership.
While writer Joseph Beam lamented how he could not “go home as who I am,” he and other forefathers left us blueprints to build a home of our own. As today’s visionaries carry his fallen spear, they must hold our healing as paramount. Where can Black gay men turn to unlearn the disabling beliefs they harbor about themselves? We deserve to own real estate where we gather to learn about our histories and plot action for change. Were we to mount a widespread profusion of art, another Black queer renaissance, might it set the stage for Beam’s self-loving revolution? Would it help more of us recognize our basic goodness, if not our greatness?
Instead of accepting our own difference, our deviations from sexual and gender majorities, so many of us in and out of closets downplay that difference. This resistance to our own remarkable nature distracts us from understanding our purpose. As children we are told that we are out of order and many of us spend a lifetime trying to get back in order. I believe we are born to upend the order that binds us all, and not give in to it.
What transforming lessons might we model for our hetero brothers by resisting “normal?” How might we help them recognize the confines of their own mentality by breaking out of our own?
Asserting our fullest selves does not end at telling momma what she already knows and walking up into Bulldogs, a white-owned, Black-patronized bar. We are free when we can re-envision our difference as an expression of diversity, as part of a natural order. When we understand the intentions of our creation, we know how natural we truly are. When we arrive at that understanding, we will no longer be ashamed or shame others for the desire to have another man inside of us. We will not see any brother as less of a man because of how he dresses, gets down, walks or talks as we ourselves have suffered. We will no longer silently collude with cisgender straights who are cool with us but “just don’t understand” trans and genderqueer sisters and brothers.
When we act, speak and live as free men, as opposed to passing, we destabilize, we disrupt, we catalyze, and we break free. And as we fully break free, we emancipate ourselves and other Black people at large from mental slavery. When we realize the full value of our Black queer lives, we are fully motivated to organize and invest in our communities far beyond the bounds of HIV prevention. When we organize that consecrated movement for our very lives, we up end bashing the principalities of white supremacist patriarchy.
Let us look to the artists, the organizers, the leaders and the masses, our forgotten elders and our misunderstood young, the living and the dead who still speak, to uncover our power. There is a new order that only we can bring.
Craig Washington is a writer, HIV advocate, and public speaker living in Atlanta. He is cofounder of Southern Unity Movement and organizer of the Rustin Lorde Breakfast, held each year on Martin Luther King Day.