Tag Archives: african american

In Celebration of Black History Month

     Essex Hemphill—the openly gay, African-American poet and author—truly was a force of nature.  Groundbreaking, Mr. Hemphill blazed the way for talents including James Earl Hardy, E. Lynn Harris…and myself. 

     So, in celebration of Black History Month, I pay homage to this gifted artist—who certainly was before his time. 

     And left us way too soon.   

     Despite a relatively short literary career, Hemphill is arguably the most critically acclaimed and best-known contemporary openly gay African American poet and author.   He helped shatter the silence surrounding gay Black experiences and empowered other gay Black men to find their voices.  AIDS snatched this ahead-of-his-time, literary genius away from us much too prematurely–denying us of all the rich gifts I’m sure he wanted to share. 

     Essex and I were good buddies.  But before I reminisce about the personal side of this remarkable talent, let me share what made the man such an undeniable force in shaping and popularizing modern LGBTQ literature as a whole. 

     Born in Chicago on April 16, 1957, Essex grew up in Washington, D.C.  He began writing poetry when he was 14.  “I started writing about and addressing my homosexuality because it wasn’t there in the black text,” he recalled.  “And I needed something to be there to validate that my experience was real for me.”

Essex Hemphill

     Essex earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at the University of the District of Columbia.  Believing that poetry should be heard, he regularly performed his work, often in collaboration with other D.C. African-American gay and lesbian artists.  In 1983, he, Wayson Jones and Larry Duckette teamed to create Cinque, a performance poetry group that combined cutting-edge political verse, vivid imagery about gay Black life, and tightly woven harmonies.  

     Quickly, the group amassed a loyal following.  And on one sweltering summer evening in 1985, I attended one of Essex’s performances, which was absolutely mesmerizing—and full of raw sexuality!    

     For me, that night became even hawter!  

     Cinque’s poetic style gained national attention in the next few years.  Today, “poetry slams” are mainstream.  Essex introduced this art form in a profound way—developing and fashioning it.  He gave it crucial visibility.

     In the 1980s, very few publishers were interested in the works of openly gay African-American writers.  Well, Essex didn’t wait for them to “come around.”  Instead, he self-published his first two collections of poetry, “Earth Life” (1985) and “Conditions” (1986).   His profile continued to rise after contributing to various anthologies and publications including the Advocate, Essence, Obsidian, and Gay Community News.

     After his close friend Joseph Beam succumbed to AIDS in 1988, Essex moved to Philadelphia to complete Beam’s anthology, “Brother to Brother:  New Writings by Gay Black Men.”   Published in 1991, it won a Lambda Literary Award, garnering widespread literary acclaim.

     The next year, a major publisher released Essex’s “Ceremonies:  Prose and Poetry,” which won the American Library Association’s Gay and Lesbian Book Award in Literature.  “Ceremonies” provided powerful insights into the constructions of race, gender, and sexuality in America.  The topics it addressed included the sexual objectification of Black men in white gay culture.

     The year 1993 was a virtual bonanza for Essex:  he received a Pew Charitable Trust Fellowship in the Arts and the Emery S. Hetrick Award for community-based activism from the Hetrick-Martin Institute.  And, he became a visiting scholar at Santa Monica, California’s Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities.

     After battling AIDS for several years, Essex passed away on November 4, 1995, in Philadelphia.  He was 38.

     Now, what do I remember about him as a friend?

     We met in April 1984, at the Potomac Electric Power Company, a major service provider in D.C.  Essex was a graphics designer while I was a writer within that utility’s corporate communications department.

     Immediately, “Es” and I connected.  We had things in common:  emotional accessibility.  A sense of free-spiritedness.  The preference for the Artist Known as Prince over Michael Jackson.  And most importantly, a hunger for writing.   We became fast friends.

      Confident in who and what he was, Es was totally unabashed about and firmly rooted in his sexuality.  The brotha had swagger!  His affecting smile and mischievous glint that danced in his eye could win you ovah in no time flat.

     Although Es was a sensitive, caring soul, he took no crap!  As well, he doggedly pushed back against any obstacles, turning his dreams into realities.

     Unfortunately, Es and I lost contact after he moved to Philly.  Although his struggle with AIDS was contracted, debilitating and agonizing, I was told that his spirit remained vibrant and strong.

     Es, you’re sorely missed.  Without you, would there have been an E. Lynn Harris?  James Earl Hardy?  

     Or for that matter–a Wyatt O’Brian Evans?

Structural Inequality Fuels HIV in Black MSM

   A brand new—and perhaps controversial—study has uncovered that economic insecurity, housing instability and stigma largely shape the sexual relationships of many African-American men who have sex with men (MSM).  According to this study, these structural inequalities influence the kinds of relationships and sexual behaviors that men have.

     It’s a fact that the bulk of HIV prevention interventions and studies focus on the individual. However, according to Columbia University’s Caroline Parker in an article published in Culture, Health and Sexuality, “Our research underlines the continued need to attend to the structural drivers of HIV among Black gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.”

     Before we drill deeper into the study, let’s define the term structural inequality. It’s the condition where one category of individuals are ascribed an unequal status in relation to other categories of persons.  This relationship is perpetuated and reinforced by a confluence of unequal relations in roles, functions, decisions, rights and opportunities.

     Between 2013 and 2014, Parker and her colleagues conducted a qualitative, ethnographic study in New York City.  Roger Pebody states in his Aidsmap.com article, “Structural Inequalities Create Vulnerability to HIV for Black Gay Men in New York,” “In-depth interviews were conducted with 31 black MSM and participant observation was conducted in locations frequented by black MSM (such as parks, community organizations and house parties).  In addition, 17 community advocates and healthcare professionals were interviewed.

     “Amongst the men interviewed, whose average age was 29, social problems were common.  Ten had spent time in prison, 15 were unemployed, 16 had housing problems, and nine had no health insurance.  Five men told the researchers that they were living with HIV.  Whereas half identified as ‘gay,’ the others described themselves in a variety of ways, including bisexual, straight, discrete and having no sexual identity.”

      According to the study, men who struggle with housing instability and unemployment sometimes used sex to meet their material needs.  They described exchanging sex for shelter, food, clothing, the payment of phone bills and taxis, alcohol and drugs.  Some used dating app profiles to sell sex.

     And, the men’s precarious circumstances constrained their ability to negotiate condoms.  One man explained:  “’Okay.  If you are eating and you have clothing, you have shelter, you’re probably going to resist it and a very blatant resistance.  But if you are hungry, that’s a different ballgame.  I can sit here and tell you I’m a very proud person but you let my stomach rumble for more than three days, okay, you can call me’.”

     Pebody wrote, “While sex without a condom put men at risk of HIV, a lack of food or shelter might have a more immediate impact.  Men made choices which made sense to them in their current circumstances (for example, having multiple partners to access temporary housing and other resources).  Interviewees with fewer economic problems had different approaches to sexual relationships which did not reflect these pressing economic considerations.”

     The researchers took note of the way in which different places and environments formed men’s sexual relationships.  Some of the interviewees stated that they had experienced disapproval or homophobia in their family homes.  As a direct result, four of the men were made homeless. 

depression-20

     As well, many men did not introduce male sexual partners to family members; consequently, sex was more likely to occur at a partner’s home or in a public space.  Recalled one interviewee: “’I couldn’t bring any company over or they couldn’t stay overnight or whatever, (but my brother) could bring girls over and there was discrimination towards me with my mom’.”

     According to Pebody, “Some men who lived independently also avoided bringing male partners home because of homophobic reactions from landlords or neighbors.  Men sometimes felt unsafe in their own homes.

     “Many respondents met partners and had sex with them in parks, streets, sports clubs, trains, supermarkets and restaurants.  This was particularly the case for men with unstable or no housing, and for men who identified as straight or discreet.  These meetings might be arranged on apps like Jack’d and Grindr. 

     “These interactions were usually rushed—men were afraid of being observed by other people, being assaulted or being arrested. The rush meant that condoms were less likely to be used.”

     Respondents of the study stated that they went to gay bars and nightclubs, particularly those frequented by Black and Latino men.  According to the respondents, they felt that these settings were safer places to socialize and meet other MSM (men who have sex with men).

     “For men who sold sex, bars provided some protection against the police,” wrote Pebody.  “Men with housing difficulties sometimes went to clubs to find ‘a generous friend’ with a place to stay. However, commercial venues did not always feel welcoming to men who did not have money for drinks or the right clothes to wear.”

     The researchers concluded:  “’Among most of the men in this sample, the pursuit of same-sex relationships took place in a social context characterized by economic insecurity, housing instability, and widespread stigma and discrimination.  We draw attention to how men’s position in a social structure configures their opportunities, restrictions and priorities in sexual relationships and how these shape their choices and behaviors in health-relevant ways’.”

Socio-Economics as a Driver of HIV in Black MSM

     Fenway Health, a Boston LGBT group, has just reported that although Black men who have sex with men (MSM) is a very small part of the population, they make up more than 20 percent of new HIV infections in the United States.

Additionally, an analysis of data from a recent six-city study of African-American gay, bisexual and MSM reveals a link between HIV and socioeconomic factors.  To read more, visit:  www.baltimoreoutloud.com/thinking-outloud/mood-swings/item/2485-socio-economics-as-a-driver-of-hiv-in-black-msm

They Don’t Wanna Cruise Your Type

Greetings! First, let me say that I’m so proud and honored by the overwhelmingly positive response I have received regarding my novel, NOTHING CAN TEAR US APART–UNCENSORED! I’m truly blessed.

One of the pivotal reasons I wrote the novel was to demonstrate that there are actually Black and Latino gay men out there who are in loving, monogamous relationships. Unfortunately, according to the Media, one is hard-pressed to find that.

Some time ago, I wrote an award-winning, popular series on racism within the LGBT community for QBLISS entitled, The Cancer That Slowly Consumes Our Very Souls: Racism. The following is an excerpt from that influential series. It details how race influences and plays into the formation of gay identities. This has a deep, profound, and telling impact on who we choose to date, and have sex and partner with–and who does the same regarding us.

So, without further adieu…..

 

They Don’t Want to Cruise Your Type

In Part Four of The Cancer that Consumes Our Very Souls: Racism, I referenced the paper “They Don’t Want to Cruise Your Type: Gay Men of Color and the Racial Politics of Exclusion,” written by Chong-suk Han and published in the January 2007 edition of Social Identities. Exceptionally well-researched and written, and theoretically sophisticated as well, his treatise effectively and overwhelmingly demonstrates how white supremacy within the GLBTI community marginalizes and negatively impacts its minority populations. Han states, “In this paper, I examine the forms of racism that are found in gay communities and show how race is implicated in the construction of gay identities. Particularly, I focus on subtle forms and blatant forms of racism that negate the existence of gay men of color and how racism affects the way we see gay men.”

A full-time lecturer in sociology at Temple University, Dr. Han also is a researcher, whose work in particular points to how sexual and racial stereotyping and internalization combine to put gay Asian Pacific men at greater risk of HIV infection. He has been published widely in such theoretical social science journals as Critical Sociology, Sexuality and Culture, and Social Identities, and in health research/social work periodicals including AIDS Education and Prevention, Health and Social Work, and the Journal of Transcultural Nursing.

In order to retain the robust flavor and full potency of Dr. Han’s “They Don’t Want to Cruise Your Type: Gay Men of Color and the Racial Politics of Exclusion”–which I firmly believe is an eye-opening, landmark work–I will present material from it mostly word for word. So, without further adieu…

In his introduction, Han states, “Despite the civil rights dialogue used by the gay community, many ‘gay’ organizations and members of the ‘gay’ community continue to exclude men of color from leadership positions and ‘gay’ establishments, thus continuing to add to the notion that ‘gay’ equals ‘white.’ Likewise, gay men of color experience homophobia within their racial and ethnic communities.”

He speaks about a “forum on race” which he attended. “As the audible levels of conversations begin to wane, organizers urge the audience of some 200 men, and a handful of women, to take their seats so we can all begin. Within minutes, a representative of the host agency lays out the ground rules of discussion—most noticeably that we will not, given the limited time, try to define racism while quickly offering that, ‘everyone is capable of racism,’ a definition than many men of color in the audience would, if given the chance, vehemently dispute.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been such an issue if members of the community who were invited to help plan the forum hadn’t spent weeks arguing for the need to discuss racism in the gay community, rather than focus solely on race. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a slight if they were asked to provide an alternative definition of racism, particularly who is able, within the larger social structure, to practice it rather than being left with only one definition of it. In fact, the title ‘Race Forum’ was specifically chosen, against the suggestions offered by members of the community, so that the focus could be on ‘race’ rather than the trickier topic of ‘racism.’”

Han continues, “’It’s like they didn’t hear a thing,’ a member of the ‘community’ told me immediately after the announcement. ‘Why did we go to the meetings? It’s like we weren’t even there. We might as well be invisible.’ Though flabbergasted, he also told me that ‘It’s no surprise.’ It seems that for this member of the community, speaking up and being ignored has come to be a common occurrence. After all, being a gay man of color is to experience the unnerving feeling of being invited to a potluck while being told not to bring anything since nobody would be interested in what you bring, and then not being offered any food since you didn’t bring anything anyway.”

Next, the sociologist/researcher expands the discussion by asserting, “gay America has given a whole new meaning to the term ‘whitewash.’” Han writes, “Whiteness in the gay community is everywhere, from what we see, what we experience, and more importantly, what we desire. The power of whiteness, of course, derives from appearing to be nothing in particular. That is, whiteness is powerful precisely because it is everywhere but nowhere in particular. When we see whiteness, we process it as if it doesn’t exist or that its existence is simply natural. We don’t see it precisely because we see it constantly. It blends into the background and then becomes erased from scrutiny.

And this whiteness is imposed from both outside and inside of the gay community. According to Allan Berube, the gay community is overwhelmingly portrayed in the heterosexual mind as being ‘white and well-to-do.’ Media images now popular in television and film such as Will and Grace, My Best Friend’s Wedding, In and Out, Queer as Folks, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, etc., promote a monolithic image of the gay community as being overwhelmingly upper-middle class –if not simply rich—and white.”

Han explains, “While mass media will often use stereotypes to sell minority characters to majority audiences, the gay media are no less to blame for the promotion of the ‘gay equals white’ misconception. Even the most perfunctory glance through gay publications exposes the paucity of non-white images. It’s almost as if no gay men of color exist outside of fantasy cruises to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, of the ‘Orient.’

And even then, they exist only to fulfill the sexual fantasies of gay white men. ‘Exotic’ vacations to far away places are marketed to rich white men, and poor colored bodies are only another consumable product easily purchased with western dollars. As such, gay men of color, whether found within western borders or conveniently waiting for white arrival in the far corners of the globe, are nothing more than commodities for consumption.”