CONFESSIONS OF A BLACK GAY BABY BOOMER
BY CARY A. JOHNSON | PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARIO CALMESE
It is 1984 and in between episodes of the Cosby Show and Murder She Wrote a campaign ad pops up on my television screen. An authoritative announcer tells me why I should send Ronald Reagan back to the White House for four more years. Inflation’s low, employment’s high, this guys tells me, there’s a newfound vigor in the land. The flag waves, America is reborn. A young couple on their wedding day runs blissfully into the camera’s coddling lens. For these Baby Boomers, it is “morning again in America.” But for me and most other Black gay men coming of age in 1984, it is midnight down in a cypress swamp.
In the Beginning
There have always been same-gender loving and gender-transgressing people in Black communities, but in the late 1970s, a Black gay identity was taking hold. We were living at the height of the sexual revolution, Black feminism had found its voice, and the Gay Liberation movement was bringing about real changes in American attitudes, law and policy., but suddenly we were hungry for change. Violence, family rejection, and discrimination were hallmarks of life for many Black same-gender loving and gender queer people and visibility was the obvious response. “Coming out” was still risky, but it increasingly became a inevitable strategy for many Black gays and lesbians in a way it had never been before.
While social groups and clandestine societies had existed since at least the 1920s, now Black gay organizations with a decidedly politically bent were springing up in cities throughout the country. The National Coalition of Black Gays and Lesbian was formed with its first headquarters in Detroit. The social scene was also booming. Here in New York, Black gay men congregated at watering holes like Keller’s, the Nickel Bar and the Buttermilk Bottom--the drinks were cheap, the music was tight, and handsome brothers in bell-bottoms draped themselves alluringly against cigarette machines. Some of us met each other in the hallways of steam baths or on the footpaths of city parks. Even if we didn’t know each other’s names, we knew each other’s stories. We were a family of friends, lovers, cut-buddies and strangers, flung together by adversity and “otherness”, readying ourselves to step into the light with all our untidy transgressions of blackness and gayness.
What I lost, What I Gave Away
But by the mid-80s, there had been a sea change. The primacy of Black gay liberation gave way to a frenzy for survival as the HIV mortality rate climbed and continued to do so every year for more than a decade. While significant numbers of AIDS deaths occurred both before and after, for many of us the decade-and-a-half from 1984 - 1999 was characterized by a personal and communal sense of terror that bordered on insanity. Unparalleled in their intensity, these years were bookmarked at their onset by the realization that we could no longer deny the impact of AIDS in the Black gay community, and at their conclusion by the availability of anti-retrovirals for many—but still not all—gay Black men.
In 1984, I was thick, healthy-looking and had a bushy natural that would put Dante DeBlasio to shame. And like many of my friends I wondered—nay, assumed-- that there were tiny timebombs coursing through my bloodstream. I compulsively checked my groin and neck for swollen lymph nodes and mapped my body for bruises that healed too slowly. I avoided sexual partners who were too thin. I stopped kissing. Illness and contagion became defining paradigms of my life.
I went to a lot of funerals for other 20- and 30-somethings, whose final months followed a pattern of unexplained weight loss, strange rashes, night sweats, mysterious hospitalizations and eventually death. I wasn’t ready to have to grow up so fast, but grown up I did, in church pews and funeral parlors, shoulder-to-shoulder with other young men in black suits. I felt so many different emotions sitting in those tight, airless halls—grief, confusion, and even an irrational anger at the men who had succumbed.
It would be wrong to say that there weren’t rays of light during this treacherous period. HIV service organizations sprung up in scrappy storefronts in Black neighborhoods. They were run by clever young men adept at demanding the resources to stand up to the epidemic. Peer educators distributed condoms in parks and facilitated safe sex workshops at parties. Gay men volunteered for buddy programs, home meal delivery services, and hospital visitation programs to care for the sick. Black women—mothers, sisters, and friends—joined the struggle by advocating, raising money, and caring for the dying.
During this period, a group of talented artists appeared on the scene with big voices, broad talents and a palpable urgency. There was talk of a Black gay Renaissance, a nod to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s that had also been led by same-gender loving Black men--literary icons like Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Bruce Nugent. Other Countries--the New York City based arts collective--was at the forefront of this new movement, creating workshops, performances and publishing opportunities for Black gay artists and life saving content for audiences. Devastatingly gifted writers like Donald Woods, Melvin Dixon, Bil Wright, Samuel Delaney and Assoto Saint were either members or occasionally performed with the ensemble. I was also a member of the group, a minor talent with a major ego.
These men--along with D.C.-based Essex Hemphill and Wayson Jones, Joseph Beam in Philadelphia and the West Coast performance collective Pomo Afro Homo-- were creating a new style of literature that was performative and sexy. American filmmaker Marlon Riggs and London-based Isaac Julien were putting Black gay lives on film with breathtaking beauty and clarity. Photographers like David Weems and Ajamu X were photographing Black gay bodies in ways that challenged and reconfigured notions of race, masculinity and sexuality.
This new Black, gay artistic moment was stylish, provocative and rooted firmly in a sharp-tongued willingness to look death in its face. Living life through the roughness and unpredictability of the disease made the artists and their art subversive--dangerous even. Performances were held in beer-soaked bars in order to “reach the brothers”; gender normative gay men read prose in skirts and Mary Janes to disrupt notions of masculinity. Porn stars were recruited to read poetry and promote safe sex messages at nightclubs. Condoms were tossed like grenades into darkened performance spaces. It was, in the moment, among the loudest retorts to the triple whammy of racism, homophobia and AIDS. As Riggs stated in a seminal scene in his groundbreaking film about Black gay life, Tongues Untied, “you don’t mess with a Snap Diva.”
James Baldwin once said, “all artists, if they are to survive, are forced… to vomit the anguish up.” Pushed into the ultimate corner, we did this in spades. Our unspoken goal was painfully simple: capture the moment--write it down with a quickness, film it, photograph it, publish it— before it’s too late.
For one by one, we began to fall. AIDS swept through the Black gay arts community like a sentient marauder seemingly capable of identifying the most talented among us and striking them down--Woods, Saint, Beam, Hemphill, Riggs, Dixon, Haitian-American poet Redvers Jean-Marie, the list goes on and on. The carnage was so bad and the funerals so frequent that for a recent retrospective on the period at the Whitney Museum in New York, the surviving members of Other Countries had to convince the organizers that all of the organization’s founders weren’t dead and that a few of us might even show up at the event to prove it.
With so many men dead, dying or mourning, the publications stopped, the performances began to loose their vitality, and the poems began to fall flat with the sheer weight the experience.
By the end there was no one left to write the great Black gay love stories I so longed to read, to fill the crevice of artistic desire that Giovanni’s Room and Just Above My Head had opened in me, but didn’t fill. Yes, the prolific E. Lynn Harris made a fortune writing entertaining soap operas for straight Black women in which gay men were mainly closeted stereotypes. And yes, James Earl Hardy had popular success with the B-Boy Blues series that commercialized rather than questioned the myth of the “down low”. But the devastatingly sharp talents of a Woods, a Dixon or a Saint—literary heavies who could have written the stories of our lives with depth and nuance—along with the capacity to publish our own stories independent of the racism and homophobia of the mainstream media--were snuffed out before they were fully realized, leaving an artistic generational gap that is only now beginning to be bridged.
By 1990 HIV was the leading cause of death among young men ages 25-4 in New York. According to the Centers for Disease Control, from 1985 through 1998, there were 100,777 AIDS fatalities in the U.S., nearly 60% of them among gay and bisexual men. If perhaps a quarter of these occurred in NYC—one of the two epicenters of the disease—and knowing that black and Latin men made up nearly half of AIDS cases, then at least 7,558 Black and Latin gay men died in New York during the worst years of the epidemic, prior to the availability of anti-retroviral therapy in the late 90s.
Sophomoric analysis? Prolly. Guerilla Statistics? You betcha. But somehow I need a number, imperfect as it might be, to wrap my head around. Seven thousand five hundred and fifty eight. Is it big or small? Catastrophic or merely tragic? Three thousand people died on 9/11. Two-hundred-and-twenty-seven souls lost on Malaysian Airlines 370. Three-hundred-thousand in the earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Half-a-million in Rwanda. Where do I put my number on this scale of pain?
For gay men of my era, the calculus of loss is complex. It’s not unusual today to hear older Black gay men ruminate about having lost the majority of their friends during the epidemic. Statistically, for most of us, that’s probably incorrect. But the emotional truth is more complicated. The loss of friends and lovers feels monumental, more substantial than simple numbers can convey.
For those of us who were involved in the formal response to HIV—peer educators, researchers, fundraisers and lobbyists --our personal and professional lives became soaked in the morass of the epidemic. Some of us sero-converted while counseling others on how to practice safe sex. Some of us stole money from the very agencies we had created to save our lives.
Some of us took to drink and other drugs, succumbing or recovering almost randomly, booze, crack and crystal meth claiming lives that AIDS had passed over. Some moved back to the small towns and pass-over cities from whence they’d come, exhausted by all they’d witnessed in the metropolis. Some went back into the closet, hoping the virus wouldn’t find them there.
Just as damaging for the community was the disappearances of the places in which Black gay culture was being created. By the late 80s, an AIDS-related sex panic and a bustling commercial real estate market conspired in the closing of many of the establishments where Black gay men made our magic. One by one, the bars and clubs fell like dominoes. The baths were shuttered in 1984-85 ostensibly to protect “public health.” The parks and tearooms—already contested spaces--were subjected to increased harassment and police activity. AIDS made these changes feel sudden and unceremonious, as if our spaces were being stolen from under our feet because there weren’t enough of us to protect them. The radical SNAP that had come to symbolize the remarkable freshness of Black gay life was slowly quieted as we shielded ourselves from the dying.
Legacy of Survival
I am still trying to make sense of those years and the upheaval we experienced. Like in the HBO series Leftovers, I sometimes feel as though I was left behind with little understanding as to where the others went or why I am one of the lucky ones chosen to remain. We were the first post-Stonewall generation, a cohort of promise steeped in visions of liberation, but I sometimes wonder if the AIDS epidemic sidetracked the Black gay cultural revolution we were creating. I am grappling with questions about the past and its impact on the future. What has my life meant thus far? Who will remember me? What lessons, if any, has our living (and dying) offered to the generations that come after us? What do our young men need? What do I do with the time that is left, how do I live it? Can we can use the lessons to make us a stronger, wiser, more solid community?
HIV infection rates among young Black same-gender loving men continue to climb. Depression, substance abuse and suicide trouble their waters. What we used to blithely refer to as “shade”—the malicious put down of other gay Black men--has grown all out of proportion. When I read the vitriolic profiles of young brothers on Internet dating sites like Adam4Adam, Grind’r and Jack’d, I can only conclude that Black faggotry is not the kinder, gentler lifestyle we were trying to create in the late 20th century. Instead, the vibe feels selfish, predatory, dawg-eat-dawg. While social interaction in my heyday was not shade-less, the ever-evolving hook-up technology has led to less accountability rather than more. Instead of having moved closer together it feels that we have spun further apart, trapped in the loneliness of self-preservation and swag.
I’ve got a plan for a healthy and happy Black gay middle age, for putting all this death and dying to better use than I’ve been doing thus far. First of all, I need to keep younger men in my life—not as objects of desire or as acolytes—but as friends. I want to be available as a role model and sounding board for younger brothers. I had so few guides through the various and often confusing stages of homosexual life. Yes, there was my closeted bachelor uncle and the occasional graybeards perched at the end of the bar with a colorful cocktail, a menthol cigarette and a world-weary expression. But there was no one to ask my Big Questions, like “How do I make a same-sex relationship work at 30? How do I navigate a career as a out gay man in my 40s? How do I explore new elements of my sexuality at 50? Can I still date at 60? How do I grow old with dignity and grace, élan even?”
I need to be ready to smile at, appropriately greet and be generally supportive to young same-gender loving men I encounter on the street or at the gym, even when I fear their rejection or the misreading of my intentions. I’m going to work tirelessly to rein in shade, to stop hating on every Black gay man who makes different choices than I do about his loves, his life, or his body. Furthermore, I am going to regularly choose to behave with dignity, respect and forgiveness in the quasi-anonymous and often treacherous wilds of cyberspace. I need to choose to be one of the visible middle-aged men at the events that pepper our annual social calendar. But most importantly, I will forgive the dead for dying and myself for not dying. It’s time to end 30-years of mourning, keep sifting through the many lessons of AIDS, and get on with the often confusing, frequently disappointing, but always righteous act of survival.
It’s 2014, a wet-hot August evening in DUMBO. I am watching Black gay rapper Cakes da Killer perform at AfroPunk. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder in an audience of several hundred 20-somethings—men and women, black, white, brown-- each prettier than the next. Cakes struts the stage like a chubby peacock.
I put my ear to the crowd, listening for any signs of homohatred, ridicule or disdain. All I hear is praise, appreciation and love. In my mind, Cakes’ steps are a little higher because of the stories that we wrote, the poems that we smithed. Perhaps the crowd adores him a little harder in remembrance of the Black gay lives lost in their universes. I smile, slicing off just the tiniest piece of Cakes’ success for myself, proud to have played some role in creating this space, this Brooklyn, this world as the sun sets fiercely over the BQE.
 By the mid-80s, the Baths had become a central location for HIV education. Closing them disrupted social networks and pushed gay men further from the medical and social services we desperately needed at the time. Furthermore, it is unclear which members of the public Mayor Guiliani of New York considered worthy of protecting, While the bathhouses with mainly white clientele were closed during this period, the Mount Morris Baths in East Harlem, which served predominantly Black clients, was allowed to remain open well into the early 00s.