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D.C. is a mecca for black gays and lesbians. But they’re still a community apart.
It’s late Saturday night on Memorial Day weekendwell into Sunday morning, actuallyand 10th Street NE, just past Michigan Avenue, looks like a block party.
The line outside the Delta Elite nightclub wraps around the building, and the wait to get in is at least half an hour. Hiphop bumps out of sparkling-clean luxury rental cars. Buff young men, shirtless in baggy pants and sporting the occasional Tupac Shakurian head rag, mill around, tossing sidelong glances at one another. There’s no rainbow flag to mark the space, but the drag queens sprinkled amid this sea of muscle tip off even the most sheltered observer: This party is just for the boys.
Dupont Circle may be the District’s epicenter of gay life, but for years, this Brookland club has offered a much more comfortable space for queer black folkswomen on Friday nights, men on Saturdays. It’s one of a handful of clubs, located mainly in black neighborhoods far outside of Dupont, that have catered to gay African-Americans for decades.
As is the case in many cities, D.C.’s black gays largely sidestep the institutions of the broader gay community. At best, many of them feel out of placeand, at worst, plainly unwantedby the mainly white clientele that frequents those institutions. Perhaps as a result, the gay African-American community in the District has gradually built up a network of institutions and organizations unparalleled in most other locales.
“There are over 30 black gay organizations here. People forget thator don’t really know it,” says Philip Pannell, who serves as special assistant for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender affairs in the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Pannell’s position is one of four such cabinet-level posts in D.C., along with those of the mayoral liaisons for the Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander communities and religious affairs.
“I would dare say that you see more black lesbians and gays in governmental positions at the local level than anywhere else,” Pannell continues. “And we’re just interwoven throughout the city, in terms of community life. We’re everywhere.”
As he speaks, Pannell waves to acquaintances as they file into Kenilworth Park for an annual Memorial Day picnic. White D.C.gay and straightoften has used Memorial Day weekend for its first foray to nearby beaches, but the same holiday has served as a magnet for gay African-Americans across the country, attracting them to the District for the nation’s largest black gay party.
Eleven years ago, a group of local activists decided to formalize this de facto festival and created Black Lesbian and Gay Pridea weekendlong series of events ranging from barbecues to workshops that also spawns mega-parties such as the one at Delta Elite. Originally conceived as a fundraiser for AIDS groups, the District’s Black Pride was the first such event in the nation. Today, it informally serves as the kickoff for a 24-city circuit of similar celebrations. Organizers estimated that 15,000 people attended this year.
“D.C. has correctly earned the title as a mecca for black gay and lesbian activity,” says Jim Harvey, who’s lived in D.C. for the better part of the past three decades and ran for D.C. Council in 1990. “The fact that this is where Black Pride beganand that all the other cities that are now doing it basically have looked to D.C. as a leaderis a testament to the work of the people here.”
Pannell points out that the city co-sponsored this year’s picnic, which has been organized by WPFW jazz disc jockey Robyn Holden every year since Pride beganand even before.
In the past, Holden held the bash at Dupont’s P Street Beach, which is a part of Rock Creek Park. But she ran into trouble with last summer’s picnic when an excessive crowd drew what she viewed as harassment from park police. When she was asked to pay a largeand ultimately prohibitivefee to hold this year’s event, Pannell persuaded the mayor to endorse the event. The endorsement meant that it could be held for free in a city parkand, just as important, in a black neighborhood.
At 50, Pannell has been involved in such politicking for more than 20 years. In 1978, he was a founding member of the D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals, the nation’s first black gay political organization, and he has been involved in just about every ad hoc political movement in black gay D.C. or Ward 8 in general ever since. He pinpoints the political birth of D.C.’s black gay community at the 1982 re-election campaign of Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., for which he, and others, organized a support committee.
“Marion had always been accepting; the white gays had helped him there,” Pannell recalls. “And when I raised the question in ’82, ‘Well, why aren’t you with us?’ he said, ‘Where are you?’ We needed to be visible….From that point on, we really started to roll.”
Pannell’s reference to “white gays” recalls the enforced segregation of that era in D.C.’s gay community. Those from Pannell’s generation still remember, with some agitation, the tactics that white gay bar and business owners used to keep African-Americans out, such as demanding several pieces of identification not required for white patrons.
“It was widespread,” Harvey remembers. “I could name a half-dozen barsmost of the bars in Dupont Circlethat were like that.”
That segregation fostered independent institutions unseen in other cities. Nob Hill, on Kenyon Street NW, is the oldest black gay bar in the country (“On the Hill,” 1/26). Local promoter (and Washington City Paper senior account executive) Sheila Reid’s Women in the Life parties, designed for lesbians of color, are nationally renowned. In 1982, then-D.C. Coalition President Ray Melrose opened the Enik Alley Coffeehouse behind his home near 8th and I Streets NE. Nationally acclaimed artists and writers, such as poet Essex Hemphill and filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, have showcased their works-in-progress there. Enik Alley has served as an informal black lesbian community center, and later, the headquarters for the now-defunct pioneer lesbian group Sapphire Sapphos.
“It’s a social history, but very much a political one at the same time,” explains University of Rochester scholar Brett Beemyn, who is working on a book about D.C.’s gay history as seen through the lens of the black community. “People aren’t aware of that history and how far back it goes.”
Although no longer enforced, that racial divide has never fully disappeared. The Fireplace, a gay bar on P Street in Dupont, is still a front line of sorts, where a stark separation, casually embraced by both black and white gays, is readily apparent. On the Sunday night of Black Pride weekend, the congregation of black men outside the bar testifies to its popularity among African-American gays. Inside, however, the bar’s ground floor is packed, almost exclusively, with whites. Pass through the crowd and head up the stairs, and you find a similarly separate crowd of blacks. The “upstairs/downstairs” motif is a running joke.
“You go to any number of clubs in the city, and there is a ‘black night,’” scoffs Holden, “because we are not included as part of the general community.” She says that her picnic, and Black Pride in general, is popular locally because people don’t want or need to feel like outsiders at “white Pride.”
Indeed, the throngs who will fill the streets for the annual Capital Pride celebration, which culminates this weekend, include strikingly few people of color. That’s particularly odd for a city in which a quarter of the population is African-American and that boasts such a reputedly out and active black gay community.
When a coalition of national gay-rights groups organized a march on Washington last summer, the number of people of color in the crowd of thousands was also small. Some attributed that turnout to a political flap in which progressive gay groups had encouraged people not to attend an event they saw as too beholden to corporate interests and Beltway politics. But many African-Americans agreed with the sentiment that one black AIDS activist offered for his decision not to participate: “It’s just not what I’m interested in.”
Pannell is quick to note that today’s racial divide is, predominately, driven by the same sort of choice that the patrons of the Fireplace make, not by harassment. Moreover, D.C. overall is a significantly segregated town. Four out of 10 African-Americans live in neighborhoods that are more than 80 percent black. Why would the gay community be any different?
Staring out at his congregation from the pulpit on the Sunday of Black Pride weekend, Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeksvocally gay pastor of the Inner Light Unity Fellowship Churchsays that he worries about the future.
Addressing a flock that’s been reduced by the ongoing celebrations from the usual crowd of more than 100 to a smattering of 40 or 50, Cheeks speaks today of dire times. Right here in D.C., warns Cheeks, AIDS is killing black people by the score: Three-quarters of local AIDS cases are among African-Americans. Among homosexual and bisexual men, blacks already account for two-thirds of all cases, and the number is rising.
Cheeks tested HIV-positive 15 years ago himself, and he thinks this is no time to party. “Black gay and lesbian folks, we can’t say we don’t have the political power. We can’t say we don’t have the knowledge of how to get things done,” he sighs. After a weekend full of facilitating Pride workshops, and a day in which he’s already led two services, the bishop looks, for once, as if he’s out of energy.
The influence of Cheeks on the black gay community in the District spans more than two decades. The 49-year-old pastor founded Inner Light, the city’s largest black gay church, eight years ago. Fifteen years ago, Cheeks created Us Helping Us, one of the nation’s most respected AIDS agencies serving homosexual black men.
Cheeks also helped launch a legendary nightclub, the now-closed Clubhouse, more than 20 years ago. He remembers studying for his ordination in the Clubhouse’s back room in the early ’80s, having no idea how badly he would need his education. In conversation, he often refers to November 1987a month in which he buried 17 of his friends.
Now it appears that the crisis that prompted the founding of Us Helping Us is re-emerging in the public consciousness. Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released results from a study estimating that 15 percent of black gay men in their 20s are newly infected with HIV each year. The same study estimated that 30 percent are already living with the virus.
Public health officials and the news media have been abuzz, trying to explain this disproportionate impact. One theory is that young men cavalierly regard the availability of life-prolonging AIDS drugs as a “cure” for the disease. Another holds that prevention has failed to reach these men because it has resolutely approached them as gay, whereas many African-American men who have sex with men do not consider themselves such. Us Helping Us has tried to bridge that disconnect by producing ads that shy away from words and symbols associated with the gay community.
A less-discussed problem, however, is the simple scarcity of resources available to groups like Us Helping Us. More money has been made available in recent years, after the Congressional Black Caucus joined the decades-old black gay lobby to win federal AIDS funds targeted at African-Americans overall. The need, nevertheless, still far outweighs the means. The much-hailed Minority AIDS Initiative, which began in 1998 as a result of the Black Caucus’ efforts, has allocated a mere $250 million annually for programs targeting racial and ethnic minorities. The total federal monies budgeted for AIDS amounted to $4.8 billion in fiscal year 2000.
“Black Pride was born from need,” Cheeks says, his voice mixing frustration and sorrow. “See, people forget that.”
In this week’s sermon, Cheeks tries to remind the congregants who have forgone the afternoon’s partying of that fact. As his text, he uses the “dry bones” described in Ezekiel 37:5the Bible verse in which the prophet explains his call to lead. Black gays have stumbled into a similar valley littered with the skeletons of the living, rails the bishop. The community needs leaders to put flesh back on these dry bones.
“Yes, celebrate loving each other,” Cheeks later pleads in the dressing room of his sanctuary, cognizant of his former role as a party promoter. “Celebrate who you are. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. But at the same time, don’t forget the mission. ‘Cause otherwise, we won’t have anyone left to celebrate.”
The AIDS epidemic’s impact on black gay life, as well as gay life in general, in D.C., has created significant paradoxes. The crisis has simultaneously emboldened and deflated community organizing. It has sparked the creation of countless new institutions aimed at salving communal suffering. But at the same time, the virus has claimed a devastating number of individual leaders. And groups such as the D.C. Coalition have been unable to recruit replacements from younger generations in significant numbers.
Pannell insists that D.C.’s black gay community is on the cusp of a political renaissance, ushered in by its close involvement with an administration in which there are two black gay cabinet membersPannell and Office of Boards and Commissions Director Ronald King. He also points to a well-attended recent gathering that school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz hosted at her home, at which a group of activists raised funds for projects to help black gay high school students. Pride organizer Earl Fowlkes notes the increasingly younger crowd that he sees at the weekend’s nonparty events, which might indicate a widening field of potential community leaders.
At Delta Elite in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, however, these considerations seem a bit stuffy. Here, and at locations around D.C., gay blacks are reveling in themselves, in a town that offers them more opportunities for doing so than any place else in the country.
That’s what Holden sees, too, at Kenilworth Park on Monday afternoon, as folks slowly roll into the picnic, rubbing the previous night’s party from their eyes. Planting a light kiss on the cheek of one of the many who swing by to give her props, Holden sums it up.
“I’m feelin’ you,” she says. CP