We were working poor, monied, without homes, and business owners. Among us were sex workers, drug pushers, and college students. On the streets and in the clubs the young, the old, trade, butch queens, AGs, femme queens, and house kids gathered.
In the ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon for all kinds of Black LGBT people to hang out in the same physical spaces.
This was the time before mandatory curfews, before the arrival of fancy cafes and overly-priced restaurants, before LGBT-friendly businesses obtained private security officers to protect their goods and properties from some of the people they supposedly market to.
This was before white people and corporate real estate buyers swooped down on neighborhoods once deemed shady because Black and Latinx queer and trans folks would crowd the streets to vogue, talk shit, read each other, party, shake off their shame, have sex, give and receive love, share kisses, create family, and hold each other down.
The Black gay scene was blazing hot, thanks to the presence and antics of the mostly Black and Latinx LGBT people whose bodies gave meaning, and brought life, to the streets now refashioned, on the surface and within our collective imaginations, as gayborhoods.
Spaces to exist, tangible spaces where we could simply be, were just as vital as state-granted equality rights. Exemplars of gay marriage mattered less. A marriage certificate wouldn’t keep us alive and didn’t spark laughter; the communities we encountered on the streets we hung out on did.
In 1995, I was a second year student at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. I’d travel by PATH train from Newark Penn Station to the West Village in Manhattan during the week and on weekends, pushing through the crowds and strong wind gusts inside the stairwell of the Christopher Street station stop. I was alone, but I knew once I made it to the other side of the exit I would be safe, and at home among my people.
Beside the train stop was Chi Chiz, a scruffy watering hole where the drinks were strong and the chicken was fried just right—a bastion for Black gay men.
I depended on liquid courage—in the form of strong-ass Long Island iced teas—to drum up courage to trade stares and numbers with dudes I would forget the next day. I made temporary friends among strangers. The type of men who frequented the bar were a mix between characters in James Earl Hardy’s B-Boy Blues series—down to earth and hood—and E. Lynn Harris’s Invisible Life characters—bougie and on the come- up.
Once I met a well-known Black journalist at Chi Chiz. He approached my friend and me with a drink in hand and started kicking game. He liked my friend. Homie was intelligent, polished and cool as hell in real life. He was older, but he wasn’t corny. His presence was no more remarkable than that of the sex worker I would wink at on occasion.
We flirted, played pool, and tried our best to dance, because long days of work and the daily maneuvering through common micro-aggressions required a bit of ass-shaking, of course. But Chi Chiz didn’t have a cabaret license, which meant dancing wasn’t allowed. The “no dancing law” in NYC, which has been rightly described as a “racially motivated” policy, is still contested today. But that didn’t kill our joy. We’d sneak in a little two-step here and there, ignoring requests from bouncers to stop our boogie.
I’d stumble out of Chi Chiz at 2a.m., blinded by the glare from floodlights put in place by the New York City Police Department, who were always eager to maintain law and order, sometimes with force. It was clear to me what and whom they sought to protect. It wasn’t us. But we protected one another, stranger and foe.
Whether my friends and I ended up on the Christopher Street pier later that night—or at Luke and Leroy’s, the Octagon, the Warehouse, or Secrets depending on the day and year—there was no shortage of Black LGBT people. Whether we mingled outside under the glow of streetlights or left clubs when the sun rose, the streets and corners and dance floors were baptized, renewed daily, because of the motley crew of Black and Latinx people who populated them.
It meant something to be physically present with other Black and Latinx LGBT people who were as different as they were the same. It meant something to feel, give into, or escape the discomfort that surfaced when a group who didn’t fit the characteristics of one’s own preferred clique stood too close, talked too loud, or gave way too much, prompting rolled eyes and snickers. On many occasions, encounters with LGBT people different than me forced self-reflection. It forced me to think about why it was I preferred to chill with masculine, clean cut and well-dressed guys while I shunned femme men and the ballroom kids. In the presence of difference, I got to know myself, and others. I grew up and grew into community.
Black and Latinx LGBT people helped shaped the character of the current day, and now mostly White, wealthier queer hoods splattered with rainbow flags. There weren’t as many colors besides black and brown lining the streets in the night then, even if we didn’t own most of the establishments we supported with our dollars. We owned the streets. We owned the verve. We owned the culture that gave shape to neighborhoods and bars that would have been lifeless and penniless otherwise. So when younger friends ask me where it is I party or hang out today, I tend to respond by letting them know I don’t really go out. The scene just isn’t the same.
That doesn’t mean that the Black LGBT social scene is non-existent. We have been nimble enough to curate events on certain nights and rely on social media to create virtual communities in lieu of those we once formed in the world and on the streets, but the tangible geographical spaces we once moved through are now dead for the most part, and that wild spirit only felt in collective presence has waned, but by no fault of our own.
The death of black queer and trans physical space is worth mourning.
I miss touch and sweat, the odor of bodies standing too long under the sun on a packed street corner or on a jam-packed floor of a dance club.
I miss encountering people different than me. Back in Philly, I met so many transgender women while hanging out on 13th Street. We would chat and laugh. They would school me and tell me about what it took for them to survive on the streets. I would spend time in and sleepover at their homes.
I miss chance encounters. I once bumped into a random cutie on a Septa bus in Philly. Actually, he purposefully bumped into me just so he could give me his number. I saw him again that night at the Nile in Philly where he had initially checked me out before he saw me on the bus. We danced. We smirked. We left together—and created memories.
That is not say shit was perfect in the past. It wasn’t. Nostalgia can be fueled by the truth and lies we imagine.
Classism and sexism and trans antagonism and the disdain of femme people was as palpable as it is today. The ballroom kids were shunned by those who thought they were better and more refined. Lesbians and gay men sometimes mingled, but women and men tended to congregate in separate spaces. Trans men and women still fought hard to secure space among cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual people. We had our share of problems. But the spirit of the times was different. It was felt and evidenced through the spaces we sometimes created. We congregated despite the real presence of political forces doing all they could to minimize our presences in spaces it sought to contain for the wealthy under the guise of liberal gay equality.
At nearly every point between the period of LGBT activism in the late 60s and the fight for marriage equality in our contemporary times, the push to secure a type of normal life for White gay men and lesbians remained constant. White queer men and women partying in bars without being harassed and policed or White queer women and men marrying and earning the economic benefits of such arrangements like their straight counterparts were more pressing concerns than the creation and maintenance of physical spaces necessary for Black LGBT social and cultural life.
That’s because Black life was never seen as a priority worth fighting for.
Bars loved our cultural productions enough to create, say, a weekly hip-hop night, but that was for the benefit of their cash registers. That is different than creating spaces because of the awareness that such space might be the bridge between loneliness and community or the destination someone might land at until 4am so they can spend a little less time on the streets if they were without a place to lay their head.
The fact that the Christopher Street area, like the gayborhood in central Philly, is now a gentrified enclave most Black LGBT people I know don’t feel safe within is a consequence of economic and political forces more interested in creating and protecting spaces attractive to progressive seeming White people and upwardly mobile homeowners.
What I am left to consider is what Black LGBT people can do to create the physical spaces, free of the violence of antagonism based on differences, which are necessary for our survival. Pleasure, happiness, dance, welcomed touch, and laughter are just as vital as Black queer and trans-loving policies.
Today, Black LGBT communities are tasked with creating communities yet again. In place of street corners, alleyways and parks, where we congregated, we curate community in the world when we can. We rely on mobile dating and social media apps, a glorious technological advancement that allows connections to be made outside of the need for material space.
But I fear we are losing some of the critical elements that turned “community” into a verb and not just a noun meant to describe the number of people we acquire as virtual friends who may end up liking our statuses or Tweets.
If anything, we are among one of the most magical generations yet—those who push us to think about those who exist on the fringes. But beyond the theoretical edges we imagine, we must consider how the lack of literal, material, crossings and corners shape the ways we might love, fuck, give and receive care, or exist in communities.
I grieve what we might be missing. I fear we might lose that radically communal, and sometimes disruptive, spirit when we are left to gather on corporatized, gentrified, social media spaces that often connect us to people who think like us or exist in worlds similar to our own.
I want to once again feel the magic that we conjured in the face of scarcity and difference and necessity. The magic we felt with feet, or wheelchair wheels, touching the cement grounds we moved on.
We did what we could to get and stay free, to laugh and enjoy life, whenever and wherever, in real time, in real ways, and in real space.
I fear we are experiencing that grimy, messy, sticky type of love less as we hide behind avatars. Because sometimes getting stuck in line, on the corner, or on the dance floor with the one person you did every thing you could to stay away from is a wondrous act. That’s what I want for us, for Black and Latinx people. I want us to experience spatial closeness. Sweat. Touch. Electricity. And love.