LGBTQ Harlem: Still Queer and Here
By Orie Givens
The LGBTQ experience represents a long part of Harlem’s history and an inextricable part of its present and future. But as the communities of Harlem change, some of the most critical needs of its many LGBTQ residents remain the same.
The Pulse Shooting in Orlando, Fl. in June reminded the world of the violence facing LGBTQ people, but daily reminders of LGBTQ vulnerability exist right between the rivers in Harlem. And, while Harlem celebrates pride with the world — earlier this summer at Harlem Pride and this week at New York City’s Black Pride, inaccessible housing, youth homelessness, changing demographics, HIV/AIDS, poverty and more disproportionately affect LGBTQ Harlemites of color. But those issues don’t define Harlem or its LGBTQ community, and community leaders continue to work to make sure it remains the cultural center that drives more and more LGBTQ people of all demographics to make Harlem their home.
HARLEM’s LGBTQ HISTORY
Until recently, some say Black historians hid the ways LGBTQ people contributed to the history of Harlem. But as our Linda Villarosa wrote for The Root, “The Harlem of the 1920s… was indisputably gay.”
The Harlem Renaissance represented peak classic blackness, and some of the major players driving the creative movement participated “In the Life.” Artifacts of those experiences are even held in an archive at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with the same name in Harlem.
Writers Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, singers Ma Rainey, Gladys Bentley and others had same sex relationships and might now be considered LGBTQ, though queer was more the sentiment back then. They frequented venues like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom, and even headlined shows with other queer performers. But, as noted in the book Bulldaggers, Pansies and Chocolate Babies, eventually the area became more conservative, performers became more closeted and venues shuddered. Development for the new Harlem led to the demolition of many spaces, including the Ubangi club where Bentley performed, the Savoy, the Cotton Club and others.
The 1980s brought the queer experience back with a vengeance, when the “kids” frequented places like the Mount Morris Park Bathhouses, and got their lives at Andre’s Bar (formerly the Silver Rail) and Jay’s (now a cell phone store). Kids in the 80s revitalized the early 20th century ballroom scene, as chronicled in the 1990 with classically controversial vogue documentary “Paris is Burning” that looked at the lives of ballroom legends such as Pepper LeBeija, Dorian Corey, Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja and other icons putting queer Harlem on display. The film, directed by Jennie Livingston and sometimes critiqued for its exploitation and sensationalization of its subjects, still inspires and influences culture today (shade and reading, anyone?).
AIDS also began its destructive path in the 1980s. Though most of the attention was focused on white gay men downtown, HIV would eventually eradicate thousands in Harlem.
“Before AIDS it looked like gay people were going to be influential and radicalizing the world,” said author and historian Michael Henry Adams. “I’ve often said all of the most successful and beautiful people I know almost died. “HIV/AIDS did a number on Harlem and it still is.”
Overall, Harlem changed “beyond his wildest dreams,” said Adams. “Harlem really was much more of a small town” when he first arrived.
Adams, the author of “Harlem: Lost and Found, an Architectural and Social History, 1765–1915,” said LGBTQ history exists all over the old buildings in Harlem. Now, the writer and activist envisions a second book, “Homo Harlem; Lesbian and Gay Life in the African-American Cultural Capital, 1915–1995.” And he said there are many stories to tell.
RECONNECTING WITH FAITH AND HEALING THE COMMUNITY
Harlem, the black church and LGBTQ life aren’t mutually exclusive, especially in one house of worship.
In Harlem, churches dot corners all around uptown, and gospel tours parade visitors through some of the most prominent neighborhood houses of worship. Some of the country’s oldest churches call Harlem home, but only a handful affirm LGBTQ lives. Others, like the Atlah Missionary Baptist church on West 123rd Street — infamous for its marquee displaying messages like “Jesus Would Stone Homos” — choose hate over love.
But, Senior Pastor of Rivers of Living Water NYC/NJ (ROLW) Vanessa Brown says church can be different and inclusive.
“I felt a need to have something that was LGBTQ and affirming,” said the Harlem native, who spent her childhood in a church. “Not just a church where we could go and nobody talked about it, or where we had to hide.”
Brown welcomes all people under the rainbow and beyond to worship without judgement at her non-denominational services, filling the basement of the St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church every Sunday.
“It’s important that we as LGBTQ people learn to homogenize our spirituality with our sexuality, said Brown, whose partner works as ROLW’s Minister of Music. “We don’t have to separate our sexuality or our gender identity from God.”
Rivers of the Living Water NY began nine years ago in Harlem, and Brown wants it back there. Brown said ROLW, part of a coalition with Harlem Pride, hopes to create the Harlem LGBTQ center coming in 2018 including a church space, housing and other social services.
The masters of divinity student understands the homophobia existing in all church denominations, including black churches. She said that spiritual violence, or using the pulpit and the Bible to speak LGBTQ-antagonistic messaging, drives many LGBTQ people away from church.
“We talk about those scriptures, ‘clobber scriptures,’ that’s where we face the most spiritual violence in the church.” Brown referenced passages like Leviticus 18:22, the much-quoted “man shall not lie with man,” regularly cherry-picked for homosexual damnation.
“I think it’s important that we understand the context before we understand the text,” said Brown, who notes that the Bible contains other rules that most Christians ignore. “We know what we’ve been told, and then we’re eating everything on the table. But I believe the meat and throw the bone away, I’m not going to eat everything put in front of me.”
PRIDE: MORE THAN JUST A FESTIVAL
Harlem doesn’t just have one pride festival, but two. June marked the beginning of celebrations with Harlem Pride; and, this month, NYC Black Pride celebrates across the city with several events uptown. For both festivals, organizers wanted to make sure that the events did more than just give people a place to party while celebrating being queer uptown.
“When I was younger, if there was a Harlem Pride, my life would have been much smoother,” said Carmen Neely, president of Harlem Pride.
The teacher said Harlem Pride originally started as an art showcase for her friend, co-founder Lawrence Rodriguez. She made a couple of t-shirts, then the community started to wonder if a pride festival would be coming to Harlem. Coincidentally, Rodriguez also had space through another community partnership. That neighborhood art gathering started Harlem Pride, quite accidentally.
“We thought we might get 100 people if that,” said Neely. “Our budget then was barely $5,000; now we are into six figures.”
Neely said police estimated nearly 3,000 attendees during the inaugural event in 2010. After seven years, the festival attracts thousands of LGBTQQ/SGL people, friends, and family to Jackie Robinson Park.
“A lot of people think we are a black pride, we don’t consider ourselves a black pride because we’re Harlem Pride,” said Neely. “When we talk about Harlem Pride, we consider our constituency anyone who lives in Harlem.”
NYC Black Pride, the five-day multi-cultural event focused on black and Latino LGBTQQ/SGL people, happens from Aug. 17 to 21st across the city. Harlem venues host the welcoming reception and an awards ceremony uptown during the festival.
“It’s the heart of a lot of the culture, around the black LGBTQ community,” explains NYC Black Pride executive director Lee Soulja-Simmons. “Especially the ballroom community which started in Harlem.”
The event began 19 years ago as a big club night, later shifting focus to provide events to recognize and empower LGBTQ black people. The beach event, where thousands gather at Coney Island beach, and the award ceremony draw big crowds.
“Being able to go to the Schomburg and celebrate the successes and accomplishments of our community is very important,” said the visual artist and father of the ballroom House of Soulja. “It sends a special message to our youth, especially with the negativity coming from church and family, that we are major contributors to society.”
HARLEM’S NEW (OLD) EPIDEMIC
HIV/AIDS continues to ravage LGBTQ communities of color, including Harlem.
In Central Harlem, HIV/AIDS ranks seven out of ten in causes of death and second in new cases in the city. East Harlem ranks sixth for HIV/AIDS-related deaths, and seventh for new diagnoses. Data from the city shows overall both new infections and HIV/AIDS-related deaths are declining, but Harlem neighborhoods still rank among the highest in the city, with young black men making up most of new cases.
Factors causing HIV/AIDS don’t just relate to men having sex with men, though the statistics show this group at highest risk. Drug use, from the crack epidemic in the 80s and heroin crisis, set the stage for the continuing HIV/AIDS problem in the city. But ending the epidemic requires much more than just testing.
“When a person is homeless they’re really just fighting for daily survival,” said Kevin Lotz, a social worker and co-founder of Trinity Place Shelter, an LGBTQ-focused youth and young adult transitional shelter.
HIV/AIDS awareness, testing, and intervention are very important, but the root is homelessness and its related ills. The unique nature of Harlem, both the history and community, attracts LGBTQ/SGL youth at a high rate, even if they can’t afford to live here.
For that reason, advocates want to shift the discussions from testing and prevention, to the risk factors contributing to new infections.
“Maintaining sometimes complex practices to maintain one’s health or protecting themselves sexually — it’s less of a priority to someone who is hustling for a few dollars for a meal or a place to stay at night,” said Lotz.
Advocates place LGBTQ youth homelessness at the top of critical issues, with estimates reaching 40% or more of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ. In New York City, where the need grows and resources dwindle daily, service providers like Lotz scramble to make ends meet.
“Harlem has name recognition for a lot of people; we hear stories from our young people where their parents kicked them out, got put on a bus and ended up at Port Authority,” said Lotz, who has run the 10-bed facility for 10 years. “I think the reality of once they get here is very stark.”
Lotz said the 250 beds dedicated to LGBTQQ youth exist only for those under 21. Long waits for shelters and screenings force some to look for other means for survival, such as exchanging sex for a place to stay. Several service providers offer housing for LGBTQQ homeless youth but lack of space and funding limits availability, especially for transitional or long-term housing.
“A person’s basic needs, shelter, transportation, housing, food, health, safety has to be met before a person can meaningfully take it to the next level a.k.a. exit homelessness,” said Lotz, who served around 550 youth since the center opened in 2006. He said that beyond a shelter, he makes Trinity Place a home, and they provide residents metro cards, laundry services, even birthday celebrations. Things many take for granted, but add up to a cost of around $30,000 per resident per year.
Lotz said his residents come from all over with emotional trauma, substance abuse or other mental health needs. Black and Latino people make up 70 to 80% of Trinity Place residents, and many transgender residents seek shelter at Trinity Place. But to become independent, residents need to find jobs or attend school — tasks easier for some than others.
“The amount of struggle and oppression that trans residents encounter is really astronomical,” said Lotz, “Our trans residents are experiencing bombastic discrimination as they look for jobs, attempt to look for jobs. It manifests in just ghastly ways.”
New York City boasts laws protecting trans people from employment discrimination, but they still experience discrimination every day. Lotz and others believe until we focus on LGBTQ youth homelessness, nothing else will matter.
“I would love nothing more than to say we’re good, we’re gonna close the shelter…homeless LGBTQ youth as an epidemic has ended,” said Lotz. “Unfortunately, it’s gotten dramatically worse.”
The future looks hopeful, as more organizations work to address the most vulnerable populations within LGBTQ circles. Changes in regulations could increase housing availability for people living with HIV. Mayor de Blasio recently appointed a Harlem-based HIV/AIDS activist to his advisory council, and people from the community, not outside, are addressing the issues head on.
New uptown establishments are catering to LGBTQ clientele just like the old days. Even a new black-gay-owned place, Alibi, gives queer Harlemites a new place to get down.
Advocates say Harlem will continue to lead, both as a cultural destination and a thriving, diverse community where everyone can feel at home.
“Harlem has always been a place of intelligence, and knowledge and the arts,” said Neely. “[It offers] the ability to be free to be who you are.”