For SPACES, we asked three Black gay men in New York City to share their thoughts on the bar and club scene in America's largest city. Below is the complete conversation, originally posted in three parts.
CHIEF: Consider this: we are in the year 2017. America has just elected a staunchly anti-LGBTQ Vice President, and our own President courts a violently anti-LGBTQ regime in Russia. People of Color have aligned themselves in resistance to policies we see threats to our safety and livelihood in the racism (alt-Right, Nazi, whatever) that has been coddled by journalists and the media writ large. And we are one year removed from the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a tragedy borne of the intersection between the LGBTQ community and People of Color. In light of all this, as three Black gay men in New York, what do you see for folks like you in the gay bar and club scene, often described as our “safe spaces” and “churches”?
TODD T: I worked by a popular Chelsea watering hole. I was going through a lot of stress on the job front so after work I would stop in for my Tito’s, club soda, splash of cran. To say I became a regular would be an understatement. Eventually you become cool enough with the bartenders that you start to learn more and more about them. Almost all the bartenders at this location were straight. Most of the bartenders were white and the rest Latinx, none were Black. When the Black Lives Matter movement began to sweep the country, I noticed the Blue Line flag was raised at the front next to the American flag and the LGBTQ Pride flag. This was last when New York’s Black Lives matter protests swept the city. Fast forward to Election Day, I found out a few of the bartenders were Trump supporters. I found this irritating. As straight white men you can come into a gay bar, work for tips, and then go back to your suburban life and vote for a racist candidate like Trump. I think a white gay patron may not even be bothered with a Blue Line flag or knowing their favorite bartender supported Trump. Even if they are bothered they do not have to deal with the perils of wondering if a traffic stop may kill them. It would be nice to go to a bar and have black gay bartenders who can empathize with your day to day. Most popular NYC gay bars in Chelsea or Hell’s Kitchen do not have this diverse representation.
SEAN ANTHONY: As a gay Black man in NYC, it is difficult to find spaces where the majority of the people look, love, and lust like you do. We’ve been limited to overcrowded “Black nights” or “Latinx nights” at bars and overpriced club entrance fees to get to be surrounded by other gay men of color. Even when it comes to the music that is being played at gay bars, few times do bars or clubs play consistent hip-hop, dancehall, reggaeton, or other music of the diaspora. The need of primarily gay spaces of color, especially given the political climate, has become topic of conversation time and time again. Where do we go and not appear to take over a bar? Where can we go for a diverse amount of opinions from other gay men of color? Where can we live our best lives Saturday to Saturday without problematic white gays? I write all this to say that it’s not as if there are absolutely zero spaces for gay men of color, but I write this to say that there is a high demand and need for more of those spaces in both gay neighborhoods and Black neighborhoods in NYC.
ANTONIO B: I have perused the gay scene in New York since moving back here after college in 2010. For a gay man, there is nothing more important than having somewhere that you can feel your pride and live your truth. I did not actually find that until a year later when I started going to a weekly event hosted by a gay Asian (who later became a close friend of mine). Watching him create a safe space for the gay Asian community while being inclusive was an important mission for him and his space, so I never felt like I was invasive. He even went as far as trying to create a similar weekly safe space for Black and Latinx men, which sadly didn’t get off the ground. Seeing a gay man of color create spaces for other gay men of color is something empowering in an era where white fragility and exclusion is more transparent than ever. Unfortunately, my friend’s event ended at the end of 2014. Since then, I have yet to see a space that has men of color working, owning, and dominating that space as patrons. When G Lounge closed at the end of 2016, the gay Black community lost its real final foothold on having a day-to-day safe space. We’ve been relegated to a weekly event where we get charged to attend in a white-owned space on one small floor. So, it leaves me to wonder who will take on the task of building and creating that gay Black safe space in a prime area of the city that people would want to frequent?
TODD: I think the interesting thing about the points both Sean Anthony and Antonio make is the demand is there for Black clientele. I know Hombres in Jackson Heights has a Latinx owner. The bartenders are mostly of Latinx descent. The interesting things is white gays and Black gays often go to the bar as well. It’s a cool vibe but I’ve noticed people who may only speak Spanish appear to feel comfortable there also. They can order in Spanish and not feel uncomfortable due to a language barrier. I would like to believe the owners made a conscious decision to make sure their staff can connect with people who may only speak Spanish. I don’t think Black gays want to exclude other ethnicities because that’s not what NYC is about. I think we just want to see more Black ownership. I think what a gay bar like Hombres has done for the Latinx community, a Black owned bar will have ways to connect with the concerns of the Black community. The beauty of a Black-owned establishment is we’d listen to the music we want, clap our hands, laugh out loud, and not feel judged. Of course if other ethnicities want to join in the more the merrier, but a Black establishment would make us feel finally in a safe space. I think as Black people we’ve been conditioned how we’ll be perceived by other groups. I feel a Black gay bar would be a space to just let our guards down and just be free.
SEAN ANTHONY: I absolutely agree that a Black gay bar would be a space to let our guards down and be free. Where I really feel the problem lies is that there are Black bars and spaces but there are not enough to serve the Black gay population in NYC. One in Chelsea and one in Harlem, to put it simply, is not good enough. We deserve more and we should. We deserve and crave spaces that are FOR us 24/7. We need more spaces that allow us to dance, drink, and socialize with other gay men of color not just in the West Side of Manhattan but in Harlem and Brooklyn as well. I guess a question could be how does the switch from weekly events to everyday spaces happen? How do we take our gay men of color, the tens of thousands of us that are the very pulse of this city, and not only create these spaces but invest in and be consistent patrons to these spaces. What does that transition look like and where do we begin? Antonio, you raised a very similar question in your opening. Whose task is it to build these spaces in NYC? As easy as it is for us to discuss the importance of these spaces, the undertaking to build and create these bars, restaurants, and clubs, can be quite overwhelming.
ANTONIO: I think what it is, is the typical fear people have when they see a number of Black people in one location: that we’re up to something. As much as NYC tries to pride itself on diversity and even goes as far as promoting grants and loans to small, POC, and women-owned businesses, it appears that there’s still some apprehension in making it happen. Some investors might think it’s “taking a risk” to support those types of businesses, but it’s that sort of mentality that is preventing gay Black safe spaces from happening out of the fear it’ll fail. In order for us to gain those spaces, we need someone who is confident and bold enough to make it happen and investors have to trust in that confidence enough to invest. Todd, you mentioned how gay Black men try not to exclude others from our fun, but that’s the exact problem with us not having our own space now: we do too much worrying about everyone else’s feelings that we forget about our own. We need to be a little more selfish in this particular case.
TODD: Hey Antonio, I agree that with your point that we constantly worry about everyone else’s feelings. Someone once told me that they don’t get shape ups anymore because they think it looks “too hood”. I’m like to who? White folks? Even something like a damn haircut is how we’re conditioned to make white people feel comfortable. However the reality is if you build it they will come. If a gay Black NYC bar is built I guarantee you will have gay white, gay Latinx, gay Asian, etc. patrons coming in for a drink because I’m sure the spot would be lit. I think it’s how will patrons of other groups treat our safe space? As a gay Black man I know when I step into Hombres it will be a mostly Latinx experience catered to Latinx clientele, however the owners and staff have never made me feel not welcomed if that makes sense. I wouldn’t want there to be an issue with me grabbing a round into Hombres. Now if I’m going into Hombres and I’m like hey can you turn off the bachata when it comes on then I’m being disrespectful to that establishment and what it stands for. I respect the culture at Latinx bars because I know this community has fewer gay safe space options like gay Black men, so I respect it. My concern with white gay bars is their institutionalized decision making. Whether it’s a conscious effort to play less hip hop or raise a Blue Line flag during a Black Lives Matter movement, that’s a direct slap in the face to gay Black patrons. It’s institutionalized decision making. It’s racist. If there’s a Black owned gay bar, I know as an institution and establishment they would cater to my social concerns. I never expected to run into a gay establishment throwing up a police Blue Line flag but in this era am I really surprised? This is an example of a gay bar making a institutionalized decision to make Black patrons feel less welcomed. As I said, if a Black owner builds a gay Black bar other clientele will come. Legally you can’t exclude a specific group and I don’t think that would be cool. I believe that a Black owned gay establishment should and would address our concerns first. If a gay white patron came in then they would need to check their privilege at the door because a gay Black bar isn’t about them. And if that privilege is apparent in OUR spot and boundaries are crossed, then I know as gay Black men we would have no problem reminding white gays or any other group that this is our safe space. This is OUR home and we don’t have many, so fall back if you want us to make YOU feel comfortable. There’s dozens of gay bars that accommodate your white privilege.
SEAN ANTHONY: Todd, I completely agree with your sentiments. It's never a Black person’s responsibility to make sure that white people are comfortable in white spaces. I think there may also be this idea that when/if there is an all-Black space, that other identities may not be welcomed. We can all of course agree that this is not the case. However, there should definitely be no discomfort in expressing that these spaces have been created and continue to be created out of necessity. Black queer men and women are demanding these spaces and in order for our communities to continue to thrive, we need to create these spaces. The quote “If you build it, they will come” has never been more true in the instance. Additionally, I’m 100% certain that other QPOC will come into these predominantly Black spaces and they will always be lit. But who will be building these spaces? Do organization like Black Lives Matter play a part in creating permanent spaces for queer Black men and women? What Black entrepreneurs and business owners can be reached out to invest in and continue to create these spaces? Moreover, what roles do we play as writers, educators, activists, etc., to make sure that this conversation about spaces does not just begin and end with a conversation but that actions are being taken to get these spaces created?
ANTONIO: You both make great points with both of you coming from the perspective that there’s a high demand but we need individuals ready to make it happen. However, honestly, I have never been in a gay Black space where all types of gay Black men are welcomed where there isn’t this judgmental eye about how one another presents themselves. I don’t mean to be separatist, but whenever I’ve gone to those expensive weekly events, it always feels as though there’s one specific demographic being targeted when there is an untapped gay Black population in New York. I see it when I barhop through Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, and even the East Village. Interestingly, I notice that the transplants tend to lean towards predominantly white establishments over the natives or the “Black and unapologetic about it” types (but that’s another topic completely). So, I wonder what we can do to converge these diverse types who all want a safe space to call their own. I know I want gay Black men to have a stronger sense of community and an easier way to find each other. I don’t believe that it’s up to BLM to take the charge, but I do believe that there’s a queer (or trans) Black entrepreneur who wants to make this happen for our community. In terms of how we can continue to keep the conversation going on the need for our safe space, we as writers and activists can make it possible. It’s essential for us not to let this fire die out. How we do that is strike up that discussion anywhere we can and with anyone who’s willing to help with the cause. Through creating meetups for queer and trans Black people to network or maybe even crowdfund to build this dream lounge, bar, or club, we can be the progress towards that goal. There is often this fear of the unknown and the possibility of failure, but we must let go of it in order to make an inclusive space for our community first and foremost. Only then should welcome those non-Black folks who can check their privilege and understand that this is our space.
CHIEF: Let's consider: The broader “gay rights” struggle has been between opposing sides, with the LGBTQ community and allies on one side, and hetero people and homophobes on the other. We’ve won many victories: open military service, marriage equality, broader social acceptance, increasing representation in media, and state-by-state protections for doing business, insurance and medical care, employment, and adoption. But it seems that some consider our current era “the end of Queer History”, that because their political and social needs are met, that the fight is won. EFNIKS was founded on the idea that intersectionality means the fight is long from over. That is, if there are social, economic, racial, gender-based issues that affect some of us, then these are necessarily “Gay issues”. If we don’t have racial equality, then because there are Black and Latinx and Asian gay men, then what affects Black gays is a “Gay issue”. If we don’t have gender equality when it comes to pay, then what affects lesbians, trans women, and the non-binary/non-conforming is a “Gay issue”. The fight, as our mission goes, is going to be as much about legal rights, social acceptance, and representation in the hetersexual world as it is going to be a fight within our own community--to be on the side of People of Color, women, & trans folks and not just fight for whatever white gay men want. How do you take this, and apply it to bars and clubs as “safe spaces”
TODD: A lot of bartenders in the New York gay scene are straight and white or gay and white. Diversity helps any business because you receive viewpoints from your employees. Let’s say if there were even just two Black bartenders, perhaps the Blue Line flag raised during that summer would have been addressed at the bar I discussed. A Black bartender may have said “Hey wait a minute, maybe due to timing we may come off to our Black patrons as insensitive.” Or, “hey bro if you did vote for Trump what are you doing working here?” If these things were in fact brought up and okayed by management, then there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. This means that Black patrons are an intentional afterthought. In 2017 colorism and racism have to be addressed within the gay community overall. Gay bars have so much influence that they need to address lack of staff diversity within their establishment. Otherwise, gay bars feel more like safe spaces for white gays only.
SEAN ANTHONY: We can never underestimate the power of representation. Being able to see ourselves as entrepreneurs and businessmen and businesswomen is important. We are constantly impacting the culture of the city. These spaces help foster those conversations and can be the birthplace of the many future innovations that are to come from QPOC. These spaces should always function as a safe space for us and other members of the queer black community. They should be a place where we can be our authentic selves whenever we walk through those doors.
ANTONIO: The gay community of New York dominates the west side of Manhattan from the West Village to Chelsea to Hell’s Kitchen. Since gay spaces have been closing so often in the last 3 years, the gay Black community is scattered throughout those areas, having to share spaces with gay white men. We are therefore limited to really speak on the issues we often face for the sake of respectability politics while having our existences and concerns ignored. Instead, we hope that we’re at least respected in those spaces, but have this uncomforting feeling of being the only Black face present. So, why should we not have a space to call our own? Inclusivity aside, it’s important for gay Black men to feel as though there can be a space where racism in the gay community isn’t the “elephant in the room.” Being able to see Black faces in fellow patrons, staff, and management at a bar would be such a relief. We can let our guards down and discuss issues we were too afraid to do in predominantly white spaces. We can be free to be ourselves without feeling like the “loud Black stereotype.” We can just exist.
CHIEF: Given what we've shared in this discussion, what do you think we do going forward? Is there hope? Is there a call to action? What can LGBTQ POC in other cities do? If this is how things are, so what?
TODD: The New York Times just published an article this week about the rise of H.I.V. rates in American gay and bisexual black men, especially in the rural south. They attributed the rise to a few things that include the fact that H.I.V. is now “less” of a gay white male concern because they have the financial means and resources to manage it in their population. A Mississippi Delta project coordinator at My Brother’s Keeper made his rounds to ensure young gay black men had the awareness, tools, and education to protect themselves against the disease. He decided that the best way to perform outreach to gay black men about the crisis was at a black gay bar. While our government, black churches, and gay white peers neglect us, it’s places like the black gay bar where organizing is crucial to tackle the issues that affect gay black men. Whether it’s H.I.V. awareness or how to handle getting pulled over by a police officer, black gay bars will not only be places to enjoy ourselves but also to spread critical information about issues that affect our lives. Therefore it’s even more crucial more than ever that gay black bars exist and thrive.
SEAN ANTHONY: I believe that a large shift in predominately gay spaces will start to arise given the political climate and the hustling attitude of New Yorkers. We get ish done! New Yorkers like to make things happen -- and happen quickly. Many queer members of our black community are ready for the shift in what black queer spaces look like. I think we can all agree that we all want more of these spaces to exist and it starts with conversations like these. It starts with us talking about how these spaces should function and the roles that they play in our communities. Our spaces in the future may not come in the form of a Harlem bar or a restaurant in Brooklyn. QPOC have so much creativity when it comes to finding our own spaces and thriving while in them. So much of NYC culture would be nothing without us! I can definitely promise that there will be surge in predominantly queer black spaces, but it may not appear in the ways we may originally anticipate them to look.
ANTONIO: I think the general consensus in this discussion is that there should be a call to action for the gay black community to have a stronger passion in not only wanting a safe space, but in trying to make it a reality. At present, it doesn’t seem like there are enough people interested enough in making it happen because, as I mentioned earlier, there is this fear of failure which leads to having equally uninterested investors. While I do have hope in it happening, there has to be a stronger effort amongst the entirety of LGBT+ black community to be more unified. It seems to me that we are quite divided due to gender identity and expression, which is preventing us from having our own judgment-free space. If we could get all types of gay black men (as well as lesbian, bisexual, and trans black men and women) to combine our powers for the sake of creating a space to call our own here in NYC, I think we can build the type of momentum that other cities would follow suit on. I mean, let’s be honest, New York has often been the epicenter of many different movements, ideas, and successful businesses that expand nationwide. As they say, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” If gay black men in NYC can start the conversation, there will be a momentum in other cities to continue that conversation. Things don’t always have to be as they are if there’s optimism for change, so starting here is a good place to start.
CHIEF: Thank you all for your insight. Let's do this again some time.
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