During lunch we’re encouraged to sit with our small groups, to allow the kind of emotional check-in that isn’t possible among a hundred men. Today, three days into a week-long gathering, I’m feeling somewhat cranky about the invisibility of gay men at what was billed as the First Multicultural Men’s Conference. The main intention of the conference was to have fifty black men and fifty white men live together in cabins in the West Virginia woods for a week, along with poet Robert Bly, psychologist James Hillman, storyteller Michael Meade, playwright Joseph Walker, poet and essayist Haki Madhubuti, and West African medicine man Malidoma Somé. I was naive enough to believe that “multicultural” meant something more than race, that the conference would be a celebration of sexual diversity as well, so I am annoyed at the elders’ silence on anything having to do with gay men. Today I’ve made it a point to wear my ACT UP T-shirt, which shows two young sailors smooching over the legend “Read My Lips,” if only to identify myself to other gay brothers. (I haven’t spotted any yet.)
The Men Who Dip Their Wings In Sorrow — that’s the name of our small group — have staked out one of the picnic tables on the lawn, and as I’m digging into my potato salad, Zach, a brother from Kenya, stares at my T-shirt. Suddenly he asks, “Are those two men kissing? Are you gay?” His abrupt tone could be blunt, hostile, or both. Jerome, a tiny spark plug of an actor from Los Angeles, says, “You got a problem with that?” Zach mumbles, “Whatever you do in your private life is your business.”
The group spends the rest of lunch discussing their encounters with gay people. I say a few words about the berdache tradition among Native Americans of according special status to gay men. Being gay is not a problem but a gift to society, I tell them. But I don’t talk about my lover or about my best friend who died or about AIDS.
Jerome, who’s as charmingly, actively self-centered as only an actor can be, tells us that while he was in college, his gay acting teacher got him a role in a TV movie and a job chauffeuring the star. Jerome was excited, because he admired the star. Then he found out that the star “liked” him and wanted Jerome to come to his hotel room. At the time, he was upset and thought less of the star for being a faggot; he also feared getting fucked in the ass. Then he talks about living with a gay roommate whose gayness didn’t bother him but whose promiscuity did.
His stories are valuable, revealing, and clearly homophobic. It fascinates me that Jerome, who wants to be the coolest about it, shows the most fear. He can’t quite relate to me as a hairy, masculine queer, but only as a queeny man. He flirts with me outrageously, even pinching my nipple once, but he gets nervous whenever I touch him: “Just don’t rub your dick against me.”
In addition to the small groups, the men here have been assigned to one of three clans: the Lions, the Snakes, and the Herons. Every afternoon, the clans get together for separate activities. Today, after lunch, it’s our clan’s turn for dancing class with Warren, the ponytailed hipster from Los Angeles, and Salif, a shy, French-speaking dancer from Guinea. We’re supposed to perform a “heron dance” for the whole group on Saturday night. The teachers map one out for us, but it’s pretty stupid, and most guys can’t remember the steps. I had been looking forward to the dancing, but now I feel alienated because the instructors are acting like typical straight men, out of touch with their bodies and their sexuality. Jerome and I end up being partners a lot, and every time we join hands he gets nervous and rigid.
When the class disperses, I park myself in a corner of the dance pavilion to brood. Milton comes over and joins me. An energetic, bookish-looking Dominican, he is, like me, a New Yorker (he drives a subway train) and a student of Siddha Yoga. “What’s going on?” he asks. I confess that I’m feeling out of place as a gay man at this conference. He suggests we go talk to Michael Meade about it. The thought of making my bad mood a problem for the teacher fills me with dread, but Milton insists.
Michael, it turns out, has just come out of an inner-work session with the Lion clan, in which a young black British musician named Derek has gone into a trance and started speaking in tongues. Spirit possession isn’t exactly a staple of men’s conferences, and Michael is freaked out. It seems like a bad time to approach him. Milton insists, however, so I take Michael aside and tell him, “I’m having trouble being here as a gay man.” The first thing he does is hug me. Then he says, “Well, you know, the brothers are very homophobic.” He suggests that after dinner, the three of us sit down with Malidoma Somé, who is knowledgeable about the role gay men play in traditional African societies.
One of the men in my group wept as he reminisced about his spiritual father who died in February, and when I reached up to brush away a tear, he flinched as if he’d been hit.
I’m touched that Michael, as a leader and an older man, takes seriously my need to feel whole and present as a gay man. But it makes me realize, too, what a hole in my life the absence of that loving paternal concern has caused. My father knows I’m gay, but we never talk about it. He’s an uneducated, retired air force sergeant who didn’t lay eyes on a black person until he was twelve, and never transcended his hatred and fear of anyone unlike himself. In our household there were two kinds of music: the kind he listened to, which he called “hillbilly music,” and the kind I listened to, which he called “nigger music,” whether it was the Beatles or the Supremes. He had a venomous epithet for every ethnic minority, and for some reason, from a very early age I identified with the targets of his bigotry. It frightened me, it made me strong, and it sealed me off from ever knowing his love.
Trudging up a dirt road, stopping at a flimsy chicken-wire fence to watch five beautiful horses frisking in a valley below, I realize how angry I am at my small group for their patronizing attitude. Straight men often feel free to shame gay men for their sexuality, and I’ve made it my business not to put myself in a place where my personal power can be sapped that way. I never expected, at a conference devoted to cultural differences, to encounter such a freeze on gay experience.
I came to learn from this men’s work and take it back to the gay tribe. I also want to share my gifts. I’m not afraid of my body the way many straight men are. I understand sexuality as a form of spiritual communion, and I know the importance of touching. (One of the men in my group wept as he reminisced about his spiritual father who died in February, and when I reached up to brush away a tear, he flinched as if he’d been hit.) But I don’t feel free to learn or teach here, nor to talk. Why drop my armor when I’m surrounded by homophobes eager to condescend to me as a female man? I recognize there’s some hurt pride involved, too. At gay gatherings I attract a lot of attention with my looks, my dancing. Here my energy turns men away, as it did my father.
In helping friends who are living with and dying from AIDS, I feel like I’ve been summoned — by some force stronger than my career-conscious ego — to undergo a kind of ad hoc training in spiritual healing. That’s why it means so much to be here: I’m seeking the thorough self-knowledge it takes to serve as a transmitter between my gay brothers and the spirit world. Is there anything I can get from these straight men to help with my mission?
That night during “community time” — the after-dinner session that’s totally open to the floor — talk turns to growing up in a racist household. Jimmy, an advocate for mental patients, regales us with tales of his mother’s nostalgia for slavery. “She read antebellum novels and longed for the days when women didn’t have to dress themselves,” he says. “I was taught as a child that the way I could right the world would be to restore slavery.” Even when recounting painful memories, Jimmy’s dry, delicious, storytelling drawl captures Southern attitudes so perfectly that laughs of recognition fill the room.
In contrast, Chris, a sad-looking Bostonian with a ponytail, speaks with considerable anguish about his ancestors who owned slaves. “As a child, I was not allowed to sit in the back seat of the car with our black maid,” he recalls. “The tenant farmer on our land was never allowed to set foot in my grandmother’s house.”
It may sound smugly self-congratulatory to decry your racist forebears: “Look how much better I am than they were.” Or it could be “politically correct” in the worst way, a grotesque parody of self-criticism sessions in Communist China, with their robotic confessions of deviations from party-line behavior. But what’s coming out here is personal distress that has nowhere else to be exorcised and perhaps has not been fully acknowledged before this week.
African-Americans have found power and strength by reclaiming their family histories. When white men do the same, what do they do with the horrors they find there? It seems important for men of color to hear this pain verbalized, this shame identified and released.
For one thing, it’s a big step out of denial. We live in a culture that denies its own racism daily. After the Rodney King verdict, the men in the White House never uttered the words “racism” or “injustice” but instead blamed the riots that ensued on Murphy Brown and Lyndon Johnson.
A social worker from Cleveland confesses that the conference has dredged up painful memories of his own racist behavior. In the orphanage where he grew up, he and some friends chased a black kid out of the house, built a cross on the lawn, wrapped his clothes around it, and burned them. Another social worker remembers being called “nigger” by a schoolgirl at the age of six: “My father spanked me for believing it.”
Such vivid recollections inevitably summon one’s own. I flash on one of the most electrifying scenes of my family life. It was Saturday morning, and my sisters and I were watching “American Bandstand.” My father was also in the room, and he pointed to the TV: “Look at that white girl dancing with that nigger.”
One of my sisters said, “That’s not a nigger.”
“Sure it is,” my father insisted. “Nigger or Portuguese.” He meant Puerto Rican, but the slip was telling — my mother is full-blooded Portuguese. She came out of the kitchen to say, “Who are you calling a nigger?”
Somehow I avoided catching my father’s blatant prejudices. But what subtler forms of racism have I inherited? Having put myself in the company of fifty black men for the first time in my life, I catch myself thinking of “the brothers” as a monolithic group with the same values, beliefs, and backgrounds, all alien from my own. Every one-on-one encounter chips away at that preconception, turns a generic black face into an individual personality. No matter how much I’ve gleaned about black culture from books, films, and music, every individual I meet this week challenges me to open my heart and mind to a larger understanding of black men.
Evidence of the differences between our cultures comes from surprising corners. I overhear two black men snickering at a white guy they met in the sauna: “He didn’t know anything about herbal remedies — can you believe that?” This confuses me. Do all black men, I wonder, have grandmothers or family shamans who teach them the healing properties of herbs? Over a casual lunchtime conversation, it emerges that many black men don’t consider tipping mandatory; cab drivers and waiters have to earn their tips, they feel. I’m scandalized — I would never think of not tipping. Another man points out that black men are scornful of men’s movement talk about “separating from the mother.” Their mothers are often their only source of support and unconditional love; to take that away without offering anything in its place is totally unacceptable. Of course, living off women is what keeps men boys.
Then again, white men are not routinely hassled by cops, trailed by suspicious shopkeepers, and ignored by cab drivers. There’s nothing like being around black men for a week to make whites appreciate the gulf between the two races in terms of lived experience. White male privilege isn’t confined to those who own banks, control empires, and manipulate governments. Even the freakiest-looking punk-rock anarchist is only a haircut and a costume change away from enjoying a white male privilege black men will never know.
I snap out of my reverie when Sherman, a therapist from Oakland, starts to speak. “I’m having a problem with this workshop,” he begins, “with a kind of lie that seems to be allowed here.” Recalling his grandfather’s disappointment because he ran “like a girl,” Sherman brings up the stigma attached to effeminacy. “We’ve talked here about growing up with the line, ‘Nigger ain’t shit.’ But below a nigger is a faggot. And that is the issue people have not been addressing. I would ask the people in this room to look inside yourselves and see what is soft, and what you’re trying to protect, and what is secret, and say it.”
This sounds like my cue. I stand up, heart pounding, mind racing. I tell them about my father. His racism, I say, was only one reason I hated him, but it taught me to identify with the victims of racism. I call myself a gay warrior, a Queer National, and a Radical Faerie. I’ve been to a number of men’s gatherings, I tell them, and regret to say I’ve encountered more homophobia at this one than at any other: more unchallenged fag jokes, more fear of touching. “I’m not afraid of physical violence,” I say, “because I’m a strong motherfucker and I’m not afraid to fight.” (I figure that line is butch enough to win this crowd, and indeed they cheer. It also happens to be true.) But I don’t feel free here to let down my armor all the way. I say I came to the conference as a sort of emissary: the gay tribe could learn from straight men about summoning Zeus energy and the power to act in the world, and gay men have a lot to teach about men loving men. I bring up the issue of touching, how little of it there’s been at this gathering. I say I’m disappointed that in my small group one guy seemed very nervous about physical contact after learning I’m gay. Finally, I assert that the biggest taboo in men’s work is acknowledging that men love other men, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of that.
I get a standing ovation. Michael Meade gets up with a confession of his own. “Before the first men’s event I ever went to, probably my biggest fear was that some of the men would be gay. I didn’t know anything about gay men, except that in my neighborhood you beat the shit out of them. I went, and there were seventy-five men there, and forty of them were gay. I thought they were going to beat the shit out of me!” He explains that in most cultures gay people have a place of honor because they see into other worlds. “One of the problems with American culture is that it excludes anyone who’s different, and that diminishes the spirituality of the culture.”
After Michael sits down, a drumming master named Carlton gets up and delivers the most virulently homophobic diatribe I’ve ever heard. He says that gay men are “vampires,” that he doesn’t want his kids to be taught by gay teachers, that when he sees gay men kissing he wants to punch them in the mouth. He takes issue with Michael about the spiritual role of gay people, saying that in his experience most African cultures do not accept gay men. “I know in the white community you have the gay movement, and they want to come out of the closet and be accepted just like everybody else. But in the black community they say, ‘Homey don’t play that shit.’”
I’m also sick of hearing these men’s movement guys wistfully long for beauty, for expressions of grief, for male display as initiation and as a substitute for combat. Those are among the teachings gay men have kept alive since ancient times.
“Can I say something?” Joseph Walker mentions that in college he went into the theater because he knew there were a lot of gay guys there, which meant more women for him. “When I made that move, it meant a kind of ostracism within my own neighborhood. I’ve often thought I might have been a dancer. But one of my buddies said, ‘Joe, if you go into dance, just forget about me speaking to you on campus.’ And that was a severe oppression that changed the direction of my life.” Then, reaching into his historical knowledge, Walker points out that the Spartan army was based on the notion of lovers teamed up to protect each other’s backs. During the era of Shaka, Zulu society wanted to dissuade men from becoming involved with women, fearing it would make them less reckless in battle. So two veteran warriors would have a young apprentice whose job was to carry equipment and provide them with sexual gratification. “We’re talking,” Walker emphasizes, “about two of the most formidable armies in world.”
“OK, it’s ten-thirty,” says Robert Bly. “I think we’ll end the evening with a comment by Malidoma.” Bly’s main role here has been to watch the clock and keep things rolling. I’ve noticed that when gay topics come up, he tends to change the subject quickly.
In his village, Malidoma says, there are strong taboos against kissing in public. “Yet you will find more men holding hands, walking, and dancing together than with women. You come to my village, you will never know whose girlfriend is whose or whose wife is whose. But you’ll very quickly know which men are friends because you see them touching.”
The primary image of the gay person among Dagara, Malidoma says, is the gatekeeper, the spiritual person who knows how to link two worlds together. “These people use energy as a force to take care of all the spiritual and physical disturbances that affect the people in the village. Without them, I doubt that society would be able to hold itself together.”
Before the leaders can close the session, a guy from Washington leaps up. “If anybody has a reason to be labeled homophobic, I do. As a small child, dignity was taken into a form of slavery. I don’t like to use the term ‘sexually abused’ — I was assaulted. I was imprisoned. My dignity was taken away, and I was emasculated. In my home I learned sex was bad, and all touch was sex. I didn’t see a lot of touching or holding. The first man who held me anally raped me. I had a lot of rage and grief about that. So if anyone should have a problem with men kissing men, it ought to be me, because sometimes that brings back these memories that are fucking horrible to me. But that was yesterday. I’m a powerful man now. I have the power to say yes when I mean yes, and no when I mean no. I invite safe touch, and I hope we all do that.”
Finally, we stand and put our hands on each other’s shoulders, breathing in together and exhaling an “Ommmm.” The sweat and adrenalin, the fear and tenderness of the last couple of hours circulate through the room like a current, a buzz running through the chain of bodies, one male body. It feels like this session kicked a lot of things loose and raised topics that will reverberate for the rest of the week. I get a gratifying the number of comments not just supporting me but seriously engaging the issues of homophobia, sexuality, and touching. James Hillman points out that the best thing about my speaking was Carlton’s response — that it drew out the poison and got it into the open. Walter, intense black entrepreneur from Washington, gives me his interpretation of Carlton’s remarks: black men react so violently to unwanted homosexual advances because it reminds them unpleasantly of how they objectify women.
Still it sickens me that Carlton can’t hear himself spouting the same kind of vicious talk that stereotypes all and black men as rapists, muggers, and welfare cheats. I’m dismayed at being forced to realize that men of color are just as susceptible to patriarchal thinking as white men. Mostly, I’m sick and tired of the way straight men patronize gay men and shame us for our sexuality and deny our gifts. I’m also sick of hearing these men’s movement guys wistfully long for beauty, for expressions of grief, for male display as initiation and as a substitute for combat. Those are among the teachings gay men have kept alive since ancient times. Unless and until they overcome their fear of being associated with gay men, straight men are never going to receive those gifts.
The funniest thing is that almost everybody in my small group comes up to me worriedly to inquire whether I was talking about him. Then Jerome breezes up and hugs me, saying, “I know you weren’t talking about me. . . .”
A couple of guys invite me to join them at the sauna to continue the conversation. The place is packed. Once the sauna’s good and hot, the one Native American at the gathering — a soulful, taciturn, middle-aged man named Dave — brings out his pipe, fills it, invokes the four directions, and passes the pipe around. When he first received the pipe, he says, he dedicated it to unity. After the pipe has made its rounds, Dave sends an eagle feather around the circle, and each of us voices a prayer while holding it. It’s no big deal. There’s no special hush or excessive reverence. But here we are, eighteen naked men — black, white, Jewish, gay, Native American, Asian, Indian — in a sacred ceremony late at night at the edge of a lake under the crisp stars of West Virginia.
Is this just a utopian fantasy we’re enacting, a blip on the radar, a moment out of time before we return to the catastrophic misery men have made of the world? Are we the proof of a change that has already occurred? Are we the blueprint for a once and future dream that all men can be brothers?
The names of the participants at the conference have been changed to protect their confidentiality.