I put a lot of faith in parties with predominantly Black gay men.
For me, casual gatherings of Black gay men mean so much more than Sunday Fundays and brunches. I am constantly concerned about the state of Black gay men, and our ability to be in community. The dominant culture portrays us as incapable of intentional loving relationships, and as a result, we internalize the beliefs that are we inherently toxic. So I worry about how we might recover when we do in fact let each other down.
I am at super bowl party with my roommate. I am already guilty of being shady myself, because the party is at a mansion and I immediately assume that someone is trying "to stunt." I feel bad for thinking this way.
The mansion door is nestled behind a slim gate and you have to climb a narrow staircase to reach it. We are greeted by one of the hosts, a friend of my roommate. He is handsome, wearing an entirely bubblegum pink jogging suit and an entirely white smile. He directs us to the main area, which is accessible through a narrow kitchen.
And I mean narrow. The kitchen must've once been a hallway, and I cannot imagine for the life of me why someone would build a kitchen this way. It's narrowness forces us to be in close proximity with one another, and it allows the kitchen to function as a runway reveal.
I feel eyes sizing me up as I walk through the narrow kitchen, and I look too. I have more than a little social anxiety, and am equal parts conceited and self-conscious. Who seems friendly enough to talk to? Whose body is better than mine? (Cause I've been making some recent desperate attempts at the gym and though not-quite Instagram ready yet, I am wearing a tight-fitting shirt and for all intents and purposes you “cain’t tell me nothin’.”
The inhabitants of the kitchen are quiet--awkwardly quiet. I muster up the courage to throw out a few half-hearted, but cheerful “hellos” before I realize that none of us present are really equipped to carry conversation with strangers. In my life I have met and admire the people who can walk into a room and unabashedly converse with everyone there. I am not one of those people. I detest small talk. I overthink. I would rather talk about our deepest fears, vulnerabilities, and what resistance looks like in the context of neoliberalism. This is not necessarily a good pretext for party conversation.
Feeling like a failure, I manage a few chicken wings onto a paper plate and pour myself a drink before escaping into the TV room. There is a big screen nested into one wall and a couch opposite it. The furniture and walls are predominantly white with a splash of bold accent pieces. What’s even more colorful are the gays watching the superbowl. They are a lot more talkative and a tad bit more drunk.
I suddenly realize the whole moment is a bit absurd. I listen to a few conversations and it is clear that no one here actually watches football. A few of us are here for the halftime show with Lady Gaga, but we all know that she is mostly a white gay icon so that is not really the reason either. Nevertheless, I enjoy the company. It is a very attractive group, and I am astounded and take pride in the extent to which Black gay men adorn themselves.
There are the usual characters. The one who is very loud and unfunny. The one who is loud and actually funny. The one who performs “trade” but you suspect is more butch queen. The really quick-witted cunty one (whose sharp tongue likely comes from fighting battles all their life). The one who is already drunk as hell. The really nice hospitable one. The really stylish one that makes you wonder where they got their clothes. The gym rat. The one who is more attractive than what they believe about themselves. The really fine one. The other really fine one who stays clutching their phone. Everyone is personable, but maintains a relatively subdued disposition. It is early in the night and we are all still preoccupied with playing our version of masculinity.
The halftime show begins, and ends less interesting than the memes that critique it.
We are bored now. It is later into the night, and we are all more discernibly drunk. Our pink-clad host proposes a game.
I assume it is a common party game. The premise: a leader poses a question and everyone anonymously drops their answer into a hat. The answers then get read. It of course seems shady and messy, but shade is always fun until it’s not. I am excited. I know no one in the room personally other than my roommate so the anonymity provides me with a shield.
The game is immediately fun. Some of the questions and answers were actually heartfelt. What was your biggest regret? Not going to college. But most of the questions were various conjugations of the verb “to fuck” accented with some participles.
Who in this room have you fucked?
Who in this room would you fuck?
Who in this room will you fuck?
Who in this room are you fucking?
The centering of sex was not as surprising as the reactions. It is always interesting to me how Black gay men negotiate our visibility. Some people shrank away. Some were visibly uncomfortable. Some threw some quiet shade with the people they sat next to. Most of us were laughing. I am laughing, but I am tense. The stylish one sits next to me, and he is very nice. Our energies share, and we both are clearly worried about the direction of the game. We are towing a fine line.
The intensity of the game heightens bleakly as more and more questions are asked that seem more interested in humiliation than fun. The laughter has descended into grimaces, whispers, and side-comments. At one point in the night, a newcomer, young, and who I experience as having a bad attitude proposes the question “Spill someone’s tea in this room.” There is an audible groan after the question is proposed. This is the straw. Though to be fair, we knew this was coming. At this point, we are “over it,” as they say, and we start to trickle out of the room.
There is a bit more small conversation, but the party soon ends.
On the ride home, I worry about the degree to which Black gay men speak of ourselves in terms of scarcity and lack. So often we pathologize each other. We deride ourselves for our sexual habits, the ways in which we sometimes fail to show up for each other. I worry about how we fail to be kind to one another. We are all fighting the same fights and are often victims of the same traumas. Yet instead of manifesting empathy and turning our shared wounds into collective resilience, we weaponize ourselves against each other.
I feel guilty, because I am implicit, I came to the party expecting the worse, and was surprised to find something else, only to leave having self-fulfilled the prophecy. My roommate and I debrief as we leave the mansion.
I am bad at Black gay parties. I am judgmental. I am self-conscious. I am overly idealistic with unrealistic expectations. Every party, or brunch, or kickback can’t be a healing circle, because healing and being in community takes a lot of work. I know this. But my heart tells me that Black gay men really want that from one another. I think our yearning for connection just comes out in strange and sometimes corrosive ways.
I wonder what community looks like for Black gay men. Essex Hemphill, the great poet once said that he wanted to start an organization to save Black gay men. If whales and dogs can be saved, he writes, then of course we can too. The analogy renders Black gay men as an endangered species.
I feel like this is how we act sometimes, like we are always in danger. Like we are always on the edge of a cliff trying not to stumble.
Aaron is a Chicago-based writer, activist, and educator. His work has been featured in Colorlines, Mused Magazine Online, the Feminist Wire, TruthOut.com, the Advocate, the Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. He is currently working on a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked