June is rapidly approaching, and we will soon know if the U.S. Supreme Court will deliver a landmark ruling deciding whether the U.S. Constitution requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and whether states must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
Thinking about this takes me back to when I was a new LGBT activist in 1994, bright-eyed and bushy tailed and ready to take the world by storm by burning down bridges of bigotry and ignorance.
When I came out, I didn’t gently open the closet door; I kicked that SOB down. And there was no turning back.
I immediately connected with an old friend, the Rev. Philip V. Matthews, a former minister at Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, who I didn’t know was a gay man when we first met while doing outreach in an area housing unit for persons living with AIDS. Phil was the foundation through which my activism was birthed.
In addition to attending CoH for a brief period (sanctuary from my United Methodist Church home), I was provided with books and materials to read about the LGBT community, homosexuality, religion, and historic/contemporary black figures in the LGBT movement. It changed my life.
Phil had started a small group of black men — 12 members — who met in each other’s homes once a month to dialogue about all of these subjects over a simple meal and drinks. These men were professional, educated, well-spoken — and what you would call “masculine.” After attending for the first time, I liked what I saw and expressed a need to Phil to extend the scope of the group beyond its 12 members. I received his blessing and moved forward.
Within a year, the group known as The Men’s Gathering — Dallas (TMG-Dallas) grew to 120 members, with meetings at the former Oak Lawn Community Services Center “Daire Room.” We also started meeting outside of our standard monthly meeting just for fun, building a complete community.
I was able to secure funding through Dallas Urban League Inc. for program support for condom distribution, presentations and pre-post survey data collection, making our activities more well rounded.
We and other minority/black LGBT organizations also garnered local and national attention through co-sponsorship of the former National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in 1996.
The forum was usually hosted alternately in Los Angeles or a city on the East Coast; Dallas was the first southern city to host the event. My “official” public coming out was marked by a cover photo and story with myself and other black LGBT leaders in the No. 1 black weekly newspaper in Dallas.
Topics of discussion were selected very strategically, and sometimes discussions included attendance from folks other than black gay men — like lesbians or the non-black partners of some members.
One issue that usually ignited deep conversation was community labels, i.e., masculine/feminine, top/bottom, butch/femme. I have to admit those meetings perplexed me because my dating/LTR choices have always been dictated by a person’s personality traits and characteristics, not solely the outside appearance or bedroom proclivities.
After serving as president of TMG-Dallas for two years, I stepped down to start my theater company, still keeping in touch with members periodically. My desire to move on had a lot to do with internal strife and conflict regarding how public we were going to be as an organization.
Some members wanted complete anonymity while others, like myself, wanted complete exposure. I was already visiblly representing the organization, including appearances in print and on radio talk shows (some gospel), and I didn’t see the need for a veil of secrecy. I connected our organization with non-gay organizations to perform community service projects and during my tenure, had our group march in the Alan Ross Texas Freedom parade as an official entry. As we marched down each block holding our 10-foot banner, complete with African-inspired motifs, I couldn’t have been more proud of us as black men.
But in the end a vote was taken and secrecy won. Rather than return to another closet, I moved on. After 3-4 presidents and a floundering membership, the group eventually went defunct — but not before spawning brother organizations in Houston (started by a former officer of the Dallas group) and one in the Michigan/Ohio area.
That was 15 years ago. Recently, I was on a Facebook friend’s page — a black gay male — and a picture of Derrick J. and Miss Lawrence, stars of the hit Bravo show Fashion Queens, was posted with the caption, “This is how Andy Cohen and BRAVO displays the gay BLACK MAN……HOUSTON WE HAVE A PROBLEM!!!!!!!!”
I commented that I didn’t think there was anything wrong with either male, and in return I was told that we need to see more masculine black males on a national platform to earn respect. I thought about my TMG-Dallas days, took a deep breathe, and replied:
“We’re disrespected, period, and those two men living their lives have little to do with it. We can present ourselves as the MOST masculine men possible and the black community will still think of us as men who want to be women and f***** in the ass.
“You need a culprit to blame for our misery, try the black church, that same place we go to weekly to get our spiritual ass whuppings which we faithfully SUPPORT. When black gay men not like Derrick J. and Miss Lawrence have the COURAGE to stand up to the black church, our families, and to others and call them ALL on their s***, effeminate males like those two will cease to be an embarrassment.
“We have to stop these internal divisions. We can’t depend on the white LGBT community to do it for us. We’ve ridden their coattails for too long.”
What is it about being masculine that is superior to being feminine? Why is one state of being preferred over the other? Does patriarchy still have that strong a hold on how we perceive women? Is being a woman, looking like a woman or adopting habits associated with women (i.e., certain clothing, makeup, shoes, etc.) wrong and not desirable?
Why do we hate women?!
With all of the strides that have been made in the LGBTQ movement (a lot of it with minimal black LGBT involvement), I continued to sit there completely dumbfounded as comments kept coming, most affirming the poster’s sentiment — including some from straight black females, which was really puzzling.
We are on the cusp of history as a LGBT community, one I have worked on to see this day. As a newly married person, the significance of this day cannot be understated. It is the single most defining moment of my life as a black SGL/gay man, a moment those before me like Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Alain Locke, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, Sylvester, Glenn Burke, E. Lynn Harris, Phil Reed, Roy Simmons and countless others couldn’t have envisioned seeing.
And all my black brethren can concern themselves with is how a person chooses to present themselves publicly. Are you fucking kidding me?!
The more things — and times — change, the more they stay the same. Black SGL/gay men: WAKE THE HELL UP!
Buster Spiller is a longtime activist and award-winning playwright from Dallas.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 22, 2015.