Author explores the culture of gay gang members

The Gang’s All Queer: The Lives of Gay Gang Members by Vanessa R. Panfil (New York University Press 2017) $28; 312 pp.

Being a teen ain’t easy. Being a gay teen is even harder, Vanessa Panfil knew from her work at a Columbus, Ohio, LGBTQ center for young adults. That experience showed her realities beyond what she’d lived herself as a white woman, and it sparked an interest in gang membership within the community. She already knew a handful of gay gang members; after she gained their trust, those men introduced her to a web of people who opened their world to her.

When most people think of gangs, the image that comes to mind is one of tattoos and machismo. Panfil found some of the latter, but that was often used as cover for sexual identity; indeed, many of the men (though far from all) whom she interviewed remained closeted to their fellow gang members.

Panfil identified three distinct kinds of gangs: all-gay gangs, of which there aren’t many; heterosexual gangs, in which coming out could be dangerous; and more tolerant, easy-going “hybrid” gangs in which the mix of gay and straight could be up to half of each.

Panfil points out that most of her interview subjects were careful to stress that they were very masculine. She also notes that, despite that more than two out of three gay men fought someone else over homophobic harassment, protection was not the main reason for joining a gang; the main reasons were for perceptions of “family,” or because of deep friendship. And while there was a certain amount of crime — mostly petty theft, drug dealing and sex, although fierce violence was not unknown — many gay gangs offered encouragement, a more democratic atmosphere, job-seeking help and educational support, thus acting more as “cliques” than gangs.

The Gang’s All Queer is a bit on the academic side, and probably not on anyone’s relax-in-a-hammock-and-read list. Having said that, it’s a very interesting take on a world that never makes the headlines.

Not only did Panfil have access to a group of men who were willing to tell all, she fully used that access to understand why a gay man would turn to a group that’s stereotypically anti-gay. This leads to a bigger picture and larger questions of violence and closeting, as well as problems with being black, gay and gangsta.

Readers — even those who might struggle with the college-thesis feel of this book — will ultimately come away with a better knowledge of a world they mightn’t have realized existed before. Certainly for scholars, but also for readers interested in LGBT cultures, The Gang’s All Queer is a pretty safe bet.           

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 29, 2017.