By Evan Brechtel
It’s about three Fridays ago. I’m at Rise in Hell’s Kitchen, somewhere on my second whiskey, which is always when I begin making friends. Three of us--still somewhat strangers--are outside smoking.
“So you guys live in Manhattan?” he asks.
“Yeah, in Harlem,” the two of us reply.
He whips his head back, the breath expelled by his wheezy laugh visible in puffs across cold night air. “Harlem isn’t the city.”
“Manhattan ends at 96th Street.” He thinks he’s being informative. “Harlem isn’t the real city.”
We begin pressing him as to why he believes this with such unrelenting conviction. What was different enough about Harlem to exclude it from Manhattan? Its physical structures--its brownstones, its gridded streets and avenues--are practically indiscernible from the rest of Manhattan’s physical makeup. Its history is some of the most illustrious of any Manhattan neighborhood.
“It’s just, y’know...different. It’s just not Manhattan.”
If Harlem’s difference as a neighborhood discounts it from the city, then what--to this man outside the bar--is Manhattan, is New York, if not a collective of varied inhabitants and complex histories? Harlem is not Hell’s Kitchen as Hell’s Kitchen is not the Village as the Village is not the Bowery and so on. None of these neighborhoods are alike and all of them bond to form Manhattan.
He refuses to concede that his statement is factually, geographically, catastrophically wrong, nor will he admit that he’s deemed Harlem irrelevant because of its blackness. This mindset among white gays is rampant. Whether it’s a new Beyonce single or a reaction gif or AAVE, we eagerly consume black artistry, terms, and identities; yet when it comes to addressing our unconscious racism or fighting white supremacy in our own spaces and calling out those in our own communities, we’re deafeningly silent.
Unsurprisingly, this is by no means a new phenomenon. At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, white gays used to flock uptown to evade the Vice Squads, who predominantly concerned themselves with white neighborhoods downtown. White queer people not only went to Harlem to feel safe, but as a form of speculation, as though Harlem were a zoo. Queer historian Lillian Faderman elaborated on this: “Made braver by bootlegged liquor, jazz, and what they saw as the ‘primitive’ excitement of Africa, they acted out their enchantment with the primal and erotic. They believed that Harlem gave them permission, or they simply took permission there, to explore what was forbidden in the white world.” The idea that Harlem is some sort of wasteland until white people find it useful continues to echo today as gentrification forces generations of Harlemites from their homes.
While Cosmopolitan referred to Harlem as “synonymous with naughtiness” during the Renaissance, many of these so-called naughty enclaves simultaneously served as bastions of black success and economic self-reliance in the face of ceaseless subjugation. Buffet flats--after-hours, unlicensed nightclubs--were known to white tourists for sex shows and other acts seen as sinful and salacious. But the buffet flats were far more than scandalous clubs. Not only did they act as hotels for those whom segregation left without a room, but they also functioned as banks for Pullman Porters--exclusively black train porters who founded the first all-black workers’ union around the same time. The porters’ jobs demanded extensive train travel, and they relied widely on buffet flats to store their earnings and valuables. The partnership between Pullman Porters and the buffet flats wasn’t only mutually beneficial--it was beneficial to all of black America. The flats would store black-owned newspapers such as The New York Age and the New York Amsterdam News for the Pullman Porters to pick up before smuggling them through segregated trains and disseminating them across the Jim Crow South, where black-owned newspapers were seen as a threat to white control. Under the noses of the outsiders who’d fetishized Harlem, its most infamous corners were continuing a revolution that is yet to be complete.
The sentiments of the man outside of Rise are reflective of an infinitely greater problem. Despite over a decade of white queer New Yorkers relying on Harlem for the freedom to revel without fear, we didn’t reciprocate that inclusion in the decades after, especially as queer bars became more profitable. A number of these bars continue to fail at creating spaces for marginalized people to safely celebrate. Discriminatory practices such as targeted dress code requirements, exorbitant cover charges, selective ID policies, and more have pervaded since at least the sixties. And it hasn’t been regressing.
Last year at iCandy, a Philadelphia queer bar, the owner was caught on tape repeatedly assaulting black patrons with hate speech and racial slurs. In response, Philadelphia’s Pride Committee added a black stripe and a brown stripe to symbolize the disproportionate challenges faced by queer people of color. Tellingly, this addition was met with more backlash by the LGBTQ community than the racist actions that necessitated it. As recently as last month in New York, a notable queer bar owner was accused of discrimination, resulting in ceaseless attempts to discredit the accuser, despite two years’ worth of similar accusations against the owner readily available on the bar’s Facebook page.
So often, silence looks like solace from the threat of discomfort, but the evil--the systemic degradation of the soul--that white supremacy upholds is far more harmful than any unwieldy discussion or narrow path to progress. The white people of our community owe it to the humanity of people of color to ensure that our spaces of revelry are safe for all, and we owe it to them to provide a platform for voices that routinely go unheard. This exclusion is not only directly dehumanizing to people of color, but the absence of these voices and ideas is a hindrance to the progress of the whole community. White queers must use our platforms to elevate today’s Bayards and Bessies and Baldwins and Basquiats. We must challenge our own discomfort to better fight these systems with our words and our bodies. The very term “queer” developed from finally questioning and rallying against regressive social norms. There are those who will dismiss these sentiments as another instance of excessive conformity to political correctness, but I’m here to assure you that few actions could be more rebellious--more queer--than actively fighting insidious structures and addressing evil as evil.