Cyntoia Brown in the Independent Lens documentary, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.
In movies and television, some of the most recognizable gay characters have been portrayed as effeminate or weak; they’re “fashionistas” or “gay best friends.” Street gang members, on the other hand, are often depicted as hypermasculine, heterosexual and tough.
This obvious contradiction was one of the main reasons I was drawn to the subject of gay gang members.
For my new book “The Gang’s All Queer,” I interviewed and spent time with 48 gay or bisexual male gang members. All were between the ages of 18 and 28; the majority were men of color; and all lived in or near Columbus, Ohio, which has been referred to as a “Midwestern gay mecca.”
The experience, which took place over the course of more than two years, allowed me to explore the tensions they felt between gang life and gay manhood.
Some of the gang members were in gangs made up of primarily gay, lesbian or bisexual people. Others were the only gay man (or one of a few) in an otherwise “straight” gang. Then there were what I call “hybrid” gangs, which featured a mix of straight, gay, lesbian and bisexual members, but with straight people still in the majority. Most of these gangs were primarily male.
Because even the idea of a gay man being in a gang flies in the face of conventional thought, the gang members I spoke with had to constantly resist or subvert a range of stereotypes and expectations.
Getting in by being out
How could I – a white, middle-class woman with no prior gang involvement – gain access to these gangs in the first place?
It helped that the initial group of men whom I spoke to knew me from years earlier, when we became friends at a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth. They vouched for me to their friends. I was openly gay – part of the “family,” as some of them put it – and because I was a student conducting research for a book, they were confident that I stood a better chance of accurately representing them than any “straight novelist” or journalist.
But I also suspect that my own masculine presentation allowed them to feel more at ease; I speak directly, have very short hair and usually leave the house in plaid, slacks and Adidas shoes.
While my race and gender did make for some awkward interactions (some folks we encountered assumed I was a police officer or a business owner), with time I gained their trust, started getting introduced to more members and began to learn about how each type of gang presented its own set of challenges.
Pressure to act the part
The gay men in straight gangs I spoke with knew precisely what was expected of them: be willing to fight with rival gangs, demonstrate toughness, date or have sex with women and be financially independent.
Being effeminate was a nonstarter; they were all careful to present a uniformly masculine persona, lest they lose status and respect. Likewise, coming out was a huge risk. Being openly gay could threaten their status as well as their safety. Only a handful of them came out to their traditional gangs, and this sometimes resulted in serious consequences, such as being “bled out” of the gang (forced out through a fight).
Despite the dangers, some wanted to come out. But a number of fears held them back. Would their fellow gang members start to distrust them? What if the other members got preoccupied about being sexually approached? Would the status of the gang be compromised, with other gangs seeing them as “soft” for having openly gay guys in it?
So most stayed in the closet, continuing to project heterosexuality, while discreetly meeting other gay men in underground gay scenes or over the internet.
As one man told me, he was glad cellphones had been invented because he could keep his private sexual life with men just that: private.
One particularly striking story came from a member of a straight gang who made a date for sex over the internet, only to discover that it was two fellow gang members who had arranged the date with him. He hadn’t known the others were gay, and they didn’t know about him, either.
In “hybrid” gangs (those with a sizable minority of gay, lesbian or bisexual people) or all-gay gangs, the men I interviewed were held to many of the same standards. But they had more flexibility.
In the hybrid gangs, members felt far more comfortable coming out than those in purely straight gangs. In their words, they were able to be “the real me.”
Men in gay gangs were expected to be able to build a public reputation as a gay man – what they called becoming “known.” Being “known” means you’re able to achieve many masculine ideals – making money, being taken seriously, gaining status, looking good – but as an openly gay man.
It was also more acceptable for them to project femininity, whether it was making flamboyant gestures, using effeminate mannerisms, or wearing certain styles of clothing, like skinny jeans.
They were still in a gang. This meant they needed to clash with rival gay crews, so they valued toughness and fighting prowess.
Men in gay gangs especially expressed genuine and heartfelt connections to their fellow gang members. They didn’t just think of them as associates. These were their friends, their chosen families – their pillars of emotional support.
But sometimes these gang members would vacillate about certain expectations.
They questioned if being tough or eager to fight constituted what it should mean to be a man. Although they viewed these norms with a critical eye, across the board they tended to prefer having “masculine” men as sexual partners or friends. Some would also patrol each other’s masculinity, insulting other gay men who were flamboyant or feminine.
Caught between not wanting themselves or others to be pressured to act masculine all the time, but also not wanting to be read as visibly gay or weak (which could invite challenges), resistance to being seen as a “punk” or a pushover was critical.
It all seemed to come from a desire to upend damaging cultural stereotypes of gay men as weak, of black men as “deadbeats” and offenders, and of gang members as violent thugs.
But this created its own tricky terrain. In order to not be financial deadbeats, they resorted to sometimes selling drugs or sex; in order to not be seen as weak, they sometimes fought back, perhaps getting hurt in the process. Their social worlds and definitions of acceptable identity were constantly changing and being challenged.
One of the most compelling findings of my study was what happened when these gay gang members were derisively called “fag” or “faggot” by straight men in bars, on buses, in schools or on the streets. Many responded with their fists.
Some fought back even if they weren’t openly gay. Sure, the slur was explicitly meant to attack their masculinity and sexuality in ways they didn’t appreciate. But it was important to them to be able to construct an identity as a man who wasn’t going to be messed with – a man who also happened to be gay.
Their responses were revealing: “I will fight you like I’m straight”; “I’m gonna show you what this faggot can do.” They were also willing to defend others derided as “fags” in public, even though this could signal that they were gay themselves.
These comebacks challenge many of the assumptions made about gay men – that they lack nerve, that they’re unwilling to physically fight.
It also communicated a belief that was clearly nonnegotiable: a fundamental right to not be bothered simply for being gay.
“I am getting this wonderful education. I have a job. I fit in. At the same time, I feel at any moment that can change. I don’t think that most Americans live with that thought that anything can change [in] just one minute… My biggest fear is me getting deported or DACA being terminated and I go back to being here illegally.” –“Leticia”
“Leticia,” a pseudonym, is now 21. She came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of eight. She is just one of the many undocumented young adults we have met in the course of our research.
With President Donald Trump’s reversal of an Obama-era executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Leticia’s worst fears seem to be coming true. It is now up to Congress to pass legislation that would grant “Dreamers” legal status. In the meantime, these youths’ dreams and aspirations are once again stalled, with another deadline and six more months of uncertainty, and thus, fear and anxiety.
Together, we have been researching the lives of immigrants for 26 years. Up until 2012, undocumented youth like Leticia found themselves with few options for making their aspirations a reality as they became adults.
This changed with DACA. The program granted certain undocumented youth temporary reprieve from deportation that could be renewed every two years, and identity papers such as driver’s licenses and social security cards. This gave recipients the ability to legally apply for a job or admission into institutions of higher education.
Since DACA passed, youth like Leticia have been able to further their education and obtain jobs and health insurance along with being granted many other rights. Our research demonstrates that DACA has enabled youth and young adults not just to work toward building their own futures, but also to find peace of mind – something that, until then, was unfamiliar to them.
Personal trauma and emotional well-being
Participants in our studies commonly discussed chronic feelings of sadness and worry. Their mental health statuses were precarious prior to DACA. Most did not know they were undocumented until a caregiver told them, usually in late adolescence. To them, finding out about their undocumented status proved to be a source of personal trauma. Their status disrupted their dreams and eroded the trust they had placed in their families, friends and social institutions.
Some participants admitted that, prior to DACA, they had thought about suicide. Feeling hopelessness because of their undocumented status, a few had harmed themselves or even attempted suicide. According to news reports, at least one young Dreamer ended his own life as a result of this anguish.
We found that one way that undocumented youth coped with feelings of isolation was to join immigrant organizations and to volunteer in immigrant advocacy activities. The social connections they developed in these groups fostered relationships that supported them in times of despair.
Then, DACA brought relief and improved their mental health. These youth shared with us that they were more motivated and happy after Obama’s executive order. As Kate, one of our participants, told us, DACA “has gone a long way to give me some sense of security and stability that I haven’t had in a very long time.” Even with DACA, these youth maintained their involvement in organizations to help “give back” to their communities.
Almost 800,000 youth trusted the government with their “fingerprints” and other personal information when they applied for DACA. In return, the two-year reprieve from deportation lifted the constant, everyday fear of existence that characterized their lives. These mental health gains, in addition to the fruits of all of their hard work over the past five years, are now threatened.
The road ahead
These young adults are thoroughly vetted and are either well on their way to or already contributing in significant ways to their communities and the country. Alonso Guillen, to cite just one recent example, lost his life while rescuing victims of Hurricane Harvey. Many have contributed to the U.S. economy – 5.5 percent of DACA recipients have started their own businesses and 87 percent are employed.
With the demise of DACA, these youth may feel that the trust they placed in government has been betrayed. In our research, before Donald Trump was a presidential candidate, we often heard participants expressing fear that DACA may be temporary – but it was always hypothetical. One of our participants, “Mariposa,” said she was “on the list,” and worried that the U.S. government would know exactly where to find her if DACA should end.
If our research and the history of social activism of Dreamers tells us one thing, it is that these youth are resilient. The U.S. is their home, the only place they consider home, and where they want to stay and contribute.
Our work shows that being part of organizations that support immigrants is crucial to promoting a sense of social and emotional well-being. These organizations, at least, may continue to provide spaces where youth can come together and feel like they belong. Meanwhile, Dreamers can only hope Congress can find a solution that will help them trust once again in America’s institutions.