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Celebrating Harlem's Rich Queer History

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"It is evident to the most superficial observer that the centre of fashion, wealth, culture, and intelligence, must, in the near future, be found in the ancient and honorable village of Harlem."
--Harlem Monthly, 1893

As we approach the end of Black History Month, I thought I'd share with you a movement afoot in an area that has one of, if not the, richest black histories in the United States. With a further dissection and examination of the history of this area, one will also notice one of, if not the, richest same-gender-loving, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (SGL/LGBT) histories in the United States, and certainly in the five boroughs that make up New York City. The area that I speak of is Harlem, whose rich history is often omitted from the timelines that recount and track the milestones of the LGBT movement. The Harlem Renaissance, which served as an incubator of, and set a precedent for, artistic, literary, philosophical and other professional works in the American black community, was as queer as it was black, many would say. Harlem's LGBT community has continued to play a vital role in the music, art, theater and literature scenes, and though responsible for producing some of the greatest artists and thinkers over the past century, it has remained a mystery to many. Indeed, while the masses have been exposed to many contributions of Harlem's LGBT scene (e.g., voguing), the geneses of such artistic manifestations are often unknown or ignored.

The word "privilege" is tossed around a lot as of late, and I, for one, think it's a privilege to live in Harlem. As a matter of fact, to have even visited Harlem is a privilege that most people who desire to do so will never realize. For residents of New York City, as is true for residents of many places, it is so easy to take for granted all that we have at our fingertips; indeed, most of us still maintain a perennial unkept promise to visit the Statue of Liberty. I've never forgotten how many people still yearn to see the famous Apollo Theater, hear the sound of salsa and merengue in El Barrio, grab a slice from Patsy's Pizzeria, or simply take the A train to Harlem. For the LGBT community, that yearning is just as deep, if not deeper. To visit the place where Zora, Langston, James and Gladys ruled, or to feel the energy that inspired the ballroom scene and even Madonna, is an aspiration that many in our community keep close to heart. Once you discover the brilliance and vibrancy of what many New Yorkers casually refer to as "Uptown," you can easily envision the title of the wildly popular 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning as Harlem Is Burning. It has always been red-hot!

Harlem Pride, an organization in its third year of operation, is on a mission to bring a community pride center to Harlem. Like the neighborhood itself, which has a reputation of being historically accommodating, Harlem Pride envisions a facility that welcomes the LGBT world in its entirety to a place that they can call home. Harlem Pride's president, Carmen Neely, explains:

A community pride center will not only address current demonstrated needs such as education, housing, discrimination and HIV/AIDS services but will provide a space where the illustrious gay history of Harlem can be remembered, celebrated and kept alive. Forever with an eye on the future, Harlem Pride will use the richness of its past history to ease the work of today while attempting to ensure a brighter tomorrow for our community.

Though home to New York City's second-largest LGBT population outside Brooklyn, Harlem has never had its very own community pride center. Recognizing the ever-evolving tapestry of Uptown's demographics, Harlem Pride sees this as a perfect opportunity to reintroduce the spirit of Harlem's LGBT community from years of yore, when ladies and gentlemen of every ethnicity in New York City and its surrounding areas flocked to its balls and lavish house parties to experience community and freedom. In line with this sentiment, Carmen Neely states, "We want to be perfectly clear that Harlem Pride is for all of Harlem, from those who dwell within its geographic confines to those who call Harlem home in their hearts. We want to epitomize what it is to be inclusive."

Speaking of Harlem dwelling in the hearts of many, it seems that no matter where you reside in this country, or even in the world, there remains in one's heart a special affinity for Harlem; dare I say this affinity is even more intense in communities of color. The accomplishments of Harlem's LGBT community are long and storied. From literary greats like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansbury to show-stopping performers like Phil Black, Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon, George Hanna, Gladys Bentley and Bessie Smith, to its later and current crop of authors, artists, artisans and activists, including Audre Lorde, Dolores Prida, Dr. Antonia Pantoja, Patrik-Ian Polk, Kehinde Wiley, Nathan Hale-Williams, Dr. Wilhelmina Perry and Rev. Joseph Tolton, Harlem continues to be home to a LGBT community that is having an impact on the world.

Often I find that many mistake true evolution for a disconnect from what the zeitgeist of the times dictates as truly important in the here and now. Many in the mainstream LGBT movement think that this is about people of color and the coming-out process, but it seems that in communities like Harlem, the focus has rarely been about the coming-out process. Historically, Uptown's LGBT culture wasn't earmarked as something separate and distinct from straight, cisgender culture; people of all sexualities and gender identities frequented the same venues. When I think of the history of Harlem's LGBT community, I often marvel at how progressive and ahead of its time it was (and is). In many ways it represents a mainstreamness that those who advocate for tolerance, equality and equity yearn for even today. Well, the truth of the matter is that (and this will contradict much of what we hear about people of color being the most homophobic in this country, or the least apt to become allies) the LGBT community has long found solace and tolerance in Harlem. Attending a recent conference in Harlem, one of the non-LGBT speakers responded to an audience member who had referred to her as an "ally" by saying, "I'm not an 'ally'! 'Ally' sounds like something you do laundry with. I'm family!" This is the spirit I encountered when arriving in Harlem in the early 1990s. As a young man who had been out for as long as I could remember, I felt so at home when I arrived in Harlem. From La Marqueta to the Apollo and beyond, I had found a family, one that wasn't relegated to a gay watering hole. So as Harlem experiences a rapid change in demographics (once again), one can understand the frustration that native or longtime Harlemnites have when newcomers ask, "Why are there no gay bars in Harlem?"

While I identify as an African-American gay male and will forever remain proud to exclaim Harlem as the mecca for African-American culture, I have learned that just as the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance was created by more than heterosexuals, Harlem is a tapestry of cultures that have always been welcomed, shared and celebrated. The spirit and contributions of Sylvia Rivera, Luz Maria Umpierre and the Young Lords Party, among many others, can be felt in Spanish Harlem and beyond. Harlem has been home to the Dutch, the Irish, Italians, Jews, South Asians, Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Mexicans, West Africans, Dominicans, you name it. Like Prego, Harlem has it all. I can personally attest to the interconnectedness of the diverse communities that dwell Uptown: As a new arrival to Harlem in 1994, it was a Greek woman who owned a small luncheonette on 116th Street who, after learning that I was not living in the best of apartments, convinced a lovely Italian woman (a resident since the height of "Italian Harlem") to rent an apartment to me, one that she had refused to rent since her mother's death 11 years prior. It was a Dominican man who owned a small restaurant in El Barrio who would give me extra heapings of whatever I ordered to take home. It was the elders whom I'd converse with at the Woolworth's on 125th Street, or at the many watering holes of Harlem, who would give me a real history of finding community at rent parties and buffet flats, and tell me what it was like to be dazzled at the extravagant balls of yesteryear. My experiences, like those of others, owe much to the largess of the diverse people who've called this Harlem home over the years, and it will take the largess of the people of Harlem's diverse communities today to act in unison to make a community pride center a reality.

To further help you understand my passion for Harlem's LGBT community, Harlem Pride and the push for an Uptown community pride center, I'd like to share just a little of my history, a history that I feel is beyond serendipitous as I find myself advocating for the LGBT people of Harlem. Born and raised in Fort Pierce, Fla., many of my recreational activities as a child involved the local flora and fauna of the Floridian landscape. Picking wild grapes with other kids in the summer was one my favorite activities, and there was one spot in particular that produced an abundance of them. "Y'all know somebody famous was buried in there," the elders would comment as they saw us exiting the field that had been long overrun with weeds. "Yeah, right, old folks," we'd think to ourselves.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s. I was enrolled in college and living in Harlem. Zora Neale Hurston was required reading in my English 101 class, and because I recognized the vernacular on the page, I was asked to read passages aloud, with my professor appreciating my ability to translate the words with ease and fluidity for my fellow classmates. Sitting in that classroom, it dawned on me that it was Ms. Hurston's grave that we'd played atop as kids.

Continuing the march through time, June 24, 2011, was a date chock-full of domestic chores for me. Typically, when I'm in cleaning mode, nothing can distract me, but on this day, two words stopped me in my tracks: "Harlem Pride." A local news program was announcing an interview with the president of Harlem Pride, Carmen Neely, and though I've had Harlem pride all my life, she was referring to the kind of pride that we speak of in the LGBT community, and it was being used in conjunction with Harlem. "Finally!" I thought. As I listened to the interviewer pepper Ms. Neely with questions, I was quite impressed with the spirit of this woman. In responding to the interviewer's question about the rumored lack of support from the community, including our faith leaders, Ms. Neely let it be known how much of a "misnomer" that was, stating, "Overwhelmingly, the community of Harlem has been supportive of Harlem Pride." Her response reminded me of one of my all-time favorite quotations. Being interviewed at an advanced age, and well past the prime of her career, opera great Leontyne Price was asked about the "difficulties" of her career. Without missing a beat, and in true diva fashion, she responded, "I never talk about difficulties. Once a success is there, it is not only boring, it is exasperating to think about." Ms. Neely knew she had a success on her hands, and she refused to allow negativity to creep in and spoil the moment. I knew I had to meet Ms. Neely. I knew I had to be a part of Harlem Pride.

That summer I began to volunteer with Harlem Pride, and in September 2012 I joined its board of directors, because I so believed in its mission and its necessity, not only for the community of Harlem but (and I say this with no intended exaggeration) for the world. From the recent "Harlem Shake" craze to the name of the leader of the Socialist Party in France, Harlem Désir (named in honor of African-American culture), there are so many examples that illustrate Harlem's global reach.

The irony of me working on behalf of a community that found among its ranks the great Zora Neale Hurston is not lost on me. I think it is no coincidence that a boy who was raised in poverty in Fort Pierce, Fla., played unknowingly atop her grave and attended the school where she taught as a substitute teacher is now knowingly championing the rights of the very community where she was able to express herself as a member of the LGBT community. Like her, I feel at home even though I am far away from home, a feeling that Harlem has offered countless others.

Though some may think that it is an awfully ambitious goal to bring a community pride center to Harlem, the organization's leaders rely upon an old slogan that often appears in places of worship around the world, and that simple phrase is, "Ask, believe and receive." I ask that you believe in this initiative until the people of Harlem receive what they deserve, a community pride center.