It doesn’t necessarily look like a place where someone would find freedom. It is indeed a sanctuary, but not in a mystical, ethereal way. Instead, freedom exists in a small commercial suite in northwest Washington, D.C., its largest room hugged by three cornsilk-colored walls and a fourth that is such a brilliant shade of red it shocks the system to attention. Navy Berber carpet sprawls underfoot and an assembly of IKEA-inspired furniture, mostly folding chairs and tables, make up the functional decor. This is the community space at DENIM, where young black gay, bi- and same-gender-loving men are affirmed, understood and validated, celebrated, informed, and encouraged.
DENIM stands for “developing and empowering new images of men.” In practice, it is a place where young men between the ages of 18 and 29 find unconditional acceptance and connect to programming that addresses their unique needs. “We wanted to provide a center that accommodated the many subcultures of black gay life: college-educated, people affiliated with Greek-letter organizations, gamers, the ballroom community, people who don’t identify as gay, people who are openly gay, people who are transgendered, and create this organic experience for all of them,” says Terrance Payton, one of DENIM’s founders.
Launched in 2012, the organization is relatively new, particularly compared to others in the city that have been serving the gay community for decades. Every group has another group inside of it, and when dissected along the lines of race, age, and socioeconomics, the black gay experience looks a lot different than others. DENIM lifts up a population that is sometimes underrepresented — or not represented at all — in broader conversations about gay issues in the metropolitan area.
“We are a lot different from our white and Latino counterparts in the larger LGBT community, so it’s important that we have a space where we feel safe and can have camaraderie and brotherhood,” says Devin Barrington-Ward, a member of DENIM’s community advisory board. “There’s no other space that exists like this solely for black gay men, by black gay men, in Washington, D.C., and really takes into consideration the needs of this community.” In here, they are not an alternative lifestyle or a cause to be championed. The men who come to DENIM are simply whoever, whatever, however they want to be. That is the freedom that exists inside this understated space.
First responders to an epidemic need
The community center is the brainchild of Us Helping Us, an organization that has been meeting the needs and challenges of black gay men in Washington, D.C., since 1985. It was established in an era when information around HIV was still exploratory and medical research contended with fantastic rumors, when the city had yet to mobilize against the far-reaching effects of the virus but faced a growing number of diagnoses that had significant impact on the gay community. With limited health and financial resources, the city’s black community was hit hard — and the black gay community was hit even harder.
As the HIV epidemic was significantly checked in the white gay population, it ran through the city’s black enclaves with ferocity. The dual stigma around being both gay and HIV positive — one born from a culture that has traditionally shamed homosexuality, the other the result of fear that overshadowed facts — caused many gay black men to operate covertly, refusing to seek testing and certainly never seeking treatment. Sexual contact did not decline, however, and the formula for an epidemic was fueled in part by secrecy and unsafe behavior. It was a silent crisis, and there was no one to address it.
“There was nothing in the community: no culturally sensitive support groups, no hospitals, no clinics, no funds, no places that black gay men could go and feel comfortable. At first, it was really just about five HIV-positive gentlemen who didn’t want to go on meds because AZT was the only option and it was killing off black people,” recalls Ernest Walker, director of programs for Us Helping Us. “The climate was really hostile because there was nowhere for black gay men to go and seek services — of any kind. So some community leaders started a support group.”
Out of that absence grew a plethora of services, as Us Helping Us developed a range of programming focused on mental and physical health, personal safety, STI prevention, condom distribution, and community outreach. DENIM was born as an extension of that work, and together the two organizations have committed to taking the apprehension out of HIV testing with teams that meet their target demographic on the streets. In their brief but poignant interactions, they remind young men to make wise, precautionary sexual health choices and urge them to take advantage of the services available at both DENIM and Us Helping Us. DENIM pushes its on-the-ground activism further by taking its safe-sex evangelism to nightclubs.
Partnering with Ignite DMV, DENIM has made testing an empowerment of personal health and a cool thing to do. “You can come to our events, and if you get tested, you can skip the long line, get in free, and get a free drink. People are very persuaded by that,” says Eric Frasier, a DJ and party promoter who works with both DENIM and Ignite DMV. For Frasier, it’s an opportunity to offer the kind of support to other young gay men he wishes he had gotten himself.
“I’m from southern Virginia and homosexuality wasn’t discussed. I knew who I was, but I wasn’t able to convey it or portray it or live it,” he says now. “I moved up here [to D.C.] in 2006, and I remember seeing gay men and women proud to be walking around with their boyfriends and girlfriends. They didn’t mind showing their affection. That was big for me.” The personal liberty to outwardly express who you inwardly are is defining, he adds. “Sometimes I wonder if I had these types of outlets when I was younger, would I be a different man today? Would I be a different gay man today? Would I be a different black man today?”
The ‘who are you?’ question
The work to discover one’s identity can be complex for anyone, and for gay black men is complicated even more by the matrix of expectations, society’s standards, personal histories, and traditions that intersect with gender, race, culture and sexuality. The spectrum based on the Kinsey Scale of sexual attraction created by researchers in 1948, is one way of defining self, says Payton, who is the medical case manager for Us Helping Us. “The spectrum exists from ‘I am questioning my attraction to persons of the same sex and may never do anything with it but think about it for the rest of my life’, all the way to ‘I think I’ve been born in the wrong body and I want to change to one that is more comfortable.’
“There is even a spectrum for how people choose to label themselves, which is important,” Payton adds. “You’ll have people who’ll say, ‘I’m gay’. You’ll have people who’ll just say, ‘I’ll do what I’m doing’. You’ll have people who’ll say ‘I’m same-gender-loving’. The positive is that people get to define what they do. That negative is that they forget that they’re still having a black gay experience. So what does that mean and what is the impact of having a black gay experience first?”
Those are the conversations being forged at DENIM, those deep moments of discourse in a safe, judgment-free space that generate greater understanding of self and others. Some whose preferences are too fluid to be neatly and conveniently defined by anyone, including themselves, avoid being boxed in. Toni Lloyd is, by other people’s label, transgender. She is the only woman who comes to DENIM, but she doesn’t come in search of herself. She’s already confident about that.
During an exercise in the community room, volunteer AJ King kicks off a conversation by reading a series of statements.
“Move to the right if you identify as gay,” he says. Most of the group steps across the strip of white tape that serves as a divider. Toni stays put.
“Move to the left if you identify as African-American,” King says. Everyone steps back across — except Toni.
“Personally, I don’t like identifiers,” she admits later that evening. “I don’t even like labels. On one spectrum I would be considered androgynous, but on another, even though most people can’t even tell, I’m a trans woman. I just say I’m human.” She smiles. “Let’s leave it at that.”
No one at DENIM can answer the “who are you?” question for anyone else. That’s something the young men — and woman — who regularly attend discover during the course of the conversations and activities there. Open for drop-ins from four to nine, Tuesday through Friday, it’s part confessional, part hangout space, part health ward, part community center, and, on Friday evenings, part nightclub.
If a young man has had an argument with someone in his family, he can talk about it at Brother 2 Brother, a monthly support group that uplifts young, same-gender-loving men of color. If another is weighed down by relationship problems, he can vent about it at illuMENation on the first Friday of every month, where the discussion revolves around dating, identity, and sex. DENIM also partners with other organizations in the area — among them, Temple Hill Skate Palace for a weekly roller skating night — to enhance the socialization and bonding in comfortable, familiar settings.
Finding a space to just be
In addition to providing a place that is comfortable and familiar, DENIM is a hub of resources for its constituents. Increasingly, the paramount need is housing. In Washington, D.C., which is consistently ranked among the country’s ten most expensive cities, the number of apartments one can rent for less than $800 a month has been halved in just over five years. The high cost of living plus the limited availability of spaces has created a competitive market for developers but real challenges for people in need.
According to a survey by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, 40 percent of youth in temporary homeless shelters in the district are LGBT. Most have an unfortunate backstory. “Many of my clients have been kicked out not just because they’re gay, but because they’re HIV positive,” says Guy Anthony, treatment adherence counselor at Us Helping Us. His job is to make sure the young men who are diagnosed with HIV aren’t derailed from getting and staying on a course of treatment.
“I assess the barriers and sometimes HIV is the least of their worries. It’s where am I going to live? What am I going to eat tomorrow? What am I going to wear? I have to say, ‘Let’s attack all these other things, these socioeconomic disparities, that are happening in your life first before we can even attack this HIV’.”
That challenge is exacerbated by waiting lists to get an apartment through a public agency as long as six years, so even after a client begins treatment the housing challenge can make it difficult for the client to stay adherent. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m in treatment and I’m going to see my doctors and my viral load is down and my CD4 count is up but I’m bunking on someone’s couch and I’m sleeping on someone’s floor’,” Anthony says. “That’s a problem, and until we are able to reconcile it, we’ll continue to see non-adherence here in D.C.”
The ability to relate runs deep, and Anthony, who was diagnosed with HIV when he was 21, uses his own life experiences to connect with clients and give them hope. It can get better, he promises. “Seven years ago, I was him. I was sleeping on someone’s couch in L.A. I was on cocaine three, four times a day, just trying to make it, trying to drown out the fact that I have this disease that won’t go away,” he says. “I was supposed to die when I tried to commit suicide after I took pills and chased them with vodka. But God saw that I was worthy of helping other people. I never take that lightly.”
The liberty to be their own kind of man
It’s Friday night, just barely past dusk, and DENIM’s multifunctional office space is alive with festive energy. It’s not a calendar holiday, but the weekly Vogue Night ball is a do-not-miss celebration for the young men who frequent the center. Bass-heavy music vibrates the floor, converting it into a catwalk strut simply by the attitude shift that courses through the room. The pressures of the week have been a burden and they fall away when the DENIM participants gather here to dance and cheer each other on.
The DJ takes to the mic to coax them forward, and the need to strut becomes contagious. Some may have been insulted, even flat-out rejected, by others, some may be fully supported by loved ones, some may be going it solo and are completely independent of and unconcerned about other people’s opinions. They gather here to celebrate each other and who they individually are. The monolithic perception of manhood is challenged as they assume what, by mainstream standards, would be considered feminine postures in their dance routines. In doing so, and proclaiming their manhood at the same time, they’re remixing the neat and tidy conventions of masculinity.
“Vogue Night is an outlet. A lot of people aren’t familiar with the ballroom community,” says Travis Wise, manager of youth services for DENIM. “Back in the ’80s, a lot of [gay] kids were displaced because their families didn’t want to have anything to do with them. More mature adults, who had their own places, said, ‘Okay, come stay with me and I’ll teach you how to apply for a job, I’ll teach you how to get into college’. That’s actually where the ballroom started, and unfortunately it’s a message that’s kind of missed.” He smiles as the music amps up in the next room and he has to raise his voice to make himself heard. “Tonight is just about having fun and expressing yourself. And some friendly competition.”
Several participants get up and take to the center of the room, becoming voluntary contenders in the judging that will happen at the end of the night. A tall, lean young man with flawless caramel skin and curly hair cut into precision-edged sharpness steps forward. Without so much as a smile, he intensely sashays across the floor, then spins and dramatically tosses a red scarf around his neck. The crowd circling him goes crazy with applause and snaps and verbal affirmations, cheering him through a series of twirls and poses. Then, as if he’s attached to a string of invisible elastic, he falls to his back in the most acrobatic of half-splits and bounces back up with effortless agility, only to repeat the move seconds later.
Freedom is a song in one’s soul. It’s an absence of controls, a certitude in self-assurance, a confidence that bubbles up from within and spills outward. The young man in the center of the dance floor has found his and is showing it off for the world to see.