What a Time to Come of Age
Summertime in the city Part 1
Some folks have been asking about my thesis project and I’ve got to admit - most of what I’m working on is really…umm…how can I say this…not for the public…at least not yet (or ever). BUT…I am working on a rewrite of the essay that is below. In honor of Pride Month, I’ve decided to publish this essay in a few parts, as I revise and edit and rewrite - and I think I’m going to talk about the process on the Tiny Violences Podcast. Maybe I'll invite a friend. Thanks for those who listened last week BTW, really appreciate y’all. I’m debating on putting the next parts behind a paywall (for my own personal comfort) for those who are truly curious or/and supportive of my longer form writing…we’ll see.
Summertime in the city is a season I welcome, not only because of the moist air and excuse for public drunkenness, but for its palpable queer energy. June, the month to commemorate Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and (the butch icon:) Stormé DeLarverie, alongside the countless others who rebelled against the constraints on their queer bodies at Stonewall inn. I would not learn of the political implications of this festive time of year until much later in my life. Their pride and struggle permeate the atmosphere, especially in The Village, the swaths of land below Manhattan’s 14th street stretching from east to west and bordered by Houston Street. I walked these streets often. Sometimes alone, sometimes in a bawdy raucous bunch, mostly with my best friend, but first with my mother, my sister; my family. I am a compulsive homebody, enjoying hours spent lounging in front of the TV or nuzzled with a book, or sitting in silence staring out into the recesses of my imagination, daydreaming, or obsessing. But New York City able-bodied-ness often makes the compelling argument for being outside.
That last Sunday in June, as a youth, I would stare out the window looking at the Empire State building clad in a lighted iteration of ROYGBIV. When she would return from her church service, I would listen to my mother rejoice in the spectacle of all the queens parading themselves west, from our Alphabet City neighborhood, towards the epicenter of it all. The excitement she felt burst through her smile as she disrobed from her stately skirt and blouse or sleeveless midi dress – her beautiful and ornate hat coming off first. She never mentioned women like our neighbor or my godmother, both lesbians, both masculine presenting. She never regaled me with stories of time spent with my aunt, her older sister, a lesbian, during this most festive time a year. She never mentioned women at all.
The word “pride” would flash across a lower third, in the blur of an evening news feel good segment, showing floats from what I couldn’t quite understand as Pride. Sometimes a news anchor on the street would talk to some folks on the sidelines, I never listened, never took it seriously, didn’t understand that it was for me. It wasn’t until high school that I met girls my age who presented in such a way to signal their desires for something other than the boys – that I learned I could too. It was outside, during the summer months, unencumbered and free from the responsibilities of school or the mild threat of curfew that I found my way towards The Pier.
When I was a high school kid, the westside highway was undergoing a major gentrification project that transformed the former ports, housed an active community of queer and trans sex workers, homeless youth, legendary ballroom houses and the motley, like myself. Even still, without the square footage of pier space jutting out into the water – there was always a scene to be witnessed, a date to be had, a clandestine meet up to be arranged. A femme chick, who’s name I cannot remember but whose heart shaped brown face and flowing doobie wrap I’ll never forget, ushered me down to these streets. She was a lesbian, a Femme, with delicate features, small hands with the comportment (I’ll come to learn later on from her ex) of a pillow princess. I wanted everything she had. She was beautiful, openly queer, in-the-mix and that earned her a lot of attention.
The last time I saw her face I was going through photographs from our days at an alternative high school in Harlem, it wasn’t one I took or even printed. She was sitting on my (now deceased) childhood-best-friend’s-God-sister’s bed, smiling broadly. I think now about the chains of people strung together who linked me to my queer life as a young adult, glad for them always. Knowing I would only be a part of myself without them. At first, I wondered why this beauty took an interest in me but in reflection it’s likely the other way around. I was determined to see an alternate to the life that kept being served to me. Make the boy like you or make yourself like the boy – be grateful for the latter.
I was a persistent teenager: eager and curious. On a downtown 1 train we rode from 103rd street, after school on the first warm day in May, to Christopher Street. This neighborhood, walking distance to my home was already familiar terrain to me. I went to elementary school in Greenwich village, and had spent years on that same street, just off 7th Avenue going to a daycare/after-school program housed in the basement of a building adjacent to St. John’s Lutheran Church. Every weekday, and some school holidays I would walk west from Greenwich Ave towards 7th avenue, passing restaurants, with all kinds of names. The Doo Drop Inn, The Garage, Jekyll & Hyde; the place where my afterschool playmate, Annie had her end of year dinner with her friends. Annie once made a pimply faced rendering of Satan and gave it to me. When my mother came to pick me up, I handed it to her. She instructed me rip it up and throw it in the trash, explaining how and why we don’t bring that stuff home. I did so without missing a beat. I wasn’t hurt but I did long to be invited to Annie’s party and knew at that moment it was never going to happen. Even my young mind could grasp the seriousness of both my mother’s faith and my classmates troubled obsessions. I think I had to be about 7 or 8 years old then. My [step]dad would often skip down the street with me to the corner store where he would buy me sour cream and onion chips. Or my little fingers would crunch on Dipsey Doodles and an Orangina before we would head back east on the crosstown bus. I was too young to understand, though I still giggled when he reenacted being hit on when he would emerge from the subway station in his full corporate American man regalia. He pursed his dark lips and tapped my mother on the shoulder with his perfectly manicured hands, sashaying towards the kitchen – laughing at his brisk and non-response. I wonder when we emerged from the building that day, if he had to make eye contact with that same man while holding my hand.
Less than a decade after my elementary exploits, this street became brand new to me. I became brand new to me. New York has that way of being new at all costs. Girls who dressed like boys, girls who dressed more feminine than I could imagine myself as a teenager, girls, awkward, loud, quiet, and in packs, flooded the streets walking up and down the sidewalks with youthful vigor. Of course, there were boys, women, men, trans beings but never had I ever felt so able to gaze with desire at girls the way I felt like I was allowed to when I emerged from that dingy subway station that afternoon. Here, on these stretches of blocks we made our ways west on Christopher passing the smoke shop, the bars just opening for happy hour, hours before drunken people spilled out on to the streets from them, crossing Hudson Street then passing the pizza shop, the Path train station, I realized I had never been that far west on foot. The view of the Hudson reflecting the afternoon sun, and the echo of Hot97 playing loudly from the folks chillin on the makeshift seating enveloped me. I don’t know if I asked homegirl any questions, likely I did, I am a nervous chatterer and deeply self-conscious. I was acutely aware that I had found a place of belonging but needed to be more of some things and less of others, I felt then, to fit in.
When we finally crossed West Street to The Pier there were dozens of people meeting on what are now the bike lanes on the lower corridor of the Greenway. Being a teen who didn’t have any extracurricular activities I had grown accustomed to the aimless walking that comes from the desire to shed the tether to my parents. Walking up and down the strip was the activity. My friend was as popular as she was beautiful, and she ran into so many people. The closest I’ve gotten to this urgent sense of excitement was during the first AfroPunk concert in South Africa on New Year’s Eve. Waves of people, styled in so many iterations of themselves. Everyone ready for the event, the event being: seen, heard and hopefully embraced. Everyone Black. It was familiar but all new, I didn’t know that young people were allowed to be gay, that we could exist without the ridicule of neighborhood bullies. And then/now, there was/is me. At that time, everyone being Black and Puerto Rican was lost on me, but as I strolled past Little Island south on West Street toward Christopher the summer of 2021, I realized that was a time and site in this city’s history that will likely never return. This was the end of an era for the people who looked like me to freely inhabit this space.
Walking down there now, the streets are as familiar as the people walking by are unfamiliar. Gentrification has this way of leeching off of culture that at first seems and is oft masqueraded as “progress” and “renewal.” Once a site of dynamism – largely informed by concurrent exiles and rampant poverty, a street culture emerged in the West Village, galvanized by public spaces. There’s a sort of nuclear shadow left. The buildings and corners haunted by their pasts. Those spaces, that are seemingly more expansive now are devoid of the patina of its original inhabitants – those folks who risked their lives and freedom to liberate the built environment around them. It becomes evident with the shift in commerce. An Italian-owned produce market becomes a Yemenis bodega – then becomes a boutique (that turns over annually) that’s a part of a freshly minted luxury shopping district. Shops with three and four figure price tags on individual items marketed to the fifth or sixth wave of inhabitants who can pay the four and five figure rents (or seven and eight figure mortgages). Good luck trying to get a bag of chips for less than $5 now. Good luck trying to find any queer Black youth parading up and down that street during the warm summer months looking for her family. In just my short lifetime I’ve witnesses the erosion of an iconic locale, once a hotbed of (as Sadiyah Hartman posits) wayward radicalism.
The Land of the Blacks. As far back at the 16th century, lower Manhattan had been a densely populated Black community. The boundaries dictated by the grid used to plot out the territories of lower Manhattan now, did not exist in the Lenape abutted community of African farmers who settled the land after disembarking from Dutch settler-captors. Muddy, damp marsh land was cultivated by ancestors who found themselves free of indentured labor. The history of displacement of the Black populace in New York by European and then later white ruling class would become the culture of the development of the city. A foundational precedent. The recently deceased New York based historian Christopher Moore wrote “the first legally emancipated community of people of African descent in North America was found in Lower Manhattan, comprising much of present-day Greenwich Village and the South Village, and parts of the Lower East Side and East Village.”
The boarders of Lower Manhattan, despite its contemporary varnish has always been a home for those of us on the other side of the color line. Despite the erasures of the narrative of queer lives, I speculate that amongst those farmers were the emergence of the chosen families that I witnessed that day I first laid eyes on the pier in 2002. The end of the era that I experienced was one that was grafted on top of a hidden history, the time collapsing around me as I walked bringing me closer to lives of the folks living in this queer area during the mid-20th century. Before there was the cement pavement and black asphalt - cobblestone laid order to the grounds when the first queer Black families made their lives there. We are still unearthing truths about the Black New Yorkers who founded the city and can speculate based upon our freedoms now how they may have lived. What I felt as I walked that day was the result of another emancipation, that of those who fought against the violent and systemic demands that climaxed one night in the summer of 1969.
I snuck out to my first pride that summer with that same chick, and basically got ignored by any AG my heart fluttered for. We skipped the March, that was becoming more and more like a parade and went right into the action. I learned so much in the time from my first jaunt to the Pier to my first pride. I was a Femme, a feminine presenting girl who loved other girls. I liked AG’s, or Aggressives, masculine presenting girls, a Northeastern Black contemporary vernacular take on the identity of Butch. Later I would learn about the nuance of the spectrum from Femme to AG and would land and eventually own being a Femme-AG. Meaning I present one way, but my preferences were not that of a traditional femme (read: subordinate & perpetually lip-sticked). This understanding of myself in community freed me from the restrictions of how I thought of myself within the margins of the straight world, but would become less important, less definitive as I grew more into myself. All of this is an internalized call-back to heteronormative culture, something I wouldn’t come to understand for nearly a decade. These terms were used for roleplay in relationships. They were meant to help me shade the interiors of my identities.
What I learned early from my friend, was that despite knowing my attraction to both genders, being labeled as bi-sexual was an easy way to be considered dirty amongst the lesbian hierarchy. Dirty from being associated sexually with men. I would also be considered a freak when I would share this designation with men – inviting some distorted pornographic girl-on-girl – threesome fantasy, that I had no desire to explain nor fulfill. I became an I’m a lesbian for posterity. I lied. I never once considered the consequences of either label – but never said the words outright when I went on the “I think I like girls” tour of 2003, coming out to select members of my family. I’ve still never come out to my father, but he has always known. I wonder now, when I think about all that can be lost when searching for acceptance, how I tricked myself into believing I was becoming more of myself while deceiving those around me. The masking that I enacted to find friends, love, community all my life leading up to that moment was a skill I used when I thought I was expanding. In my liberation from the confines of the rigors (and subsequent failure) of being straight, my identity and body were thrust into a new set of margins.
As a 16-year-old baby gay, I felt way behind the many who had been out and dating for years before me. This is funny now when I reflect because these folks didn’t have but mere months or a year or so of being in the life before me. But still, I think this might contribute to my youthful queer energy now, being at once a senior to those who found themselves in their 20’s and 30’s, but still not as self-actualized as some who have always been gay. What was starkly obvious to me then was that I was not dressed for the part. I was still in some ways presenting for both the male gaze and my rejection of it. That pride I wore a brown flowy paisley printed tunic top with cream crotchet on the hems of the sleeves and the split at the center. It was sort of sheer. My wish was to be sexy, but it was certainly frumpy.
The boyfriend I kept in high school adored my village style, a term to differentiate the way I dressed from my Harlem and Brooklyn counterparts. But even in the Village I stood out. My first lesson in presentation and the culture of beauty politics that my body could not escape. Dark skinned, and chubby, short hair and not enmeshed in a crew of obviously queer femme folks meant I had little to no social currency. The social circles I made my way into, out of and, around, affirmed that it was vital to have a crew – and to be well connected to a scene. Something that wouldn’t happen to me for another 10 years.
Hostile Crowd Dispersed Near Sheridan Square. A three-sentence article on page 19 of the Thursday July 3, 1969 late edition of the New York Times describes the Stonewall Rebellion as no more than a “raid last weekend on a local bar…well known for its homosexual clientele…” and that “a chanting crowd of about 500 persons was scattered by members of the Tactical Patrol Force and police of Charles Street station who were the targets occasionally of bottles and beer cans.” There are no mentions of the Black Butches, the Puerto Rican Femmes, the Black transwomen with their white male lovers, nor the music that echoed out of the bar, or the daily harassment from the cops. There are no words for the survivors of that incident, of the causalities or the cliched suggestions of resilience. A year later a slightly longer article describes “the spirit of militancy and determination is growing so rapidly among the legions of young homosexuals that last weekend thousands of them came from all over the Northeast—eager to participate in the demonstration and to serve notice on the straight world that the passive climate of guilt and inferiority that has long subdued the homosexual world is changing.” It follows, “Now, at a time when blacks, Puerto Ricans, Indians and young people are all refusing to acquiesce in the social values that relegate them to nether worlds, many homosexuals are standing up and saying “I'm proud too. I'm equal and I demand my rights.”” There, I see the appearance of something familiar on the record. Brenda Howard, the mother of Pride, a “Bi-Poly-Switch” can take credit for that.
Back at the festival that happened at the end of the parade route, my high school self, tried to hop a barricade and overshot it, falling in front of a crowd of dozens, who all laughed their asses off at me. It was muggy and hot, and I’m sweaty, I used tissues from the Chinese restaurant to wipe the beads off my brow and hairline. Later as I eyed myself in the glass of a window on a storefront, I confronted little white rollie polies of tissue speckling my face. Chick hadn’t bothered to tell me that I was out here looking crazy. Still, with all the dizzying clumsiness I could never turn away from this urge. There was a validation out on those streets, every step I took ushered me through a threshold of queer history of finding oneself in community. This was more than the tomboy, masquerading as a boy at The Skate Key, who, just two years before, I would make out with, and let finger fuck me in the staircase in some projects in the South Bronx. This would be my life and I was quick to get it started.
To Be Continued…
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