Windows & Water Towers

In response to Susan Raffo‘s original Call for Submissions for Queerly Classed: Gay Men & Lesbians Write About Class, B.Michael and John Manzon-Santos, domestic partners at the time, interviewed each other and themselves and transcribed the following piece.

For the last six years, our relationship, perhaps like any other, has been in search of anchorage. We have learned how commitment, trust, and yes, intimacy, can ebb and flow over time. What grounds us is when we attempt to break our familiar Catholic patterns of silence, especially when it feels most risky. In this case, we hope that our talking through issues together (and sharing them via a transcribed dialogue) — seams and all — will demonstrate some of the ways in which we struggle to understand how class is braided with other factors in our relationship.

Bert: When I was growing up in the Woodrow Wilson Houses in East Harlem, my family went through periods where we seemed to have everything we needed and at other times when we had to go on food stamps. The most important thing was to avoid being on welfare. Food stamps meant that someone in the family still worked, and you just needed a little help. But welfare meant that your parents couldn’t “make it,” and that was not okay. So one indicator of your class situation was whether or not you had a job, and there was a shame factor attached if you had to rely on help from the government. It wasn’t until I went to college that my parameters that defined someone’s class status were expanded to include where you live, what you own, how exposed you are to the world, even how you act in social settings.

John: For me, someone’s socioeconomic class is measured by their access to resources–not just money, but other resources like housing, employment, nutrition, health care, mobility, public-sector decision-making, and education. So, for example, even though I grew up working-class and wasn’t wealthy like the majority of the other college students, I know my Ivy League university degree affords me broader access to middle-class opportunities, like what kinds of jobs I could have, what quality of healthcare providers I’d look for, how possible I’d think it was to travel or relocate, where I lived, etc. ANd meeting students who grew up poorer than me gave me some sense of perspective and helped me gauge where I fit in this landscape relative to all these class markers. I don’t think I and my brother and sisters grew up with any conscious class identity, though I assumed that immigrant status meant being poor or working-class. Like when my family lived in barracks, enlisted men like my father lived with their families in row housing, and the “big brass” generals that my father cooked for lived in gigantic, free-standing houses. Actually, figuring out our living situation kicked up a lot of issues.

B: In 1988, when I moved into the apartment at 528 East 11th Street, the rent was $325 a month, a good deal for two bedrooms in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, even with no sink in the bathroom. At first it seemed like a really family-oriented building, quiet and safe. But a police raid uncovered a large amount of cash, drugs, and a number of firearms, including two AK-47’s, in the apartment across the hall from mine. Our landlord’s solution to deter other alleged drug dealers from working out of the building was to disable the intercom system and remove the front door to the street. It was like that for eight months. There was no collective outcry from the thirty-three apartments, but the situation generated enough attention that a local newspaper listed 528 as one of the top ten worst buildings in Manhattan . . .

J: . . . which I didn’t know before I moved in! That entire first year of living together at 528, I don’t think I ever felt safe going from the corner of East 11th Street/Avenue A to the front door — less because of the drugs, more because I thought I’d be “fag-bashed” or else mugged or harassed because I’m Asian. Even though it’s also true that sometimes people don’t fuck with me because they think I know kung fu or something. But over time I think people started to get used to us as a couple. I even became friendly with some of the neighbors. In a way, the drug dealers who were always on the block kept an eye on everything that went down, a kind of neighborhood patrol! I mean, they’re businesspeople after all, so if you don’t get in their way, they’ll leave you alone.

528 was a decent size for two (and big enough for nine houseguests during Stonewall!), and I was certainly fine with splitting the $400 rent. I was also conscious of the me-as-gentrifier, especially as I was sure people perceived me as one of those outsider Asian and/or Queer artist-types who flocked to the surrounding East Village.

B: I did have guilt about gentrifying the neighborhood, but in a lot of ways, because of my race, my sexuality, and my perceived class background, I was excluded from a lot of other moderate-income housing. On some level I tried to absolve some of my guilt by joining the local Community Board and chairing the Human Resources Committee, where we had N.I.M.B.Y. (Not in My Backyard) debates around AIDS housing facilities, women’s transitional housing (from prison back to the community), and other social service agencies in the neighborhood. I even sat on their Lesbian/Gay Community Task Force to sensitize the police.

J: I think we could’ve lived there longer than we anticipated. We did paint the walls and make other improvements here and there. Then I received a windfall from that legal settlement, which started us thinking about moving and the possibility of a pretty dramatic change, quality-of-life-wise. Like an elevator would help. Some of it had to do with the fact that your relatives, especially your mom and aunts and grandmother, aren’t able to negotiate stairs. Then there’s the weekly schlepping up and down of groceries, laundry, and garbage. I don’t think we talked about it much at that point, but your being HIV-positive entered into it, specifically what it’d mean for either of us to have some potentially debilitating illness. So we started thinking about stuff like having more space, a washer/dryer in the building, a sink in the bathroom, and the possibility of leaving behind our pets (i.e., the roaches).

B: John, you’re the one who brought the roaches when you moved in. Because that’s when we got more into the habit of eating in, since I always ate out when I lived alone!

J: You know, for my parents it was a dream come true to buy a house after my father retired from the Army, but prior to this legal settlement, I never imagined, nor did I have any aspirations about buying or owning anything. The culture of it all made me feel uncomfortable, partly because real estate has such a rep for being a discriminatory sector, partly because I didn’t want to deal with tax planning and all that. I also didn’t want a doorperson, which promotes some sort of urban gated-community dynamic. And as two men, we maybe didn’t need the assumed level of security that a doorperson would provide. Then where we thought of where to live in New York, pickin’s seemed slim. As an interracial couple, there are few neighborhoods where we would feel as comfortable as individuals and together.

B: As a Black man, I had no intention of living in any of the Asian enclaves like Chinatown and dealing with stares or hostility from others. And as a Manhattanite, born and raised, living in any other borough seemed too remote.

J: Harlem, or even Fort Green, wouldn’t prove much more welcoming to me…

B: … because people would think you were working in the markets.

J: There are also the gay-concentrated neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, but there’re too many white people per capita for my comfort level, especially after spending all those years in predominantly rich, white private schools.

B: After looking at half a dozen lofts and apartments with doormen in view, we walked into the one place the realtor was reluctant to show us — her descriptive word was “funky.” When we walked into this 1,500-square-foot corner loft it had two things that were high on our list — space and natural sunlight, which poured through the five-by-seven foot windows on two sides.

J: You know there’d be very few places we would both fall in love with, as different as I think our aesthetic senses are. But for the first few months–and once in a while even now–I felt very strange being ins such a huge, spacious living arrangement. I definitely associate large living spaces with the rich kids I went to school with and the kinds of houses they lived in. On some level, I also didn’t feel like I deserved to occupy so much living area or to access the kind of stability that you get from not throwing rent down a hole every month. It also felt strange since owning this home wasn’t part of my value system or something I worked for and saved for over time. But like you said, this new home is “full of possibilities,” and the process of buying the loft, especially in its raw condition, has moved us as a couple to look more at life-planning and focus on our needs, something I don’t think either of us have done a very good job of doing up until recently.

I dig the roof, too, and you can see both the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center Twin Towers and how every building in Manhattan over five stories has a cedar-wood water tower like on a West Side Story set or something, which you never see walking around on street level. We got the washer/dryer that we share with the three other couples on the floor, but we did give up the family atmosphere that 528 had with seniors and baby carriages and little kids running around and playing in the street.

B: It’s definitely not a residential neighborhood. The street’s bustling between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., when only commercial parking like the loading/unloading of UPS trucks is allowed. Then there are the import/export businesses dealing in fashion, furs, toys, and sundries, the motorcycle-repair guy working on the sidewalk, but the street really shuts down in the evening, and it’s not too safe for single women who visit. The area’s zoned for light industrial, full of converted manufacturing facilities, garment sweatshops (like the one across from our bedroom window), printing presses, photography studios, and we’re on the perimeter of all these communities: the new Korea Town, Gay Chelsea below West 23rd Street, the Garment District, the Flower District, where wholesale vendors sell cut flowers and potted plants. And in a two-block radius there are five weekend antique flea markets. However, real estate brokers of course promote the neighborhood as the “new SoHo” (New York’s premier artists’ colony), which is slowly becoming more residential–the building we live in, anyway.

J: I have mixed feelings living so close to Chelsea. I generally feel ambivalent, at times hostile, when walking down Seventh or Eighth Avenue, two of Chelsea’s main arteries, and I never do it alone, if I can help it. All these uniformed, gay male soldiers at attention or at ease help shore up the rep that gay men make wonderful consumers, like the patrons of the all-gay-while-male-run, community-based, mostly service-oriented institutions, some with multimillion-dollar operating budgets: often double-income in a single fabulously decorated household, no kids, fashion-conscious, theater-going, bar-hopping, globe-trotting, time-sharing, alcohol-abusing, iron-pumping, steroid-shooting. It’s no coincidence that Chelsea is where these superstores have all sprung up–Barnes & Noble, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Today’s Man, Filene’s Basement. This is the gay community that I am supposed to identify with. It’s the upwardly mobile, queer-nationalist culture that turns me off the most.

B: In order to feel more at home, it’s people of color-focused lesbian and gay networks which both of us have gravitated toward. We’ve had some involvement in establishing, supporting, or having active membership in several of the organizations in the “gay community” with which we identify: Other Countries: Black Gay Expression, APICHA (Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS), GMAD (Gay Men of African Descent), Project Reach (a mutliracial, youth- and adult-run youth advocacy, counseling, and organizing center), GAPIMNY (Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York), and the Lesbian & Gay People of Color Steering Committee (a coalition of almost thirty indigenous, grassroots groups). Most recently, we’re working as members of the founding board of the Audre Lorde Project (a lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, transgender people of color community center based in Brooklyn, New York), a community space and spiritual home base whose vision includes multiracial, co-gender programming and organizing activities and an initiative that’s not based on pathologizing our identities, experiences, or worldviews.

J: And it’s through this community that we met. Though Bert may have a different recollection, I first met him at a meeting of the Lesbian & Gay People of Color Steering Committee to secure a spot in the People of Color contingent of the New York City Pride March for GAPIMNY, at the time a new affinity organization. I noticed Bert, one of the handsomest men I’d ever seen, who was really quiet and cautious—the opposite of me. He was a writer and refreshingly not a graduate of an Ivy League school, like my ex-lover. I was happy to learn that he didn’t grow up with money and, like me, received financial aid to get through mostly all-white schools. I felt safe with him from the beginning, and not ashamed of unpacking whatever personal baggage I may have brought with me. I wondered about Bert being Black, having experienced too many Black people telling me I wasn’t oppressed enough.

B: I first noticed John at a general meeting of VOCAL (Voices of Color against AIDS and for Life), a fledgling group of lesbian and gay people of color who worked in AIDS. I was there to announce the marching order of the People of Color Contingent in the 1990 Lesbian & Gay Pride March. He reminded of a high school friend I had, who has one-fourth Black, and three-fourths Chinese. John didn’t look anything like my friend, but they did share one feature: black hair. There was something about John that seemed familiar. We saw each other at a couple of other joint People of Color meetings–after one such meeting I asked him to dinner, and he accepted. After one or two other dates we got together and somehow developed a relationship. Physically, John is similar to almost all of the other men I’ve dated–slim. I was and am most attracted to John’s mind, quick mouth, and energy, some of the very things that cause tension in our relationship. I was thirty-two when I met John, and feeling young but old. Old from so many consecutive deaths of friends from AIDS. When I found out John was seven years younger than me, I was a little reluctant to continue our relationship because he seemed politicized in a way I wasn’t familiar with. There were some early signs that we have had very different life experiences.

First, the obvious: he’s Filipino, I’m of African descent. I was raised in a housing project in East Harlem, he was raised in a house in Daly City, California; he worked as a counselor at a community agency in Chinatown, and I had just quit my job as an account marketing representative selling mainframe computers for IBM. Now the not so obvious–he had gone to private school since sixth grade and then to an Ivy League college; I went to public grammar and middle school, a specialized public high school, a small, east coast private college, and had already graduated from a top-ranked public-interest private law school. My previous experience with men who attended Ivy League school also left me a little cold–they seem to never be satisfied with things. They always seem to have access to information and invitations to events and always acted as if they were entitled to everything they desired. I also felt I was considered desirable by these men because of my degrees and career track: they assumed I was their “class peer.” John was very different–he is one of the few men I trust.

J: Even in a racially diverse city like New York, striving for visibility and recognition as an interracial couple of gay men of color is not very supported. Fact is, we’ve interacted with only two other Asian/Black male couples, one in New York and one in Boston.

Class determines a lot of the dynamics between Black and Asian communities in New York, where there isn’t much widely documented history of peaceful coexistence, as with the relations between Korean grocery store owners and the inner-city Black neighborhoods they’re often located in. In these same stores, check-out clerks never assume we’re together, even as we talk animatedly and commingle items-to-buy on the counter.

B: When we began going places together, we’d sometimes take cabs, though I rarely took cabs myself, especially at night. In fact, I’d only flag down a cab when I was dressed in suit and tie. On some level I really resented being with someone who never had problems with gaining access to something like a taxicab. I’d been frustrated enough times by the indignity that passing taxicabs represent to factor in enough time for public transportation in my daily travel plans.

J: In fact, I didn’t grow up in a place with cabs and didn’t know until I met you that Black people were routinely passed by because of what the drivers assumed.

B: I think less of it that I’m going to mug them; more of it is the assumption that I’d ask to be driven somewhere that might put them in a dangerous situation. The cab situation brings up how we negotiate on a day-to-day basis–you run up to cabs, stop them, or you run halfway up the block to flag one down. What allows you to do that, to think that it’s safe, for you or the driver? Is there some intersection of race, class, and sexual orientation that gives you the freedom to run in the street? (Most Black men running in the street would seem suspect, and more than one woman would clutch their pocketbook.)

J: It’s funny you perceive my running up to catch a cab as some kind of privilege or some manifestation of my level of safety. (A) I don’t feel safe in New York generally, especially being on the thin side in a city where anti-Asian violence has topped the hate crimes stats, with queer-bashing a close second. And (B) when I see a cab, what I immediately think of are all the times cabs have passed me because, I assume, I’m not dressed like a businessman or whatever, or when they have refused to unlock the door until they know where I want to go (and agree to take me there). The cabs are supposed to be there for people, so I run up to the cab and open the door so as not to be passed over. It’s an accountability thing and maybe there is some privilege I have to be able to do that. The dodging-traffic scenario is something I’ll do only if I have to get somewhere. So it doesn’t feel like a comfort or safety level I have; it feels like a risk I have to consciously take to get what I need. Also, in this city, I take public transportation more often than not. At times, when I’m on the subway, the racist vibe I get from people is that I might karate-chop them, so they’ll keep their distance. However, at other times people generally perceive me as weaker and totally non-threatening because I’m Asian, like the time I was mugged between the Delancey and Second Avenue stops on the F train.

B: Except when we were both treated similarly on our way back to New York from Montreal, when we were stopped by the U.S. border patrol, interrogated separately; our rental car strip-seached presumably for smuggled drugs, our gay guides ridiculed.

J: I also learned that we respond differently to authority. You became cool as a cucumber, not attitudinal, but terse, measuring your words per your lawyer training. I eagerly answered their questions and tried to send out easygoing energy, as if to say, “OK, officer, whatever-you-say, just-leave-us-alone.”

B: Yeah, and you almost got us killed when you reached down under the seat for your shoes after they had already told us to get out of the car!

J: Well, we communicate differently according to the situation. We talk different, too. You easily flip between that teeth-flashing IBM, “I’m going to sell you a computer now”-speak and Southern Black Baptist (which you fake).

B: We’ve known each other long enough to know which of each other’s buttons to push. And how easily we fall into a competitive mode like the boys we were socialized to be, which is consistent with the survival strategies we developed as children.

J: For a long time one of the buttons was around HIV. When you tested HIV-positive and I tested HIV-negative, we needed some serious, relationship-oriented “technical assistance” to deal with being a “sero-discordant couple.” You really surprised me ‘cause I thought you’d be resistant to working with a couples therapist. But we did need some structured time to look at HIV-specific stuff and other, non-HIV-related issues.

B: I welcomed the chance to look at HIV/AIDS and its impact on my being able to be in a longterm relationship. In fact, the eighteen months we were together before I went for the test was the longest period of time I’d been with another man.

J: Therapy definitely helped us learn how to call out how we’ve been trained. You know, to question the norm to achieve, get more degrees, be active, make money and babies.

B: I’d say we’re trying to center ourselves more, to carve out a life, develop more discipline and internal structures for us as individuals and as a couple, to create family and rituals, live with HIV and the gamut of health conditions: in short, less doing, more being.

J: I no longer live in fear of waiting for the other shoe to drop, for you to develop AIDS and die shortly thereafter. AIDS does not rule our lives. It has a place, it may even be a room in the house, but it is certainly not the roof, nor the paint on the walls. Structuring time together was our first step, and committing to planning was another, which I think helps us deal with our anxiety about the future.

B: Being in a “sero-discordant” couple, I don’t think of myself as opposites of things, but it’s another box or demarcation. Given my level of education, I’m in a safe job in the sense that as a New York City school teacher, it’s low-stress and it’s something I enjoy. But the major reason that I’m there is the security that the benefits bring, mostly because the teachers’ union is strong. I wasn’t concerned when I was IBM. Or when I was in law school, or before I was diagnosed as HIV-positive, I was concerned with finding the security that a government job could offer. The bizarre thing is that when we became domestic partners in 1994, all the health and life insurance benefits started coming through my job, which recognizes same-sex couples, but people would say that I’m the most “fragile.”

J: Because the HIV-negative person is the one who’s supposed to bring home the benefits-bacon?

B: Right. So the roles would play themselves out in the relationship, and ultimately I would be rendered unable to work. That is, if you believe the whole “hysteria” about how the progression of HIV disease eventually ends in a crisis-filled, downward spiral toward death.

J: What motivates me is not security at all. The full-time jobs I’ve had were not about security, but more to feel like I was doing something meaningful. What is interesting in retrospect is that, when I was old enough, I found myself landing mostly service-oriented jobs of the type I had known my parents and/or my older siblings to take. Like my first paid job was as a clerk/typist with a temp agency. When I was seven, my oldest sister had done temp work after high school; during one visit home, she and her co-worker at the same time taught me to type. Other jobs were in and around restaurants — dishwasher, busser, salad-maker, bartender, host, waiter, valet — all of which my father, brother, and sisters had done. I volunteered as a buddy to a Person Living with AIDS with the knowledge that my mother frequently took care of older white women who were disabled, homebound, or abandoned by their families. Pursuing other “service-sector” jobs, I drove a college campus shuttle and registered with a couple of escort agencies. In fact, when I became a teacher, I felt a profound inadequacy, in part because there were no role models within my immediate family. But in any case, the motivation was not to save money to either buy a house or have for some “rainy day.” I didn’t grow up in a culture of saving. I now know my parents were committed to saving, but they never talked about it.

I remember poor and working-class Third World students I went to college with, who were clear about becoming doctors and other professionals because that was one way out of whatever situation they came from. But one of the things that made me not follow my classmates was coming out as a gay person. Coming out meant such a radical departure from so many expectations–so necessarily becoming a professional was one more that I threw into the trash. On some level, my mother doesn’t understand why I’m not a doctor or a lawyer or otherwise capitalizing on what she perceives as “Brown University degree as ticket somewhere.” And I think one struggle in our relationship is how much security should be a priority for me vis-à-vis you. I think up to now, I’m not preparing for your impending “downward spiral.”

B: For me, not pursuing careers in law or with IBM has a lot to with the expectation that somehow I would be connected to some sort of family unit. Security was less of an issue then, before I left IBM. I had saved, I had already built credit and was looking for the class/access/security issue of station and status, versus the kind of security I’m talking about now. I had a house already, but an investment-property house versus a house I wanted to live in. So I started to re-evaluate what kind of life I wanted to live.

The thing that’s interesting to me is exactly abandoning the expectation of a nuclear family in the sense of “well, there’s no generation I have to look out for, so I can do stuff to feel self-fulfilled.” HIV stepped up my making personal fulfillment a priority. I am not sick or dying; I remain asymptomatic at thirty-seven. What changes do I need to make to get me to sixty, seventy, or eighty?

J: In fact, that’s what I meant by “abandonment.” Coming out as gay (even if it was a certain narrow, white, middle-class definition of “gay”) let me off the hook to a certain degree so that I didn’t have to do what my classmates did. Whatever HIV has done in my life and in the lives of people around me or through my job, it’s also stepped up my schooling in the importance of planning. In particular for us. Growing up, planning was not an issue. I think my parents relied on “God will provide” or “the Army will provide.” They turned over a lot of needs that people would plan for being taken care of. I think what’s difficult as a couple is trying to plan our future together, to make self-fulfillment a priority in our personal and professional lives, and those are big choices (especially in a gay male culture that emphasizes being young and vilifies getting older, and where premature death is so commonplace). And I can think of people in our lives who are more concerned about making money, in particular, gaining status, particularly gay people/professionals. I see a lot of people overcompensating for being gay by seeking status, even if it’s not the status you get for being heterosexual and family-raising.

B: There’s also a lot of freedom and mobility in being gay. And choosing not to raise children. Without the status of children, we’re not validated in society. My point is less wanting to get validation from someone else. It’s more important to be self-fulfilled. It’s a point of empowerment. You’re not trapping yourself by convention, buying into status quo. I still think working toward self-fulfillment will gain the same financial rewards or benefits that “selling yourself to a corporation” would buy.

Having been in a different situation, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to use others’ measuring sticks of how I should view myself in the world. That automatically sets you up for failure. Somebody always has a little bit more, someone else is a little bit taller. Ranking is dangerous. Some kind of status that you fall short of makes you self-hating, self-destroying. What’s the value that society places on you versus the value you put on yourself? What gives you status, or class, or station? Sometimes it’s not education, or financial worth, or where you work, or how much you make, but rather it’s about how you life your life.

J: Like our ceremony, the fact that it was such a public ritual. The ceremony was a series of decisions that we made according to measures that were important to us, according to our own standards. Exchanging beads instead of rings, planning logistics, inviting who we wanted to witness. People came from as far away as L.A. and the U.K. Five generations from your family and four generations from mine were in attendance. Like they say, it takes a village to raise a child and to sustain a relationship, no? That’s the kind of validation that we’re seeking.

B: So why do you choose to be in a relationship? Do you think that being in a relationship has anything to do with class or mobility?

J: Not to sound cynical, but I think that people are in relationships for themselves. You and I are both on our individual paths, doing what we need to do to feel self-fulfilled, and it’s great that we can go down these paths while keeping each other company. Also, couples are far more validated than individuals. But it’s healthy when we don’t lose our identities. And we’re each pretty independent, strong, survivor-types, but the challenge is, how do we create something new that goes beyond our individuality and integrates our values and who we are.

When we talk about our values, we reveal tons of information about how we feel about class. And values are things that matter, that we’re passionate about, that we would die for–what’s qualitatively important enough to keep us together. It’s not just about co-existing; the plan is one thing we create together. Our joint plan is like a child and it’s totally informed by our perspectives, our experiences, our values on class and other things, which come to the surface in the process. Our joint plan becomes the embodiment of our joint values; it’s like we’re developing common ground rules, values, culture. Not to say we’re becoming one person. At the point we’re at in our relationship, it’s a challenge to find what that “spiritual child” is.

B: The critical question is: what does a child represent? What’s our third thing? Sometimes it’s community activism; our relation to our families of origin; how we make our loft a home. How does this stuff play itself out day to day? Exactly how does our home look? What kind of feeling do we want to have when we’re inside?

J: My ideal is to be able to live in a space where I share the chores — the washing, the cooking, the cleaning. It feels more like everyone pulls their own weight. That roles are not so rigid. So many gay people I know hire maids to clean the house — and I’m not sure why that’d bother me if we did. Maybe because my mother cleaned and cared for other people, my father cooked for other people. I know we’re busy people…

B: … this notion of always being busy — but busy doing what? How do you prioritize a commitment to what goes on outside with what goes on inside our home? If part of the motivation for hiring cleaning people is that “somebody’s gotta do it so we can have time to be activists in the community,” we need to talk about that. I mean, let’s break it down: who did the cleaning in the house growing up and what is our relationship to chores, and what do we think about chores? What’s interesting for me is that my mother cleaned the house, until my father left. And when my father left and we were pretty much in our teenage years, we all got assigned specific chores. What’s also interesting is that while I want a clean house, I don’t want a clean house just to showcase to guests.

J: I sort of agree and disagree. I do want us and other people to feel warm, temperature-warm, and cozy. I don’t want a space that’s cluttered and prone to dust, but full of things, whether they’re gifts or mementos of places we’ve been. Not to showcase, but to display things that have spiritual value to us. We should have a place where guests can sleep–you know, to the extent that hospitality is currency, because I certainly have relied on and been extremely grateful for people’s floors and extra beds when I’ve needed them.

B: I also want to eat at home with you, my partner, and figure out how to make time for that. It’s a very funny thing. My mother’s a horrific cook, but some of the most fun and bonding I’ve had with my family has been in the kitchen. I remember that no matter what we were doing, we all had to be around the table at 6 p.m. No excuses.

J: Well for me, even though my father did all the cooking and my mother did all the cleaning (except in the kitchen), meals weren’t a family thing. We rarely ate together. I think I learned the importance of meals from experiences that happened after I left home. Like when I lived in co-ops, and when I studied in Italy and saw how much value was placed on eating-as-ritual and sharing during meals, and I definitely want that with you.

B: We did pretty well with the McDougal Plan. For two months we planned, shopped, cooked, and cleaned up after three meals a day–low-fat, no-meat, no-dairy, high-carbo meals.

J: That was challenging, but fun. I know I was sleeping better, dreaming better, shitting better, and people at work said I seemed less stressed out! I appreciated the planning aspect the most and the fact that it structured time for us together.

B: Just like we’re trying to do with financial planning, doing our wills and powers of attorney, naming beneficiaries, and everything that goes along with that negotiation. We’re also doing the same sort of process with each of our mothers…

J: … which ultimately is about our own planning and our peace of mind as well as, hopefully, for theirs …

B: And having to commit things to paper, we’re getting clearer on what’s important and what we need to put in place in order to entertain all of the possibilities.

J: It makes a difference, too, to do this with you in conversation. Trying to get in touch with my views and feelings on class by myself was kicking up some of my negative history with school, like the pressure of having the write the perfect paper. Then there’s the expectation of our collaboration of saying something super-significant together. But documenting our conflicts and differences of opinion definitely feels more real-world.

© B.Michael Hunter + John Manzon-Santos 1995

Published in Queerly Classed: Gay Men & Lesbians Write About Class, Ed. Susan Raffo, 1997

Allan Robinson, AIDS Activist

I met with Allan on November 29, 1989, at Hunter College School of Social Work, where he was working at an alternative treatment AIDS project. I was gathering material to use in “Acquired Visions: Seeing Ourselves Through AIDS,” an Other Countries program performed on December 1, 1989, at Studio Museum in Harlem as part of the efforts of New York City artists involved that year with “Visual AIDS: Day Without Art” and the World Health Organization’s AIDS Awareness Day. Our purpose was to document, through an assemblage of poetry and prose, our changing response to AIDS — from terror and helplessness to empowerment and healing.

I chose to meet with Allan because he was one of the few men I knew who was an active member of both Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). He marched down Fifth Avenue with GMAD in the New York City Gay Pride March, and up Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard in the African-American Day Parade. He was also very visible at many ACT UP demonstrations. I would run into Allan every other week or so at some meeting, lecture, or watering hole where we would scope “the boys” and update each other on what was happening in “our communities.” When Allan and I met, I was prepared to interview him in a traditional fashion; he, however, was waiting to tell a story. After turning on the tape recorder, I was able to ask him one question: “Tell me about your family and how you became a member of ACT UP?” His response filled the next two hours. I nodded and interjected with a few “Uh-huhs.” I even got in a few “But whys,” and “What do you means?” Although not a complete transcription, what follows is the only written account of our November meeting. Allan died in 1991.

I’m from New York City, my father is Jamaican and my mother’s American. I was born in Harlem and raised in Clinton Hill. Actually, my parents helped integrate that area. The area around Pratt Institute was in transition (i.e., the white flight of the ‘50s and ‘60s and not the gentrification of the late ‘70s and ‘80s). Neither the ethnic Italians nor Irish exactly welcomed us.

In the summer of 1968, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy got shot, I went to my first demonstration protesting the Vietnam War. I was 15 years old, very confused about what was going on and very rebellious. I think I was like many young Black men who had gone to Catholic grammar and high school. It was a crazy period because I didn’t know any gay people, but I knew what was going on, since I rarely dated girls. I had had one affair with an altar boy, and another with a friend of mine when we were kids like several boys do, but there was no love nor self-esteem involved in either of these relationships. I learned about “Gay Life” in New York by stumbling into a subway bathroom where I saw men having sex.

In 1971, during my Sophomore year at Rutgers University, I came out with the help of the Rutgers Homophile League, (which I understand to be the first gay campus organization). I came out, not just in style but with support and love from some young and older gays and lesbians. I need to interject something: I had this concept that I was very ugly before I came out. I think that ugliness is something a lot of Black people go through. It was gay men who told me for the first time that I was beautiful, or that I was handsome, or that I had a wonderful body. Gay men I would meet just walking down the street helped me with my self-esteem. Just having someone whistle, or make some kind of ultimately sexist comment helped. Sometimes there were flattering comments, namely what people would say to me when I was intimate with them. (Laughter.) You know, I actually suspected that was an easy way for them to get me in bed. And sometimes it was. Interestingly enough, I overheard someone in an ACT UP meeting, a white man in the group bragging to his white counterparts, that whenever he wants to meet these young cute Brown and Black men, he just walks up to them and tells them, “You’re beautiful!” He said it works every time.

After Rutgers, I came back to New York and joined the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA), which, I suppose, was everyone’s exposure to “the Gay Ppolitic,” whatever that is, at the that time. But it was still party time as far as I was concerned. I mena, I was about 21 years old or so, and it was all new to me. It was exciting! See, I didn’t much get involved in all of the politics. I went to and participated in some of the early gay day parades. It was great to just meet other gay men who where aware, to celebrate our bodies, whether it was in dance — which I did a hell of a lot of — or seeing our numbers on the streets. Certainly, most of the young Black men I knew on the street and in the clubs were not concerned about gay politics. I mean, the ones I formed bonds with. I really did not know politically-minded Black people unless it was in the traditional Democractic Party politics. During all this time, I was still going to other political events — Central America, South Africa, Angela Davis, and Lord knows what else! I went to the demonstrations and events because I sensed that, for a while, we really could make significant change. We as a people. There was that energy in the ‘70s, that we would change the world. That the world was changing. I also went to those demonstrations to register my body, and usually there were only a handful of Black and Brown people in attendance — even at the South African protests — unless they were indeed orchestrated by Black and Brown people. At the time, I really didn’t understand our absence at those events. I think I have a better understanding now, as a result of my involvement with ACT UP, both in ACT UP’s AIDS and gay and lesbian contexts. Let me back up a little. In 1982, a few months before I moved to San Francisco for a year, I went to my first forum on AIDS. It was held at NYU. There were a couple of person’s names I had recognized from the Fire Island party scene who had died of AIDS. The early deaths from AIDS were both shocking and big news. Outside of these instances, I really didn’t know anyone who had AIDS. Anyway, present at the meeting were people like Larry Kramer, Paul Popham and others who became the nucleus of those who formed the future GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis). THere were maybe 600 overwhelmingly white men present. I think Matilde Krim may have been there, and others, at least from a neuropathic point of view, pioneers in AIDS research. The people from NYU showed photographs of people with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. They also had overhead projections of just how many men had died of AIDS and had used poppers, ethyl chloride or claimed to have taken acid, or had engaged in anal or oral sex. I got the feeling that most of those present, as a result of their early concern and participation, thought that this was going to be a temporary crisis, that life would go on as it had been, and that the crisis would not get bigger than what had already happened. I think that participants believed that they could be back at The Saint or Fire Island or wherever it was that they were going to continue to hump and play. Sure, there would be some initial painful losses, but they would be gotten over.

Around this time, I became tired and discontent with New York City, so I escaped to California. I called my sojourn, “A Spiritual Creative Sabbatical.” I wanted to be closer to nature. As an art photographer, I also did some group landscapes. After a few months in California, I began hearing from transplanted New Yorkers about people I knew who were dying. I went to the first candlelight AIDS vigil in San Francisco. It was moving, very moving. There were lots of tears. I began reading the gay press out there. The front page of The Bay Area Reporter would be talking about Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), but throughout the paper there would be numerous advertisements for poppers. Certainly, there was thought to be some relationship between poppers and people getting GRID. I thought how dare they do that, not just the ads for poppers but all the ads promoting hustling. I was furious! I wrote letters-to-the-editors calling them all sorts of slime, hypocrite death merchants and the like. They would never print my letters and they would never respond. In San Francisco, I got another taste of how gay white men could also be my enemy. Even though this disease was affecting gay men, I began to realize that gay men are as capable of profiting from people’s illness and death as much as anyone else. Bars and bath houses all over the city were selling poppers and other nitrates. The boys had gotten it down to a science. There were upscale bars on Castro Street and South of Market that had the name of the bar on each individual emery board (to allow patrons to file their nails before fisting someone) and container of Crisco. These same bars, some of them to this day, could not bring themselves to put a dish of condoms on their bar counter.

In 1983, I came back to New York City. I never felt San Francisco was my home. I mean, it was beautiful. There was a moment when I felt very comfortable there, when I didn’t think of New York constantly. I met some lovely people but there was energy in New York that was missing in San Francisco. Blacks were not in San Francisco in large numbers at all. In Oakland, yeah, but Oakland is not like the gay thing. I came back mostly because I realized I was getting homesick, since New York City was both my hometown and my gay point of reference. Once here, I tried to get involved. I called the then fledgling GMHC to offer my creative services. They asked me, “What could you do?” I told them, “I’m an artist, I’m Black blah blah blah.” They just didn’t want to deal with me. I could have pushed GMHC to be a buddy or something, but sheer fright of death prevented me from going any further. Not only were there friends that I was never to see again, but I found out that people died months after I got back. In some instances, I found out about their deaths years after my return. There was a period that the amount of deaths were so shocking that I would break down and cry. There were just waves of deaths. To this day, I continue to lose friends and hear about their deaths after their funerals. Even in the last few years, when people have been living longer or feeling better like Philip Blackwell, the playwright, or Walter Holiday, the actor, I still hear after the fact.

You know, just two years ago, I was sitting with both Philip and Walter at The Bar on Second Avenue and Fourth Street. They actually had been chipper about their illness. I think they both had had a bout of pneumocystis. I joked with them that I would write a piece called “The Gay Dog Food Company.” In the play, those of us who were survivors of the crisis would round up all the people who really fucked with us. We would round up the medical establishment, politicians, racists, the gay bucks who sold poppers, Koch and Reagan and turn them all into dog food.

Another strange thing I noticed in ‘83 was that people were only talking about white men and AIDS. I had known just as many Black men who were becoming ill from AIDS. Many of the Black men I knew would die soon after being diagnosed with KS or pneumonia. I think many of them hastened their illness by doing large amounts of cocaine, specifically freebasing coke. Including Walter, Philip, Tony Scott, Harvey Maclamore, I can name many people who were involved in things and activities that hastened their illness. That is rarely discussed. I actually started to remember all the names of all the people I knew that had died. I wrote the names down to actually sort of use for the salutation to the dog food play. Oh my God, it was ridiculous! Thirty names actually occupies the same space as thirty words and yet, it reads for hours and hours. Three-quarters of the names were Black. I think we’re going in record numbers because many of us get to health care far later than we should. Many of us tend to discover the illness when it has done irreversible physical damage and we emotionally cannot muster the self-esteem necessary to live longer.

I wasn’t being judgmental when I made the comment about the cocaine, because among those I named, friends and foes, there were some dynamic individuals. When I look back, half of the Black men in the group (some people won’t want to hear this) did not have intimacy with other Black men. They were always struggling with that. Also, some of them who did have intimacy with Black men, always preferred white men. I’m talking from a spiritual standpoint of how chasing white boys, whether in the bars or on Fire Island, could have helped prolong their lives. I certainly don’t mean dealing with or wanting white men is a co-factor for death; only that things exist which make us think that we as Black men are not worthy of love. If a Black man looks in the mirror and the deity doesn’t resemble him, he may look at another Black person and be unable or unwilling to feel love. A positive self-image has to be a major factor in one’s health, in one’s well-being. I’m not sure if there is any scientific basis to anything I’m saying, but I would trust my observations before any social scientist’s.

Then in 1987, I joined ACT UP. As always, I kept my distance. At the first meeting I attended, there were about 500 mostly white men present. An energy in the room made me go back, again and again. There were so few Black and Brown men in the organization that people kept approaching me. They would look to me, kind of feel me out about various issues. Then I sort of jumped into the organization and sat on the Majority Action Committee. Unlike other times, I got more involved because the issue was so close to home. I would hear them referring to us as this generic thing, “people of color.” I realized that there were people there who didn’t even know Black people. I would actually hear other Black and Brown people refer to our people as if they were talking in the third person. Outside of all my criticism, I found an energy in the organization that was frankly exciting. That energy helped me deal with the loss, anger, and the frustration with societal indifference I was encountering. I think that, in retrospect, ACT UP has satisfied that need for many people. So many people need that kind of conduit to deal with those feelings. I don’t want to criticize that aspect of the organization.

I did, however, begin to get very frustrated with ACT UP. The one thing I had never done was to become involved in the inner workings of an organization. I was highly visible. People calling me, always looking to me to be “the Black man.” I noticed very early on that had it not been for the health crisis, many of the white men I came in contact with would not think twice before returning to their old misogynist ways. As white men, they would not think it was their responsibility in life to change the status quo with regards to racism, sexism, and certain other social concerns in this country. One of the things I picked up, especially among the upper middle class, is that they were goddamned angry. They were angry because they thought they had everything — trips to Brazil, Fire Island, hanging in the clubs, boyfriends, drugs, money, and living perhaps on 81st Street and Central Park West. They were angry because they were being treated like everybody else.

I think Black and Latino men and women really have to process on becoming involved in civil disobedience. When I got arrested at Stephen Joseph’s office, I wondered how the cops would have responded to ACT UP if we had all been Black and Latino. Fortunately for me Ortez Alderson, a close buddy of mine, had also been arrested and we provided support to each other politically and spiritually through that action. Frankly, most of the so-called “people of color” in the group, with rare exception, could not relate to Ortez or me. They found us, to use the ‘60s vernacular, “militant.” So did some of the white men, actually so did a few of the white women. One of the things I attempted to do, because I love to plot, was to get the Majority Action Committee and Women’s Caucus working closer together. I thought such a coalition would work well, as a political means, to deal with these white gay men. It actually worked for a little while. Folks knew exactly what was happening and they did not like it. I heard a story about the first time I came to sit on the Steering Committee (the ultimate decision-making authority of ACT UP). One of the most prominent members of that organization, a white man, who sits on that committee, said, “I’m not about to allow him to come here and have us feel guilt for 400 years of what he has experienced.” I supposed that’s what he saw me as and the only thing I was bringing there. He was not going to allow me to have them feel guilty and to deal with racism. It was one of his best sisters who gave me this information. Prior to that, I thought I was being too sensitive, that the stick I was feeling up my ass was my own creation. It wasn’t, thank you!

I was active in ACT UP and concerned about AIDS even though I knew I was HIV-negative, at least that’s the way I tested. Then, in the spring, I tested HIV-positive. I didn’t exactly handle it the way I thought I would — I was shocked. I went off. I stressed out, and felt empty, lonely, and detached. I was asymptomatic but I still considered suicide — I even wrote out a note. Real drama, real, real drama. I made myself dream a solution. I realized that I had lost touch with who I was. As far as I’m concerned, there would still be life, there would still be consciousness. Also, there are people in my life that really care about me, that I love. I really enjoy living, trees, touching and I love all sorts of physical things. I think I said to someone that I was going to live to spite a couple of people. Life is my birthright, it is the earliest and fondest wish of my parents. I created new dreams and even envisioned myself as some stunning, unfettered, lovely 80-year-old man, with an adobe home in the Southwest surrounded by men in love. As Black men, when we view ourselves holistically, HIV really doesn’t mean that much. It means as much as everything else — racism, poverty, inadequate health care, homophobia, etc. I think to heal ourselves of all of this, we must continue to talk to each other.

Oh, what time is it? If I don’t go, I’m going to get in trouble. We have to continue this.

© B.Michael Hunter 1989