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

I Have Come Here to Die

On April 11, 1991, my first day on the job at Norman Thomas High School in New York City, Yarius, a student in my College Accounting course, asked me: “Why are you teaching?” His question probed for more than the introduction I offered the entire class: I went to public elementary school in East Harlem, graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, had an undergraduate degree in accounting, a law degree, spent five years selling computers for IBM and, after taking a year and a half off to travel the world, had decided to pursue my lifelong desire to teach. I purposely gave a broad sketch of my life, leaving out details of my love interests or political views. I interpreted Yarius’s question in two ways: first, “If you have so much going for you, why are you ‘just’ a teacher?”; and second, “We students don’t deserve teachers who want to teach.”

“Why am I ‘just’ a teacher?” I did not want to be challenged so early. I have always wanted to teach, to dance, to act in the theater, and to write. But these were things that “faggots” did. And I was not a faggot. So I chose careers that were strong, tough, and highly principled, like accounting, law, and computer sales, professions you might identify with your father. In fact, people relied on me and I was very comfortable in the role of provider. In turn, I was rewarded with a career and incredible security. I wanted to be a respectable man in a respected profession.

Since childhood I have longed to teach, but every message I received reinforced the notion that respectable men did not become teachers. If men taught at all, men became professors, and only as a second career. If they taught high school, they became principals. So my real desire to teach grades four, five, and six was dwarfed by these capricious standards and my fear of parents accusing me of sexual abuse or statutory rape because I hugged some young boy.

“We don’t deserve teachers who want to teach?” I was unnerved because Yarius’s question conveyed the sentiment of the system: public school students were not entitled to “the best.” Norman Thomas High School, built in the 1970’s, had sound physical facilities. The school possessed several computer labs and state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, and teachers had access to photocopy machines. Major drawbacks included a lack of teachers’ aides, basic supplies, maps, magazines, workbooks, and full class sets of current textbooks. In my College Accounting course, a special class for advanced seniors, all of the students had new books. But in every other class I taught, because of my status as a “new jack” faculty, my students were left with incomplete sets of current textbooks, no workbooks, or complete sets of earlier editions. In my naivete, I let a class of mine take home a set of twenty-year-old texts and workbooks. When word got out to the school administration, I honestly felt my job was in jeopardy. Using the computer labs to type up some of my lessons was also a mistake. I later found out that I needed permission and proper supervision (either the chairman of the department or one of the two paras assigned to the labs) to do so.

My biggest faux pas was returning a telephone call in the general office. While I was in mid-dial, the vice-principal for administration walked over, put her hand on the switch hook, and recited the rules and regulations on telephone usage. I know I looked at her as if she were a madwoman. The fact that she was a middle-aged white woman who probably taught students my age fifteen years ago contributed to why she felt she could address me in such a condescending way. After waiting for some color to return to her face, I reminded her that I understood English and could hear well enough that she did not have to shout. I also informed her that she was in no danger of attack, so she could remove her left hand from her hip and her right hand from my face. One of the office workers, an African-American woman in her late fifties, thanked me for not “slapping [the vice-principal] silly,” and later informed the school grapevine, which made me popular with certain staff.

I began to internalize what I also sensed in the classroom: although the school was named after a socialist leader and writer, the school did not belong to the students, nor were they entitled to fully enjoy what the school might have. Rather they were allowed to mostly look and not touch, to visit Thirty-third Street and Park Avenue as early as 8:30 a.m., and to retire to whatever part of New York City they lived in after the 2:50 p.m. bell. It was logical that students like Yarius question anyone who suggested they should receive “the best,” a sad lesson to learn so young, as well as for me to witness, so early in my own teaching career.

Though I wanted to fit in at Norman Thomas, I had made a conscious decision not to “pass” as heterosexual. Even before Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, I had already fallen in line: don’t ask me about my sex life, I won’t tell you a thing. If you do ask me about my sex life, I might tell. In the fourteen months I spent at Norman Thomas, I had come out ot only one other teacher, a gay man himself. He, a white Latino, and I were two of a handful of men of color on a staff of more than two hundred teachers. We were also among the youngest teachers on the staff (he was 28, I was 33, with the faculty’s mean age being 47). I had a lot of anxiety just talking to him, but was so hungry for an ally that I took the risk and struck up a conversation with him. After a few lunches, we somehow got onto the subject of what we did after work, and I talked about my involvement with Other Countries, a black gay men’s writing group. With his help, I got over some of my fear of talking about being gay at work. While at Norman Thomas, I developed close relationships with three African-American teachers, all female, all married, and all, to my knowledge, heterosexual. I could not find the strength to tell them I was gay.

Today, almost three years later, I am teaching at City-As-School, a New York City alternative high school. I am constantly reminded of my own student days in the sixties and seventies. Everything felt possible, and nothing was beyond question. I do not think many of my present students share the same feelings about their future: their opportunities, resources, and expectations have been limited.

I wonder at times if, as a Black gay male teacher, I am really making a difference. Many of the values I hold are alien to my students. I am startled and often surprised at their frequently conservative and rigid remarks regarding sex, recreational drug use, sexuality, and other “moral” issues. Most of the time I find I am left of center, still the precocious child, the sensitive teenager, the left-wing student with the right-wing college majors; still, in the words of fellow African-American co-workers, the “too-Black” IBM sales representative. My nephew takes an HIV/AIDS awareness class that I team-teach with Rhea Modeste, a straight African-American woman. I remember our many conversations about life, history, and politics when he was a young boy. I remember our weekend excursions to the Hayden Planetarium, museums, theater shows, movies, and ethnic restaurants. I remember encouraging him to draw, at age four, a dog in the park. His growth spurts are documented in several picture frames throughout my house. I have taken him on several out-of-state trips and introduced him to many gay friends, including my lover of three years, whom I make a point of inviting to all my family functions. But attitudes change slowly, a fact made clear when he remarked that he “respect[s] homosexuals but wish[es] they were not so public.” I was surprised and hurt by his comment. I was sad that I had talked with him at length about my friends and lovers. I was angry at myself that I had not been more forthright about my being gay, about him having a gay uncle. I made sure to invite him to my upcoming domestic partnership celebration, in hopes that the publicness of the event will stimulate dialogue between us.

I have had more honest conversations with other students about sex and sexual orientation. Many of the gay students in the school come and talk to me about their lives and their goals. I find it especially rewarding when I can support a student or two struggling with the same issues, offering resources they were unaware of or encouraging their process of self-exploration.

I feel good about being a teacher. I feel good knowing that many of my colleagues know that I am gay. While marching down Fifth Avenue, in the 1993 Lesbian and Gay Pride March, I was greeted and joined by at least seven fellow City-As-School staffers. The principal and several of my students spotted me on an African-American cable TV talk show where I shared about being Black and gay. But, although I have never felt better about myself or my work, I still constantly struggle with feeling totally comfortable in this profession. As a gay teacher, I struggle personally as well, knowing that the successive deaths from AIDS of so many of my friends have weighed me down. I am often unable to find language to express my own feelings of loss. In April of 1991, HIV and death were unintentional motivators for me to teach. Not until an ex-lover died of AIDS did I decide it was time to get tested for HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS. I had waited for years for some physical sign, some indicator that I might be infected. When I tested positive for HIV on November 18, 1992, I was not surprised. On that day I breathed a sigh of relief and cried three times on the way home from the anonymous testing site — once for my mother, who I did not want to see me die; a second time for my cousin Sheilah, with whom I had grown so much; and the third for my lover John, who I feared would witness me deteriorate. I was too numb to cry for myself.

When Rhea asked me to team-teach the HIV/AIDS awareness class, I was reluctant. Pressing fears about being so “out” were paralyzing. Even though many of my students know that I am gay, their remarks are often homophobic and reflect an erroneous association between HIV and being gay. But once I agreed to teach the class, I had every intention of disclosing my seropositive status. I never did. I was afraid of being perceived as the “infected gay carrier” who warns students to protect themselves from “high-risk groups,” which ironically includes gay men and sexually active teenagers. I also found it difficult to echo the prevention messages routinely targeting the public which separate people into “the negatives” — those who must be spared — and “the positives” — those who will end up with AIDS and die.

Eventually, I know I will talk about being gay, how being gay, and being HIV-positive, for that matter, does not mean having AIDS. I know too that sharing this information will add to my own healing and will help define who I am. I know now that I began teaching because I was unconsciously preparing to die. I continue teaching because I am looking forward, more consciously than ever, to tomorrow.

© B.Michael Hunter 1993

This essay was published in One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories, Ed. Kevin Jennings, 1994. An early draft of this piece appears here.

Introduction to Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS

Sojourner is about beginnings. For many of us, it is the beginning of our search for ways to face the day after the wakes, the funerals, the memorials of yet another friend-lover-family member. This journal is about those who are HIV-positive, have AIDS, are Black, Gay, HIV-negative, surviving, or any combination of these and other identities, those we claim and those we don’t.

This project was started as an effort to revitalize an organization severely damaged by the onslaught of HIV, AIDS, death, internalized and externalized homophobia. It was conceived to marshal the energy of a collective whose membership has been and is heavily involved in every aspect of HIV/AIDS, but no longer had the energy to plan another literary reading, attend another writing workshop, board meeting or strategy session. This journal was to be a marker in this age of AIDS. These pages were to house memories, and assist in telling our stories and those of our predecessors. These pages were to remind both the Black community and the Gay white community that Black faggots are infected/affected by HIV/AIDS! We do not get the attention of infants born to infected mothers, we are no seen on Broadway stages, nor are we invited to address major political conventions. For the glaring absence of a Black Gay face-voice-presence in the national consciousness, one could surmise we had somehow been spared this scourge. We haven’t.

I now question whether it would have mattered if this journal achieved its original intent. Creating it has, indeed, aided in healing the organization and the membership. The writings and visual contributions represented here, more importantly, act as lifelines across this country and beyond: New York, London, Seattle, Cincinnati, Toronto, Oakland, Detroit, guiding us out of isolation and silence. To my knowledge, this is the only journal in the world dedicated to exploring how Black Gay men are living in this age of AIDS.

I managed the bulk of this project and chose the writings and visual images, in consultation with genre editors, as an affected member of the community. I was affected because I adamantly refused to be tested for HIV. I have since found both the compassion and sensitivity to be tested. Now, putting the knowledge of my own seropositive status in perspective, I am sure if I were to start this project today, this book would be different.

Sojourner opens with a tribute to men we have named as ancestors. Most died of AIDS-related complications. Most of them were Gay. Most share in the legacy of the African Diaspora.

Many people will find themselves or someone they know within the lines of these pages. My brothers in Other Countries and I can take comfort in that knowledge, as well as in knowing we have served our community well. Still, any satisfaction we might derive from this publication should encourage us further in telling the stories of those who will not see themselves, or a familiar face, in these or any other pages.

~ B.Michael Hunter, Managing Editor, Spring 1993, New York

© B.Michael Hunter 1993

The Thousand Words

“Talk to me.”  “About what?”  “Anything.”

I had gone to Philadelphia to visit Ron an old lover. “Talk to me.” I whispered. We were about to go to sleep and had spent the entire day together crossing bridges, healing, dealing with real emotions, the hour already early AM. I had not seen Ron since we both lived in Boston years earlier, so I had not been to his apartment in Philly. Actually he has an artist loft, furnished with assorted tools, supplies, finished projects, technology and both a futon couch and a four post single wood bed. I was surprised when he opted to sleep in the single four post bed. Now I’m not one to lie, driving down from New York City the whole 2 hours I fantasized expected that we would, well, sleep together. Never mind the four year gap in our communiqué nor the voice I heard, Bert you already have a lover, what are you trying to do. Well that’s true. But I needed, wanted to hear his breath, feel his pulse. “Talk to me.”  “What do you want me to say.” We chatter a few more seconds about this and that. “Ron.”  “Yes.”  “Can you come here and sleep with me tonight? Nothing sexually, just sleep with me.”  “O.K.”

Is he weaker now? His breaths are short, quick burst. We can not find a rhythm, we can not find the right timing. I signal with my chest snug against his back, fetal to fetal, locked frames. Breathe in, breathe out, I can feel his pulse. As we touch, (personal note explore the entire sensation as well as the mental notes before just saying his touch made me hard) my body does not obey me, and I’m unable to hide my erection. Shit let him feel it, let him know of my goddamn lust. No I’m not ashamed of my desires. Yes he feels good, familiar, I exhale slowly smelling his skin, his scent, known to me from some time past, brings comfort. As time permits the pattern breaks, with him I usually make the first move. Habits really when we were both boys, now we are men. His halting breaths short, deliberate, betray me. Brings me back to why he called, after so many years. Who but time could play such a trick?  “Are you all right?”  “No, I’m still in pain.”  Is there anything I can do for you?”  “No. It will go away. Thanks.”

Inside I start to cry, stripped naked left on the side of the road. This too is familiar, holding lovers, brothers unable to offer anything more than words of assistance. We lay there, sharing time, for the thousand words we have yet to say and the thousand words left unspoken. I readjust my position, no longer trying to match his breath, and send my spirit through the air. I reminded of thoughtful, consistent, reassuring love, with this I try to touch his future, and fall asleep. In the morning he reminds me how I snore, how my snoring kept him up all night, a familiar yet forgotten issue.

I wonder did he watch me sleep like I’ve watched him. Beginning a time, when in simple gestures, you give of yourself, something real and treasured. I slowly turned to him, kissed his forehead gently and thanked him for calling me.

© 1991 B.Michael Hunter

Operation Crossroads

August 16, 1980, New York, New York.

Although the journey is over, it has just begun, as I am once again faced with the reality of the African diaspora. It had never really left me on the journey and I suppose it never can, especially if one travels, as I did, to the homeland of millions of blacks. My stay was brief, only six weeks in Kapsara, Kenya, East Africa. My visa read tourism, but I did very little sightseeing. Kenyan history typifies other black countries that have suffered under British colonial rule. The conditions as they impacted upon me, would not permit me to just tour.

Kapsara, a town about 150 kilometers from Nairobi was very scenic, comprised of rolling hills, trees, grass, winding red clay roads and exotic birds. It was basically all farmland, with mud homes and huts spread over a five mile radius. The 350 to 450 people were very diverse, composed of three major Kenyan tribes who came from different parts of Kenya. Even Kapsara would not permit me to just tour. The dynamics of the group I was with would not allow it, composed of 3 black American women, 2 white American women, 2 black American men and 3 white American men. All were college trained, all from different parts of the country, and all with different reasons for wanting to go to Africa.

My reason was simple, I thought, I wanted to touch base with a country on the continent of Africa. A country which had a history of being predominantly black and as such told a story of the people and the land. I touched the surface, in my visit, the base was too broad and would take only the sincerest of efforts. My hunger was satisfied, but my purpose, to touch base, was inadequately nourished. I will continue to add to the nourishment of my purpose.

When I first arrived in Kenya, I was gearing myself for culture shock. Having been bombarded with a number of untruths about Kenya and Kenyans, I was unsure of exactly what I would be experiencing. In Nairobi, I saw what could only be explained as representatives from the United Nations. The city overflows with diplomats from all over the world and everything was structured for them. The shops, hotels and services all had remnants of the west and seemed to say “just for our foreigners.” Perhaps the expressions on the Kenyan faces who lined the streets and marketplaces in ill-clad clothing, watching the well-clothed diplomats of the world enjoying their home, brought about the first truth to me. At home and abroad, we are still denied our natural right, to simply be one with the land. We left Nairobi in two days time. I don’t suggest going to a capital city when trying to find out about the average citizen of the country, the reality of city life is too harsh. We would, of course, have to poll every city to get a complete picture of what the country is about. Somehow, going to an agricultural country and first seeing its non-agricultural major city was too harsh. I’ll be able to do it on my next go round, but I strongly don’t suggest it for anyone’s first.

The presence of Western influence was seen throughout the country, as we went through each city, each town and each village on our way to Kapsara. One is able to witness the ancient tribal customs struggling to regain a place in the new Kenya, a result of the Kenyan “elite” realizing all that is good for the people of the moon, is not necessarily good for the people of the sun. Looking at the land and animals one can see what makes some men so envious of nature and why they try so desperately to imitate it scientifically. I would say the scientific approach is more noble than that made by people who have attempted to own it (nature).

The town of Kapsara is only eight years old. It is a resettlement of farmland and was purchased from a British landlord after the revolution. This is a major reason why there isn’t one predominant tribe in Kapsara and why it is such a very underdeveloped town, by Kenyan standards. There is talk of a Tea Factory being built in Kapsara, some few years down the road. It’s expected with the factory, will come a sewer system, electricity, telephones, hospital, public housing, paved roads, stronger local government and more permanent buildings. All of which Kapsara is without, save the three permanent churches, two five room hotels, two general stores, a primary and secondary school which make up downtown Kapsara. I did not find the conditions of Kapsara as barren as it sounds and actually is, for someone who is accustomed to a New York lifestyle.

I spent many hours wondering how the land would invite the “improvements” and hope that its purity will not be badly blemished. I take satisfaction in knowing that Kapsara is one of the few havens left in this world, that is free of the ills of sophisticated lifestyles.

Crossroads sent ten very unskilled workers to help the Kenyans build the secondary school extension. We were virtually without tools and had no machinery to speak of. We were not even supplied with a ladder. It was strictly a hands-on job, from digging the foundation, to making the cement blocks. We weren’t able to finish our wing of Kapsara’s Secondary School, there is still the windows, roof, doors and floors to lay or put in. We did however manage to break and lay the foundation, set up walls eight feet high with provisions for windows and doors, while managing to teach class on a rotating basis in the afternoons.

Teaching brought to light an immediate feeling of satisfaction, knowing that I was contributing to the future of Kenya via the minds of its children. We as Americans, black or otherwise, have much to offer those in third world nations. We also have a lot to learn from those in such lands. I could only admire, throughout all that was exchanged between the Kenyans and our group, how they have managed to maintain harmony with nature.

We often compared Kenyan lifestyles to our own and there were always many different opinions on the topic. I think that we all, wherever we are, must learn to, while adapting to our environment, complement it. We talked about the position/future of today’s Third World People, in relation to Africa/America and again there were varying opinions. I believe that our future must be intertwined, so that we enhance each others situation. We spent countless conversations on what the trip meant to us as black/white Americans and the impact i would have on our lives.

I will always cherish my first experience in Africa. I undoubtedly will go back to Kenya and other countries on the African continent. The trip has heightened my awareness of the world situation and is the beginning of more journeys. There is much more to learn and experience before I’ll be completely nourished on the African diaspora. I accept the challenge.

© B.Michael Hunter 1980


Dr. James A. Moss chaired African-American Studies while B.Michael was an undergraduate at Adelphi. Their 1978 yearbook shows six Black faculty, all men; Adelphi’s website in 2019 indicates some shifts: Dr. Marsha J. Tyson Darling heads up a majority of women faculty in what is now known as African, Black and Caribbean Studies.


If you went to Adelphi with B.Michael or attended since he graduated in 1981, what would you want to tell him about what’s transpired at Adelphi or in your life?

Letter To The Editor


Delphian Vol. XXX, No. 15 — Wednesday, February 20, 1980
“Racial Injustice in Oracle”

Dear Editor,

It is with grave disgust in which I write this letter. Each year that I have been here, the Oracle has come out and each year I search for some remnant of the “Black Experience” at Adelphi; this can be broadened, no doubt, to include Hispanics and other Third World People.

This year, with exception, it appears as if more candid shots are present; and an earnest effort went into showing some of the major activities which would be of particular interest to Blacks in these pages so luxuriously bound. However, the Oracle staff, in their moments of creativity, disregarded the feelings of the members of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, Theta Epsilon Chapter, when they listed amongst its members Stymie Beard and Buckwheat Thomas. I would only hope that no negative connotations were intended in listing, among Beard and Thomas activities, Alpha Phi Alpha.

What brings us to this frontier? One in which we must ask the Oracle staff, WHY? Why, with a tradition of poor coverage of Blacks in the Oracle, discredit a Black Fraternity which has consistently proven itself a respectable institution on an international level? A fraternity whose members include: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Paul Robeson, Andrew Young, Jesse Owens and Thurgood Marshall? Why, with the pervasive need for the media, in all its art forms, to help rectify the ills they have created by constantly portraying poor images of Black people? Has not the Oracle staff, in printing the student yearbook, a responsibility towards printing a publication in which, not only its staff members can be proud, but one in which each and every student who has passed through these halls can be proud?

To what end are we, as Black people, to be bombarded with the improper recording of history? For the Oracle, however short it may fall of being a historical document in anyone’s eyes, is surely such (a historical document). Will my children, when looking through the materials I have kept of my college days, ask: “Daddy, you were president of an organization which allowed its members to walk around like that? What type of Fraternity was it? Didn’t you care about each other? Didn’t you tell them of the greatness of our people?” And what will be my reply? Will I tell them the University I attended was a classic case of institutional racism? Or shall I say that in the efforts of art, jestingly, the Oracle staff abandoned all of its responsibility to record history? What road must be traveled to erase the ever present stereotypical attitudes-images of Black Americans in the eyes of the world, and perhaps the eyes of the Oracle staff?

I applaud and humble myself with great ease in thanking the staff for documenting, through pictures and copy, the existence of Blacks at Adelphi. But, I am OUTRAGED at the decision of the staff to not only publish both pictures of Beard and Thomas but, in addition to this, to list their participation in an organization such as Alpha.

Who’s to say the damage this has done? Who will console the men, all united by a common bond of Brotherhood, of Alpha Phi Alpha?

Sincerely yours,

Bert Hunter
President, A-A Theta Epsilon
Former UBC President
Former SPA Treasurer