Picture this: You’re a sexual- or gender-variant kid, and you live in a low-income, ethnically diverse part of a large city. Your family has rejected you, and you don’t have a consistent place to live. The other kids at school verbally (and sometimes physically) harass you on a daily basis. Your teachers don’t seem to have your back – in fact, some of your teachers actually join in on the harassment. What do you do?
You could stop going to school. You could get totally depressed and suicidal. You could start experiencing anxiety attacks. You could turn to drugs and alcohol to drown out the pain. These, of course, are common behaviors among LGBTQ youth who have been subjected to ongoing abuse and harassment.
Or you could get in their face and kick their asses right back. Better yet, you could round up 50 of your closest queer friends and collectively gang up on them. Literally.
Last year, Courtland Milloy of the Washington Post wrote a piece titled, “Gay black youth go from attacked to attackers,” which identified a “gay gang” that had formed in Washington, D.C. This gang, called “Check It,” was described by Milloy as follows:
Depending on whom you talk to, they’re just a bunch of mischievous gender benders and drama queens, vulnerable gay youths seeking safety in numbers. Or, they’re one of the largest, more aggressive gangs in the city.
One of the most aggressive gangs in the city? Stereotypically, the words “gay” and “gang” shouldn’t even be in the same sentence, right? Just watch Blaine and Antoine on In Living Color’s sketch “Men on Film,” and tell me that black gay guys snapping and talking with a lisp are aggressive. Flaming and flamboyant, maybe. Aggressive, no.
In reality, the idea of a gay gang shouldn’t be surprising at all. People who are members of marginalized groups often find ways of banding together, forming community, and looking out for each other – especially if you can’t count on the police showing up and helping you. Back in the 1970s, women who wanted to escape a violent relationship couldn’t go to the police and expect that they would respond positively; instead, they relied on an underground network of women. Low-income people of color, who are often targeted unfairly by the police, have learned to develop their own systems of support, community, and justice. Although many of these networks and support mechanisms don’t involve violations of the law, gang culture certainly provides an alternative (albeit highly destructive) system of justice. Interestingly, although the D.C. police have labeled Check It as a gang, several members who have spoken to the press feel like they’re anything but a gang. They’re the LGBTQ youth who were kicked out of their homes, ostracized from their families, and taunted and bullied in school. And, in their minds, if it takes a collective community armed with brass knuckles and stun guns to protect themselves from violence, then so be it.
Recently, as part of my research for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, I spoke with Daddy Kyle House, who is the current president of the Sacramento Valley Leathermen, an old-guard, brotherhood-based BDSM organization here in the Central Valley. Most of our conversation focused on the history of the organization, along with the stringent rules and protocols associated with BDSM culture. But some of our conversation focused on the, well, “system of justice” that he and the other Leathermen have developed. “We provide security for the gay prom here,” Kyle said. “People know better than to mess with us.” Then he went on to say, with a glimmer in his eye, “The Sacramento PD has me on speed dial. We have a really good relationship with them. If something’s going on in Lavender Heights, and they can’t get there quickly enough, we’ll take care of it.”
We’ll take care of it. He didn’t give any more detail than that. But when he said that to me, I thought, This sounds just like the mob.
Or, perhaps, like a gang. System of justice. Taking care of your own.
There are girl gangs, which have been around for a number of years, and now we’ve got an example of a gay gang (which, according to recent reports, has turned away from the “gang lifestyle” with the help of a D.C. police task force in partnership with other local community groups). But most gangs are not girl-identified, or gay-identified – they’re regular, male-only, garden-variety gangs. And guess what? Queer youth find their way into the ranks of these gangs as well.
Why is that? Why on earth would queer kids want to join a group whose members would probably kill them if their sexual orientation or gender identity were revealed. Mark Totten, a sociologist and gang expert, conducted an ethnographic study of 15 male gay, bisexual, and transgender (GBT) gang members, attempting to answer exactly those questions. And most of these answers aren’t surprising. Most of these youth had been rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and so they found a surrogate family in the gang. Some joined the gang before they knew they were gay – and later had to find ways of concealing their sexual or gender identity. On the other hand, many of them joined the gang in order to provide a wall of safety – because, of course, who would ever suspect a violent gang member of being gay? Some adopted a hypermasculine persona as an added wall of safety. All of them had participated in severe, public beatings of people the gangs thought were gay.
The irony, of course, is that if this happened in Lavender Heights in Sacramento, they would have the Leathermen to answer to. And that could be worse than getting hauled off to jail by the police.
Whether they end up in Check It or the Crips, these kids are looking for community. More than community – for family. And to some extent, they find it. But either way, they’re also likely to end up in jail. Or end up dead.
If that’s not a wake-up call about the need for resources for LGBTQ youth – in all communities, from all ethnic groups, from all economic classes, in all schools – then I don’t know what is.