Jason Benjamin Josaphat, nineteen years old. Akyra Monet Murray, eighteen years old. Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, twenty years old. I’m reading the forty-nine names and ages of the victims killed in the June 12, 2016, mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. I am sad all over. I’m remembering when I was in high school, how my crew of friends snuck into lesbian clubs in New York City. I’m remembering that moment of stepping into the darkness: when the bass-beat hit my chest and some of my defenses let down their arms, and we danced our asses off.
Nineteen years old. Eighteen years old. Twenty years old. And Pulse is listed as twenty-one and over. What were they doing in the club?I know my own answer.
Underage, and I got into HerShe Bar in Chelsea, Clit Club in the Meat Packing District, and Meow Mix on Houston. It was the mid-nineties, and I was seventeen in the fall, eighteen in the spring, a high-school senior. I got my fake ID in the West Village, near where Gray’s Papaya used to be. I decided to make myself four years older, the year my oldest brother was born. Kept my birthday, which made it easy for me to remember. I was tall for my age, my demeanor calm, and I had no problem making eye contact with authority. I have eyes.
But four years earlier, my freshman year, while I watched my gym teacher pile the mats against the back wall, I wasn’t looking forward to what the guest speaker from the Gay and Lesbian Community Center had to say about youth services, HIV testing, and free condoms. I wanted to practice my Taekwondo punches. Gym class was the occasional self-conscious snicker, whispered remarks that Nobody’s gay in here, and the snapping of latex. My overly tanned black-belt gym teacher had invited the speaker so that, she said, “Regardless of being gay or straight, here are resources available to you.” Despite my irritation, something must have registered from the talk because, unlike most of my classmates, who left their brochures behind or waited to toss them after we left, I kept mine.
It was the winter of junior year when things shifted for me. I’d just arrived home from Israel, where I’d been on a month-long foreign exchange program. In Arad, I held the hand of a red-haired girl who cried when her work schedule at an ice-cream shop in a mall conflicted with my stay. Because Sivan wanted time to hang out with me. With me. She was sobs and apologies. I told her I would love to go to work with her, and she gave me scoops of whatever ice cream I wanted. There were few customers in the cooler temperatures of November, and Sivan and I chatted for three hours, watching mall-goers, noting the similarities and differences between our countries. The young people dressed in the same grunge look, and the mall played the same top-forty Billboard hits that were in rotation on the radio back home.
One evening, we went out to eat at the Muza pub, all the Americans with their Israeli hosts, and I remember Ram, chin-length dreadlocks and acne, saying that it might be weird for us Americans to see guys holding hands, kissing each other in hello and good-bye. He communicated this with conversant English, with gestures to signal nuance, context—cultural practices he didn’t have words for. Words that spoke to a way of being that made loving touch a basic part of their exchanges. And we got it. I understood, and appreciated reading a nation of bodies in this way. Suddenly I was no longer perceiving touch in terms of default heteronormativity.
Sivan and I spooned ourselves to sleep my last night there. She asked if we could, and she gifted me her Annie Lennox CD, because she saw that “Walking on Broken Glass” was my immediate jam. It was a good night.
I shared this with one of my closest friends, Delancey, upon my return from Arad. I was never sure why Delancey was in a public high school. He presented more like he should be at the Dalton School in the Upper East Side. Delancey lived in Harlem, in a brownstone near where Langston Hughes once resided, and had a flair for fashion. Shoes to hairline, he was too fly. Had genres for his outfits: preppy; Brooklyn; nautical Caribbean; seventies meets nineties, and hip-fine, a combination of hip-hop and fine menswear. All the while being so very straight. We became friends his freshman year when he came up to me on the first day of school, having recognized me from an MTV News episode on censorship and the Internet. Since my family didn’t have cable and I hadn’t seen it yet, I asked him to tell me about it. To my horrified surprise, they’d edited my thirty-minute interview to thirty seconds. Delancey said I was quoted saying something about a chatroom I belonged to, how someone had posted a picture of a baby with an adult penis superimposed on it. MTV didn’t include the part about how the members of the chatroom put up a fuss, which resulted in the user being removed from the bulletin board service. My point in sharing that story was to illustrate that the government should not censor—instead give the community the space to regulate what it needs and doesn’t need. I could have gotten mad about it, but instead Delancey and I got a good laugh out of the way the media can spin and twist your words.
We were listening to a demo of my cousin before he got famous, in the downstairs parlor room of the brownstone my mom and aunt had bought on Greene Ave in BedStuy.
“Are you gay?” Delancey asked me square. We were listening to a demo of my cousin before he got famous, in the downstairs parlor room of the brownstone my mom and aunt had bought on Greene Ave in BedStuy. My inhibitions about coming out weren’t about my family’s rejection. My brother, the one who is three years younger than me, made a valiant declaration one Saturday afternoon that he would love me if I was gay, and then ran up the stairs to his room so there could be no contestation. What I was concerned about was the general perception that my sexuality arose from a flaw in my upbringing, the result of an absent biological father and physically and emotionally abusive father figures—that my desire was led by such a linear cause-and-effect. This kind of thinking made me feel dim. I didn’t feel in reaction to anything or anyone.
This most dapper of sophomores looked at me, waiting for my reply. His question seemed to miss the point. I came back with, “This is not about gay, it’s about how I want to live in my body. Where is the space for that?” Neither one of us had an answer about space, about where there was space to be black and unconventional in our gender presentations, and so in that silence we listened to the vocalist alto out Feelin it . . . Feelin it—if you feel it raise your L in the sky, and agreed that was the perfect hook.
It took me nearly a year to answer Delancey’s question directly. Am I gay?It wasn’t a simple conversational response, but a series of personal inquiries and actions, which set me on a journey that would take me to a café, a community center, and dance parties in lofts, penthouse apartments, and eventually nightclubs, and to encounters with people who would help me articulate and define my desires.
In that near-year time, I was crushed out on a white guy name Tate from the Upper West Side and couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t give me play. So one night I made out with his best friend when we were at someone’s house party in an apartment that gave expensive views of the city. Guy’s mouth tasted like Olde English and discontent, and none of this was making Tate jealous. While they snorted coke through a fifty-dollar bill, I balanced on the arms of two couches and bopped to “Block Rockin Beats.”
Around that time my best friend Kimberly came out of the closet. We were in Theater Club together. Once we did a minimalist rendition of Hamlet, all dressed in black, which got us an honorable mention at some high-school Shakespeare festival. Kim and I ate lunch together in our English teacher Ms. Griffin’s room because we both had a crush on her. When Kim went from innocent schoolgirl crush on unavailable adult figure to publicly making out with sophomore Mariana, I was shocked. That most scandalous kiss in front of Burger King was all the talk to be heard in school the following day. And Kim had kept it all a secret from me, her feelings for Mariana. Supposedly the sparks sparked on afterschool train rides home; they both rode the A—Mariana got off in Brooklyn somewhere and Kim went way out to Far Rockaway. Kim said it just happened: “She was saying French fry and there was a grain of salt on her lip and a kiss felt like the right thing to do.”
I forgave her for withholding her secrets from me, and then a month later she was dating Konstantin, who was in our year. Kim’s bisexuality was a sweet spot of possibilities that intrigued me. Was I bi?I still remained in contact with Sivan, and would squeal each time I received a letter from Israel. I cut my hair to a short natural like Roshumba Williams, and people would stop me on the street, tell me I was beautiful, say I was brave. Then a cybercafé, the first of its kind owned and operated by black women, opened up in Fort Greene. I eyed Kokobar on a wintery afternoon, as the B52 bus waited at a red light. Just a week before, I’d been talking to my mom about wanting to open a cool café that sold books and had a cyberlounge. I remember thinking, as the bus drove past, That place is my dream.
Kokobar was owned by writers and activists Rebecca Walker and angel Kyodo williams, who were known to be a couple at the time. It was good for me to see two black lesbians together. Kokobar opened its doors in January 1996, on Lafayette, where Lafayette meets Fulton Street and forms a vertex. Because angel had an appreciation for Japanese aesthetics, Kokobar translated to “the place to be.” A café, espresso bar, and cyber lounge, it sold books by local writers of color too. The awning was pitch black, and the Kokobar logo, in calligraphic bright autumn red, like maple leaves fresh fallen, was centered in a rectangle. Sometimes I would sit at the front window, stare at passersby, occasionally seeing Spike Lee and his sister. I’d read a book and drink chocolate mocha lattes, which the baristas eventually knew to be my favorite. Farther back was the cyber lounge with its six Power Macintosh desktops, where folks were charged by ten-minute increments. They could login to New York Online, a bulletin-board service based in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. I interned with NYO from my sophomore to senior years, and sometimes I helped people troubleshoot when the baristas didn’t know what to do. At the center of the café were chairs and tables and the most comfortable avocado-green couch, all of which would be moved around when Kokobar hosted events—readings by such writers as Paul Beatty, cabaret-style music concerts with Toshi Reagon, and dance parties.
I had a crush on one of the baristas, Tanisha. While ringing me up for a mocha latte, she asked me, “Are you a dyke?” Then handed me a flyer for a party. I took it and responded, “Thank you.” “Will you be there?” There were no more thoughts of Tate after Tanisha, especially after I kissed her at the Dyke Party in June. And so began my dyke summer. I interned at Citicorp in Tribeca, and during the orientation session, some girl who was working in my department said to me, while we snacked on dip, that I was checking out another girl. I didn’t even know I was doing it—but I remember thinking, damn, Dip Girl was all in my grill. I read Audre Lorde’s Zami, books about Stonewall, black gay and lesbian experiences here and abroad; I kissed more women in their houses, offices; and I danced. At house parties and parties thrown at local shops and cafés, where I didn’t need an ID, but still lied about my age. Even when I said I was eighteen, they thought I was older, too cool and smart to be that young.
One night I danced so hard I lost sight of the crew that I came with. I couldn’t resist the pull when we circled around dancing bodies, watching them exult, innovate to a rhythm within and outside of them. We created a ring to contain the energy, committed ourselves as witnesses. When the moment opened up, like that moment when the double-dutch ropes say come, I was ready. No longer hesitant, I entered and caught the beat like a heart. Moving limbs my mama gave me, putting myself in a Judith Jamison state of mind. My jeans heavy with sweat, our bodies’ petrichor, made me feel like uncorked champagne.
I asked her to bust a rhyme for me, and she did so beneath the glow of streetlights. I never felt so thirsty for a kiss.
The loft applauded when I bowed out of the cipher. A regular customer at the Kokobar had invited me to the house party, but she and her friends were nowhere to be found, and I was pissed they hadn’t come to find me. Pissed. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning when I stepped out of the building by the Navy Yard. That part of the neighborhood at night triggers your primal instincts. The looming prison they called the Brig, poorly lit streets, the BQE overhead, and you pass through a section of Fort Greene Projects before you get back to Myrtle Ave, where a decent amount of cabs, or possibly just one, would be circulating during those night-a.m. hours. I may have appeared more mature than I was, but I feared for my life.
Fortunately, a cab stopped at a red light on Park Ave. I knocked on the driver’s side and asked if he was still working. He gave me a fatherly look, in that critical-kind way Jamaican men can do, and asked me where I was going. “Greene between Bedford and Nostrand.” It cost me ten dollars, and when I handed it to him, the bill was tinted blue from my jeans and wet from my dancing.
The people I met that summer opened and broke my heart in varying degrees. Each instance of joy or pain was a moment where I could genuinely feel who I was. Tanisha eventually found out my real age, because I stupidly invited her to a family function, and thereafter she gave me the cold shoulder. After that the dishonesty was too much for me to contain. I was excited to be who I was, less and less comfortable with deceit. I started to tell some people my real age. Aliyyah, who was a former model and walked around in crazy-thick platforms, was smitten with me. She was five years older, and while we dry humped on her boss’s chair, she said she would wait until I was legal. She called me the Kokobar’s baby, and oddly it made me feel loved—the idea that this place I thought so a–mazing had spawned me. During the last party of the summer, I met Carolina. A self-proclaimed lyricist, she had recently moved to Brooklyn from Minnesota and was living in an apartment above Kokobar. I asked her to bust a rhyme for me, and she did so beneath the glow of streetlights. I never felt so thirsty for a kiss, watching her lips move. We danced until Kokobar told us to go home. A few days later after the start of my senior year, I ran into her again at the café, and she invited me to her apartment later that evening for dinner.
I was with Kim, about to walk her to the subway, and I told Carolina I would be back. Lit with excitement, I asked Kim, “What do you think is gonna happen?” She sassily said something in Tagalog that I didn’t understand, but understood as “You foolish little girl.” She gave me a hug and with a big smile on her face, said, “You’ll soon find out.” What happened was that Carolina and I made love for the first time. My first time. I was so sprung. I began to worry when, after two weeks, she wasn’t returning my phone calls. We met up one afternoon in Washington Square Park, and she told me she’d hooked back up with an ex and was now pregnant. Do you see me rolling my eyes?
These rejections sent me searching for the brochure I’d received from the guest speaker my freshman year. Even though Delancey and I didn’t end up talking directly about whether I was gay or not, I opened the brochure in the privacy of my bedroom, and found my answer. I read about a group for LGBT and questioning youth. I felt like LGB, and was definitely questioning. It was a group for thirteen- to twenty-year-olds, and it met at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center on Fridays, after school.
It was exactly a year after returning from Israel that I went to my first meeting. The Center was another place where I could be my alphabet. I took the A train to Fourteenth Street in the West Village, and as I walked to the Center I felt the increased presence of gayness. I entered through a front metal door, and I remember feeling small, even though I was five foot ten at the time. A smallness like a toddler more than a feeling of diminishment. I asked the front-desk person, in a voice coming out of its own shell, where was the group meeting for young people. She told me a sequence of rights and lefts and through an area that reminded me of a closed-roof atrium, with amber lights. I passed through, found the room to my right, and there they were: some sitting in the circle of chairs, some milling about, light chatter. The ones who knew each other had more animated threads of conversation. I found a patch of empty chairs by the door, and acknowledged everyone with a hello that was genuine but not too enthusiastic, a head nod, and a lazy queenlike wave. I looked around but didn’t stare, casting my eyes on a crack in the wall, on an AIDS awareness poster. I joined the group in waiting for the facilitator to come.
Our discussions were facilitated by a person trained in social work, or something—I never remembered their credentials. We would go around and check in, and eventually unload whatever was on our minds. I attended those meetings nearly every Friday until I graduated from high school, and although new people would come in and out, there was always a committed group who showed up. Milly, funny, lively and vocal—when she opened her mouth she had something to say. Cute too. Andy was an inch taller than me and beautiful. That kind of beauty that made me pucker my lips on beau. But Milly and her were an item. Nadine was petite, with the most generous boobs, and lived on Staten Island. We always made sure she got the eleven o’clock boat home. When I started to read Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out Forin my early twenties, the character Mo Testa reminded me so much of Dani. Dani’s number-one concern in group: safe sex with women. And we were like, “Who you fucking, Dani?” Our after-group hangouts introduced me to Peaches and Khadijah, both of them aged out of the meeting. Peaches was in her junior year at Brooklyn College, and Khadijah was—I wasn’t quite sure what Khadijah was up to, but I’m sure she was selling weed on the side.
One night we were at the Waverly Diner, sharing a plate of fries, when Andy suggested, “Let’s go to the Clit Club next Friday.” There were yeses all around, even from Abassi, who had started coming to group recently because her father kicked her out of the house when he found out she was gay. She was living at a shelter, where her mom came by to drop off clothes and give her pocket money for the week. Abassi was insisting on buying my dinner, and said order anything you want, when Khadijah reminded everyone, “Them bitches be carding folks, so have your IDs.” I didn’t have my ID yet, of course. I had no older sister or cousin or friend I somewhat resembled. I felt done with pretending, but I had to do something about this.
The thing about my ID, there was nothing official about it. No school logo, state insignia, no stickers or holograms. Nothing to give it institutional or governmental affiliation. It was a photo, typewriter-typed personal information, and the back of it was plain white plastic, no magnetic strip or barcode. A Blockbuster Video card was more official. It cost me twenty-five dollars. The ID maker had me fill out a form, no identification needed to verify the information provided. I sat for a photo and smiled like I was getting away with murder.
The Clit Club was the first place I used my fake ID. We stood outside in the brisk of a November night, and Peaches and Khadijah went on through. Peaches stopped to tell the bouncer, “Be good to my crew,” and made sure to emphasize that I was the last member in that crew. Milly and Andy in, Dani and Nadine in, Abassi didn’t come out tonight, and then I handed my card to the butchie white chick, her hands nicely manicured and robust. She looked at me and it, turned it over, looked at me and it some more, and then asked, “What’s your birthday?” I lied truthfully. She gave me a bullshit smile, with a twinkle in her eye, and the crew just in earshot, anticipating the outcome. The bouncer nodded her head, said, “All right, you’re in.”
I loved those gurls. I was alive in their company. Astrologically, I am a fish, and what they gave me was a school.
I loved those gurls. I was alive in their company. Astrologically, I am a fish, and what they gave me was a school. To be a part of something, and still individual, with the skill to act as a complete body that can disperse, go off in all directions, come back together again like we’re magnetically pulled. A wonderful orchestration. In their company, I reached different freedoms, was in relationship with this part of myself without anxiety and fear, could know joy and love, curiosity and fun, beauty and acceptance, pleasure and possibility, and a more emotionally realized vision of myself. They help me see the multiplicity of our experiences.
I had an astrologer read my chart by phone the same fall I started going to the Center. I met him in a chatroom on New York Online, emailed him my birthdate, time, and location, and he sent my chart to me by postal mail. As he went over where planets are housed, and trine this, he asked, “Are you gay?” I asked if that was what the chart said. He explained that women and men were drawn to me and I’d do well either way. So that crew of friends confirmed the stars, and their lives equally smashed and reinforced stereotypes in combinations of being that assuaged my doubts. They allowed me to wake a part of myself and insist on her presence. I was in a relationship of love, through their friendship. I started to live the homointimacy I’d glimpsed back in Israel.
After dancing among all the ladies—and me momentarily tied up with a chick from Florida in the corner with my hands down her pants—Andy, me, and Dani ended up in the bathroom sharing details of our conquests. For some reason, Dani felt my arm and then commented that I was real soft. She invited Andy to feel, and Andy agreed, “Baby soft.” I told them I exfoliated with a loofah, but they weren’t convinced that this kind of softness came from rubbing off dead skin. They both had that freaked-out-pleasure look on their faces like they came across a favorite piece of candy at the height of a sweet-tooth craving. The light in the bathroom was the color of a cherry pop, or what it may look like standing inside a heart.
We went back to the dance floor with our laughter, and me with their touch. Andy passed around a cup of Long Island iced tea, and I took a sip and an ice cube. The bass was coming up from the floor. Our bodies securely puzzled together like a J. J. Evans painting. “Rhythm is a Dancer” getting us hyped. Our lean arms, the sinew of our groove uniting torso to torso, hips to hips. It’s a soul’s companion, you can feel it everywhere was alive in our bodies—so close, as one, that a bullet could take us all.