By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
At the Lab, a Brooklyn nightclub and rental hall, a petite Hispanic bartender sporting braids down the middle of her back and a baseball cap is taking a break on a recent Friday night. Then she spots something in the crowd and leaps onto the bar. She sees another woman dressed in boyish hip-hop gear hitting on her femme girlfriend on the crowded dance floor. The bartender jumps to the floor, pushes her way past dancers, and grabs her woman by the arms. After giving her a rough, disapproving shake, she drags her quarry back to the bar, where the girlfriend will remain standing in silence the rest of the night.
"It's a property thing," explains Siya, who, like the bartender, looks like she's walked out of a rap video. Among the 15 tattoos that adorn her beige complexion are a large Bed-Stuy on her forearm and Brooklyn on the back of one hand. She's 20. "You can be holding your femme girlfriend's hand in the club, and she could be looking around, searching for a flyer AG. She's going to want to stray, slip her a number. All lesbians are sneaky," Siya says.
At the weekly 18-and-over females-only hip-hop party going on, about half of the black and Hispanic crowd is femme, the other half "AGs," or "aggressives," who also refer to themselves as "studs," whether they're fly or not.
Later, when two AGs get into a pushing match over a femme, one shouts, "Suck my dick, nigga! I'll fuck your whole shit up!" Friends break it up, pulling one outside the club to get the story. One of the women had tried to talk to the other's girlfriend while her back was turned. But it's a common occurrence. No femme, committed or not, is really off-limits.
"When you go to the club and you're an AG, your mission that entire night is to find the baddest femme in the club and make her your girl," says another woman, who calls herself Don Vito Corleone. "Just like every rapper wants the baddest video chick on his arm, so do AGs."
Rap videos have long provided men of color with milestones on their journeys to manhood. From being a successful street businessman (Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ten Crack Commandments"), to learning how to treat a woman (Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit") and protecting their manhood (50 Cent's "What Up Gangsta?"), guys are told how to be indestructible, sexually assertive, and in general, badasses. The misogyny and homophobia implicit in that message has long raised the hackles of critics. Oprah Winfrey and columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. made news recently for saying "enough" to the influence of rap's rougher edges on black culture.
But for increasing numbers of very young black and Hispanic lesbians, the bitches-and-'hos lyrics of their musical heroes are the soundtrack for a thug's life they pursue with almost as much passion as they do the hottest femme in the club.
"These AGs have a disrespectful mentality, and they get it from men, hoodlums, dudes that are in the 'hood all day," says Kysharece Young, an AG, rapper ("Ky Fresh"), and freshman at Monroe College. "They act like a bunch of little damn boys that ain't got no sense."
Rapper Siya is flanked by Vanessa Villot (left) and Ashanta Harrison. Its a property thing, says Siya.
photo: David Yellen
As rap songs boom through the Lab's speakers on a Friday night, AGs dominate the place, shouting lyrics that objectify women as playthings. They point their fingers in the air to simulate gunfire, and throw down lyrics at other AGs like they were calling out rival gang members.
Like most men in the culture, young lesbians respect Jay-Z's business sense, consider themselves to be hustlers like Jeezy, and take the no-holds-barred approach of Lil Wayne. For these women, there seem to be few older lesbians they can look up to, or organizations that mean much to them, other than the crews they create themselves.
Among the older women who do make the scene, Kimmeee and Madison, lovingly called "Uncle" or "Father" by the younger women, promote the parties at the Lab and run girlzparty.com, the nexus for the black lesbian club scene. They say they've watched the change in younger women in the last few years.
"It gets rougher each year, and it has a lot to do with who their idol is and who they want to image themselves after, like these thug rappers," says Madison, who launched girlzparty.com 12 years ago.
"I wouldn't say there are too many [female] role models," says Kimmeee. "We get a lot of girls that come out and their idols are men and they feel like they have to be men."
After a previous location closed, the women moved their weekly dance party to the Lab after a five-week hiatus. "When we had our grand opening, almost two years ago, the fashion trend had changed dramatically. Our grand opening night we had 650 females. Half the crowd had on 'do-rags and the whole thug look going on."
Kimmeee and Madison call their weekly party at the Lab Friday Night SinSations. The DJ, playing a mix of old-school hip-hop and reggae, jumps on the mic to incite the crowd.
"If you came in here to steal another chick's bitch, let me see your hands in the air!" The dance floor turns into a sea of five-finger flags. "If you want to fuck tonight, let me hear some noise!" The hands are replaced by whooping yells and screams.
"Look at these so-called aggressive girls and how they act and carry themselves," says Rutgers adjunct professor Stacey Patton. "You see the hyper-masculinity that's been adopted by them. I don't know if it's conscious or not, but I think hip-hop has its influence."
The day after a Friday night at the Lab, Siya is contemplating whether to check out LoverGirls, a Saturday night party at the Millionaire's Club in the Financial District that caters to an older crowd. The elevator in her Bed-Stuy apartment building is broken and the hike up and down 13 flights of stairs has put a damper on her mood.
She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her grandmother, who has raised her since she was 11. Siya was born Michelle Sherman in California. Her father is black and was a military man. Her mother is Hispanic and was addicted to drugs. Her father left when she was young, but after hearing what horrible conditions his daughter was living in, packed her up and sent her to live with his mother in Bed-Stuy's Eleanor Roosevelt Projects. Two years later she came out of the closet.
"My aunt was doing my hair and she was trying to put it in a girly hairstyle," says Siya, who is sitting on top of a dresser in her meticulously organized bedroom. Behind her hangs a photomontage of her in Times Square with girlfriends. "I got upset and flipped. 'I hate this. I want to wear my hair braided. I like girls!' " Her family took the news well. "My grandmother is real cool, and I think in a way my being gay meant she didn't have to worry about me going out and getting pregnant and bringing home more kids for her to take care of."
But school officials weren't so thrilled, she claims. She says that she and her friends were made to feel that they were a gang. "They kinda forced me to drop out," she says. "I left high school in junior year."
At 16, she began rapping about being a lesbian. It's won her a small following, but also held her singing career back, she believes.
Ky, the Monroe College freshman, is also nursing a budding rap career. Majoring in criminal law, she says that she's often mistaken for a guy. But she doesn't mind.
She attended an all-girls Catholic high school and played basketball on the school team. For several years, she had a "cover-up boyfriend" while seeing girls. But a girlfriend outed her at 14. "My boyfriend tried to commit suicide after he found out," she says.
Ky kept her secret at school until her team traveled out of state for a weekend basketball tournament. "Girls were running around the hotel pulling off towels, throwing around basketball shorts," says the 18-year-old. "It was just mad gay, and it was open. I was having fun, and I thought when I got back I could talk about it, and relive the experience, because it was open for me. This was the first time I could actually touch a girl and she laughed and liked it, and everybody else knew." But when she returned to school and began telling her classmates about the team's lesbian romps, she was shunned by teachers and her teammates.
Both Siya and Ky, after difficult starts, are trying to manage an existence as rappers and party promoters. AGs have had only limited success in music marketing. Ruin, a rapper from Richmond, Virginia, managed to chart on Billboard in 2005 with her maxi-single "Be Me/Stop Trying." But masculine lesbians have a tough path to success, says Erik Parker, director of content for hip-hop news site sohh.com.
"Female rappers are marketed to sell sex, and their target audience is largely men. And the males in hip-hop, or outside of hip-hop for that matter, find femme lesbians appealing, rather than a more masculine female who challenges their personal ideals of masculinity."
Ruin is touring clubs, but larger success eludes her. "Every executive that I sat down with has said the same thing: 'You hot, you got something different. We want to work with you here, we want to do this and do that, but is there any way we can put you in tighter clothes? Can we put you in a skirt; can we put you in heels?' "
Datwon Thomas, the editorial director of urban lifestyle and music magazines King, Rides, and Hip-Hop Soul, says that hip-hop's resistance toward gay women can shift. "It's hard for them to be taken seriously because their sexuality is so dominant. However, when it comes to them being rappers, the line becomes blurred. The good thing about hip-hop is that you are judged by your skills first and foremost, and if a gay rapper comes out and she's dope, most people will look past her being gay."
Siya dreams of success in the music market, but she's already a steady presence at the Lab. And one thing she has in common with some of her musical idols: a rap sheet.
"It's hard for me to find a legit job because of my criminal record." At 16, she ran away from home with her then girlfriend. The two became engaged and moved to Albany, where money got tight and Siya, like many AGs, took to hustling.
It's a pressure many young AGs feel as the dominant figure in their relationship. If you have the sand to knock down another woman in order to grab the hottest femme in the club, you don't want to admit that you have little cash to keep your prize happy.
Siya served four months for grand larceny, first degree assault, and attempted assault, and was placed on three years' probation. "Hustling is the next best thing if you can't find a legit job. There are a lot of females that boost or sell drugs," she says. "I wouldn't say it's hard for all aggressives to find jobs because there are some that are sacrificing: putting on tight clothes, female suits, or business suits to go to work. Then there are a lot of us who wouldn't feel comfortable like that. I could apply for a whole bunch of jobs and if I don't come in looking like the girly girl or because of my tattoos or just by me being gay raises a red flag."
Ky has also been around hustling most of her life. Her older brother was a drug dealer and is serving time in prison. Siya's father is serving 125 years for the GHB raping of eight women. And one older woman they both look up to was delivering drugs for her uncles when she was only seven years old. But Don Vito, 35, is out of that now, and she has plans to keep the young women of her "house" out of more trouble.
During the day Don Vito (she's reluctant to give her up real name) works on Wall Street in the IT department of a prestigious law firm. Her co-workers don't know that she's gay, but some of her female co-workers wonder why she never talks about a boyfriend.
"I've never been with a man," she says. "That's gross. But I'll tell you what's funny: I did have to go to prom when I was high school, and what made it worse was that I was a debutante." She laughs at the thought of herself in a dress and heels. Sitting in the back corner of a café on Sixth Avenue in the West Village, Vito wears an oversized hoodie with skulls, a baseball cap, shoulder-length hair (which she pulls back in a ponytail for work or wears braided when she's in the club), and baggy jeans. She stands around five foot eight, and though an AG, doesn't deepen her voice or bind her breasts. She walks with a light bop and likes wearing a bandanna over her face when she's in the club. It gives her mystique.
Two years ago, Vito moved to New York with her then girlfriend to attend film school. After the program ended she got the job in IT but writes screenplays in her spare time.
She's the "father" and creator of House of Corleone, a tightly knit group of young black and Hispanic lesbians. Modeled on the extended-families structure used by previous generations of New York gays and lesbians, a number of hip- hop houses have sprouted up recently with names like the Da Vincis, House of Mecca, and the Bossalenos and Belladonnas. Vito's crew has attracted young AGs like Chick Murda, a/k/a Aisha Sampson.
"I joined House of Corleone four or five months ago," Sampson tells the Voice during a photo shoot held at the Lab. "I was on downelink.com and Vito hit me up. She told me to look into it. I didn't know gay women had houses. As time went by, I saw the house's progress. I like to meet new people, and met a lot of people in this house. It's a lot of exposure."
Vito says she was motivated to start her house as a result of the self-destruction she saw many young lesbians headed toward. "There are a lot of AGs that are going down the wrong path," she says. "A lot of them are selling drugs. I used to sell drugs and almost went to jail for a long time. A lot of these AGs do it because the girls think it's cute. They are so serious about keeping up appearances that they'll either hustle or take a fast-food job so they can wear their low haircut or gold teeth."
Life as a young lesbian of color, of course, has its risks. In 2003, a young AG named Sakia Gunn engaged in a shouting match with a man named Richard McCullough at Newark's Penn Station after Gunn had returned from an evening of partying in the West Village. The altercation turned violent, and McCullough stabbed and killed Gunn. He's serving 20 years in prison. Last August, Patreese Johnson and six other women got into another shouting match with a man named Dwayne Buckle, a street vendor outside the IFC Center. Buckle was stabbed, and identified Johnson as his attacker, telling the press that he was the victim of a hate crime against straight men. Johnson has pled not guilty to charges of attempted murder and gang assault.
Well aware of such incidents, Don Vito has recruited 50 womena mix of femmes and AGsincluding Siya, from across the country and even overseas into the family just since January. But a rash of other groups are giving houses like Don Vito's a bad name.
"Those gangs or crews are the really young kids. Some of them rob and steal; others just want to fight in the club over petty stuff. In my house I require my members to partake in at least two charity events a year. I want a family bond and I don't want it to be about drama."
Growing up in Atlanta with a preacher for a father, Don Vito wasn't able to talk about her feelings or her sexuality. "To this day I can't say to my parents, 'I'm gay.' I didn't come out to anyone until I was 26. I don't want my 'sons' to have to go through that."
The VIP lounge at the Lab on a recent Friday is filled with the members of the House of Corleone, who are all wearing their colorsred, black, and white. Siya and her friend Pretty Milly Corleone are standing on one of the balconies over the dance floor checking for cute femmes. The two have been friends for years, and next year Milly, an army reserve specialist, is expecting to head over to Iraq. Don Vito pulls out a camera and calls all her "sons" over to take a picture. They throw up their hand signals, flash their jewels, and clench their jaws. Siya crouches down in front.
Ky is sitting nearby with her new girlfriend, Lite Brite, on her lap. She whispers something into her ear; the two laugh. They stand up and Ky gently guides her by the hand down to the dance floor.
Behind these brick walls, the girls are free to be badass rap stars and their girly dates. They're free to grab their crotches, kick it to a pretty girl, or dance in a tight embrace. It's a life you might not imagine when you see one of them on the street, look at her face, and think to yourself, "She looks like a boy."