A bitter wind whips off the Bronx River, spinning loose trash through the desolate streets below the Bruckner Expressway. The prospect of finding anyone out in this industrial area at 3 a.m. seems remote. Yet here, on the corner of 140th Street and Walton Avenue, huddles a crowd 300 strong. The throng is waiting to slide $20 through a slit in a scratched-up bulletproof window and enter the warehouse, a club that even its promoters call a well-kept secret. This fact suits the mood of the place, which is located in an old Fieldstone building once owned by the gangster Dutch Schultz. During prohibition days, Schultz ran numbers in Harlem and monopolized bootleg beer in the Bronx. Among the first of the mobsters with a fondness for newspaper ink, Schultz changed the tilt of his name (he was born Arthur Flegenheimer) and the cut of his wardrobe to fit the profile of a natty thug.
The symmetry’s accidental, of course, but the men on line outside Warehouse are also thugz—and the z is no typo. In place of fedoras and spats, they’re wearing do-rags and XXX FUBU jackets. Instead of double-breasted worsteds, they sport gold caps and platinum necklaces heavy as bike chains. Their bandannas are knotted sideways in the manner of the One Eight Trey Bloods. Their shoes are Timberlands or the neonerd Wallabies. Their trousers are army fatigues worn so outrageously big they slide off the wearers’ hips. If the clubgoers’ mode can be loosely classified as thug style—that is, a harder, more gangsta-identified version of standard urban wear—it’s the appropriate look for a nine-hour hip-hop party at the largest gay club in the borough and, for tonight at least, the city’s largest gathering of homo thugz.
Homo thugz? Doesn’t everybody know that hip-hop hates faggots? The lyrics, at least, have never been ambiguous on queer status in the hip-hop nation. “Rrrrrr arf arf what the deal,” rhymed DMX in “Get at Me Dog.” “Well in the back wit ya faggot ass face down. Lucky that you breathin’ but you dead from the waist down.” DMX has hardly been a lone voice speaking rhymes that, when they don’t offhandedly insult homosexuals, often “openly advocate violence against gay people,” as the compilers of Web site Da.Dis.List. make plain. Hip-hop has long had a field day with the specter of the faggot, from Mase’s reflexive posturing on Harlem World (“I’ll be lacin’ em, hollow tips, I be wastin’ em. That’s what you faggots get, tryin’ to fuck with Mase and ’em”) to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Iron John whimper on Love’s Gonna Getcha (“I can’t believe that dog would dis me. That faggot, that punk, piss on that sissy”) to the Notorious B.I.G.’s limp but bilious rhymes from the grave. In the hip-hop hierarchy, the faggot is the un-man: passive, disempowered, he’s down in the gutter with the bitches and ‘hos. By faggot is meant, of course, the girlie man—who vogues in his spare time, worships the anthemic divas, and takes it up the keister when he isn’t giving head in a local park.
“A lot of people don’t like faggots,” explains clubgoer Craig Henderson. “There are all these myths about faggots being soft and feminine, like you’re lacy and wear chiffon and listen to Barbra Streisand. Straight-up homies, niggaz, and thugz can do what they want. You can walk through projects and be gay. But you can’t walk through the project and be a faggot, because that’s when they’ll mock and harass.”
Upstairs in the two-story Warehouse is a dance floor, a stage, and a lounge with islands of boxy seating and carpet-covered banquettes. The long wood island-bar is lit by fake Tiffany lamps and Christmas bulbs; at one side of the lounge is a food concession, Junior’s Hotpot, where patrons can buy chicken wings and collard greens as well as beeper lighters and laser key chains. Junior, who also goes by the name of Lester Richards, is a veteran of New York’s underground black gay scene, from the storied Paradise Garage to such louche bars as Jay’s and Better Days. “It’s a whole change in how people are seeing gay men,” says Richards. “A lot of straight men see gay men as strictly a sex object. There’s a guy that works here who’s straight, and he thinks people are gonna jump across the counter to get him. I told him it’s not like that. It’s not like we’re all sex perpetrators or femmes. Around my way, they call me a homo thug. It’s a style thing, like you’re not putting your business in the street. You’re gay but you keep it on the d.l.”
There are those who’d suggest that the subterranean culture of the d.l., or “down low,” has not just glamorized canine behavior in heterosexual men but has served to recloset gay men of color. They point to alarming CDC statistics demonstrating disproportionately elevated rates of HIV infection in the black and Latino communities. They cite the difficulties of tracking viral vectors among men who have sex with men who don’t identify as gay. “Gay culture is a misnomer,” as hip-hop producer Matt Wobensmith once remarked. “There isn’t just one gay culture. Gay white people tend to privilege homosexuality as their identity, whereas other people have to juggle several identities.” According to Wobensmith, this makes it harder for blacks to come out, especially black males.
“I don’t like people that, when I’m walking the streets, say I’m gay,” says Charles Jackson, an out homosexual and one of the producers of Warehouse’s hip-hop night. “There’s still a lot of gay bashing out there. If you dress thug style, nobody’s gonna bother you, because thugness and realness is an ultimate man.” After years of promoting parties at such largely white gay venues as the Sound Factory Bar, Jackson struck upon the idea of throwing parties that catered to what he saw as a burgeoning group of men who “follow the B-boy image,” are “attracted to guns and guys who are into the life,” and who are also “on the down low and yet wanting to party in an atmosphere that takes club music to a more hip-hop level.”
At those venues enjoyed by “privileged” white gays, house music remains a dominant form, and styles of personal affirmation and masculine presentation are largely alien or inhospitable to young black gay men. For those on the d.l.—both young and old—outlets for community, sex, and music have required nontraditional spaces. You can find them jamming chat rooms called GayThugz4GayThugz, or BlkThug4Blkmn or BlkDLM4M, or convening at private sex parties such as this past weekend’s “Dicklennium” in Flatbush, where “homies, thugs, roughnecks, and shorties” were invited to partake of all the “dick and ass you can handle”—a telephone recording made it clear that no femmes or sissies need apply. You can, of course, meet them at the Warehouse’s weekly hip-hop lounge and its once-monthly main space party, dancing to music that in certain cases may advocate their demise.
“I’m not necessarily pro the lyrics,” explains Mark Tuggle, an outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Gay Men of African Descent, one night at the Warehouse. Wearing a muscle T, fatigues, tattoos, and with a knit cap pulled low across one eye, Tuggle’s thug presentation would not be out of place in a video for, say, Jay-Z’s “Lucky Me,” which features the lyric “I hate a nigga like that, faggot.”
“One oppressive joke is more than enough,” concedes Tuggle. Still, “hip-hop overall supersedes the lyrics. You have to remember where people are coming from. How can we expect hip-hop artists to embrace a sexuality they haven’t been taught? We’ve all been miseducated as a society about sexuality. At least hip-hop is founded on male-to-male love—the crew, the posse—and that appeals to our sense of art, poetry, and masculinity.”
If that masculinity occasionally takes forms that resemble inverted drag—as Kendall Thomas, Columbia law professor and black gay intellectual activist, once noted in these pages—well, so be it. According to Thomas, “the very elaborate sartorial style” of thugz and gangstas, their “stylization of the body . . . deployment of sexuality as an instrument for the assertion of subjectivity,” and “very self-conscious representations of the male body” create uncanny correspondences with that apotheosized symbol of the feminine, the diva. Don’t, however, mention this to the clubgoer with cornrows and a set of monogrammed teeth caps who berates a reporter one night by saying, “I ain’t no homo. I’m a straight-up bisexual nigga. Write that down.”
“None of this is new,” novelist James Earl Hardy insists about the emergence of homo thugz. “What’s new is that people outside those circles are realizing this world exists.” Hardy—whose “B-Boy Blues” trilogy elates a love story between a journalist and homeboy/bike messenger, a “same-gender loving man who doesn’t look, act, talk, or dress in a way that says gay”—rejects out of hand an identity that “as it has been constructed does not comprehend or respect me as a black man.”
At issue, he insists, is more than semantics. “Many in hip-hop are simply carefully navigating the waters of their sexuality. These guys I refer to as homie-sexual are, clinically speaking, homosexual. But they very much take on a machismo that separates them from associations with words like gay, queer, and most especially fag. I would guess that this has a lot to do with safety, and with a culture that hates you because you’re a fag and most definitely hates you because you’re black.” Hardy cites both Kinseyan statistics and the well-rehearsed rumors about prominent rappers locked in the closet. In reality, many prominent rappers have visited and even performed at Warehouse parties, according to the club’s Lester Richards. “Wu-Tang was here. I heard DMX came by. Jay-Z supposedly passed through. Money is money, but, in a lot of those rap groups, one guy is usually bisexual, and they come by here because it’s a chance to be themselves.”
They also come, according to the club’s DJ Unknown, because “it’s more safe to party within a gay system. Gay or straight, they have a better time, because, if a guy and a girl don’t mind partying with a gay crowd, they can be safe. People get tired of the fights and the guns and shooting and all that rah-rah. Too many hip-hop parties are thugged-out for real.”
Shirtless in the DJ booth, his muscular torso tattooed with images of Spiderman, a phonograph, and his pet Akita, Unknown surveys a crowd that is over 1300 strong by 5 a.m. Slicked with sweat, he whips a Juvenile record off the turntable and seamlessly replaces it with Sisquó’s “Thong Song.” “Before,” he says, “people were trying to listen to hip-hop, but the clubs hadn’t brought it to life. They were playing MC Lyte and whatever. They hadn’t taken the music to a more hardcore place. Gay people love hip-hop, too, and we have needed the music brought in an original way.”
With the crowd now posing and styling, two Mary J. Blige imitators in white mink jackets dancing together at the edge of the floor, a couple of B-boys with dreads grinding at stageside, and hundreds more being carried along by the groove, Unknown slips on an obscure recording by the Bronx-based crew Brand Nubian. “Though I can freak, fly, flow, fuck up a faggot,” goes the rhyme, “don’t understand their ways, I ain’t down with gays.” Of a moment that strikes one listener as surreal if not perverse, novelist Hardy remarks, “Why love the music? Because you have to take the bitter with the sweet.” Or, as clubgoer Kaos, a 24-year-old former video actor and stripper with a ripped physique, puts it, “Everybody feels hip-hop.” The music “is not for one select type of person. You can say gays. You can say bisexual. You can say faggot. You can say homo thugz or whatever and all that has no meaning to me. Personally, I never categorize myself. There’s no need for a title. I don’t hide nothing that I do. Society’s going to have to move over and understand that.”
Research assistance: Cara Buckley, Emma Nwegbo