Regardless of what they think about the place, everyone agrees it’s a dive. Rounding the corner of 125th Street onto Madison Avenue, you descend into what appears to be a cellar—past an overflowing dumpster, gingerly avoiding rats darting from beneath the stairs—and enter the Mt. Morris Turkish Baths, known in years gone by as the Turkish Embassy. It is one of the city’s few remaining gay bathhouses, and the extent of gay public space in today’s Harlem.
There are no rainbow flags in this neighborhood, no shops peddling Tinky Winky dolls or gyms filled with styled men not working out. There’s just this bathhouse—which has operated continuously since 1893—and one cruising park, both storied sexual playgrounds for the hypersexual black gay man often depicted in queer pornography and, for that matter, respectable gay magazines. Meanwhile, in the mainstream media, snap queens—embodied by the famous drag performer RuPaul—are the most common representations of the black gay experience. While both these personas are wonderfully part of black gay life, they crowd out a broader reality.
Michael Henry Adams is in search of that reality. An architectural historian by trade, he has researched Harlem’s gay history for the past five years, seeking images of himself—a worldly, well-read man—in what he calls black America’s “fabled homeland.”
“There’s so little gay life here now,” mourns Adams, who is working on a book about “Homo Harlem.” This paucity of gay-friendly spaces stands in stark contrast to the vital and varied scene that used to be. “Its apotheosis,” notes Adams, “was the Harlem of the 1920s through the 1950s, when all kinds of gay people were involved in every aspect of Harlem life.”
One home for that gay life was Lucky’s Rendezvous, at St. Nicholas Avenue and 148th Street. Dave Wilson, an 87-year-old gay man who still lives just around the corner from the former bar, hung out and played piano there. “Everybody performed,” he remembers, describing the place as a sort of open-mike venue. “Everyone who came in at some point would get up and play.”
Wilson, who says he “never missed a night in Lucky’s,” remembers most of the people who frequented the bar as gay. But, as was the case throughout Harlem, it was not an explicitly gay bar. Wilson recalls many black luminaries—from Pearl Bailey to Lena Horne—comfortably passing through Lucky’s.
Wilson also remembers Small’s Paradise on Seventh Avenue, where an all-gay male chorus line performed under the name the Internationalists. He fondly recalls Elk’s Rendezvous on 131st Street between Lenox and Fifth avenues, and the legendary drag balls held at Rockland Palace at 155th and Eighth Avenue. Adams says the Rockland Palace events were commonly known in Harlem as “the faggots ball.”
All of these spaces were more gay-welcoming than gay-centered. Gays in Harlem moved smoothly within the black ghetto rather than creating a new one. “See, in those years, it wasn’t one set place where gay people had to go,” Wilson explains. “But that doesn’t happen anymore. There’s no place where we all sit down together. I don’t know why it is—everything’s changed. So, consequently, I don’t even bother.”
Chris is bliss trying to revive the tradition of the integrated, gay-welcoming space in Harlem. In 1995, he opened Club Berlin, a weekly party at 1 West 125th Street. Once a venue for productions by the Papa Charles Dinner Theatre, run by his father, the building also housed a club during the Harlem Renaissance. Chris printed up flyers invoking those days and circulated them—but not uptown. In order to attract a flusher crowd, he went downtown to the Village and Chelsea. “The Intelligentsia, the Artists, the Bons Vivants, the Decadents, the Bohemians, the Gays, the Bi’s, the Straights—all came together for a common cause,” Chris’s flyers proclaimed. “This is the mixture that made Harlem famous. And a similar mixture will make it famous again.”
The party took off at first, and drew upwards of 200 people a week. But Chris could never find the capital necessary to get off the ground. He’s held the party on and off since then, both at the West 125th Street building and at the newly remodeled Lenox Lounge, where it currently takes place on Tuesday nights.
As for creating a permanent space, Chris shrugs. “It takes money. I was looking for $430,000 to bring my club up to code and make it look decent.” His attempt to secure a loan from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, a city-funded agency, fell on deaf ears. Chris speculates that the gay-friendly nature of his business might have something to do with the agency’s reluctance. The agency claims it never received an application from Chris. “The bottom line,” he says, “is that if someone thinks a gay space is profitable, it will be created.”
James Baldwin understood why black gays could move so easily in Harlem. “I don’t know of anyone who has denied his brother or his sister because they were gay,” he told the Voice in a 1984 interview. “No doubt it happens. [But] a black person has got quite a lot to get through the day without getting entangled in all the American fantasies.” Baldwin thought black gays were less likely than whites to be alienated from their community, if only because “the sexual question comes after the question of color. It’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live.”
Much has changed in the 16 years since Baldwin gave that interview. But as the current stereotypes about black gay life attest, the ignorance persists—from Harlem to Chelsea. “The gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society,” Baldwin explained. “It’s a very hermetically sealed world, with very unattractive features, including racism.”
Then, too, Harlem is less embracing of sexual diversity. Straights are less likely to socialize in gay-friendly venues, while black gay men are more likely to march in the Chelsea parade. That’s largely why the spaces Wilson remembers from his gallivanting days don’t exist in Harlem today. They all disappeared with the rise of gay liberation, so that, by the 1970s, all that was left was the Mt. Morris Baths.
But even without spaces to meet in, there is a rich gay life uptown—and some people like it that way. “Harlem has a kind of social network that goes unseen to a lot of people,” explains Kevin McGruder, executive director of Gay Men of African Descent, who has lived in the neighborhood for years. “We know each other, and we know where to go. But people on the outside, if they’re looking for a Christopher Street up here, they’re not going to find it. That may change, but I think people would really be ambivalent about whether that’s something that they want.”
Which leaves the world celebrating RuPaul and Blatino porn stars, but ignorant of all the shades of black gay life in between.
For information about Michael Henry Adams’s tour of homo Harlem, call 212-426-5757.