By Derrick Mathis
Taking the el to the south side, I kept thinking of my mother back in LA. I was going to march in the Bud Billiken Parade and knew that King Drive would be lined with hundreds of women just like her. I imagined I’d be marching in front of my family–aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins all standing on the sidelines–and I was nervous.
I’d been in a parade before, but it was the gay pride parade, not the black pride parade. Everybody knows that niggas hate fags. It seems that hating fags is the one topic gangsta rappers and holy rollers can agree on. Of course there are degrees of hostility–some people want to kill ’em, others just want to convert ’em. Nobody knows this more than a black fag like me. Being generally despised by society is one thing, but being despised by your own people is twisted.
Four years ago a small band of local black gays and lesbians fought to march in the parade and finally got in after threatening to sue under the city’s human rights ordinance. Staring out the train window, I wondered if I’d encounter animosity. How would I react to being called a faggot? What if someone threw a beer can or a bottle at me? Would I keep marching while blood dripped down my face?
Getting off at 35th Street, I passed scores of elaborate floats, high school bands, drill teams, drum corps, church groups, college frats, and beauty queens, all preparing for the five-mile trek. It was an excellent day for a parade–warm and sunny–and I suddenly felt excited. I started to shake off the anxiety that had wreaked havoc on my stomach since leaving home.
But as I turned the corner on Oakwood, my heart stopped. There were only a handful of people on the steps of Holy Angels Church. For some reason I’d expected the turnout to be much larger. I’d pictured a couple hundred of us, a group the size of one of those baton-twirling crews. I ambled awkwardly over to the marchers and introduced myself. I recognized some of their names, including Steve Wakefield of the Night Ministry and Michael O’Connor of the Committee, a black gay and lesbian political action group. I met Robert Schultz of BLACKlines newspaper, Michael Harrington of Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays, and Vernita Gray, who works for the state’s attorney’s office.
“We’re into our fourth year, and every year we get more and more people out here,” said Karen Hutt, copastor of the primarily black lesbian and gay Church of the Open Door on the south side. “There’s a whole lot of people on the sidewalk encouraging us and the fact is some people can’t be out. They’ve got jobs, families, lifestyles that won’t permit it. But for those of us who can be, it’s important that we’re out here, and we encourage all our friends, allies, our straight and gay supporters to cheer us on.” By the time we were ready to march, our number had grown to more than 40. Hutt passed out flyers with words of encouragement and a list of common-sense rules. Stay with the group. Don’t engage in back-and-forth dialogue with someone who shouts something negative at you. Don’t accept or distribute anything or solicit contact with parade watchers. Above all, the flyer said, our participation provides positive images of black gays and lesbians–“let’s keep the image positive.”
Alma Faith Crawford, Hutt’s partner and copastor of the Church of the Open Door, led the group in prayer. I was still distracted, trying to keep in mind what Michael O’Connor had told me. “We’ve never had any incidents of violence or harassment,” he said. “A few hecklers now and again and a random religious zealot trying to save our souls, but that’s about it.”
Hutt says that contrary to the opinion of many white gays the black community has often been open to the struggles of gays and lesbians. At the very least, she says, it’s no more homophobic than any other group. “If the black community is so much more homophobic than others, then why do white gays leave Schaumburg and Naperville or Indiana or wherever to come here and create Boystown?” she asked. “Why don’t they stay in their own white communities? Why do they leave those neighborhoods? Those are the questions that need to be posed. The black congressional caucus in Washington has the most consistent record in voting for gay rights.”
This should have made me feel better, but it didn’t. I felt strangely naked as we turned onto King Drive. I marched in what seemed like slow motion, thinking about the freedom marchers during the civil rights movement–beaten and jailed, hosed down by police, rocks thrown at defenseless crowds, attack dogs loosed on protesters. I suddenly realized that we personified everything Martin Luther King fought and died for.
“You’re all my children,” an elderly woman yelled out, waving wildly as we passed.
I looked around at the sea of black faces. Women, children, old men, teenagers, families, couples, cops. Everyone was black. I was staring at them staring at me. There was a strong smell of barbecue, and I noticed the makeshift coal pits lining each side of the wide boulevard. Smoke billowed above the handpainted signs listing prices for rib sandwiches, Polish sausages, turkey legs, and grilled chicken. Everyone, it seemed, was selling barbecue, like a family reunion where everyone tries to outdo each other. Harried mothers expertly flipped slabs of ribs while pinching off small pieces for their pestering children. It all seemed familiar, and I was no longer afraid.
In front of us Soft Sheen had a float with young women in African garb performing dances. To my immediate right was a black plainclothes cop. Looking around I noticed that we were surrounded by plainclothes policemen. Though it was comforting to have escorts, I began to feel that maybe they weren’t necessary.
We chanted, “We are family / The black gay family / South-side family / North-side family / West-side family / The black gay family.”
Onlookers cheered, clapped, jumped, waved, and gave us the thumbs-up sign. “My best friend is like that,” a young woman screamed, “and I love the shit out of him.”
“Y’all good with me,” another woman yelled.
Some marchers waved back, shouted thank you, and flashed peace signs. I slowly raised a clenched fist in the air. Men nodded their approval; in some cases the black-power fist was waved back. As we stopped to wait for Soft Sheen’s dancing girls to finish their routine, a man ran into the street and tried to shove religious tracts into our hands. O’Connor blocked the man’s path. We were midway through the parade.
“What about the children?” one woman called out. “You’re not role models!”
A marcher behind me couldn’t let the remark pass. “I’ve got children,” she said, “and I’m a proud mother and a proud lesbian.”
Teenage girls with otherworldly hairstyles gleefully waved limp wrists. I tried not to laugh–they looked like some of the city’s fine drag queens. I saw thumbs held down and fuck-you fingers raised high.
“You’re too damn fine for that,” one woman rebuked a handsome male marcher.
“I got somethin’ for ya honey,” yelled another woman at the same guy.
“You ain’t like that, are you baby?” asked another.
“You with them, sugah?” a woman questioned the cop at my side.
Occasionally people on the sidelines would join us. “Hey, hey, hey, it’s about time,” one woman called out as she jumped into the middle of our group. A young interracial lesbian couple fell into our contingent. Holding hands, they walked in our midst oblivious to the people on the sidelines.
Once the couple joined our group, the homophobic remarks picked up. Oh great, I thought, now we’re a bona fide freak show for sure. Don’t they know where they are? The sister ought to know better. Then I caught myself. They were expressing gay pride, and everyone who saw them would have to accept it.
After passing the grand marshal’s stand, we all filed into Washington Park, where the parade ended. I was exhausted yet elated. We made it. No rocks, no beer bottles, and no name-calling. Herded into a baseball diamond, we posed for a group photograph. I was very proud of black folks that day. These things take time and sometimes pain. But we’ll overcome, I’m sure of it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Israel Wright.