The Gang's All Queer
New York University Press
Criminologist Vanessa Panfil spent over a year studying gay gangs in Columbus, Ohio, before she even found a single active gay gang to study. Eventually, over two years, she identified 48 gay men, most of them black, who were current or former gang members and willing to be interviewed. Twenty-six were in gangs with 100 percent gay membership; many were in "hybrid" gangs with sizable gay minorities; the rest were closeted members of gangs where everyone's heterosexuality was assumed.
The Gang's All Queer, Panfil's book documenting her investigation, is a gem of contemporary sociology: a potent reminder of the discipline's power to work past a culture's assumptions and, in the process, to articulate the reach and influence of those assumptions. It is a decidedly academic title, but its influence is likely to eventually spread far beyond the academy.
Sadly, if you have already encountered a consideration of gay gangs, it's likely thanks to Bill O'Reilly and Fox News. In 2007, O'Reilly brought a former Washington, D.C., police officer-turned-Fox News contributor on the air to alert his millions of viewers to a new threat sweeping America's cities: violent gay gangs. The thinly sourced segment distilled conservative fears about the "homosexual agenda" into a lurid cable-news nightmare, one in which violent gay and lesbian groups were physically attacking straight people for fun, raping their children, and, in O'Reilly's words, "indoctrinating them into homosexuality." (His source later conceded that he'd exaggerated his case.)
The real-life gay gangs that Panfil encounters—including the Boys of Bang, the Royal Family, and the Firing Squad—aren't interested in waging war on the straight people of Columbus. Instead, they exist for more or less the same reasons most gangs exist. They give their members a place to belong; a stable source of identity; a group of people to hang out with; and a network of support and protection not unlike a family, something particularly valuable for people whose biological families don't accept their sexuality.
And, yes, gay gangs (like their straight counterparts) use violence to protect their reputations and connect economically marginalized citizens with opportunities to make money in ways that violate the law. The Gang's All Queer shows us gay gang members engaged in theft, financial fraud, and sex work. Panfil, a queer woman, expresses some ambivalence about documenting all this; she doesn't want to be providing talking points for future demonization. But she argues, convincingly, that to gloss over her subjects' legal transgressions would only reinforce a well-intentioned but patronizing narrative—the flip-side of O'Reilly-style moral panic—in which gay men are only either perfectly "respectable" citizens or passive victims of prejudice.
The openly gay gang members Panfil interviews give voice to a complex double-bind. Like so many men before them, they look to gang membership as a way to broadcast a cluster of traits our culture calls "masculine": strength, bravery, a willingness to fight when slighted. At the same time, they know all too well that traditional masculinity defines itself in opposition to their sexuality—that, for many men, gang-affiliated and otherwise, gay-bashing is an easy way to affirm their "real" manhood. The reality of gay gangsters exposes the flimsiness of such cultural archetypes. But that doesn't mean gay gangsters live unconstrained by convention; indeed, their conversations with Panfil are full of opinions about how stereotypically flamboyant or feminine it ever is acceptable (or advisable) to be, and how the answer varies from context to context.
In the book"s most delightful scene, Panfil tags along with some gay gang members to a "vogue" ball, where participants compete in categories that include stylized dancing, emceeing, and modeling. The ball Panfil attends features a "thug realness" category; entrants vie to see who can most convincingly and stylishly inhabit the "real thug" archetype: grills, bling, baggy pants. They're paying homage to a stereotype of masculinity and—simultaneously, deliciously—reveling in that stereotype's radical incompleteness. "Thug" becomes a costume that you could, under the right conditions, be free to put on and take off. "Anybody can be a gangster," one of Panfil's interviewees says. "Even a gay boy can be a gangster, even if he really feminine."
In addition to appropriating old archetypes, Panfil's gay gangsters are creating new ones. They talk about "fagging out": responding to homophobic taunts or intimidation with a form of aggression that combines stereotypical flamboyance and the loud threat of violence. One man tells Panfil that, when needed, his entire gang will "fag out" together to scare off groups of gay-bashers. Another man proudly recalls telling one of his attackers, "I'm gonna show you what this faggot can do!"
Fans of HBO's The Wire loved the character Omar Little, an openly gay man who robbed drug dealers and gave much of his earnings back to the people of Baltimore. But Omar was a gangster without a gang—that is, not really a gangster at all. In Moonlight, this year's Oscar sensation, the protagonist is a gay man named Chiron who climbs the ranks of Miami's drug trade but remains deeply closeted. Both portrayals are sympathetic and moving, but both implicitly frame gay gangs as a structural impossibility. The Gang's All Queer suggests modes of existence that the American mainstream still hasn't come close to understanding, or even acknowledging.
In her afterword, Panfil expresses confidence that Columbus is no anomaly. I suspect she's right, and that we'll soon be hearing more about the gay gangs of America. Last year, a new documentary called Check It hit the festival circuit in search of distribution. It tells the story of a Washington, D.C., gang of black LGBTQ youth. Several journalists covering the film described its subject as "America's only gay gang"—a phrase they probably didn't even consider a candidate for fact checking. Cultural blind spots are resilient things.
One of Panfil's interviewees, a closeted gay man in a traditionally straight gang, shares a story that neatly embodies how much we all have to learn about each other. Two men in his gang know he's gay, for the simple reason that they met while looking for sex partners online. "I talked to 'em on the Internet," the man tells Panfil. "They didn't know who I was, I didn't know who they was, and when we met up, it was them. Like: 'Oh, wow. I can't believe it was y'all!'"