It doesn't necessarily look like a place where someone would find freedom. It is indeed a sanctuary, but not in the mystical, ethereal way that is the stuff of popular imagery. Here, freedom lives in a small commercial suite in northwest Washington, DC. Its largest room is hugged by three corn silk–colored walls and a fourth of a shockingly brilliant shade of red. Navy Berber carpet sprawls underfoot and an assembly of IKEA-inspired furniture, mostly folding chairs and tables, make up the functional decor. This is the community space at DENIM, where young Black gay, bi, and same-gender-loving men are affirmed, understood, and validated; celebrated, informed, and encouraged.
The name DENIM is an acronym that stands for "Developing and Empowering New Images of Men." As a community center, DENIM provides programming for 18- to 29-year-olds who connect with the unconditional acceptance and care found there. "We wanted to provide a center that was appeasing for the many subcultures of Black gay life—college-educated, people affiliated with Greek-letter organizations, gamers, the ballroom community, people who don't identify as gay, people who are openly gay, people who are transgendered—and create this organic experience for all of them," shared Terrance Payton, one of DENIM's founders.
Launched in 2012, DENIM is a relatively new initiative, particularly compared to others in the city that have served the general gay community for decades. Every group has one or more subgroups and, when dissected along the lines of race, age, and socioeconomics, the Black gay experience looks a lot different than others. DENIM lifts up a population that is sometimes underrepresented—or not represented at all—in broader conversations about gay issues in the metropolitan area.
"We are a lot different from our white and Latino counterparts in the larger LGBT community, so it's important that we have a space where we feel safe and can have comradery and brotherhood," said Devin Barrington-Ward, a member of DENIM's community advisory board. "There's no other space that exists like this solely for Black gay men by Black gay men in Washington, DC, and really takes into consideration the needs of this community." In here, the men are not an alternative lifestyle or a cause to be championed. They are themselves—whoever, whatever, however they want to be. That is the freedom that exists inside of DENIM's understated space.
We are a lot different from our white and Latino counterparts in the larger LGBT community, so it's important that we have a space where we feel safe and can have comradery and brotherhood.
First Responders to an Epidemic Need
The community center is the brainchild of Us Helping Us, a parent organization that has been meeting the needs and challenges of Black gay men in Washington, DC, since 1985. It was established in an era when information around HIV was still exploratory and medical research contended with fantastic rumors, when the city wasn't yet mobilized against the virus's far-reaching effects but faced increasing diagnoses that had significant impact on the gay community. With limited health and financial resources, Black people were hit hardest, and Black gay people even harder.
For the white gay population the HIV epidemic was significantly checked, but it ran with ferocity through the city's Black enclaves. The dual stigma around being both gay and HIV positive—one born from a culture that has traditionally shamed homosexuality, the other the result of fear that overshadowed facts—caused many men to operate covertly, never seeking testing and certainly never seeking treatment. Sexual contact did not decline, however, and the conditions for an epidemic were fueled in part by secrecy and unsafe behavior. It was a silent crisis with no one to address it.
"There was nothing in the community—no culturally sensitive support groups, no hospitals, no clinics, no funds, no places that they could go and feel comfortable," recalled Ernest Walker, director of programs for Us Helping Us. "At first, it was really just about five HIV-positive gentlemen who didn't want to go on meds because AZT was the only option and it was killing off Black people. The climate was really hostile because there was nowhere for Black gay men to go and seek services—or supportive services, for that matter. So some community leaders started a support group.
From that absence of support, a plethora of it grew as Us Helping Us developed a roster of programming centered on mental and physical health, personal safety, STI prevention, condom distribution, and community outreach. DENIM was born as an extension of that work, and together, both entities have committed to taking the apprehension out of HIV testing with teams that meet their target demographic, literally on the streets. In brief but poignant interactions, the teams remind young men to make wise, precautionary sexual health choices and urge them to take advantage of the services available at both offices. DENIM pushes that on-the-ground activism further by taking its safe-sex gospel to nightclubs.
That may seem like an unlikely place to render HIV testing, with DENIM at risk of being a buzzkill. However, in collaboration with Ignite DMV, DENIM has framed the testing service as an empowering moment of personal health management and a cool thing to do. "You can come to our events, and if you get tested, you can skip the long line, get in free, and get a free drink. People are very persuaded by that," said Eric Frasier, a DJ and party promoter who works with both DENIM and Ignite DMV. For him, it's an opportunity to offer the support to other young gay men he wishes he would've gotten himself.
"I'm from southern Virginia and homosexuality wasn't discussed," he remembered. "I knew who I was, but I wasn't able to convey it or portray it or live it. I moved up here [to DC] in 2006 and I remember seeing gay men and women proud to be walking around with their boyfriends and girlfriends. They didn't mind showing displays of affection. That was big for me." The personal liberty to outwardly express who you are inwardly is essential, he added. "Sometimes I wonder if I had these types of outlets when I was younger, would I be a different man today? Would I be a different gay man today? Would I be a different Black man today?"
There was nothing in the community—no culturally sensitive support groups, no hospitals, no clinics, no funds, no places that they could go and feel comfortable.
The Who Are You? Question
The work of forming and understanding identity can be complex for anyone and, for gay Black men, complicated even more by the matrix of expectations, standards, histories, and traditions that intersect with gender, race, culture, and sexuality. The "gay spectrum," based on the Kinsey Scale of sexual attraction created by researchers in 1948, is one way of defining self, said Payton, who is also the medical case manager for Us Helping Us. "The spectrum exists from 'I am questioning my attraction to persons of the same sex and may never do anything with it but think about it for the rest of my life,' all the way to 'I think I've been born in the wrong body and I want to change to one that is more comfortable.' That is the spectrum," he explained.
"There is even a spectrum for how people choose to label themselves, which is important. You'll have people who'll say 'I'm gay.' You'll have people who'll just say 'I'll do what I'm doing.' You'll have people who'll say 'I'm same-gender-loving.' The positive is that people get to define what they do. That negative is that they forget that they're still having a Black gay experience. So what does that mean and what is the impact of having a Black gay experience first?"
Those are the conversations being forged at DENIM, those deep moments of discourse in a safe, judgment-free space that generate greater understanding of self and others. Some who find their preferences too fluid to be neatly and conveniently defined by anyone, including themselves, avoid being boxed in. Toni Lloyd, according to other people's labels, is transgender. She is the only woman who comes to DENIM, but she doesn't come in search of herself. She's already confident about that.
During an exercise in the community room, volunteer AJ King leads a conversation, kicked off by reading a series of statements.
"Move to the right if you identify as gay." Most of the group steps across the strip of white tape being used as a divider. Toni stays put.
"Move to the left if you identify as African-American." Everyone makes the shift back across—except Toni.
"Personally, I don't like identifiers," she admitted later that evening. "I don't even like labels. On one spectrum I would be considered androgynous, but on another, even though most people can't even tell, I'm a trans woman. I just say I'm human," she smiled. "Let's leave it at that."
No one at DENIM can answer the "who are you?" question for anyone else. That's something the young men—and woman—who regularly attend discover during the course of the conversations and activities there. Open for drop-ins from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Tuesday to Friday, the DENIM site is part confessional, part hangout space, part health ward, part community center, and, on Friday evenings, part nightclub.
If a young man has had an argument with someone in his family, he can talk about it at Brother 2 Brother, a monthly support group that uplifts young, same-gender-loving men of color. If another is weighed down by relationship problems, he can vent about them at illuMENation on first Fridays, where the discussion revolves around dating, identity, and sex. DENIM also partners with other organizations in the area—among them Temple Hill Skate Palace, for a weekly roller skating night—to enhance socialization and bonding in comfortable, familiar settings.
Those are the conversations being forged at DENIM, those deep moments of discourse in a safe, judgment-free space that generate greater understanding of self and others.
Finding a Space to Just Be
In addition to providing a place of comfort and familiarity, DENIM is a hub of resources for its constituents. Increasingly, the paramount need is housing. In Washington, DC, consistently ranked among the country's 10 most expensive major cities, the number of rental units charging less than $800 a month has been halved in just over five years. The high cost of living, plus the limited availability of spaces, has created a competitive market for real estate but a serious challenge for people in urgent need.
According to a survey by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, 40 percent of the youth in temporary homeless shelters are LGBT. Most have an unfortunate backstory. "Many of my clients have been kicked out not just because they're gay, but because they're HIV positive," said Guy Anthony, treatment adherence counselor at Us Helping Us. His job is to make sure that the young men who are diagnosed aren't derailed from getting and staying on a course of treatment.
"I assess the barriers and sometimes, HIV is the least of their worries. It's where am I going to live? What am I going to eat tomorrow? What am I going to wear? I have to say, 'Let's attack all these other things, these socioeconomic disparities that are happening in your life first before we can even attack this HIV.'"
That challenge is exacerbated by the waiting lists, some as long as six years, to get an apartment through public agencies in DC, so even once a client begins treatment, the housing challenge can make it difficult to stay adherent. "A lot of people are saying, 'I'm in treatment and I'm going to see my doctors and my viral load is down and my CD4 count is up, but I'm bunking on someone's couch and I'm sleeping on someone's floor.' That's a problem and until we are able to reconcile it, we'll continue to see nonadherence here in DC," he said.
The staff's ability to relate personally runs deep and Anthony, like the rest of the DENIM/Us Helping Us joint force, uses his own life experiences and tenacious story to connect with clients and offer them hope. It can get better, he promises. "Seven years ago, I was him. I was sleeping on someone's couch in LA. I was on cocaine three, four times a day just trying to make it, trying to drown out the fact that I have this disease that won't go away," shared Anthony, who was diagnosed with HIV when he was 21. "I was supposed to die when I tried to commit suicide after I took pills and chased them with vodka. But God saw that I was worthy of helping other people. I never take that lightly."
I assess the barriers and sometimes, HIV is the least of their worries. It's where am I going to live? What am I going to eat tomorrow? What am I going to wear?
Being Their Own Kind of Man
It's Friday night, just barely past dusk, and DENIM's multifunctional office space is alive with festive energy. It's not a calendar holiday but the weekly vogue ball is high celebration for the young men who frequent the center. Bass-heavy music vibrates the floor, converting it into a catwalk simply by the attitude shift that courses through the room. The pressures of the week have been a burden and they dissolve when DENIM participants gather here to dance and cheer them away.
The DJ takes to the mic to coax them forward, and the need to strut becomes contagious. Some may have been insulted, even flat-out rejected by others; some may be fully supported and poured into by loved ones; some may be going it solo and completely independent of and unconcerned about other people's opinions. They all gather here to celebrate each other and who they are individually. The monolithic perception of manhood is challenged as they take on what the mainstream would consider feminine postures. In doing so, and proclaiming their manhood at the same time, they're remixing the neat and tidy conventions of masculinity.
"Vogue Night is an outlet. A lot of people aren't familiar with the ballroom community," said Travis Wise, manager of youth services for DENIM. "Back in the '80s, a lot of [gay] kids were displaced because their families didn't want to have anything to do with them. More mature adults, who had their own places, said, 'OK, come stay with me and I'll teach you how to apply for a job, I'll teach you how to get into college.' That's actually where the ballroom started and unfortunately it's a message that's kind of missed." He smiles as the volume of the music amps up in the next room and he has to raise his voice to talk over it. "Tonight is just about having fun and expressing yourself. And some friendly competition."
Several participants get up and take to the center of the room, signaling their entrance in a contest that will be judged at the end of the night. A tall, lean young man with flawless caramel skin and curly hair cut into precision-edged sharpness steps into the center of the room. Not cracking a smile, he intensely sashays across the floor for several paces, then spins and dramatically tosses a red scarf around his neck. The crowd circling him goes crazy with applause and snaps and verbal affirmations, cheering him through a series of twirls and poses. Then, like he's attached to a string of invisible elastic, he falls to his back in the most acrobatic of half-splits, and rebounds with effortless agility, only to do it again 15 seconds later.
Freedom is a song in the soul. It's an absence of controls, a self-assured certitude, a confidence that bubbles up from the inside and spills outward. He has gotten his and he is showing it off.
How do you hope to grow and increase your local impact in the next few years?
We hope to grow our community impact by putting a stronger emphasis on community outreach—not just doing outreach at the normal locations where Black gay men congregate but expanding our reach to colleges, doctor offices, businesses. Places where you normally wouldn't have a presence of strong Black gay men concerned about the overall health of Black gay men and the community in which they live.
What about your approach to serving GBTQ men of color makes DENIM different than other local service providers?
Our approach is unique in that we understand the community inside and out. We have identified every sub-community inside the Black gay experience in the DMV [District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia] area, and individuals who are a part of the DENIM program live that lifestyle. They're members of the ballroom community, they're members of the college-going community, they're members of the workforce, and they're also individuals who are still trying to find their way and navigate their path to success. This allows us to have a unique perspective and a great understanding of the community we serve.
What are the most urgent needs of GBTQ men of color that aren't being addressed by the social sector right now?
There are many issues plaguing young Black gay men: joblessness, lack of education, homelessness, and mental health. But there is another issue that is as elusive as a falling star on a cloudy night, and this is the inability of men to come together and support each other. Just as there are individuals who are having issues with joblessness, homelessness, lack of education, there is a large population of educated, driven young Black gay men who cannot find the strength, the power, the necessary will to come together and fight for causes that will elevate the entire community. It reminds me of the words of Harriet Tubman: "I saved a thousand slaves. I would've saved a thousand more but they did not know they were slaves." I feel that the community needs to open its eyes and recognize its strength and ability to overcome disparities plaguing young Black gay and bisexual men.