Perspectives: mask-ulinity
Deconstructing Banjee Realness

May 25, 2006 Print version       Other articles by this author

(a comment of gay black identity and masculinity)

Banjee. That was the identity I was given back in the summer of 1991, when I, half out/half in approached the colored museum of the Christopher Street piers. I was new to the life, so I had no reference for what people were talking about, but I soon gathered that "banjee" meant that I wasn't a "queen." Whatever the terms of identification, all I knew was that there was one thing that brought both the banjees and the queens (and whatever lies between) to the pier: we were men who loved men. An anxious 19 year old, I wore my banjee realness designation like a badge of honor. True I could go from Christopher Street to the corner b-boy/emcee ciphers at Rochdale Village (Queens) with relative ease. It wasn't exactly comfortable having my boyz talk about "fags" as if I was not there. Nor was it exactly comfortable disclosing my attraction to men in such a setting. It wasn't exactly comfortable dealing with being a basketball playin b-boyin' body in the gay circuit. Nor was it comfortable admitting to these gay men, that I was entirely resolved with my sexual identity, and didn't see myself as any more a "man" then them. I deplored top/bottom conversations cloaked underneath "so what are you into?" smokey club whispers. "I like hip hop, house, writing, shootin' hoops". I didn't know that the question of what I was "into" was purely sexual, and it always went over my head. That is, until a queen schooled me on how my masculinity was something that carried great weight, not only in the gay world, but the straight world as well. I sometimes saw it as a burden. I had no issues with people knowing that I was gay, and grew tired of explaining to people that my "liking dudes" wasn't some experiment or phase.

I am a man. I am a black man. I am a gay-identified black man. Yes, I have dated women; though, interestingly, I have only done so as a gay-identified man. You see, I came out through experiencing Isaac Julian's "Looking for Langston" and Marlon Riggs' "Tongues Untied." I came out through Audre Lorde and bell hooks. I came out through "Pomo Afro Homo" and Essex Hemphill lyricism.

That was a different time, when most of the boys in my collegiate cohort identified as banjee. We were "out" on campus and more or less in the community at large. It was North Cackalacky school boy realness: Duke, UNC, NC State, NCCU, Shaw, A&T. We were resolved about our attraction to fact, we often wore it like a badge of honor...getting a kick out of seeing girls gag when we dared to display affection publicly because "[we] didn't look like no faggot." This banjee identity we assumed was a very different identification than the more contemporary homo-thuggin, homiesexualizm, DL identity that many gay men romanticize. I was told by one brotha who thought I would be his "trade" that I had "too many books" in my apartment, and that he thought I would be "different". His loss.

I sometimes wonder what kind of statement it makes that some in our community prefer a man who identifies as straight, is a baby daddy, and who might call you a "faggot" if his boyz came around and he didn't want his boyz to know the "tea."

I'm in my 30's now. I've seen my own personal transition of going from a banjee who was initially very uncomfortable being seen with more effeminate gay men to a man who is not only comfortable with the vast spectrum of gender diversity among gay brothas, but who has actually come to appreciate it. As a rapper who relishes on-stage crotch grabbin with my fellow deep-dickollective cohorts, it's all the more pleasing when there's a snap diva or drag queen at the show screamin "go in!" Their brothas are finally starting to represent for them after them taking all the heat while we remained silent and closeted.

And yet the troubling and tense thing about this banjee identity is that, depending on where you are and the community's familiarity, it can mean everything, nothing, or something entirely different from what one intends. On the West Coast, it has almost no resonance, except to "date" you as an old school "fag" from the 90s. Which is funny.... Who would have thought that the 90's would have been thought of as "old school?" But gay years, are they say. If nothing else, in this culture where hip hop is so predominant as a cultural medium for people to express identity, I'm happy that there are kids growing up to see the possibility of identities not before given much visibility.

In high school, I thought that I was the oddest creature because, while I was resolved in my attraction to men, every representation of gay men I'd seen was an effeminate Blaine/Antoine parody. I didn't have anything against the queens, but wondered if there were guys out there who loved men and who loved ESPN, b-boying, and boy scouting. I came to discover that I was not an anomaly. It literally saved my life to know that there were "just dudes" who were gay-- though it initially sent me into this "banjee only" internalized homophobia that was marked by my discomfort with effeminate men.

I recently noticed that I've challenged how banjee personality expresses itself in terms of my attraction to other men. I've oddly gone from liking only men who were as masculine as myself (if not more) to finding something incredibly seductive about a brotha with a lil sugar in his swagger (...just a tad). All this to suggest that I think that becoming more comfortable with "sexuality" generally, has been about becoming more comfortable with my own. Though D/DC and other brothas on the "out" banjee frontier have created quite a paranoia among hip hop essentialists who thought they knew what gay looked like or didn't look like, I'm happy that some young lil' football playin, butt scratching, brotha with a baritone might see his self reflected in something not radically different from his self. And I'd like to think that his struggle to love that self will therefore be less of a struggle than it was for me. It's equally important though, for him to see that men can be comfortable in their masculine skin and at the same time, comfortable and at ease with brothas who aren't so masculine.

Hey...just scattered banjee boy thoughts by a brotha whose terribly afraid my banjee membership is expiring. The b-boy look, each year, looks more and more ridiculous-- especially now that I teach and mentor youth who I appreciate having stylistic distinction from. If nothing else, it's a drop among many in the well of conversation about gay men and masculinity that I think is crucial to our collective healing. So here's to banjee boys and sissy boys alike: Ya'll Betta Work!