31 January 2013

A New Harlem Renaissance?

If you ask almost anyone living in New York City to name a "gay neighborhood", you will probably hear "Chelsea" or "Jackson Heights".  Those who are LGBT, or have ties to the community, will probably mention Astoria (where I now live), Woodside and possibly Bushwick.

If you ask someone my age or older, or someone who studies LGBT history, he or she will probably mention "The Village", Park Slope (where I lived before I moved to Astoria), Brooklyn Heights--and Harlem.

Most people don't realize that at the same time the area around Christopher Street was turning into a "gay ghetto," Harlem was also developing its own LGBT community.  It can be argued that queer people--lesbians and bisexuals in particular--did much to make the Harlem Renaissance possible. 

Another thing most people realize--and many people don't want to admit--is that LGBT people have never left Harlem.  More precisely, there have always been a lot of gays,lesbians and transgender people living there.  

One reason for that is that Harlem has long been home to people of color from every social and economic class, and from the entire spectrum of human endeavor.  Even in its worst times, the neighborhood could claim to be the residence of artists, entrepreneurs, entertainers, scholars and other creative and educated people, as well as every other type of worker imaginable.  With such diversity, it's not surprising that there would be a gay presence there.  

And, another reason why so many LGBT people, mainly of color, call  Harlem (as well as other uptown Manhattan neighborhoods, and the Bronx) home is that neighborhoods like The Village, Park Slope and Chelsea have gentrified, so many people of color simply cannot afford to live in them.  There is also a reason people in those neighborhoods and Caucasian LGBT people will almost never talk about:  People of color feel, or sometimes aren't, welcome in those neighborhoods.

Finally, even when LGBT people of color meet sympathetic white people, there are some things they simply couldn't talk about, even if both sides were willing.  I can empathise, at least to some degree, with anybody who has experienced prejudice; I've been told that I'm "not like other white people".  If only that last statement were true!  The fact is that whatever prejudice I've experienced is, in some ways, different from what someone experiences on account of the color of his or her skin.  And I simply can't imagine what it's like to experience that at the same time one is incurring hate over his or her sexuality or gender identity and expression.

As much as I appreciate The Center and Callen Lorde (They were my lifelines as I was looking into, and started, transitioning.), I have long argued that Harlem and the Bronx need equivalents to them.   Not surprisingly, Carmen Neely, the president of Harlem Pride, feels the same way.  

So, she and her group have started an online petition to garner support for the creation of what she calls "The Community Pride Center."  Although she's spearheading the drive for a center, the center itself will not be a project of Harlem Pride.  She says the center will be the effort of collaborative work between several LGBT groups and leaders.  They hope to have the center open by 2015.

"Our time is now," she says.  "It's needed in this community.  It's been way too long."


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