Simplification is a human defense mechanism. We gravitate towards stories with clear-cut characters, predictable storylines, and uplifting conclusions. There is safety in the familiarity of the rom coms that end in marriage, the action movies that show handsome white men staving off the apocalypse, and the military dramas that glorify the camaraderie and heroism of traumatized American soldiers.
Even in our daily lives, we constantly operate under the influence of mental heuristics that developed as we grew up and exist to save us time and energy: the postman is not a threatening person; the black boy in the hoodie across the street might be dangerous; the woman in the miniskirt looks like a slut; the man in the suit coming out of the Mercedes is someone to respect. To the part of our psyche that relies on these first impressions, their accuracy, fairness, or truthfulness does not matter. In fact, to inject nuance into our crude categorizations defeats their purpose and leaves us somewhat adrift — what shall we do with the information that the postman beats his wife, or that the black boy in the hoodie just won a scholarship to Harvard? Now we’re uncomfortable. Now we can no longer draw unshakeable conclusions about the world around us.
The existence of gay gang members exerts a similar effect on our understanding of human behavior. Except for Omar Little in The Wire or Chiron in Moonlight, gay gang members don’t get much visibility in film, television, or other aspects of popular culture. “Homo thugs”, as they are called, tend to blur the lines between the categories to which we cling to make sense of the world. One box is labeled “gangsters”, the other box is labeled “gay people”, and each box contains all the imagery, connotations, and associated subjects that accompany each topic. Rarely do the twain meet.
But mainstream pop culture, with all its reliance on boxes, is usually not a trustworthy source of information from which to derive an understanding of the different facets of human nature in all its contradictory glory. Books like Vanessa Panfil’s The Gang’s All Queer, however, provide an overview of the subject without shying away from the tricky questions: how do these young men reconcile their sexual orientation with their identity as gangsters? How do they protect themselves and safeguard their reputations without repressing or sacrificing their desire to be with other men? How do they negotiate public perceptions of “gayness” within their families, gangs, and social circles?
In The Gang’s All Queer, Panfil seeks to complicate the popular narratives surrounding gang members and the hypermasculine, hyper-heterosexual lives they lead. Her source material comes straight from the mouths of over 50 young men who identify as gay gang members and who, all together, had involvement in up to 38 different gangs in the Columbus, Ohio area, some of which included nationally known groups such as the Bloods and the Gangster Disciples. Her tactical approach as both an observer and a participant reminds one of John Dollard’s seminal work, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937). Much like Dollard, Panfil demonstrates a handy ability to allow the world she is studying to speak for itself. She preserves the slang and the spirit of the person talking when presenting segments of conversations and reflects on the influence her presence might have on their demeanor and their words. Her analyses are astute, her writing is fluid, and her methodologies are sound.
But perhaps what she does best is lean into the contradictions that she encounters, instead of ignoring them or trying to solve them. Take the use of the word “faggot”, for example. In her analysis of all the different contexts in which the word could be acceptably used within the gay community, Panfil lays out all the caveats and restrictions: some people reclaim it as a greeting, but only if addressing or being addressed by another gay person; others use it as an insult for rival gang members; other men use it to disparage certain types of lifestyles, attitudes, and actions that could imperil the masculine personas they cultivate publically. About this last usage, Panfil writes: “[The gang members’] descriptions of who was “the fag” or who was “too gay” help illustrate the value they placed on traditional masculine behavior. To be accepted and respected as gay was seen as challenge enough; were participants to be associated with the folk devil of “the fag”, it would endanger their claim to masculine respectability.” Conversations with the gang members Spiderman and Darius reveal the scope of the ignominy that a gay man denoted as a “fag” would suffer in the eyes of most men in Panfil’s sample:
“Spiderman stated, “A fag would be somebody that acts gay, dress gay. You wear tights, you ‘Girl this, girl that,’ just actin’ gay.” When I asked Darius to expand on how someone “acts gay,” he replied: “Oh my God, they switch! They wear colorful clothes, they get all these type of piercins, their haircuts. Their voice is like a lil girl, and you be lookin’ like, ‘You grown! Act like you got some balls between your legs.’ And then they wear the gayest shoes! Half the time, they wear girls’ shoes! And I be lookin’ like, ‘What?’ And they loud, some of ’em be loud for no reason.”
The irony of a man who has experienced the alienation of being called a “faggot” perpetuating the word’s homophobic and misogynistic message is not lost on Panfil, who maintains that no easy conclusion can be drawn. Should everyone — both gay and straight — simply stop using the word? Should someone who speaks like Spiderman or Darius be called out and shamed? Are gay gang members unworthy representations of gay people in general? These are the questions that tend to end up implied in headlines and grappled with in op-eds and think pieces. Similar to the way the nuanced and context-dependent conclusions of most scientific studies run the risk of becoming oversimplified under the spotlight of national news outlets, many of Panfil’s findings and observations are vulnerable to misinterpretation and politically-motivated distortion.
It bears mentioning that Panfil’s role in the book is not to perform the work of an activist, nor to police the language or behavior of the people who are sharing their experiences with her. She does not sugarcoat her findings, but neither does she dramatize them. Regarding Spiderman’s or Darius’ opinion on fags, for example, she crafts a solid and evidence-based argument about how the term “faggot” reveals the tensions and expectations that all men regardless of sexual orientation confront when consolidating a “respectable” gender identity to perform in public situations:
“[A]n in-depth analysis of fag/faggot reveals insights far beyond its status as an epithet that has been occasionally and situationally reclaimed; it also indicates pervasive societal expectations that demand normative masculinity and discourage femininity among men, regardless of sexual orientation. That is, even among a group whose members have been called fags in an attempt to mandate their behavior, homophobic and misogynistic uses of fag/faggot persist. Set largely against a backdrop of negative perceptions of gay men, calling another gay man a fag was one way to create and enforce boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and thus construct a respectable gay identity. Participants’ negative uses of the term did not always map onto their heterosexual family/friends’ usages of it, suggesting that at least some of the standards for respectable gay identity and gender presentation arose in queer circles, though they were likely influenced by outsiders’ expectations of them.”
Such a paragraph is duly suited to the type of resource that The Gang’s All Queer purports to be — it is not a compilation of firmly worded vindications or a compendium of troubles that gay gang members have had to endure (though the book certainly addresses the challenges these men face and the forms of resistance that they must enact). And yet, the book functions as an important tool in the recognition and the dismantling of systems that lead to the marginalization, poverty, and violence that men such as Darius and Spiderman face. The simple act of seeking out this particular marginalized group and listening to them, talking to them, and asking them about their lives amounts to a form of activism at its most powerful, because it entails the strengthening of social networks and the creation of scholarship about a woefully misunderstood and understudied topic.
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In her Methods Appendix, Panfil cites the words of a random email she received in response to a Craigslist ad she put up about her research: “Vanessa darlin’, save your pennies and watch TV shows such as the cable channels TruTV, History, and others. Trust me, you will get enough stories from guys in the age group you mentioned on these shows … Not only that Vanessa, trust me, many of their stories are explicit, raunchy and hot. You will throw down your writing tablet and wallow in the sheer wanton masculine natural tales spoken by these guys.”
In other words, the lives of gay gang members in the eyes of this Internet stranger are nothing but fodder for TV shows to exoticize and sensationalize. We go back once again to the human urge to simplify, to resist complexity. It’s easy to write about gang members as killers who lust for blood and money or gay men as perverts and freaks; it’s also easy to absorb these stories without questioning them. But to genuinely engage with another human being whose identity only barely overlaps with yours is a daunting task. Yet this is a challenge that the Western world desperately, sorely demands of its citizens right now, because the gulf separating poor from rich, straight from LGBTQ+, black from white, rural from urban, man from woman, and conservative from liberal widens with each passing day of Trump’s presidency. Though the idea of dialogue seems far-fetched and laughable in these days when self-proclaimed alt-right Neo-Nazis march in the streets unfazed, Panfil’s response to the Internet troll emblematizes the simplicity of the concept of listening to increase understanding: “I didn’t want to conduct a voyeuristic study of people and their behaviors that are ‘explicit, raunchy and hot,’ but rather gain a better understanding of marginalized young men’s social worlds and identity negotiation.” With The Gang’s All Queer, she accomplishes that and more.