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Mon, Jun. 19th, 2017, 08:52 am
Nonfiction: queer gang members

Vanessa R. Panfil, The Gang’s All Queer: Study of gay/bisexual male gang members in both gay and mixed male gangs. Most of the people she interviewed were nonwhite. Some identified as bisexual, “but sometimes downplayed their attraction to women so that their families would take their disclosures seriously.”

Many of them who are in mixed gangs were out, at least to some people; the ones in gay gangs were all out. She argues that they navigate honor-based masculinity norms by doing additional “identity work” that heterosexual gang members don’t necessarily have to do, spending a lot of time and energy on how they were perceived (though they also noted that this was a normal thing for anyone who lived in a high-violence environment to have to do). Her informants often explicitly defined themselves as not “faggots,” who they identified as gay men who are performatively, outrageously gay (even though she notes that a number of her respondents did take on aspects of this identity, which they identified as including tight jeans and painted nails—e.g., “I mean, I dye my hair, but I dye my hair and it still look masculine. Or, I paint my nails, but I paint it a clear coat”). [She also makes clear that her informants would commonly, when they first used that term, “stop talking and laugh, or apologize, or try to explain it away,” but they used it so often that she became desensitized. At the same time, they found it highly offensive when used against them by outsiders.]

Panfil says that, even without her prompting, they repeatedly wanted to discuss “real men” and other aspects of “realness,” including men who were gay but unwilling to acknowledge it and “real gangs” (many participants preferred to use “posse” or “clique” for their group, even a group that would engage in violence together). They overwhelmingly preferred male partners who were conventionally masculine, though they were critical of those who refused to acknowledge their own sexuality, who also caused real practical problems (e.g., jealous girlfriends, family and friends who couldn’t be introduced, etc.). “Trades”—men who identified as straight but had sex with men—were nonetheless at the same time “eroticized by most participants for their rugged masculinity and their ‘hoodness.’”

Men who identified as members of straight gangs often made clear that they just didn’t know whether/how many other gay men there were in the gangs; many of them had had sex with other closeted gang members. Her informants weren’t particularly critical of closeted gang members—but they condemned closeted men who performed homophobia to cover up their own desires and acts.

A number of gang members also used their willingness to inflict violence to perform masculinity, though gay gangs were more likely than mixed gangs to be less violent/confine illegal activity mostly to fraud and drug sales. They could be provoked to violence either to demand respect generally, including from other gay gangs, or, sometimes, in response to specifically homophobic treatment. Over two-thirds of the men she studied had been in a physical fight due to anti-gay harassment. Fights could also break out just over respect, though as always most of the time the aggression stayed limited to posturing: most disputes die and no one shoots.

Straight gangs were more socially segregated than gay gangs, whose members often mingled with non-members or even members of other gay gants. A number of members of the gay gangs came in through sexual/romantic relationships with other members (but no one had to have sex with everyone already in the gang to join, sorry fandom); gay gangs tended to form later in men’s lives (average joining age 18) than mixed gangs (average joining age 14), which were more likely to be neighborhood-based. Gay gangs also had fewer initiation rituals, which Panfil speculates was related to their already-shared experiences: “they had grown up together and come out together. If members of these tightknit groups deemed a new person to be worthy of their time, this constituted sufficient acceptance.”

Nearly sixty percent of her informants had sold sex (roughly the same percentage that had sold drugs), and others came close in terms of dating in exchange for money or gifts, but this wasn’t a part of their gang membership as such, though they did learn “tricks of the trade” from older gang members. They preferred to sell sex via the internet as safer, more lucrative, and more respectable than street prostitution. Panfil indicates that many of her informants behaved in gender-fluid ways in their daily lives, especially intimate lives, but their public gender presentation was more masculine—which they saw as protective as well as appropriate, given their at least partial acceptance of existing prejudices. The saddest quote for me: “before I knew what it was, I knew how to hide it.” Gay gangs allowed members to be “relatively unconcerned about impression management related to their sexual identities,” and their members were therefore more willing to talk about their emotional connections to fellow gang members.

Panfil also points out that gay members of straight gangs generally behaved in ways consistent with other accounts of (presumptively straight) gang members, with the exception of homophobic gay-bashing that has been reported among closeted gang members elsewhere. Most of the members’ time is spent hanging out, but gang members are still more likely to be involved in crime and violence than non-gang members. Violence was a central part of gang identity, and 8 of 12 men she studied who’d carried a gun or used one in a crime were in straight gangs. Of the 19 who were or had been in straight gangs, 15 didn’t come out to the gangs, mostly not out of fear of violence but more out of fear of shunning, though there’s one striking story of a young man who had to fight his way out of his gang in prison when his gay relationship was discovered. Panfil notes that gangs often serve the roles of family—and, given biological families’ often negative reactions to coming out, it was reasonable to be concerned about other gang members’ reactions.

Panfil also discusses hybrid gangs—usually friend-based groups where a substantial minority were openly (within the group) gay; such gangs were still crime-involved, but they didn’t sell drugs together (as many straight gangs did) or sell sex together (as members of gay gangs occasionally did). Hybrid gangs often had women, sometimes women who identified as lesbian or bisexual; from her informants’ perspective, the women didn’t face many barriers to doing so, at least within the gang.

About half of her informants had work in the legal economy, but about half also had criminal records that made such work difficult to get or keep. Because they associate masculinity with being able to provide for oneself and one’s family, this created a situation in which selling drugs or other criminal activity could seem like the responsible thing to do. Meanwhile, selling sex was lucrative—$200 or $250 for an hour of work, an order of magnitude more than they could earn in the formal economy, and on a better schedule, though it was still perceived as distasteful. I was struck by the fact that “[t]he threat and impact of a criminal record was so overwhelming that [] participants refused to call the cops on romantic partners, even those who had done them serious harm.”

Here’s a provocative bit from the conclusion: “In a different generation, or perhaps among people from different facial/ethnic or class backgrounds, a group whose members fight back against anti-gay harassment, use underground economies to meet their needs, and share a common meaning system might call themselves a radical political group, not a gang.” As this indicates, Panfil seems most interested in the hybrid and gay gangs, because of their greater openness, even as she emphasizes the different trajectories that bring young men into gangs and the real risks that openness may pose to them.

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Mon, Jun. 19th, 2017 04:39 pm (UTC)

Fascinating but not surprising when one really thinks about it. I love that quote you posted at the end because it's true. Perhaps terrorism has changed what we think of as radical political groups.

Mon, Jun. 19th, 2017 07:37 pm (UTC)

Really fascinating. I can't imagine this in most gangs even 20-30 years ago. I mean this is terrible that young people are forced or have few options other than doing this, but it's interesting the kinds of fraught negotiations of equality and masculinity performance are going on here.