Hip-hop has many faces, but in today’s pop pageant, the “thug” image rules. A hypermasculine black male who glowers from inside his baggy sportswear, the thug erects a protective (yet seductive) front that says “Danger: Enter at your own risk.” With school and work seen as unrealistic power sources, his pose translates into hard physical currency. And as rap music pushes its way into the mainstream, black men flex harder for positions of strength. Meanwhile, women are tolerated as sex objects, and gay identity, the least welcome face, remains an irrelevant, unwanted joke.
Hip-hop always has had a homophobic streak—homosexuality equals weakness, which one can’t afford in a hostile, racist society. So why, as Guy Trebay reports in The Village Voice (Feb. 8, 2000), is one of New York City’s largest gay dance clubs pumping hits by thuggish rappers Juvenile and DMX, while a line of hard-posing gay black men forms outside? More and more young gay men of color are identifying with hip-hop’s roughneck ghetto imagery and rejecting the more tasteful, “privileged” icons of white gay culture, Trebay notes. Hip-hop’s bad-ass mask is valued over, say, house music’s heartrending, diva groove. As a black clubgoer tells Trebay, “There are all these myths about faggots being soft and feminine, like you’re lacy and wear chiffon. Straight-up homies, niggaz, and thugz can walk through projects and be gay. But you can’t walk through the project and be a faggot.”
By defining a “faggot” as soft or passive, and a “gay” man as tough or real, many gay black men deflect the ‘faggot’-baiting lyrics of rappers such as DMX or Snoop Doggy Dogg. “Faggot,” like “bitch” for some women of color, is seen as a nonspecific gibe tossed around by family members. Rap lyrics have undeniably advocated violence against gay people; the Goodie Mob once asserted, “Pin the hollow-point tip / On this gay rights activist.” Yet for many fans, love of the music and its diverse culture complicates the threats. “Homo thugz,” though not free to publicly display their affection for other men, embrace hip-hop style. They value hip-hop’s rebellion against white mainstream society more than white gay culture’s perceived need for assimilation.
Trebay quotes novelist James Earl Hardy explaining the origins of the “homie-sexual” movement in ’80s vogue balls, where “banjee boy” or “realness” categories featured gay men striking poses as, basically, hip-hop tough guys. Realness was a cheeky aside, a spoof that Hardy refers to as the “same-gender-loving man who doesn’t look, act, talk, or dress in a way that says gay.” But with commercial rap’s cartoonish machismo now celebrated in big-budget videos and advertising, Trebay reports that this year’s Ultra-Omni Ball, New York’s black gay/lesbian “voguing” venue, was almost entirely consumed by hard-core hip-hop posturing. Gay men (and lesbians) parodied every aspect of the thug pose, even throwing up gang hand signs.
For a gay person to embody an identity that denies his or her existence demands some elaborate finesse; it inevitably discourages any public affirmation of gay sexuality. But Matt Wobensmith, former editor of Outpunk fanzine and founder of gay hip-hop record label Queercorps, tells Trebay that juggling identities is just everyday life for gay men and women of color.
For instance, it’s often been claimed (notably in One Nut magazine) that various hip-hop stars are, at the very least, bisexual. But when Mixmag (June 1998) suggested that gay hip-hoppers were becoming more visible in the industry, citing Queen Pen’s lesbian-themed song “Girlfriends,” Queen Pen herself bristled. Rapper/actress Queen Latifah, who played a lesbian character in the film Set It Off, shies away from the subject in a hip-hop context. There are still no prominent “out” rappers. Jake Ginsky in Mother Jones (March 2000) doubts whether any record company would sign a gay rapper, because the industry is so focused on selling a male “myth of toughness” and heterosexuality.
At the underground level, there have been incremental rumblings. Outpunk’s final issue (1997) offered a 14-page “Queers in Hip-Hop” package, featuring interviews by Wobensmith with both male and female artists. Annubis, a DJ/MC for Bay Area group Rainbow Flava, told Wobensmith, “On the purist level, hip-hop is inclusive, but we’re not dealing with pure hip-hop yet. We should be there now, but we’re not.” Wobensmith, according to Mother Jones, has since abandoned his record label.
Trebay is unenthusiastic about the “homo thugz” trend, contending that, ultimately, it only glamorizes vicious behavior in heterosexuals and pushes gay men of color deeper into the closet. As Rainbow Flava’s Judge Muscat says, it may be a long time before most gay people are able to look at hip-hoppers as anything other than “the kids who beat them up in high school.”