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‘The Gang’s All Queer’

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The lives of gay gang members.

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

You felt surprisingly safe. There you were, in a place that was certainly iffy, but you were totally comfortable. No danger, no darkness, no problems—and in the new book The Gang’s All Queer by Vanessa R. Panfil, no world that you’ve ever seen before, either.

The Gang’s All Queer: The Lives of Gay Gang Members
by Vanessa R. Panfil
2017
New York University Press (nyupress.org)
312 pages
$28 U.S. and Canada

Everybody knows that being a teen isn’t easy. Being a gay teen is even harder—which, as a white lesbian woman, Panfil knew. Her work in a Columbus, Ohio, LGBTQ center for young adults showed her realities beyond what she’d lived herself, and it sparked an interest in examining the Columbus gang culture. She already knew a handful of gay gang members, and after she had gained their trust, those men introduced her to a web of people who shared their world with her.

When most people think of gangs, the image that comes to mind is one of tattoos and machismo. Panfil found some of that, but it was often used to hide LGBTQ sexual identity; indeed, many (though far from all) of the men she interviewed were not out to their fellow gang members. Panfil says there are three distinct kinds of gangs: all-gay gangs (of which there aren’t many), heterosexual gangs (in which being gay could be dangerous), and the more tolerant, easy-going “hybrid” gangs (with perhaps a 50/50 mix of gay and straight members).

Panfil points out that most of the men she interviewed were careful to stress that they were very masculine. In spite of that, more than two out of three gay men fought someone else over homophobic harassment, and protection from such was not the main reason for joining a gang. The main reasons were the perception of “family” that gangs provided, or because of deep friendships. Furthermore, while there was a certain amount of crime—mostly petty theft or selling drugs and sex (although fierce violence was not unknown)—many gay gangs offered encouragement, a more democratic atmosphere, help for job-seekers, and educational support, thus acting more as “cliques” than gangs.

Let’s start here: The Gang’s All Queer is a bit on the academic side, so it won’t be on anyone’s relax-in-a-hammock-and-read list. Having said that, it’s a very interesting take on a world that never makes the headlines.

Not only did author Vanessa R. Panfil have access to a group of men who were willing to tell all, but she fully used that access to understand why a gay man would turn to groups that are typically antigay. This leads her to the bigger picture, and the larger questions of violence and remaining closeted, as well as problems with being black, gay, and a gangster. And because her subjects so casually use offensive slang labels, that language, as well as the issues of sex workers, are examined.

Even readers who might struggle with the college-thesis feel of this book will ultimately come away with a better grasp of a world that they probably had never thought about before. Certainly for scholars, but also for readers interested in LGBT culture, The Gang’s All Queer is a pretty safe bet.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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