By DeoVonte “Deo” Means
Within the last two weeks, those within “the know,” have been in a giddy excitement over the news of the upcoming release of a publication from one of our native sons. Although he has relocated, Jeffrey will always be identified as a contributor and active participant in Chicago’s “Golden-Age.” He garnered his insider insight from a youth spent in the halls of the old Prop House and The Generator. The days when “going out” was truly an experience and the city descended upon those doors on North Elston St. weekly, to party and gyrate to the beat of songs with lyrics such as “Women Beat Their Men…Their Men, Beat on There Drums.” Jeffrey’s book, Sexual Discretion- Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing, could not be released at a more fitting time. We are currently anchored in an intriguing time where this topic is being strongly discussed within circles. It’s also an added advantage that Jeffrey has the real experience that will allow him to utilize his skill-set and accurately portray the reality of our community and our mindset and struggles. So we reached out.
Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. is a Chicago native and he is an Associate Professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He shares a joint appointment in the Performing Arts Department and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, to which he brings his expertise in the fields of performance studies, critical race and gender theory, and sexuality studies. Jeffrey’s work on masculinity, queer studies, popular culture, and performance has been published in major journals in the field and he is prominent new voice within the academy. Jeffrey is also a performer, playwright, and director who engages traditional dramatic texts, as well as adapts ethnographic and cultural texts into artistic work. Most recently, his play Dancin’ the Down Low, as well as critical essays/interviews engaging the work will be published in Blaktino Queer Performance: An Anthology (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming), edited by E. Patrick Johnson (Author, Sweet Tea: Black Gay men in the South) and Ramon Rivera-Servera (Author, Performing Queer Latinidad). He is presently working on adaptations of two novels.
This Spring, McCune is on sabbatical and is finishing a 2nd Book entitled Reading is Fundamental!: An Experiment in Seeing Black Men, a book which investigates other ways of “knowing” black men beyond our common, or “canonical” prejudices. This work provides a new lens to approach the study of race and gender, toward an ethics of care and critical generosity. Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. is engaged to his partner, Terence Pleasant (clinical director), where they reside in St. Louis, MO with their dog Cairo. In their spare time, they do movies, go to concerts, see staged productions, and take exotic vacations. Their motto: Work hard, Play hard.
FL- How did Sexual Discretion come into being?
JM- Well, I was a graduate student at Northwestern University in Performance Studies when the whole hoopla over the down low—black men who have sex with men, who have wives/girlfriends—started within the media. I was, at first, curious as to why these men—who I had known existed in the black community—were receiving so much attention. I began to read EVERYTHING written on the subject and felt that much of it seemed to built on either moral panic, or just fear. At the time, 64% of new HIV/AIDS cases were black women—meaning those who had been tested that year (later to find, it coincided with an increased targeting in black female communities to get tested). The more and more I read, the more I realized we a.) were receiving so much speculation for men’s motives to be discreet about their sexuality and b.) there were so many homophobic fantasies in the media. Frankly, I was annoyed and bored after a year or so. It was almost predictable. But, my greatest concern was that this would be a distraction from getting real assistance in fighting HIV/AIDS amongst straight and non-straight folks in the black community. And so, I decided that I needed to write about this…taking the advice, “write about what will keep you writing and thinking for years to come.” And today, this dissertation has now become a book published by University of Chicago Press, which looks at the “down low,” but even moreso illuminates a tradition of sexual discretion amongst folks who are subject to surveillance. Rather than advancing this idea of “coming out the closet” as the solution to all things sexually problematic, I uncover why these dominant forms of expression may not be appropriate, or reasonable, for black men who are always navigating being understood as a “problem” that needs fixing. So often, we parcel out our sexuality from our lives as black men. However, this book cautions this and says maybe the commitment to a traditional masculinity is embedded in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis moments, which create a desire to be out of the sight of those who would figuratively and literally police us. When it comes to sexuality, men’s choice to be discrete, may very often be an extension of that way of being in the world!!!
FL- So what’s inside the book and how long did it take you to finish this book?
JM- Well, this has been an ongoing project since 2004. But, it became a book for me in 2006, while I was a fellow at the Frederick Douglass Institute of African and African American Studies at the University of Rochester. I would say this book is a journey. I really tried to follow the conversations of the DL and go where they lead me. I first begin with a journey into myself. Untraditional to “academic” books, I position myself quite a bit in this narrative. As a black gay man, who grew up in Chicago, and danced between being out and discreet, I felt a personal connection to this research. So, I begin with telling a story of embarrassment in the beginning—where I was trying to hide my own sexuality from my grandmother and family at-large. After the personal narrative, I take some time to think about R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet series as a teacher of how discretion works in multiple parts of black life. I think folks so often now equate the DL with black men, but women and men use DL to discuss many things done outside the dominant radar, beyond sex. I think R. Kelly gets that. Though, in his own life I would say that he might represent a darker employer of discretion; a point I didn’t get to make in the book. Though R. Kelly and I went to the same high school, and he is a mad musical genius, his personal use of sexual coercion and discretion was not included in the book. On some levels, cause the book is not about him per say. However, I do think that he would be a great topic for the “other side of sexual discretion.”
After the introductory section lays out the larger argument for the book, using the DL as an example of sexual discretion, I then perform an exhaustive analysis of the media and HIV/AIDS organizations treatment of the DL as the lynchpin for HIV/AIDS amongst black women. This chapter for me is rich and complicated. In that, it really comes for the demonization of black men and the easy formulas we are willing to embrace to paint them UGLY and the ways in which black women’s sexuality and sexual agency get erased in the public conversation. I mean, to the latter point, folks would write about these men having sex with straight women, as if the women were simply cavities for black male sex, or not at all responsible sexual participants. I refused this framing. I even come for Oprah and J.L. King. Together, on her talk show, they made a mess of this whole conversation. At the time, folks were trying to get me on the show; but my understanding was that there was something like a “one scholar rule.” I guess if there were too many people to contest the grotesque claims J.L. King made on the show (and Oprah’s participation in it), then that would have been too much.
This grotesque framing, made me want to speak to some DL men myself. So, the next two chapters are the result of my interviews with DL men in Chicago, either in person or via internet or other social network. I traveled for a year and half every week to this club I call The Gate in the book, where I found out many DL men trafficked, and forged relationship with several men who could tell me about their experiences. The chapter looks closely at how Hip-Hop culture/music and House culture/music interacted in this particular club. And particularly, I explore how DL men navigate this overwhelming gay space. This chapter, titled “Out in the Club,” is one of my personal favorites –for all it offers about the complexities of identity and masculinity.
Likewise, I go into the world of the “partyline” (phone-chat line) and a gay male social network internet site. In this chapter, I explore how men present themselves in these spaces, while also exploring how a particular brand of masculinity is privileged. What was always interesting to me were the slips—the moments when men who claim to be ultra-masculine would lose character and illustrate the way that gender is BUILT, MADE, and CONSTRUCTED for the space and occasion. This chapter STILL fascinates me and offers much insight into how these spaces provide a world to craft identity and to develop a language that keeps the dominant culture on the outside. For many of the men, with whom I spoke, guarantees that they were in a private space were pivotal. My conversations with men in these spaces, as well as the clubs, unveiled the hard negotiations that black men make when trying to reconcile non-dominant sexuality and commitments to traditional masculinity.
Last, but not least, I go into the world of E. Lynn Harris, who can be called one of the first to discuss DL men and bisexual men in literature. However, in my book, I include E. Lynn Harris in a lineage of writers who address racial and sexual passing. The chapter, “Pages are Ridden with Discretion,” unveils how Harris and his genre is in conversation with 19th and 20th century novels who sometimes engaged questions of racial passing, but also had subtexts of sexual discretion deep within the novels. This exploration of how Harris frames DL men and sexual discretion, moves him from being just a fiction-writer, but a teacher of black men’s deceptive, or discreet ways. In some senses, Harris was the progenitor of both mythologies and complex understandings of black male sexuality.
FL- What is the take away you want folks to walkaway with after reading?
JM- After reading my book, I hope folks better understand sexual discretion as apart of black historical traditions, as we do racial passing, or political protest. As black men resist dominant ways of expressing sexuality, they refused to be policed and attempt to find agency in a world that continuously limits them. Second, I hope people will understand the complexity of black men’s doing of sexuality and masculinity. HOW black men do either is not simple and cannot be prescripted by enforcing some norms or some notion of respectability. Instead, we are better positioned to understand sexuality, when we understand how it is that masculinity works to secure sexuality. And of course, dominant masculinities are products of a white, heterosexist, classist norms to which black men are largely measured and are often told to measure up to. Finally, I hope people will read my book and think that this is an example of a book that engages, media, real people’s stories, literature, and popular culture all in one text, while making it interesting and provocative. I hope that the grandmother trying to understand her gay son to the professor in the halls of Harvard will engage this text and be able to take something from it.
FL- What are some of the upcoming events you have scheduled around your launching and what type of success do you see the book making in the next 12 months?
JM- Later this month, I have a book talk and signing in St. Louis. I am hoping to do one in Washington DC, Seattle, and of course Chicago. I believe the Chicago book signing will be in June. I am exciting about having many conversations about the book. And while I don’t know that I can predict sales, but I hope that folks will purchase the book in book clubs, classrooms, churches, to assist their own studies/research, and for pleasure reading.
Jeffrey’s work will be available for purchase on Friday March 7th. It can be purchased via Amazon at Link ,Until then, I leave you with his profound preface and another impressive byproduct of a black, educated, upwardly mobile, man… Deo
“My impulse not to write about “taboo” stuff was, like most things, in- formed by multiple sources. It stemmed from years of sitting in pews while ministers recited passages of the Bible as a tool to quiet sexuality. It emerged from the cultural memo that made all discussions of sex between men an indicator of my “suspect” sexuality and masculinity. This impulse, to keep sex and sexuality in place, was reinforced at my aunt and uncle’s dinner table, which forbade conversations about “fleshly” topics that would “com- plicate” the flow of conversation. It was also informed by the constant odd hush-hush attitude about the cousin, sister, father, or brother who was “that way.” Finally, I dare to say, this feeling was fueled by my many black gay friends who chose partners who would try their best to conceal their “sexual perversions” to save face within the community and society at large. This commitment to keeping sex and sexual discourse down low—discreet or private—became a second-nature function, in lieu of a cultural mandate for self-surveillance.
This feeling also emerged from the absence of conversations about sexuality within the institutions that shaped me into the man I am today—schools, churches, workplaces, and community buildings where sex and sexuality were supposed to be checked at the door and were subject to high surveillance. In addition, the everyday walk down Chicago city streets reminded me that “fags” and “fruits” and “punk asses” were to be quiet—even if the only signifier of my sexuality was the malperformance of masculinity in fashion. Together, these institutions and everyday occurrences have called forth a discrete performance of self that attempts to quiet sexuality and avoid sexual taboos. An everyday feeling transforms into an everyday politics—a way of being in the world that privileges privacy and discretion.”