May 11, 2016

At Brunches and Happy Hours, Black Gays Discover Camaraderie in Austin

Reporting Texas

Jeremy Teal founded Beyond Brothas in 2015 as a social group for gay, bisexual and transgender black men in Austin. Membership has grown to nearly 75, he said. Brianna Walker/Reporting Texas



Ironically, it was a visit to a queer-friendly club in Austin that made Jeremy Teal realize how isolated he felt.

“The first time I went to Rain, I saw two other black guys, and I was confused. I thought, ‘Where are all the black people?’ ” Teal said.

That evening in spring 2010 at Rain on 4th downtown, not long after he had moved to Austin from Dallas, reminded Teal how rarely he came across men like himself – gay and black.

“Once you recognize it, you see it all the time,” he said of how gay blacks are marginalized — a minority within a minority.

“In images over the years, pride banners, movies, websites, I never saw people who looked like me,”  said Teal, 29. “If we were in movies, we were a joke. We were always the ones that helped with girls’ make-up.”

In 2015, Teal decided to start a social group where gay, bisexual and transgender black men in Austin could find camaraderie and a sense of community. Beyond Brothas organizes outings such as brunches, happy hours, wine-tastings and trips to the Texas State Fair. In just over a year, membership has grown to nearly 75, Teal said.

It was at a brunch that Teal came up with the idea. “I was brave enough and invited five new friends to brunch, and I jokingly called it brothers’ brunch,” he said.

Word spread about the group as Teal organized more such friendly interactions. As attendance grew, he also began publicizing the group through Facebook. Teal said at least 20 to 30 members now show up at every event – sometimes triggering reactions from  other patrons at the bars and eateries where they meet.

At a recent brunch at an Oak Hill restaurant, “there were about 30 guys,” he said. “As they trickled in two at a time, the room just got quieter and quieter.”

A Gallup poll reported last year that in the Austin-Round Rock metro area, 5.3 percent of adults identified with the LGBT community, third highest among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas. Just over 8 percent of metro Austin’s population is black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2010.

Morris Haywood is a regular at Beyond Brothas meet-ups. The 37-year-old sales coach has a busy schedule and had struggled to make friends in Austin’s queer community until he joined Beyond Brothas.

“I was born and raised in Austin and moved back [from Dallas] in 2010. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I had two jobs and worked a lot,” Haywood said. “I met Jeremy at the end of April [2015] and he told me to come to this brunch.”

Haywood said he used to try meeting people through online sites, but does not anymore, thanks to Beyond Brothas.

Black gays can encounter hostility in the online world. Grindr, a social network for gays, has 2 million daily users worldwide, according to the company. While Grindr’s terms and conditions ban user profiles that are “hateful, racially or ethnically or otherwise offensive to any group or individual,” it allows users to include racial preferences.

In a YouTube video that has been seen nearly 1 million times, men were asked to read aloud the Grindr profiles of white gays who specified that they did not want partners who were black, Hispanic or Asian. In one case, the profile said, “Is there a block-all-black button?”

A Grindr spokesperson said the company is taking steps to discourage racism. “We encourage users to report any such activity, which we then put through a rigorous vetting process every day,” the representative said in an email.

Gay blacks also struggle to win acceptance in black churches.

“There’s a don’t-ask, don’t-tell mentality in the church,” said Eric McDaniel, a professor in the Center for African and African-American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He cited what he called a pervasive joke in black churches: “There are men you know are gay, like the male choir director. You’re just not allowed to talk about it.”

“They may frown upon it, but they also don’t support discriminatory practices,” he said. “They realize there is a group they are underserving.”

That taboo was the subject of a 2006 documentary, “Holler If You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church” on the BET cable network, in which young black gays and lesbians talked about feeling pushed away by their church.

However, not all black gay men have the same experience.

Alfred Martin, a 41-year-old from Detroit, moved to Austin in 2008 to pursue a doctorate in media studies at the UT. Although the city didn’t turn out to be as progressive as he had expected, he found St. James’s Episcopal Church in East Austin to be a sanctuary.

“I could be black and gay, and they accepted me. It was the first time that a religious institution had ever felt like a home to me,” said Martin, now a visiting assistant professor at The New School in New York. The church strives to embrace difference, he said: “The first time I went there, I was told, ‘We are multi-everything here.’ And that turned out to be true in a radical way, unlike any community I’ve experienced before or since in Austin.”

For Teal, expanding the reach of Beyond Brothas has become a passion, and he hopes to keep growing. “I couldn’t live here without [Beyond Brothas]. It’s the reason I don’t give up on other parts of my life,” he said.

Although Martin hadn’t heard of Beyond Brothas earlier, he said he could see the value in what it was doing. “If that organization made someone feel more welcome, just one person, it’s absolutely worth it.”