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Gay Men Of Color Form Sex Clubs
to Meet the Needs
of Their Community
By Jonathan Mandell, Staff Writer,
New York Newsday, Tuesday, March 7,1995
AN ACTIVIST ON MANY FRONTS
What is LIDELL JACKSON doing in a place like this? True, there are no raincoats, it’s not dark, but, still, the room is full of old men with potbellies talking about their sex clubs. Lidell Jackson has been on Broadway, and on "Donahue," and at Gracie Mansion. He has lived three or four different lives, each one nearly impressive enough, or compelling enough, or odd enough, for a book: A friend has been eagerly offering to ghostwrite his autobiography.
He grew up in Memphis, in the segregated South, the son of a truck driver and a seamstress, both Mississippi-born and with little education. As early as the age of 7, he was carrying Amy Vanderbilt under his arm and trying to teach his family proper grammar and etiquette. He was a student at George Washington Carver High School when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated nearby. A year later he earned a full scholarship to Brown University, the first in his family and in his school to go to the Ivy League. He majored in Applied Mathematics. But after an athletic injury led a physical therapist to recommend he try a dance class, he spent much of his time learning to dance. For a year after graduation, he worked as an electrical engineer in Providence. But Lidell Jackson wanted to be a dancer. Despite the entreaties of his professors, and his own late start, he moved to New York on the day the tall ships sailed into the harbor and four months later went to his first audition, which was for a Broadway show, "Your Arms Too Short To Box With God." He was not there to audition, he insists, but to lend support to a roommate. "I didn’t want to be on Broadway; I wanted to be a ballet dancer." But on a whim, he did audition, and he got a part. (His roommate did not.)
For the next 15 years, while working during the day running the computers in a PR firm, he was a Broadway gypsy, dancing in more than a half-dozen shows (often under a stage name) from "Bubblin’ Brown Sugar" to the national company of "A Chorus Line." After a while, he says, he stopped liking it. "Here I was, shuffling my feet and making people happy, and my community needed help." It was a community he had joined little by little from the age of 14, when he looked up the word homosexual in a medical textbook. His freshman year of college, he sat down and wrote his mother and his father separate letters. "We’ve known all along," his mother said. His father said, "Is that what you are? I knew it was something."
He organized the first gay group at Brown, 10 years later joined a new interracial social group, Black and White Men Together, and helped turn it into the more political Men of All Colors Together, launching a Discrimination Documentation Project, modeled after the NAACP housing tests, to prove racist door policies at several gay clubs. "I would like to say the gay community is not racist." But he can’t. "I used to feel victimized by it, but I’m old enough not to let my self-esteem be determined by someone else."
He had a hand in founding Gay Men of African Descent, The Lesbian and Gay People Of Color Steering Committee, and Lavender Light: The Black and People of All Colors Lesbian and Gay Gospel Choir, which is interracial, all lesbian and gay, and perennially popular. A campaigner for David Dinkins, he helped set up the former mayor’s monthly "pride receptions" at Gracie Mansion. Energetic, methodical and always friendly, he became one of the half-dozen or so reliable organizers whom everyone called on, "if they needed a person of color for something," as Jackson wryly puts it.
So what is he doing at the Coalition of Sex Club Owners? Lidell Jackson – kids, go watch "NYPD Blue" for a moment – is one of them. "I started Jacks Of Color five years ago because the other clubs are all white." His club – he rents a space on 14th Street once a month – is for "men of color," and, he says, is "completely safe," well-lighted and staffed by four monitors. "I’m the only club owner who’s also a political activist," he says. "Some of them come from an era when being gay was disgusting; it was something you did in secret. Most of them are not even proud to be gay."
Some of the other owners do not agree with this assessment. But they do agree that Jackson is the driving force behind their coalition, which was formed in response to a s udden push, from columnists and editorialists and some gay activists, to monitor the clubs more closely, or to close them down. He is opposed to closing any of the 15 clubs and four bathhouses. He makes two basic points. First, he argues, it is an issue of personal freedom, the political right of an individual to express himself sexually. "What they really want us to do is to stop having sex at all," he says. "We live in a sex-negative society." Second, he argues, the sex clubs are not contributing to the AIDS epidemic. He himself is HIV-positive, but, he says, "the few times I have been unsafe it’s always been home; it’s never been in a club." If anything, he says, the sex clubs are helping to combat the disease by spreading the message of safe sex to some people who are married or deeply closeted or for whatever reason have no other contact with the gay community. "Many of them are men of color. They won’t stop having sex. They’ll just have it somewhere else, unsafely. My fear is, we close everything, and the rate of HIV would skyrocket."
"I agree with the first point; the second point is just rhetoric," replies Larry Kramer, playwright and essayist, a founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and of ACT UP, the father of AIDS activism, speaking later over the telephone. "I think it’s sad that some gay people have to calibrate their worth in such an anonymous, inhuman fashion – using the body as a thing." As for public policy toward the clubs, Kramer says, "I don’t think the city should close them down. I think we – the gay community – shouldn’t want them open. It’s a no-win situation and, in a time of plague, a sad one."
"I agree that if all you do as an individual is work at your office and then play at these clubs, you’re not contributing to our community," Jackson says. But he sees little to be sad about them. "It’s a good environment," he says. "Twenty-one couples have met at my club. I think of myself as a wholesome person." Mainstream society may be negative about sex, as Lidell Jackson says, but it certainly isn’t shy. It was not his political activism, or his career on Broadway, or even his compelling biography that landed him on Phil Donahue’s show. It was his body. He was naked. "The show was about nudity and the American public," he says. "They rerun it every year, during sweeps week."