Do Discussion Groups Still Matter?

L to R: Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint, Craig G Harris, Ray Melrose, Daniel Garrett, Colin Robinson • Photo by Joseph Beam (October 1985) - Image Appears in   Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence   Courtesy of the Joseph Beam Estate

L to R: Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint, Craig G Harris, Ray Melrose, Daniel Garrett, Colin Robinson • Photo by Joseph Beam (October 1985) - Image Appears in Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence Courtesy of the Joseph Beam Estate

Something special happened in Oakland in June 1986. Three Black men wanted to do something about the isolation often faced by gay men like themselves. They met, and that meeting planted the seed for a group called Black Gay Men United (BGMU). Each of them, in turn, invited three of their friends to the next meeting. Within months, the group had a steady core of 15 to 18 men who met each month. I was one of those men.

BGMU was a discussion group, not a political, support or social group, even though activities sometimes took us in those directions. Our main objective was to discuss important topics of concern.health, dating, family, politics, travel, and finance, among others.

BGMU members included writers, educators, singers, filmmakers, performers, administrators and blue collar men. One prominent member was filmmaker Marlon Riggs. He used the support and the members of BGMU as a springboard for the production of his landmark film, Tongues Untied. If you watch the film, you’ll see maybe a dozen group members.

There were other groups at the time. Cleo Manago’s Black Men’s Xchange (BMX) promoted itself as an alternative to the bar scene, holding meetings on Friday nights. There was also the Pacific Center in Berkeley, Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) in Brooklyn, Second Sunday in DC, and Black and White Men Together in San Francisco.

What made BGMU different was the fact that it was not a drop-in group like some others. Members were expected to attend regularly, to build intimacy and mutual trust, and were also allowed to invite other steady members. We received a lot of criticism for being “elitist” or a “closed” group. “You guys are having tea parties while people are dying!” My response to that, as a charter member, was: form your own group, brother. Creating a discussion group is not rocket science.

Is there still a place for discussion groups in our community? For some Black gay men, social media and sex apps have filled a void, taken much of the energy, and displaced some of the isolation we may feel (replacing them with a different kind of isolation and dehumanization, sadly).

As a baby boomer (whose contemporaries are slowly disappearing due to time and illness), I’m not aware if millennials, Gen Xers and other younger men have picked up the mantle and created groups like BGMU. I’m told many exist around the issues of health care and HIV in the community. At the same time, I feel that more generalized men’s groups can serve the vital purposes of building friendships, developing support systems, and sharing insight and information. They also offer chances to work on public speaking, communication and social skills, as well as interpersonal problem-solving, all face-to-face with other brothers. These are skills that are not developed in a social media/app culture.

The political climate in Trump’s America is uncertain. And organizing, on any and all levels, may become more important in the near future. All it takes is you and two other friends to get the ball rolling. To quote “Tongues Untied,” this is a call to action.


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Alex Langford is an author and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from the University of Michigan, majoring in Journalism with a minor in Film. Alex worked as a writer/producer for ABC-Disney, producing news segments for KGO-TV’s entertainment and sports departments. Later, he became an author, publishing two novels. Last year, he adapted his latest novel, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, into a full-length screenplay. It is a coming-of-age romantic comedy with strong themes of gender identity, LGBT and the meaning of love. Alex has produced a short film based on the screenplay, with the objective of producing the feature soon.