Panfil, Vanessa. “The Gang’s All Queer: The Lives of Gay Gang Members”, NYU Press, 2017.
Gay Gang Members
I have never thought about the possibility that there are gay members but if we are everywhere, as we now Know, it should be no surprise. The real surprise is that this has never really been studied before. Most of, I would venture to say, think that gangs are made up of violent thugs who are in and out of jail, and who are hyper-masculine and heterosexual. But then again there were the Kray brothers In England so I am not so sure that we should be surprised. Vanessa Panfil takes us into the world of gangs and we immediately see that for most of us, it is quite a different world than the one we live in. The gay gang members are sometimes referred to as “homo thugs” and their gay identity complicates criminology’s portrayal and representation of gangs, gang members, and gang life. Panfil shows us in great detail and understanding provides an in-depth how gay gang members “construct and negotiate both masculine and gay identities through crime and gang membership”.
Panfil conducted interviews with over 50 gay gang- and crime-involved young men in Columbus, Ohio. The majority of these are men of color in their late teens and early twenties and she conducted on-the-ground ethnographic fieldwork with men who are in gay, hybrid, and straight gangs. We see how even members of straight gangs are connected to a same-sex oriented underground world. She states that most of these young men present a traditionally masculine persona and hold other members of their gangs in great affection. They also fight with their enemies, many of whom are in rival gay gangs. The majority are come from impoverished, ‘rough’ neighborhoods, and seek to break the negative stereotypes of gay and Black men as deadbeats and sometimes they have to do this through criminal activity Of course, there are still those who remain in the closet to their families and to their fellow gang members and families but there are also those who fight to defend members of the gay community, even those who they see as “fags,” and for whom they harbor distaste for these flamboyancy. And then there are those gang members that perform in drag shows or sell sex in order to survive.
What is so clear and surprising is that these men both respond to and resist societal marginalization. We see just how much we have to learn here as the concept of gay as victims of the crimes is shifted and we here see them as agents and offenders who challenge troubling racist stereotypes of queer and Black masculinities. The idea that members of gangs are heterosexual is also challenged and it is fascinating to read what is included in this very intelligent and well written book.