near ritzy yorkville, there's aplace called Club Manhattan. It's a Chinese restaurant during the week, but on Saturday it becomes Canada's only urban music club for black gay guys and for guys who have sex with guys but aren't interested in carrying the gay label. The people who come here are on the "down low." They want to live their lives without the world knowing their personal business. So there's a good reason why Manhattan is located outside the predominantly white homosexual neighbourhood of Church and Wellesley.
In the heterosexual black community, especially among people from the Caribbean, homosexuality is perceived as deviant, perverted, sub-human behaviour. Many heterosexual black people believe homosexuality is something white folks but not God-fearing decent black people engage in. Gay people are white.
Besides, on top of systematic racism and oppression, why would a black man want to be gay as well?
Because of this distorted image, some blacks also believe that when other blacks disclose their homosexuality, they're trying to be "white."
In the song Horny Little Devil, rap star Ice Cube says, "True niggas ain't gay."
You only need to look at some of the most popular lyrics in black music to appreciate how unwelcoming most black culture is to all things gay.
Even conscious rapper Common took a kick at gays early in his career. In the song Heidi Hoe he says, "Homo's a no-no, so faggots stay solo, I roll my dick so it holds just like a Rolo."
The men at Club Manhattan do not fit the image that rappers -- and much of mainstream gay society -- have of the gay black male as a sex object or a flamboyant drag queen who performs for white audiences. The black men here defy the stereotypes, and so does the music, which is hard and rough, with thumping bass lines and kick-ass beats. No bubblegum Madonna or Cher music is being played.
Most of the men here tonight are 19 to 30 years old. Many are dressed in the latest hiphop styles, from FUBU to sports jerseys of favourite teams like the Raptors.
Some of the men who come to Club Manhattan are looking for relationships, while others are looking for sex. Marvin (names have been changed to protect identities), who works in a store during the week, says it's nice to to be around other black gay people on the weekend. "We're comfortable with one another," he says. "Manhattan plays the kind of music we like to hear. There's a mixture of R&B, hiphop, calypso, reggae and soca."
When our discussion turns to why some black men prefer to be on the down low, Jared says that although he no longer lives with his parents, he doesn't want them -- or anyone else -- knowing his business.
"I live on my own, and I can have sex privately. I don't have to worry about anyone finding out. In the black community, we black men have to be masculine and in control. Guys who have sex with other men aren't viewed as being real men."
Due to the negative stigma, many brothers have to protect themselves from potential persecution. Marvin says, "I am versatile. I can fuck or be fucked. I can be a top or bottom. But just because I have sex with other men doesn't mean I am any less of a man."
Jared adds, " Just because a guy is on the down low doesn't mean that he can't be a bottom. Two tops will cancel each other out unless one decides to become a bottom. Some tops really like to fuck, so they don't want to be a bottom. These guys are most likely going to look to meet another guy who's a bottom. Also, two bottoms are going to cancel each other out because they're looking for a guy to fuck them."
In the rap world, men need to assert their masculinity to prove they're real men. So it is with black men on the down low. They're macho and tough -- or at least they try to be.
I talk for a bit to Eric, who's 22, around 5 foot 10, with a medium build. Wearing a navy blue shirt and black pants, he's sipping his drink as the crowd dances and moves to the music.
"I am a top," he tells me. "I am not a faggot. I don't kiss other guys or suck cock. I just fuck them. Only fags like to get fucked. The guy who's getting fucked (the bottom) is the top "bitch.' I like to fuck other guys. I am not interested in being fucked."
Being spotted in public with an openly gay man could blow your cover, a fact Eric is conscious of. For some brothers on the down low, it's just common sense not to associate with openly gay men.
"I like other masculine guys," Eric says. "I am not into queens or femmes. I like the way I dress and I am a man. I make my own decisions. Being on the down low really is crucial for me. A lot of us have families. Some of the men here have girlfriends, wives, even kids. I have to protect myself."
Marvin and Jared decide to dance, and I join them. After drinking a Sprite, I glance at my watch and find it's almost 1 am. When our discussion turns to the gay community and its representation of blacks, Eric is blunt.
"I think the gay white community are hypocrites. They claim to be for all people, but there is so much racism. Look at the club scene. There's segregation in the music. The club owners play for the white guys. It's business. The same techno shit music has been going on for over a decade."
I start talking to Andre, who's unhappy that Manhattan is becoming more and more racially mixed.
"I don't like it that white guys are coming to the club," he says. "My friends and I are even less likely to be here now that white men are showing up."
Club Manhattan operates as a secret society, a community specifically for black men concerned about their privacy. "One of the reasons black men come to this club is because by meeting other men on the down low, they understand what each other is going through," DJ Black Cat says.
He thinks some of these men are right to fear being outed. "It has happened before. People become jealous of one another, and terrible things can happen."
Black Cat believes that gay black men must become more organized instead of relying on the white homosexual community, which he believes doesn't understand black issues. "We must help each other. We must support one another more. If we work together and organize, more things can be achieved."
I leave Club Manhattan for the streets of Toronto, where I walk past tons of black guys. Who knows how many of them are on the down low?