The Equiano Centre


May 2012

GMAD at 25: a History in Words and Images

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York
ends 31 August 2012

Free entry

Gemma Romain

Photograph by Donna Binder.  Angel and Robinson in New York City in the summer of 1986 protesting the United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick that upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law.

This new collaborative exhibition between the Schomburg Center and GMAD, documenting the history of the group Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) is a fascinating display of unique archival documents, photography and ephemera exploring a significant group in the history of Black, gay and intersectional black gay experiences in the United States.  Co-curated by Kevin McGruder, who was the former Executive Director of GMAD and Stephen G. Fullwood, the Project Director of the Black Gay & Lesbian Archive at the Schomburg, this display is a part of the archive's program series. GMAD, as the exhibition curators state, 'is the nation's largest and oldest black gay and bisexual organization dedicated exclusively to the welfare of black gay and bisexual men.'  Histories of community and activist groups such as these are part of a hidden history, which is increasingly being brought to the fore by community archivists; for similar excavation work in Britain, see the archivist and photographer Ajamu's work on bringing Black LGBT histories into the forefront of public memory within his work in the rukus! archive.

The GMAD 25 exhibition is presented around the edges of and within the centre of the main manuscripts reading room - this presence brings the exhibition to an audience of not just planned visitors, but of researchers using the reading room (which is how I came across the exhibition) serving to bring this history to a wide audience at the Schomburg. The introductory panel is positioned next to a photograph (above) by Donna Binder of Charles Angel and Colin Robinson protesting during 1986 against the US Supreme Court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of Georgia's homophobic legislation in the case of Bowers versus Hardwick. 

Charles Angel was a Pentecostal Reverend and Black gay activist who founded GMAD in 1986, as an organisation supporting Black gay and bisexual men in New York against the multiple oppressions of racism and homophobia.  It became an important support and advocacy organisation working with men who had HIV/AIDS, which Angel had contracted.  As the exhibition booklet states, Angel was "one of the first black men to speak publicly about his illness, making appearances on television and radio." He passed away on 27 November 1986, shortly after the founding of GMAD. 

Rafiki, The Journal of the Association of Black Gays (ABG) (Fall 1976). The ABG was founded in July 1975 by a group of concerned women and men who 'felt black gays were not getting a fair share of the political, social and economic advances of the g…

Other than the introductory panel, related or contextual information about the history of the organisation and the object titles are found within the accompanying pamphlet. I like the idea of having a pamphlet with this level of information, which you can refer to at a later stage after your visit; however further panel text within the physical exhibition would be beneficial. The sections of the exhibition are generally chronological and the booklet provides detailed information on the activities and membership of the group at each stage of its history.

The exhibition starts with an exploration of New York community organising prior to setting up GMAD, mentioning some of the various groups active within the 1970s and early 1980s, including the Association of Black Gays and the Blackheart Collective and activist writers including Jewelle Gomez and Audre Lorde. The archival documents and photographs displayed here include a first edition of Rafiki - The Journal of the Association of Black Gays (fall 1976) and a 1984 image of Barbara Smith, one of the founders of Kitchen Table Press and poet and academic Cheryl Clarke. Other Black female voices are present within the exhibition, highlighting the place black gay women and black gay women's organisations have had in working with GMAD. In fact, the first mission statement of GMAD stated it was "a support group of Black Gay Men dedicated to consciousness raising and growth and development of the Black Lesbian and Gay Community."

As the booklet describes, GMAD's development grew out of some of the previous community organising, with a group who 'met at the relatively new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Services Center (LGBTCSC) in Manhattan to discuss the need for a support group for black gay and bisexual men' and originated as a weekly discussion group at the member's homes in Brooklyn and Harlem. The group then met at the LGBTCSC due to its expanding membership. The exhibition includes an image of the minutes of one of the first GMAD meetings, dated 13 August 1986. The organisation continued to expand after this time, working in, for example, activism, community support, providing safe spaces, counselling, health support and prevention work for HIV/AIDS, aging, literary and creative work, political activism, and community organising and socialising. 

Angel Wards, 20th Anniversary. Photographer unknown. GMAD at 20 event featuring Miss Black New York 2006, Shade Ogunleye, Kevin E. Taylor, Frenchie Davis, Staceyann Chin, Byron Barnes and Nathan Hale Williams (2006)

The incredible range of artefacts highlights this diversity.  For example a copy of the script of film Tongues Untied from the Schomburg collections (a film which GMAD hosted), various books written and published by members of GMAD involved in organisations such as Blackheart, and leaflets reaching out to diverse sections of the black gay experience such as the poster 'West Indian & Gay - come and join GMAD' or the leaflet for 'Are you 'Black? Gay? & over 50?'' are all on display. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition represent the important advocacy work the group has carried out against homophobia and in working on education around HIV/AIDS, with posters picturing basketball players, with the slogan  'I am gay and this is where we play' and 'We have always been a part of this community' to the GMAD poster 'My Uncle has HIV and I still love him' for their website wipeoutstigma.com 

It was interesting to read about the period in the early 1990s where there were feelings from members that the organisation had become too middle-class and there were other divisions in views on funding and staff payment structures.  I would be interested to learn more about this and also about some of the contemporary complexities in relationships and different viewpoints and ideologies within GMAD membership today as well as between GMAD and other organisations. Nevertheless, I found this exhibition important and revelatory, particularly in regards to the wealth of the documents, ephemera and other sources on display; many of which I believe have come from the Schomburg's own Black Gay & Lesbian Archive, highlighting how important community archives and community collecting is for making sure diverse and previously marginalised histories are remembered and reflected upon.

The rukus! Black LGBT Archive.