Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay,
and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York
Beacon Press, Boston, 2008
This is an important book.
Why would I — a dead, white male, a baby boomer — say that about a book from a culture so totally different?
Because when I was a teenager, growing up gay in a white slum in Buffalo, the Stonewall Riots were some 10 years off in the future and inaccessible to me — and, anyway, they were unthinkable. I drifted, lost, making bad choices and acting destructively — of myself and of others.
Kai Wright writes about black and brown kids today in Brooklyn. You might think they’d have a big advantage — with one of the most vibrant, openly gay cultures in the world right next to them in Manhattan, only a subway ride away. But in their social reality, the white, liberated gay culture might as well be on the other side of the world for all the good it would do them in terms of providing scenarios they can choose from. It’s as inaccessible to them now, for a different reason, as it was to me then.
It’s the same for them, yet it’s different. One day in class, Manny — a boy in the book — gets to such intense, strangulated frustration at an obtuse sex-ed teacher that he picks up his chair and throws it at him. I knew that frustration too — except, when I was Manny’s age there were no sex-ed classes and so I never figured out who to throw my chair at. But, having a target on which to vent his rage doesn’t seem to have prevented Manny from also turning it inward. So he too becomes a bright kid with no place in school — or, indeed, in his own life.
Drifting Toward Love is written in evocative, exact language. Wright has a sense of words — of what they mean — and without losing track of his main idea, he can give his prose slight twists, dislocations that suggest the other side of the literal meaning.
His words fit together pleasurably because they take their places, in paragraphs and chapters, in a stream of clearly envisioned thought. Kai Wright is no practitioner of sound-bite journalism; he doesn’t hurl staccato fragments intended to jar and impress. He has plenty of time for his characters. He’s in no hurry. He can wait for their thought to develop. He can pay attention — even when they don’t — to the surroundings with which they’re in dialogue.
In the first chapter, Manny’s boyfriend Jason leads him without explanation on an evening trip to Prospect Park that turns out to be Manny’s first time tricking. As they walk, Wright treats us to a travelogue in which he points out the sights on Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue. This trip is lovely to read, but a little surprising in today’s tightly budgeted literary world.
The trip to Prospect Park has its reasons. The background comes in handy later. Also, as Manny walks along, a little nervous, not knowing yet what Jason plans for them, I too wonder where Kai Wright is taking me. Most of all, Wright serves notice on us that, in this book, facts are important insofar as they have meaning to people, meaning they can feel and that informs their choices. Because that’s what this book is about.
While straight kids go through puberty and adolescence they’re awkward, unsure, embarrassed, and often funny, trying to figure out what they’re about. A certain tender compassion for them and a nostalgia are staples of adult folklore.
Gay kids need to grow up too. They experience a similar torrent of feelings to the one that discombobulates their straight peers — but they’re also forced to recognize that they’re what everybody despises: marginal and supposedly abnormal. Those feelings that are most intimate and important to them — the analogues of feelings that straight kids are building into bases for their lives — are what gay kids have been cultured to hate.
A straight kid might ask an adult. Admittedly though, even a straight might have the same reaction to sex ed that Manny does: most adults are too complicated, uptight, and disconnected from reality to be of much use. There’s little point in even asking them. They always have an agenda, pro or con, that’s irrelevant. They don’t want to listen to you and find out — they’re too busy talking.
A straight kid with smarts can just ignore what he’s told and keep his eyes open to see for himself how it’s done. You might pick up enough variety of contradictory, fragmentary information to make a wild guess and be able to plunge in. . . . But, if you’re gay, then . . .
Reviewers have commented how involving this book is. I think it comes from the “clear flow of ideas” I mentioned above. And that, in turn, proceeds directly from the fact that Kai Wright is interested in listening.
It’s not hard to write well — if you have vision and also enough experience seriously writing that words come easily to fit what you see. It’s not hard. . . . What’s terribly hard is to have that kind of vision in the first place. It’s a gift. And it comes from caring about people as Kai Wright does.
What makes the book a page-turner, almost a novel, is that on each page Wright focuses on what his people think, see, imagine at that particular moment. He doesn’t rush; he’s never so greedy for some provable idea that he anticipates later events. On later pages, when events do come, they’re fresh, real.
Meanwhile, he gives us space, and a sense of security, to appreciate how things look to his people.
This book has nothing to prove. In that, it’s different from some books written by gays and their allies, books that may have well-intentioned programs.
Yes, the boys — Manny, Julius, and Carlos — do very definitely do things that are not in their own best interests. Kai Wright knows this, but it’s not his business to judge them. Rather, he cares about them — and the book is an expression of his care.
He doesn’t use them to illustrate an agenda. If he has an agenda, it’s that they — and gay boys like them — need to figure themselves out. It’s their own feelings, dreams, and visions that will, in the end, have to give their lives direction and meaning — or else not. What they need is to learn to listen to themselves. Wright sets an example for this by listening to them.
Any lessons we readers need to learn from them emerge naturally.
For example, the three make an instructive contrast.
Julius is the obvious “at-risk” boy: an orphan and the product of a stereotypically counterproductive foster care system, cruel in its effects. Now he’s a homeless runaway on the streets of Brooklyn, effeminate enough to worry about attracting the wrong kind of attention.
Carlos seems the opposite — the loved and loving son of a tightly knit family. Perhaps they’re too tight, the type a gay son might not expect to accept him easily for what he is. They depend on him as much as he does on them. It’s too natural for him, in the pressure of responsibility for them, to ignore his own needs growing up.
Manny has a mother. She’s a social worker. She sporadically makes efforts to take constructive charge of his life. She doesn’t abuse him. She’s even not too actively hostile about him being gay. He mostly doesn’t have a father. And now even his mother, since she lost her job, isn’t always all there.
Social service organizations and gay organizations can find momentum to publicize obvious youth problems: teen suicide, homelessness, physical and sexual abuse, crime. Don’t get me wrong about this; I’m glad they do.
But Kai Wright’s book isn’t primarily about that, as he states clearly in his introduction. It’s about something deeper: about society’s inability to treat sexuality in any rational, non-hysterical manner. People somehow can’t seem to act as if sex, whether casual or partnered, is deeply tied to a person’s emotions. It’s not an add-on extra; it’s deeply expressive, for good or ill, of a person’s spirit. The book is also about the fact that — although many of today’s white gay adults are on the brink of achieving a kind of tolerable modus vivendi — many black and brown kids have fewer such opportunities.
Adolescence is a time when a person — in the midst of changing, powerful emotions — has to create himself. Sexual maturity is an important part of that. Gay kids, even today, have a harder task discovering models that they can reprocess, reassemble, and use. For black and brown gay kids, it’s extremely difficult.
You may say, “So what? All kids have difficulties growing up.”
I’d answer, “Do they have to be more miserable than necessary doing it? Shouldn’t they be happy in their youth?”
You may continue, “But most of them do succeed.”
I’d answer, “Oh, really? Do they? Yes, I notice many people over 21, perhaps even a majority, who are able to function in the practical world most of the time. But do you see many who function well emotionally, especially in terms of sex? How many people over 21 are adults?”
The point is that kids like Manny — and even Carlos — are at risk as much as Julius is. It takes more imagination to see it. I know because I (a white boy some 40 years older) grew up much like Manny, with a home and a school where everyone seemed normal but from which I was totally disconnected, leading a private, futile, ultimately unreal inner life that no one seemed to much care about, making choices that led me ever further from what I really wanted to be.
As I said above, this is an important book — an indispensable book.
The Gay Movement is, for good reasons, focused on assimilating us into society — so that we can have basic rights and safety. But the danger is that, in their effort to make us look “the same,” they can bleach out what’s special and personal.
It’s a hard point — subtle to think about and difficult to express. We’re the same as straights. Our larger needs — for love, tenderness, security, and self-definition — are the same as any straight’s. We grew up here like everyone else. We work, pay taxes, live our lives, make our contribution. We deserve the same conditions as anyone else. . . . But we’re also different. The actual implementation, the flavor of what we feel and the ways we do it, is not straight. And, indeed, now that we can see how many kinds of people are L, G, B, or T, it seems funny that straights manage to look so much alike.
How can we express this in the middle of a political fight, trying to win people raised to be suspicious of us?
Yet, somehow, we have to learn to make that point too. We aren’t struggling to become straight: we struggle to be ourselves.
There’s a funny section in the middle of Drifting Toward Love where Carlos, after his family is asleep, is regularly on the computer, in chat rooms where people hook up. Wright comments wryly on the minority who are there, not for sex, but actually for conversation — starved for someone gay to talk to and having no place else to find them.
I know the feeling. I don’t hang out in chat rooms, but I do hang out on sites where amateur writers post gay fiction — not the cleaned-up stuff from mainstream publishers. Originally, the idea was porn, but some authors and readers quickly found that these stories were a natural place to describe typical gay experiences: coming out, being hated by your best friend, falling for a guy and trying desperately to figure out if he’s gay.
Mostly, those are the best places for gays to write, read, and talk about about their own distinctive histories. You do it in chat rooms and on porn sites that are raunchy enough that you know there won’t be straight interlopers to get all freaked over simple, everyday emotions.
Now, Kai Wright has written — and written beautifully, wisely — a book with the clear idea of talking about realities.
It’s not a “problem book.” It’s a book about people.
It’s not necessarily about black and brown gay kids — it’s about white gay kids too, if they were perceptive enough to notice. It’s about straight kids as well . . . and about adults.
Its importance is its universality. It’s universal because it’s particular: Kai Wright is committed to the people he writes about, to their individuality.
It’s a book we need.
The website for the book, Drifting Toward Love: driftingtowardlove.org.
Kai Wright’s personal Website.
The website for the publisher, Beacon Press.
Readers of this post may also be interested in Shelter — pictures by Lucky Michaels of homeless LGBTQ youth at home.