In the psychedelic '60s, a "black light" consisted of a purplish, ultraviolet-light tube, hung in college dormitories and teen-agers' suburban bedrooms, that illuminated white objects, white body parts and white apparel. In the'80s, a growing number of Washingtonians spell Blacklight with a capital "B," and this new information source spotlights an entirely different spectrum: black gays.
Blacklight, the only D.C. periodical that focuses exclusively on the lifestyles and concerns of Washington's black lesbians and gay men, It has achieved notable growth in number of pages, advertising and circulation. In August 1979, when editor Sidney Brinkley received the first issue from the printer, the tabloid was a mere four pages. Two years and approximately 20 editions later, the monthly publication boasts a 24-page second anniversary edition, aptly entitled: "TWO." Advertising is up 300% from the first year and Blacklight's initial press run of 300 copies is now dwarfed by the current 7,000-copy circulation.
"Blacklight is noticed by the black gay community and the nonblack gay community because, in a city that is predominantly black, the black gay community is a sleeping giant," said Melvin Boozer, director of Civil Rights Advocacy for the National Gay Task Force. Boozer, a black gay who grew up in Washington and attended Dunbar High School, is a former president of the Gay Activist Alliance.
"Blacklight addresses one of the primary needs of the black gays: communication," Boozer said. "When Blacklight came out, I said: 'Finally!' "
Past issues outlined policies of the Metropolitan Police Department and the Office of Human Rights regarding gay rights. There were also stories on international issues such as Zimbabwe, "The Middle East Crisis," and gay life in London. Blacklight even dedicated an entire issue to tales from Atlanta after a string of child murders there.
The periodical also contains personal testimonials, such as Chiquita Joe Bass' series, "From Here to There: One Woman's Story," about experiences relating to her homosexuality.
The tone of Blacklight's commentary ranges from harsh to harmonistic. One sobering appraisal by poet Audre Lorde, featured in an issue highlighting a recent "Third World Lesbian and Gay conference," begins:
"As lesbians and gay men, we have been the most despised, the most oppressed and the most spat-upon people in our communities. And we have survived. That survival is a testament to our strength."
The steady expansion and success of Blacklight is due in large part to its 30-year-old editor. One second anniversary advertisement reads: "Sidney, you are to be congratulated for holding the light when others have cursed the darkness."
Blacklight was Brinkley's brainchild and it was his $250 contribution that made the initial issue possible. Each weekday at 1 p.m., he leaves his regular job as a clerk and spends the afternoon at his home office where he proofs copy, pastes up advertisements and crops photos.
"I was personally interested in writing, so I came to Washington from Philadelphia and started to freelance," Brinkley said. "Then I discovered the economics of being a freelance writer."
Brinkley concluded that he should start his own publication because of the low, unpredictable pay and frenetic schedules that freelancers often face. He took his idea to other black gays, to bar owners and to fellow writers.
While sounding out his idea for a new publication, Brinkley served as interim president for the Coalition of Black Gays, the pioneer political organization concerned with conditions of black lesbians and gay men.
It is no coincidence that Blacklight came into being just after black gay political organizations came of age. Brinkley sensed an unfilled need in his community: a need for self-expression among black gays.
As a writer, Brinkley believed he could put this talent to work best by forming a publication staff. "I resigned from the Coalition post because I knew I couldn't do both," Brinkley recalls.
But he said he soon learned that getting his primary project off the ground would take some doing. He had to seek long-term financial assistance (which took the form of anonymous donors), he had to coax a volunteer staff into producing, and there were distribution obstacles as well.
Once, Brinkley said, he took an early issue of Blacklight to Morgan's, a Columbia Road discotheque that carried two other D.C. gay publications: OUT Magazine, the gay entertainment weekly, and The Washington Blade, the city's gay newspaper. Blacklight is not as "newsy" as The Blade, which is nearly four times its size, and Blacklight's major focus is not the arts, like OUT Magazine. Brinkley said Morgan's manager at the time refused to allow him to distribute there.
Morgan's current manager, Michael Quenzer, says that he tries to stock "gay-oriented" publications, and that a periodical like Blacklight would be welcomed.
Brinkley eventually found bars, bookstores and libraries that were willing to stock Blacklight and its popularity began to grow.
The growth of Blacklight has, in turn, paralleled the emergence of a substantial number of black gays from secretive private "social clubs" to the visible forefront of the local gay civil rights struggle.
Gay activist Boozer, for instance, was nominated for vice president of the United States at the Democratic Party's national convention several years ago. In the past two years, the District has witnessed the "coming out" of other blacks, including students, teachers, poets and policewomen. Blacklight's challenge, according to Brinkley, has been to address the concerns of a diverse array of lesbians and gay men, whether they are open about their homosexuality or not.