When Carlene Cheatam wore a dress to the D.C. Eagle, a gay bar, for one of last week's Gay and Lesbian Pride Week events, she was told that she couldn't come in unless she adhered to the dress code, "leather and Levi's."
"How many women do you know who wear leather and Levi's to a party?" asked Cheatam, the coordinator of last week's gay pride festivities.
The incident illustrates Cheatam's main complaint about putting the affair together--trying to bridge the fragmentation and lack of understanding that exists between gays.
She had no problems handling the responsibilities of organizing the week-long celebration--featuring more than 25 events, including educational forums, interfaith worship ceremonies, foot races and a tennis tournament. The problems arose when she tried to pull together the many diverse factions of the gay community.
"We (gays) don't have a very good network for communication," said Cheatam, 34. "There's a lot of separatism in the gay community: Men against women, blacks against whites. . . . Gay men are not used to having women participate in the struggle. They got the ball rolling so far as gay rights, but women have always maintained their own organizations. We just never hold leadership positions," she said. "We have to find a role for everyone to play." Cheatam is the first black to serve as coordinator of the celebration. While Gay Pride Week has been an event supported and headed primarily by whites, Cheatam sees her selection as coordinator as a symbol that black gays are becoming more involved in the local gay movement.
"My appointment as coordinator...is significant in illustrating the greater role that black gays are playing in the 'fuller' gay community," said Cheatam, who was selected by the gay P Street Festival board.
Her assistant, Todd Jamison, also is black.
"Many of the primarily white gay organizations have appealed for black gay participation in their organizations, including the Gay Rights National Lobby and the National Gay Task Force, but it wasn't until last year that black gays became really active.
"This year, the number of black gay participants has increased significantly, but it is up to us to seize the opportunity to participate more fully, and I don't know if that will occur," Cheatam said.
Cheatam has taken her own advice to heart. A New Jersey native, who came to Washington in l977, Cheatam, in just a few years, has sought leadership roles in several gay and nongay organizations.
Her involvement extends from being co-chair of the gay Langston Hughes-Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club and organizing the first Black Gay Men and Women's Conference (slated for October) to working in Mayor Marion Barry's reelection campaign and for Operation Push, an organization intended to provide better educational and job opportunities for black youth.
Cheatam hopes that through the October conference black gay men and women can work together for common goals and that there will eventually be greater communication between the two groups. "The D.C. Black Gay Men and Women's Conference is the major event this year for black gays. The conference was formulated to open up dialogue between us and to establish bridges of communications which will maximize our potential" for political power in the city.
Cheatam believes her appointment as gay pride week coordinator, for which she took two-months of paid administrative leave from her District government job, is not only significant for black gays but also for lesbian participation in the movement.