Whenever there’s trouble around the Chinatown and Gallery Place Metro stations in the District, the finger of blame often points to a most unusual group of suspects: a black gay gang called Check It.
Depending on whom you talk to, they’re just a bunch of mischievous gender benders and drama queens, vulnerable gay youths seeking safety in numbers. Or, they’re one of the largest, more aggressive gangs in the city.
To hear the leader of Check It tell it, there may be some truth to both.
“I just got tired of people beating on me and calling me faggie,” Tayron Bennett, 21, told me recently. He’d helped to organize Check It while a student at Hine Junior High School. Other gay youths from his Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast soon joined, followed by gay youths from throughout the city.
D.C. police estimate that Check It has a core membership of about 20 and counts between 50 and 100 others as “associates.”
“At first, I tried fighting bullies one-on-one, but they don’t fight fair; they fight two and three on one,” Bennett said. So the youths got together and “started carrying mace, knives, brass knuckles and stun guns, and if somebody messed with one of us then all of us would gang up on them.”
Bennett was cryptic about the meaning of the gang’s name, saying only that it might have something to do with going to a nightclub and “checking your hat or coat.” Or gun? Or, he said, it might mean, “You better check yourself.”
Bennett had just been released from the D.C. jail when we spoke. He’d been arrested and charged with assault after a melee near Gallery Place earlier this year. But the charges were dropped the day he was scheduled to appear in court. Although happy to be free, he despaired over losing more time behind bars. He’d also gotten into a fight in jail and came out with a fresh scar on his scalp to show for it.
“I’m ready to go back to school and get my GED,” Bennett said. But he didn’t know where to start.
At Hine, Bennett had been unsure of his sexual identity and was hurt by schoolmates who said he acted gay. When a teacher also said he acted gay, Bennett went into a rage and hit the teacher with the buckle of his belt. He was arrested and expelled from school. He never went back. And he vowed never to run from a bully. No tears. No fears. If attacked on the streets, he wouldn’t even call the police. He’d just find a way to get his revenge.
The District may have a reputation as a “gay friendly” city, home to one of the largest, most affluent and politically influential gay and lesbian communities in the country. But Bennett and his friends live in a world where attitudes toward homosexuality are not always so progressive.
Philip Pannell, a community activist who is gay, said he believes that Check It would benefit from having some adult black gay male role models in their lives. But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
“It’s sad that we have all of these gay black men in Washington and all they do is work all day and go to black gay clubs on the weekends,” Pannell told me. “They won’t help out the gay youth because then they’d have to confront the homophobia of the larger black community.”
Jeffrey Richardson, director of the Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs, agreed that having positive role models would be good for Check It, along with a safe space for them to meet. But he noted that not everybody is capable of being a good mentor.
“The challenge is identifying people in the community who can connect with these particular young people,” Richardson said. “Some gay men wouldn’t want to volunteer as mentors just because they are gay. They say, ‘Yes, I’m gay and I’m fine with that, but I’m not trying to define my whole life in those terms.’ ”
For Bennett, the focus now is just on staying out of trouble. But sitting at home all day is “boring,” as he put it. Adding to the restlessness, he knows that Check It members are just a tweet away, eagerly awaiting word from him to meet downtown and start the drama anew.