Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Joseph Beam?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

African-American author and activist Joseph Beam secured his place in GLBT literary history as the editor of In the Life, a groundbreaking anthology of works by black same-gender-loving men.

Beam was born December 30, 1954, in Philadelphia. With his working-class parents struggling to ensure that their only child received a good education, he attended Catholic preparatory and high schools, where he was one of only a few black students. He later studied journalism at Franklin College, a small Baptist college in Indiana. Influenced by the civil rights and Black Power movements, he was an active member of the Black Student Union. After graduating in 1976, he pursued a Master's degree in communications and stayed in the Midwest, working at odd jobs for a few years, before returning to his native city.

Back in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, Beam got a job at Giovanni's Room, a GLBT bookstore. He began writing news articles, personal essays, poetry, and short stories for publications such as The Advocate, Body Politic, Gay Community News, and the New York Native. Much of his work reflected on the life experiences of black Gay men, criticizing both the racism of the mainstream white Gay and Lesbian movement and the homophobia of the black community. In 1984, the Lesbian and Gay Press Association honored him with an award for outstanding achievement by a minority journalist. Beam also maintained ongoing correspondence with prisoners, which he later attributed to his "deep sense of my own imprisonment as a closeted Gay man and an oppressed Black man."

Having ensconced himself in the GLBT literary scene - and having met numerous authors and community leaders - Beam was disappointed about the lack of black male voices. Work by white Gay writers addressed three camps, he claimed: "the incestuous literati of Manhattan and Fire Island, the San Francisco cropped-moustache-clones, and the Boston-to-Cambridge politically correct radical faggots. None of them spoke to me as a Black Gay man." While some of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance - such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Richard Bruce Nugent - were known or believed to have been Gay or Bisexual, Beam found that contemporary works by black same-gender-loving men were few and far between. "By mid-1983 I had grown weary of reading literature by white Gay men," he wrote. "More and more each day, as I looked around the well-stocked shelves of Giovanni's Room...I wondered where was the work of Black Gay men."

Beam therefore began collecting material for his pioneering anthology, in many cases nurturing the budding talents of men who had never before written for publication. He said that _In the Life_, published by Alyson Publications in 1986, spoke for "the brothers whose silence has cost them their sanity," as well as the "2,500 brothers who have died of AIDS."

Beam regarded the book as a tool for organizing and community building. His own essay, "Brother to Brother," extolled friendship, love, and eroticism among black men as a means of self-affirmation and group solidarity in the face of the pain and anger that arose from dealing with a white GLBT movement that failed to address the concerns of people of color, and a heterosexual black community that refused to accept Queer men. "I cannot go home as who I am and that hurts me deeply," he wrote. "Aren't all hearts and fists and minds needed in this struggle or will this faggot be tossed into the fire?"

One source of inspiration for Beam was the work of black Lesbian feminist writers such as Audre Lorde. "I dream of Black men loving and supporting other Black men, and relieving Black women from the role of primary nurturers in our community," he wrote. "For too long we have expected from Black women that which we could only obtain from other men...I dare us to dream that we are worth wanting each other. Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act of the eighties."

An activist as well as an author, Beam worked as a consultant for the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Friends Service Committee. He helped resurrect the flagging National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays - originally founded in 1978 - joining the executive committee and editing the organization's journal, Black/Out.

Beam died of complications related to AIDS in December 1988, just three days shy of his 34th birthday. Though his life was brief, Beam's influence was far-reaching. He served as both an inspiration and a mentor, promoting the idea that "visibility is survival." After his death, Beam's mother and his friend Essex Hemphill completed a second anthology of black Gay men's writing, Brother to Brother (1991), which Beam was working on when he died. Hemphill also remembered Beam in a memorial poem, "When My Brother Fell":

He burned out
his pure life force
to bring us a chance
to love ourselves...

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.