Club promoter brings a hip-hop beat to Pride

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Tuesday June 23, 2009
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The producer of the West Coast's largest dance events for black gay men is bringing his hip-hop style to this year's Pride Parade.

Being tapped as a grand marshal is a role reversal for Oakland promoter Joe Hawkins, 45, who in years past had been a vocal critic of the event's lack of diversity. The founder 18 years ago of the Club Rimshot events, which circulate through various East Bay venues, is one of four African American honorees in this year's parade, believed to be the largest number of black grand marshals at Pride.

Hawkins said that when he learned he had been chosen, his initial reaction was shock.

"I can be a big critic of San Francisco and San Francisco Pride. But I am happy to be representing a group of people. I think many times I represent African American men who are gay who many times get overlooked," said Hawkins, who lives near Lake Merritt with his partner of seven years, Mark Davis.

Hawkins has long served as a spokesman for black gay men going back to 1989 when he became the first openly black gay man to appear on a national television show. Oprah Winfrey brought him on to her eponymously named talk show to discuss his fight to maintain custody of his son Maurice, who is now 26 years old. 

The mother of his child was killed in a fire and her family attempted to gain custody of Maurice. On the show Hawkins's own mother said she didn't support seeing him raise the boy.

"I ended up winning," said Hawkins, whose mother to this day has yet to accept his being gay. "She knows I am just going to be and do whatever I am."

"She said on television that 'I love my son but I don't love his sexuality.' I needed my son to know he was loved. That was all I needed and that is what happened," added Hawkins.

He also rose to national prominence during the early stages of the AIDS epidemic, pressing Washington bureaucrats and lawmakers to not only see the disease as affecting white gay men but black gay men as well.

"We weren't getting those dollars you were getting in San Francisco. The stereotype was AIDS is a white gay man's disease. Well over in Oakland black gay men were dying of something, and we knew it was AIDS," said Hawkins, who helped found the East Bay AIDS Walk four years ago. "We really fought and advocated all the way up to the federal level."

Hawkins grew up in Detroit and enlisted in the Army in 1983. He served overseas in Germany, the Netherlands and along the Korean Demilitarized Zone. He remained in the closet throughout his duty, though he fell in love with a fellow Army officer who died in Korea.

"You couldn't be out and gay," said Hawkins, who remained celibate and became a chaplain's assistant to deflect questions about his sexuality. "It is so funny though, I remember we did take the military's first HIV test. I remember them telling us, 'Don't worry about, you know, being teased for being gay because we are going to have your queer ass out of here so fast.' They told us that if we were positive they would helicopter us out of there so we wouldn't spread it."

It was during his being stationed in the Presidio at a military language school that he first went to a gay bar in the city. Upon leaving the Army he moved to Oakland and discovered black men dominated the city's gay scene, which unlike the predominantly white Castro District in San Francisco, was not segregated into one part of town.

"I moved over here and said, 'Oh my God. I am home.' A huge LGBT black community was here in Oakland," he said.

Nearly 20 years ago he launched his own dance events for black gay men, though all are welcome to attend the roving parties.

"White men always call me and ask if they can come. Black people don't ask to go to white men's parties. I wish white men wouldn't ask me that," said Hawkins. "They want some assurance they won't be beat up, I guess."

 He said he has tried to host parties in the city, but found many club owners to be racist. And the one time he did throw a party, it was the first time he had patrons, who were straight, fighting at the event.

"It says to me there are fewer options for those people to party in San Francisco so they go where they can hear hip-hop," Hawkins said. "That doesn't translate in the black gay world. It is not how we party; we aren't interested in the fights. We want to dance and find someone to have sex with."

Three years ago he took his party scene to Palm Springs and created Blatino Oasis, a circuit party over Mother's Day weekend for black and Latino men.

"Momma's boys should stay home," joked Hawkins.

It has become so successful and welcomed by the mostly white gay male community in the desert town that Hawkins is launching a monthly event this August called Confessions.

"All these black people said to me, 'Don't go to Palm Springs, they are not going to be welcoming to black people.' Those gay white men there in Palm Springs are very nice," said Hawkins. "They never had an event where black gay men from all over the world came to party in Palm Springs."

Hawkins also helped launch the International Black LGBTQ Film Festival, which will take place this year August 13-17 at movie houses in Oakland and Berkeley.

This Saturday he is bringing his Club Rimshot to the Pride festival in the Civic Center from 2 to 3 p.m. at the hip-hop stage.

"I'll be having my single ladies stanky legs dance off," he said.

Sunday, following the Pride festival, he is throwing his first 18-and-over Pride party at the Pink Diamond Strip Club on Jones at Turk from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.

"I am bringing my hottest nude male dancers," he said.

As for his being asked to be a grand marshal, Hawkins said he is encouraged to see the Pride Committee ensuring black LGBT people feel welcome and a part of the celebration.

"An attitude of inclusiveness was not always there. I started seeing it in more recent years," he said. "It is encouraging to see Pride acknowledging more people beyond the white gay community. It clearly sends a sign that we want you to be a part of it."