“I'll Fight You Like I'm Straight”

The harrowing tale haunted Vanessa Panfil. Imani—an outgoing, charming young man she met through a Columbus outreach program for gay youths—faced constant threats in his neighborhood as a result of his sexuality. The harassment became so bad that one day, when he got off his bus after high school let out, Imani was forced to fight his persecutors with a knife. “Here's someone who is saying, ‘I'm not going to be a victim,'” Panfil recalls. “‘I'm not going to take this. I need to fight back.'”

Panfil, a criminology student at Ohio State at the time, was fascinated with Imani's reaction and the questions it raised: How do LGBTQ people respond to risk? What can they do to protect themselves when they hit their breaking points? In many ways, Imani's story put Panfil, a Columbus native who's now an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Virginia, on a path that led to her surprising area of scholarship: the lives of gay gang members.

Panfil's new book, “The Gang's All Queer,” published by New York University Press, focuses on the same-sex underworld of Columbus. Her research uncovered gay and bisexual members of traditional gangs in Columbus, as well as several all-gay gangs, a phenomenon few even realized existed. Columbus police gang experts didn't return messages seeking comment for this story, but Sgt. Chantay Boxill, a supervisor in the division's gang unit, told WOSU radio in early September that officers do “not have any information regarding all-gay gangs operating within our city.”

Panfil, 31, launched her study of gay gang members in Columbus in 2009 while a graduate student at the University of Albany in New York. “I was just really interested in what was going on in their lives and in a broad sense, why gangs looked appealing and what they got out of being in those gangs and how that factored into their identities,” she says. She faced skepticism from the start: Would gay members of traditonal gangs talk about their sexuality? And were all-gay gangs even real? Ultimately, she interviewed 48 gay or bisexual young men (mostly African-American between the ages of 18 and 28) and uncovered three main all-gay Columbus gangs with names, rivalries and such criminal activities as credit-card fraud, cashing bogus checks and prostitution. Like straight gangs, the gay equivalents offer protection and fellowship to their members and don't shy away from violence, inverting the stereotype of pacifistic and weak gay men with their actions and comments such as, “I'll fight you like I'm straight.”

If it wasn't for her old acquaintance Imani, Panfil might not have been able to break into this world. About a year and a half into her research, Panfil interviewed him, and then Imani (a pseudonym, like all the people named in Panfil's book) referred her to several more gang-involved gay people, creating a snowball effect. Panfil says it's critical to hear and report their stories to better understand the gay experience and how to prevent young people from joining gangs. “We're not going to know ways to do that until we know what's happening,” she says.