Minority report

Race, youth and sexuality collide on the streets of NYC in Drifting Toward Love.

UNZIPPED Kai Wright peers into three young gay lives in his new work of nonfiction.

UNZIPPED Kai Wright peers into three young gay lives in his new work of nonfiction. Photograph: Gwendolen Cates

What if you're gay, and the "community" just doesn't include you? That's the sweeping, frustrating question at the heart of journalist Kai Wright's new book, Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York. The nonfiction tale is an intimate, at times heart-wrenching look at three young gay men of color who struggle to find a place—a bed to sleep in as well as a scene that allows them to be themselves without fear—even in NYC.

"Here, in what is arguably the gay cultural capital of the world, adolescents who don't fit into heterosexual norms and grow up in neighborhoods [that are] working-class, largely black and Latino, look in vain for their own place to call home," Wright writes. "Pride rallies rarely march down their blocks, and certainly don't linger when they do; the adult, largely transplanted, and almost entirely white and well-heeled world of Manhattan offers them no warmer welcome."

Wright, 34, sat with TONY in a Hell's Kitchen caf and explained the roots of his new work, which began, in some ways, with a personal connection: The writer, an Indianapolis native and the son of an elementary-school teacher mom and physician father, came out at 23, after moving to Washington, D.C.'s queercentric Dupont Circle. "It started to dawn on me that yes, it was a gay neighborhood, but it was a white gay neighborhood, and I was a young black man. I didn't belong. And I didn't feel any better." He recalls that there was a "layering of race over sexuality, and the feeling that there had to be a choice." Though he eventually tapped into a black-gay scene, that feeling of struggle stayed with him as he began working his way into a career in journalism.

"My first reporting job was for the Washington Blade in 1997, and in some ways I've really been writing this book since then," he says. There were incidents that fueled his interest in the gulf between the black and white LGBT worlds, including the shock from outsiders after a shooting rocked a D.C. Black Pride celebration in 2001. Wright had tried to do a story for the Blade on the incident, but the folks involved wouldn't talk. "They were like, 'Who are you? Go to hell,'" he says. "Ever since then, I've been wanting to pick some young black gay men and dig deeper."

Wright found the perfect entry in 2002, when he left the capital city for New York and became an editor at City Limits. There he worked on a piece detailing the passionate fight for the Christopher Street piers, which is still playing out between queer youths of color and wealthy West Village residents. By following that struggle, he was introduced to the three main subjects of Drifting Toward Love: "Manny," a Brooklyn teenager who moves through the worlds of Prospect Park hustling, coke abuse and street activism; "Julius," a Floridian foster kid who hops a bus to NYC and enters a life of tricking and sexual violence mixed with community organizing; and "Carlos," a Nuyorican who floats between a group home and a troubled family life. (Wright changed the names of his subjects, even though they didn't object to their use, to protect the folks around them who were not given the choice to be discussed publicly.) Throughout the book, the men fall in and out of homelessness—not surprising, considering last month's New York City Council findings that nearly one third of NYC's homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.

Wright thinks that much of the problem stems from the fact that such a large population of queer young people are never regarded or cared for by others until they have reached a point of crisis, when it's often too late. "For a lot of young queer people of color, [the attention] starts with the problem," he says. "They need to be engaged first as human." That's part of the reason his subjects were so willing to open up to him with their stories, he adds.

The writer's biggest hope for his book, he says, is that it will inspire gay adults—who historically endure their own coming-out process only to distance themselves from the plight of gay youths—to reach out to the younger ones. "What's shocking to me is how little adult gay presence is in the lives of these young people. You have the race question, but then you have the generational question," he says. "And in New York there is this blossoming black middle-class community. But if it just repeats the same pattern, who cares?"

Kai Wright reads from Drifting Toward Love Tue 22.