(BLSB) - The Sexual Initiation of Essex Hemphill

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Essex Hemphill (1991). Photograph by Robert Giard.


From "Ceremonies" (1992) by Essex Hemphill, in Gay American Autobiography: Writings from Whitman to Sedaris, edited by David Bergman (Madison; London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).

I stood before him grinning, my undershorts and pants were down around my knees. I trembled and panted as he stroked me. After weeks of being coaxed and teased to come by I had finally succumbed to George’s suggestions. I had sneaked up to the store very early that morning, before it opened, after my mother left for work.

The sexual hunger that would eventually illuminate my eyes began then. I was a skinny little fourteen-year-old Black boy, growing up in a ghetto that had not yet suffered the fatal wounds and injuries caused by drugs and Black-on-Black crime.

My neighborhood, my immediate homespace, was an oasis of strivers. A majority of the families living on my block owned their homes. My sexual curiosity would have blossomed in any context, but in Southeast Washington, D.C., where I grew up, I had to carefully allow my petals to unfold. If l had revealed them too soon they would surely have been snatched away, brutalized, and scattered down alleys. I was already alert enough to know what happened to the flamboyant boys at the school who were called “sissies” and “faggots.” I could not have endured then the violence and indignities they often suffered.

George was at least thirty years older than I, tall, and slightly muscular beneath his oversized work clothes which consisted of khakis, a cotton short-sleeved shirt, and a white apron. He wore black work boots similar to those of construction workers. Many of the boys in the neighborhood teased him viciously, but I hadn’t understood before the morning he and I were together just what motivated them to be cruel and nasty by turn. At that time, I didn’t know that George had initiated most of the boys I knew, and some of their older brothers, one by one, into the pleasures of homo sex.

Only months before my visit to him that April morning, I had roamed the parking lot of a nearby country bar—my adolescent desire drove me out there one night, and one night only—discreetly asking the predominately white patrons if they would let me suck their dicks for free. My request was never fulfilled because I believe the men were shocked that I would so boldly solicit them. I was lucky no one summoned the police to come for me. I was lucky I wasn’t dragged off to some nearby wooded area and killed.

George was a white man. My initiation into homo sex was guided by the hands of a white man. The significance of this in a racial context was not lost on me, but it wasn’t a concern strong enough to check my desire. For weeks George had whispered he wanted to suck my dick. Catching me alone in the store or responding to my request for a particular product, he would quickly serve me, seizing the opportunity to whisper in my ear. And I was listening.

Eventually I went to the store on pretense, requesting something I knew they wouldn’t have, such as a specific brand of soap or floor wax, just so he would wait on me and whisper. If we had been caught when we finally began fucking, the law would have charged him with molesting and sodomizing me as a minor because of my age, but the law would not have believed that I wanted him to suck my dick. I wanted him to touch me. I wanted to fuck his ass. I, willingly, by the volition of my own desires, engaged in acts of sexual passion, somewhat clumsily, but nonetheless sure of my decision to do so.

When George liberated his equally swollen cock from his pants it sprang out engorged with blood and fire. The head of it was deep pink in color. I was startled to see that the hair surrounding it was as red as the hair on his head.

George again Iowered himself to eye level with my cock and drew me into his mouth once more. It was hard to tell which of us was enjoying the cock sucking more. Suddenly, he pulled his mouth off my wet shaft, got up off his knees and hurried to the front of the store. He promptly returned with a short stack of grocery bags, newspapers, and a small jar of Vaseline.

“You’re gonna fuck me.” It wasn’t a statement or a command from him, it was a fact neither of us could turn away from.

After spreading the newspaper and bags on the floor behind the deli counter to create a makeshift paper pallet, George opened the Vaseline, scooped out some with his index finger, and pushed it up into his asshole. He turned his back to me so I could see the pink entrance of his anus being penetrated by the steady in and out motion of his finger. My dick was so hard I thought it would break into a thousand pieces of stone around our feet. The lips of his asshole kissed and sucked his finger as he pushed it in and out, in and out. After thoroughly greasing his asshole, George then scooped out more Vaseline and smeared it all over my dick.

“Ahh! Ahh!” I sighed out in pleasure.

“Yeah, you’re ready,” he said approvingly, stroking me a few times more. Guided by George, who had now laid down upon the pallet and beckoned me to climb on, my cock, led by his hand, entered his ass in one smooth penetration. I didn’t know at that moment that I would mount him all summer, night and day and pour my adolescence into him. I would lie to get away from home and friends to be with him. I learned then that sneaking, ducking, and hiding were key components of a homo sex life simply because of the risk of exposure and the often devastating consequences.

I continued to visit George early in the morning before the store opened, fucking him at the back of the store behind the deli counter on bags and newspapers. I fucked him at his house at the end of his work day while his mongrel dog sat and watched us. From the spring through the late summer of 1971, George was the focus of my sexuality. He was the veracity of my sexual desire.

As it would turn out, I became his sole sex partner for that brief summer. I have often speculated that perhaps among all of the homeboys who passed through his hands, I was the one wanting to learn more. George knew this, and to the extent that he could exploit my youth for his pleasure, I allowed myself to be exploited and fondled and sucked, because I wanted this, too. I wanted him. I didn’t come back to the store and tease him and curse him as did the other boys who had fucked him. I didn’t demand money as some did. After their orgasms they resented him, but what they really resented was the recognition of their own homo sexual desire.

I kept silent about our activities. I would dare not say that we were in love. I wasn’t sure I loved myself at fourteen, but I knew that my dick got hard for George. Never once did I give any thought to the possibility that I might be committing some sin I would be punished for in hell. Sin was the furthest thing from my consciousness. Hell was all around me in the ghetto of my adolescence.

My dick did not fall off in his mouth. I did not turn green from kissing him. I didn’t burst into flames during our orgasms, nor did he. In fact, during orgasm, I often called out Jesus’ name, which seemed appropriate for warding off such evil as I might have imagined we were committing. If anything, I was most concerned about being caught by my buddies or his coworkers. To this day I’m convinced the other fellas didn’t know that I, too, was being initiated by George. Our group identity and rapport did not allow for this kind of discussion or candor to occur.

I regret that we were never able to talk about our visits to George. I regret, too, that we were not able to sexually explore one another in the same way that we allowed George to explore us. Ours was truly a fragile, stereotypical Black masculinity that would not recognize homo desire as anything but perverse and a deviation from the expected “role” of a man.

The ridicule we risked incurring would have condemned us to forever prove our “manhood” or succumb to being the target of a hatred that was, at best, a result of hating self for desiring to sexually touch the flesh of another male.

At fourteen, I was astute enough to know my mouth should not reveal any desire that would further endanger me. There was no “older” brother at home to stand watch over my blossoming manhood. There was no father there, either. I was solely responsible for myself—the eldest sibling, the eldest son. Neither of those absences is an explanation for my sexual identity. Only nature knows the reason why.


The activist Rufus "Catfish" Mayfield (pointing) and members of Pride, Inc. on August 7, 1967. Washington, D.C., United States.