Pop culture often helps perpetuate stereotypes about gay men and about gang members, and virtually none of those stereotypes overlap. That’s what Vanessa Panfil says led her to spend more than a year researching the lives of gay gang members in Columbus.
Her findings are laid out in "The Gang's All Queer," a new sociology book in which Panfil dives into the experiences of gay gang members, and members of all-gay gangs.
“I’m from Columbus originally, I was very involved in the LGBTQ community there, and I met several gay men about my age or younger who had been involved in gangs or crime,” says Panfil, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Virginia.
Panfil says she wanted to know why and how they became involved in criminal activities, but also explore the "world of tensions and contradictions" about being a gay gang member.
Panfil says she identified a total of 48 gay, lesbian or bisexual gang members in Columbus, and 26 members of all-gay gangs. She says gay men who were members of mostly-straight gangs were often involved in what would be commonly thought of as gang activities, such as selling drugs.
On the other hand, Panfil says the all-gay gangs - such as the Royal Family - sometimes sold drugs, but were more likely to engage in financial crimes or the selling of sex.
“The gay gangs were more organized around their shared sexual identity," Panfil says. "They still might have gotten in fights with other rival crews, but it was typically at gay venues or at gay events."
Panfil clarifies that gang members don't spend the majority of their time engaged in criminal activities, but rather in recreation activities like other young people.
The men included in her research ranged from 18 years old to 25, and were mostly men of color.
Panfil says several of the participants in her study told her police know about the existence of all-gay gangs, but an email from Columbus Division of Police Sgt. Chantay Boxill, who is a supervisor in one of the division's gang units, says they do “not have any information regarding all gay gangs operating within our city.”
Panfil says she intentionally did not speak with police for her study, largely for confidentiality reasons.
According to her book's introduction, Panfil's research found that gangs in Columbus were mostly "homegrown" rather than chapters of larger-city gangs like the Bloods or Crips. The city, she writes, is classified as an "emergent" gang city because its problems didn't arise until after 1985.
Panfil, who identifies as a queer woman, says she was also surprised to read coverage of Louis C.K.’s new documentary “Check It,” which details the formation of a gay gang in Washington D.C. that banded together to fight back against anti-LGBT violence. Vice News declared the gang “America’s only all-gay gang,” a claim that Panil calls patently untrue.
“I’ve been publishing on these data since 2013,” Panfil says with a laugh. “Some of the reviews of my book have actually noted (the documentary). Like how interesting this was that everyone was convinced that this was America’s only gay gang, when really there are others in other cities that have been documented before that.”