Who was Joseph Beam?

Liz Highleyman | January 29,2007

Joseph Beam

African-American author and activist Joseph Beam secured his place in GLBT literary history as the editor of In the Life, a groundbreaking anthology of works by black same-gender-loving men.

Beam was born December 30, 1954, in Philadelphia. He attended Catholic preparatory and high schools, where he was one of only a few black students. He later studied journalism at Franklin College in Indiana and was active in the Black Student Union. After graduating in 1976, he pursued a Master's degree in communications and stayed in the Midwest, working at odd jobs for a few years, before returning to his native city.

Back in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, Beam got a job at Giovanni's Room, a GLBT bookstore. He began writing news articles, personal essays, poetry, and short stories for publications such as The Advocate, Body Politic, Gay Community News, and the New York Native. In 1984, the Lesbian and Gay Press Association honored him with an award for outstanding achievement by a minority journalist.

Having ensconced himself in the GLBT literary scene – and having met numerous authors and community leaders – Beam was disappointed about the lack of black male voices. While some of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance – such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Richard Bruce Nugent – were known or believed to have been gay or bisexual, Beam found that contemporary works by black same-gender-loving men were few and far between.

Beam therefore began collecting material for his pioneering anthology, in many cases nurturing the budding talents of men who had never before written for publication. He said that In the Life, published by Alyson Publications in 1986, spoke for "the brothers whose silence has cost them their sanity," as well as the "2,500 brothers who have died of AIDS."

Beam regarded the book as a tool for organizing and community building. "I dare us to dream that we are worth wanting each other," he wrote. "Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act of the eighties." His own essay, "Brother to Brother," extolled friendship, love, and eroticism among black men as a means of self-affirmation and group solidarity in the face of the pain and anger that arose from dealing with a white GLBT movement that failed to address the concerns of people of color, and a heterosexual black community that refused to accept queer men. "I cannot go home as who I am and that hurts me deeply," he wrote. "Aren't all hearts and fists and minds needed in this struggle or will this faggot be tossed into the fire?"

An activist as well as an author, Beam worked as a consultant for the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Friends Service Committee. He helped resurrect the flagging National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays – originally founded in 1978 – joining the executive committee and editing the organization's journal, Black/Out.

Beam died of complications related to AIDS in December 1988, just three days shy of his 34th birthday. Though his life was brief, Beam's influence was far-reaching. He served as both an inspiration and a mentor, promoting the idea that "visibility is survival." After his death, Beam's mother and his friend Essex Hemphill completed a second anthology of black gay men's writing, Brother to Brother (1991), which Beam was working on when he died.

For further reading:

  • Beam, Joseph (ed.). 1986. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (Alyson).
  • Harris, E. Lynn (ed.). 2004. Freedom in this Village: Twenty-Five Years of Black Gay Men's Writing (Carroll & Graf).
  • Hemphill, Essex (ed.). 1991. Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Alyson).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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