Clarence* J. Fluker wants everyone to be just as excited as he is. A tall order, perhaps, given his naturally enthusiastic and gregarious personality. But with D.C. Black Pride celebrating its 16th year this Memorial Day weekend, it's hard not to pick up some of that energy.
"Light the fire! Get excited!" says Fluker, punching through this year's Black Pride theme, Fire. "This is Black Pride. This is your community. We should get excited about it, not just today but every day of the year."
At 26, Fluker is among an emerging new group of young black leaders in the D.C. GLBT community. Originally joining the board of D.C. Black Pride four years ago as a youth representative, he's now president of the board, spearheading the group's fundraising efforts, and overseeing the production of the first -- and largest -- event of its kind in the world.
Started in 1992 as a fundraising and awareness event for HIV/AIDS in the black gay community, D.C. Black Pride has grown into a weeklong affair drawing GLBT visitors from around the world. The event has gone through a number of changes, moving from outdoor fields to indoors at the Convention Center and, in one of this year's biggest changes, back outdoors to the site of the old D.C. Convention Center at 9th Street and New York Avenue. Recording star Vivian Green will headline the festival.
But D.C. Black Pride isn't just the festival -- the long weekend is filled with other opportunities, including a preview screening of director Maurice "The Ski Trip" Jamal's new film, Dirty Laundry; a town hall meeting discussing issues important to the black GBLT community; a health and wellness expo; and a writer's forum featuring readings and Q&A sessions with well-known authors from the community.
It's a lot to get excited about, and Fluker hopes the fire is catching.
"I'm most fired up about the fact that we have the opportunity right now in our community to come together and make a good community a great community," says Fluker, who sees D.C.'s black GLBT community at one of its most important junctures.
"We are at a point, probably unlike any other since I've been here, where we really have the chance to come together and unite as one and take the community and what we do to another level."
METRO WEEKLY: First I have to ask, what is the star in your name about?
CLARENCE* J. FLUKER: That's so funny. I get asked that question all the time. That all started in my senior year of high school. I was on the mock trial team and we won the state championship. I got to portray a witness named Robin Starr -- it was the first time I got to portray a witness that had some flash and some flair to him, so I totally embraced it and I loved it. "Starr" had two Rs, so I took that star idea and I put a little star with my name. By the time I got to college, it was how I signed my name and until this day I still sign my name Clarence* J. Fluker. It's always a good conversation piece and some people think it's reflective of my personality, a little something extra.
MW: What's your role as president of Black Lesbian/Gay Pride Day?
FLUKER: I'm charged to do a few things. I spearhead the fundraising efforts for the organization. That's a crucial ingredient to having a Black Pride, actually being able to pay for it. We work to do as much as we can to provide the funds to pay for the event. I also keep my eye on all the different balls, juggling them and making sure that nothing has fallen through the cracks.
Right now, I think the organization is going through a transition phase in terms of deciding who we want to become in the future, and what our community needs now and what our community may need in the future. Part of my role as president right now -- maybe it's the biggest thing -- is to help navigate the organization through these waters, which is definitely not an easy thing. Black Pride weekend is so many things to so many different people. We're trying to keep the integrity of the organization, support and build our community, and decide what our focus is.
MW: Is this transitional phase a result of changes in the community, changes in the organization or changes in the event?
FLUKER: It's a combination of things. There has certainly been a change of climate in the community, and in the country. The climate in the world is not the same as it was in 1991. Times have changed, people have changed, attitudes, influences and focuses have changed. HIV/AIDS is still something that's very significant problem in our community, but certainly not the only problem. There are other problems that the community faces, so in so many ways we're being asked to answer the call for all the other things as well.
There have also been transitions in the board. When I first came on board in 2002, I was the youngest member. That was a big to-do because everyone at the time was probably 35, 40 and over. Fast-forward to today, and the dynamics of the age of the people on the board have certainly changed. So the organization has definitely undergone some changes. That happens with any non-profit -- there are always stages of change in how the organization functions, but not the mission of the organization.
And then there is the other transition -- what the community is saying that it needs. We're currently an organization that for the most part is seen on Memorial Day weekend. Over the past two years, we've come up with other ways to be involved in the community sprinkled throughout the year. One of the things that we're hearing is that D.C. Black Pride needs to be more than a weekend event, that it needs to have more influence in the community throughout the course of the year. And that's one of the things we're trying to figure out: Do we have the capacity, as an all volunteer organization with limited fundraising ability, to do that? What roles can we fill in for our community? The face of black D.C. has changed to some degree, too, in the past several years.
MW: How so?
FLUKER: I would say that the black gay community in Washington, D.C., now more than ever, has to understand it is not a monolith. There are many constituencies within the community who are fighting for different causes that they feel are a priority. It's not that people are not fighting for the right thing, or that some people are working for the wrong thing -- it's just that different people have different priorities in the community. I think that's starting to be realized more. There is certainly an emergence of new leaders and new young people with new ideas, not to say that the old ones are bad.
There needs to be -- there has to be -- more intergenerational dialogue and there has to be more done to help pass the torch on to younger people. I think that is problematic within our community. There are some people I certainly look up to who have done nothing but help and support me, showing me the right way to do things and opening doors for me. Then there are other people who are still very closed off to the idea of other people, certainly younger people, coming in and doing the work alongside them.
In any family, in any community, in any country, you have to teach and raise up a new generation of leaders. No one is going to be around forever, so you have to take the knowledge that you have and help transfer that knowledge to young people so that they will be able to continue on. I think that our community would be a happier and healthier place if there was much more intergenerational dialogue and much more trust built between young people and old people.
MW: What got you involved with D.C. Black Pride?
FLUKER: In 1999, I was still a student in college and I told my mother I was going to D.C. for a conference with this group I was involved in over Memorial Day weekend. Certainly, I was not going for a conference -- I was coming for D.C. Black Pride. I had heard about it and I had to go see it for myself. And it was just an awesome experience, to say the least. I met a personal mentor, whom I'm still very much in contact with. He was at that time a Ph.D. student at Penn and he was so nice and kind to me -- honestly, it was the first time I ever met a black gay man who was working on his Ph.D. The experience on Banneker Field that year was life changing for me because I had never seen so many black gay people. For the first time in my life I really, really felt that I was not alone and that there were all types of black gay people.
More pics from past DC Black Pride events
MW: What did you think black gay people were before you saw that?
FLUKER: I did not have a real good idea because most images I'd seen were of the white gay community. Besides that, the black images I saw on television were the stereotypical ones. So I really didn't know what to expect, and if I expected anything at all it would have been all the stereotypes. But that's not what I saw. I saw thousands of people, every make and model possible, just out on Banneker Field. It was a bright, sunny day and it was an amazing experience. It helped transform me.
Of course, me being me, I said to myself, ''I had a really good time but I really didn't see anything for young people.'' In 2000, when they put out the call for workshop abstracts, I decided I would put together a little something myself to send in and it was accepted. I was so excited about that! When I got the e-mail, I ran back to my dorm room to call my sister and my mother and my brother and I said, ''I'm going to do a workshop for Black Pride.'' I was super-excited. I was 19 and I was the youngest person to ever do a workshop at D.C. Black Pride. Then I helped plan Cleveland's Black Pride in the summer of 2001. In 2002 I came to D.C. for graduate school and [Black Pride organizers] said they were looking to get someone young on the board -- so here I am!
MW: Did you come out to your family and friends after that first Black Pride in 1999?
FLUKER: That was a very pivotal year for me. I still say I'm going to do a one-man show and call it 1999. I started the coming out process in 1997, right after I graduated high school, but it was after the D.C. Black Pride trip that I came out to my mother at my 20th birthday dinner.
More pics from past DC Black Pride events
MW: You have a flair for the dramatic.
FLUKER: But it was so funny because she was so unbothered. I was like, ''Oh, mom, I'm gay.'' And her response was, ''Can you pass the pepper?'' So my mom knows and is very supportive. I'm blessed to have such a great family. Without family and friends I don't know how I could have the kind of healthy life that I've had.
MW: What was it like growing up in Cleveland? Was your sexuality something you knew in your head when you were growing up or was it something that became apparent later?
FLUKER: Well, when I was a little boy I knew I liked little boys, so I have always had it in my mind. I grew up in East Cleveland, which was like a 99.9-percent African-American kind of suburb, full of all types of economic, socioeconomic and educational disenfranchisement. I was an anomaly to some degree. I was this little black gay boy in this inner-city black neighborhood, and there were certainly some other kids and adults who did not like me because I was just as much a flame then as I am now. But there were lots of people who were very warm and embracing. I always had friends growing up. There were people who looked out for me and I looked out for other people. And because I have a great brother and sister, whom I love dearly, growing up was a pretty positive experience. I can't say that I never got kicked or yelled at or spit at or whatever because I was this big ole' gay, but overall it was a good experience.
There's always the myth that black people are so homophobic. I went to an all black high school. It was a pretty rough-and-tumble neighborhood and pretty rough-and-tumble high school as well. Somehow I got involved in projects at school and became rather popular. I was good friends with all the kids in Honors, good friends with the captain of the football team. I was a social butterfly, as my biology teacher once described me. I think that's the thing that's gotten me the furthest in life. I've got personality and I can make people laugh, and that's opened doors and started dialogues and conversations with people that I probably wouldn't otherwise be able to have.
MW: There's a distinct black GLBT activist community in D.C. Does that activist community crossover with the black GLBT social community, or is there a problem in that those communities are very separate?
FLUKER: There is a little crossover because there is a large population of black gays and lesbians in Washington, D.C. But there is a small population of black gays, lesbians and transgender people who are really pushing those issues. That's a very small contingency, I would say. When it comes to organizing D.C. Black Pride, you definitely have to be involved and out in that [activist] community, but for the other constituency you have to put as much time and care into building those relationships, too.
More pics from past DC Black Pride events
MW: If the activist community is small, does that mean a lot of people are reluctant to get involved politically in the community?
FLUKER: For some people, I'm sure they are. There's a reluctance by some people to get involved with some of the standing community organizations, and then there are some people who aren't even aware that these organizations exist.
MW: Does that surprise you?
FLUKER: It does not surprise me because on one hand you can go back to the adage, ''Seek and ye shall find,'' but on the other hand, a lot of activist groups don't do the same kind of marketing that a club promoter or bar owner does. That's part of it. And to some degree, some people stay within their own circles, their own spheres of influence. They do not venture outside of that. That's one thing I will do -- I will venture outside my box!
MW: Let's talk a little bit about one of the most noticeable changes at D.C. Black Pride this year: It's an outdoor event this year, as opposed to the past few years when it's been held in the Convention Center. What prompted the move back outdoors?
FLUKER: It started off being an outdoor event, then it was taken inside the Convention Center in 2000. What happened this year is that there is a huge stamp collection event that happens every 10 years. A couple of years ago we were made aware by the Convention Center that in 2006 there would be no room in the inn, basically. Some people saw it as a challenge, but we saw it as an opportunity to explore other venues. One of those opportunities was to have it outdoors and we thought that this would be a good time to try it out again. Of course, some people said, ''Oh no, what if it rains?'' And it may or may not rain. But rain or shine, we will be out and we will have our 16th Annual DC Pride festival.
MW: How's the reaction to the move been so far?
FLUKER: I've heard some excitement about it. Of course, there's some trepidation because some people who have only been going to the event since it's been indoors wonder, ''Why would you move it back outside?'' People fear the unknown and new things. But there are other people who went to the event from 1991 to 1999 who are very excited that it's going back outdoors. And we're still working on communicating to the community that we are not at the convention center this year -- we are at the site of the old convention center. I think that people who go there that day will find that out and will be directed over to us. They'll be able to hear it, they'll see it, we'll be out there having a very good time and celebrating the power, the pain, the passion of everything that goes on with living a life with pride.
MW: What are some of the biggest challenges of pulling together the Black Pride event?
FLUKER: Because I'm a fundraiser by trade, I'll start with raising the funds to pull off the event, because it is a great event and it costs a lot of money. Across the board, I know from conversations with other black prides and people who plan pride celebrations, sponsorship dollars haven't been what they once were. So fundraising for the event is certainly one thing. Trying to get buy-ins by many segments of the overall community is another thing, and to have one event that is all inclusive of gays, lesbians and transgenders is a challenge.
MW: Has Black Pride had more of a challenge getting funding from corporations than other gay pride events?
FLUKER: I would say that to some degree there is a higher hurdle because Black Pride has only been going on since the early 1990s. The general population has one idea of what gay pride is, so then to say that not only is there such a thing as gay pride but there's such a thing as black gay pride, then people kind of scratch their heads and look twice because it's something a lot of people aren't aware of. And having access to those contacts is a higher hurdle to jump over -- getting on the radar of those companies because so many of them support the regular gay pride that they will not support another one. There are only so many resources and dollars that corporate America allocates to what they see as targeted and specific minority groups.
MW: Usually at this time every year I see at least one column or comment in a news story about why do you have to have Black Gay Pride when we already have Gay Pride. What do you tell somebody who asks you that?
FLUKER: People of color who are living in a white society, who are gay living in a heterosexual dominated world, have a very unique shared personal identity. This is an opportunity for them to come out and share their experiences, to celebrate their experiences in a way in which they don't normally have the opportunity to do so. It's a time to share, to experience, to celebrate each other, to celebrate our commonalities, and to be visible in a way that is unique to us. Because visibility is still very important for the black gay community. Even when you turn on the television, with the exception a couple things like Noah's Arc, the idea of what it is to be gay in America is much the idea of what it is to be white and gay in America. It's important for us to have that visibility, to be seen and heard.
The D.C. Black Pride Festival will be held Sunday, May 28, from 12 to 6 p.m. at the Old Washington Convention Center site, 9th and H streets NW. Admission: $12. For information on other D.C. Black Pride events see this issues Community Calendar and Out on the Town, or visit www.dcblackpride.org.