Asked if being poor, black and gay hurt him at the start of his career, author James Baldwin famously replied that his situation "was so outrageous ... you had to find a way to use it." Deshawn Cole knows outrageous and he, too, is trying to make the most of being a young, gay, black man — at Imperial Courts public housing project in Watts, where coming out has long been scorned as a manhood wasted.
"Early on I knew I was different," says Cole, 23, who lives at the project and works in its on-site recreation center for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. "I was always a leader. ... When I saw someone who was outspoken or different, they had to be in my circle."
As a teen, Cole says, "I know I confused people — it was fun. It was, like, 'This guy is doing cheerleading — gay. But he's playing football and fighting — can't be gay.' "
Gallup poll data show that 3.6 percent of blacks identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, as do 3.5 percent of all Americans. But against the backdrop of the recent U.S. Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage, there's still a strong anti-gay taboo in many inner-city communities. Pew Research Center found that while Latino support for gay marriage has surged to 59 percent, the longtime low support by blacks for gay marriage has edged up to just 38 percent. In 2008, many Latinos and blacks voted in favor of Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage.
At Imperial Courts, which gained infamy as a violent bastion of the Project Watts Crips (PJs) gang, Cole, who supports gay marriage, is said by many to be the first boy to live openly as a homosexual. His mother, Cynthia Mendenhall, says, "Deshawn wasn't the first gay person in the Courts, but he was the first one to really be proud of it and come out" about a decade ago.
Cole sees attitudes — even among many PJs — finally changing. Subjected as a youth to countless sexual slurs — Cole estimates that "back in the day" he was called "faggot" several thousand times — he pushed back as a student at Ritter Elementary School and Markham Middle School, jumping into fistfights and finally revealing his sexuality to his disapproving father.
Cole has become a respected community figure whose principles have earned him an unusual form of street cred: tough, kind-hearted — and out.
Imperial Courts resident Ruben Quintana, 25, calls Cole "part of the reason things are changing around here." Quintana, who is straight, says, "In a way, he's like a leader in the gay rights movement the way people were leaders in the civil rights movement."
Mendenhall, known as "Sista," a former PJ Crip–turned–gang interventionist and member of the Watts Gang Task Force, explains, "He's been a mentor to a lot of young people, both straight and gay." When her son was small, "Lots of people told me he's just confused," she recalls. "They said it was a devil. They told me to pray our way out of this. They thought they meant well."
In 2007 Cole graduated from Compton's Dominguez High School and completed a certified course at Marinello Schools of Beauty in Paramount. He still loves to "do hair" — his own, when straightened, flows in a ponytail to his midback. But last year, he found a rewarding calling as a recreational aide at Imperial Courts Recreation Center, where he had long volunteered.
"He's a major asset to Imperial Courts," says Alea Douglas, a Rec & Parks coordinator. "He's talented, he's creative, he's dedicated and he's a team player. The kids here are lucky to have him."
Many who live in the 490-unit housing project, which is calmer than it once was, admire Cole. One day, as he discusses plans for the Dynasty Imperial High Kickers Drill Team and Drum Squad that he coaches at the recreation center, a little Latino girl arcing on a nearby swing calls out: "Deshawn! Deshawn! You know my eighth birthday is coming up, right?"
"Happy birthday, girl. When is it?" She gives him the date — it's more than five weeks away. "OK. We'll have a party."
When Cole was a student at troubled Markham Middle School, which sits almost in the bull's-eye of Imperial Courts and its rival projects, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens, he remembers "fighting on two fronts," one over gang turf, the other over his sexual orientation. (Cole's brothers Tony and Darrian, both PJs, died violently.)
His mother recalls, "Security guards, some teachers, they would say in a low-key way it was his fault" that other students harassed him. "Like, 'Why does he have to dress that way?' or 'He's asking for it being like that.' But I never gave up on supporting his dreams."
Cole lived in particular anguish over what his strict, military-bearing father thought. "What father wants a gay boy?" Cole asks. "Do you think when a wife is pregnant, the husband says, 'I hope he turns out gay?' "
His father, Dwight Cole, 54, is stout and muscular, a no-nonsense, retired National Guard veteran. "Look, I felt he was gay, but I wanted him to tell me," his father says. "Everybody kept telling me, but I wanted him to tell me."
Once Deshawn did tell his father, Dwight Cole informed him that he could not join drill team or engage in other nontraditional activities. "I ain't gonna lie. It hurt," he says. "You want your boys to have kids. Carry on the name. Any father wants that. Even if your daughter is gay, you want her to have kids. That's just the way it is. But I love Deshawn."
In Watts, respect is vital. In Imperial Courts, a lot of that respect must come from the PJs. Cole is not an active gang member, but he acknowledges, "Just by living in the projects, you're already from the gang. So you might as well say, 'I'm from PJs.' "
It was Deshawn's fistfight in 2004 or 2005 with his brother Darrian that convinced many local toughs to grudgingly accept a gay youth in the hood.
As Dwight Cole explains, he'd told Darrian, " 'This is not your life. If your brother is gay, he's gay.' ... But Darrian wouldn't accept him." Darrian often belittled Deshawn, saying he was going to "beat the gayness" out of him. His dad finally told Deshawn "he was going to have to fight Darrian to get his respect." Cole decided his father was right. "I stepped up for myself. A 'faggot' is a sissy boy. I'm a gay boy — I'd step up to them."
Their wild fistfight "tore up the house," says his father. "But in the end, Deshawn had whipped him out of the house."
That violent episode is partly how Cole won respect at Imperial Courts. But, just as importantly, he freely embraced others. Close friend Paul Cook says that without Cole, he wouldn't be out of the closet. "He helped pave the way for me in terms of being gay," says Cook, whom Cole teases with the nickname "Paulette, my daughter."
There are still misconceptions and anti-gay sentiment in Watts. One area resident, admired by some for his knockout punch, explained to L.A. Weekly: "In the body there are male hormones and female hormones. In Deshawn's body it was like they had a war, the male hormones against the females hormones, and the bitches won."
Told of this theory, Cole starts laughing.
Another prominent Watts figure wondered: "Was he born this way or did he get 'turned out?' " — implying Cole was changed by a sexual attack. That gets a "Stupid" response from Cole.
Imperial Courts is seen by many as a gang-infested hellhole, a vast concrete corral one step up from homelessness for single mothers and unemployed men who hang out on corners to drink and sell drugs.
Some of that can be found at Imperial Courts. But what also is found there is a keen sense of community that's stronger than in the vast majority of L.A. neighborhoods.
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One March evening, Deshawn Cole and Cynthia Mendenhall linger for more than an hour on a sidewalk in the heart of the project, saying, "Hi, baby" and "What up, boo" to about 60 neighbors who pass by.
Cole's mother explains, "It wasn't at all acceptable until Deshawn came out." But even as she speaks, several young people near the recreation center start yelling at an effeminate young man, shouting "Bitch!" and "You look like a girl!"
"Hear that?" Mendenhall asks. "That boy is gay, and he dresses and acts just like a woman. ... So they giving him a hard time. Deshawn tries to mentor him. Let him know he can't be too, what's the word — flamboyant — around here."
For all that's changing, she says, "What we need is a gay and lesbian center right here in Watts. ... People in Watts, South Central and Compton, they need somewhere to go if they need counseling. They shouldn't have to go all the way to Hollywood. Hollywood needs to come here."