Black History Month is often focused on prolific members of the Black community throughout history who contributed to the world in the name of betterment, and while they are incredibly important to our community, we often overlook those who are still alive and continuing to make a difference. We know that much of the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation has largely been led by Black members of the community who often don’t get enough credit for their contributions. This year, the Autostraddle team decided to focus our Black History Month coverage on the Black elders who are still here and still doing the work.
We connected with Black elders through a partnership with SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ older people. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in New York City, SAGE is a national organization that offers supportive services and consumer resources to LGBTQ+ older people and their caregivers. Autostraddle was honored to talk with five Black LGBTQ+ elders, and we’ll be publishing these interviews throughout the month of February. We welcome our readers to celebrate these members of the Black LGBTQ+ community with us, while they’re still here to be celebrated.
Barbara Abrams works towards the betterment of LGBTQIA elders in New York City. Talking to her was like a warm hug. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Sa’iyda: Hi Barbara, thanks for your time today.
Barbara: Thank you so much for considering me for this call.
Sa’iyda: I’d love to know a little bit more about you, as a person. Maybe tell me a little bit about your childhood, your upbringing, and how it led you to the work you do and the person that you are now.
Barbara: My fantasies were television movies, like Annie Oakley. I always liked and was admired by women that fought back. They didn’t let a man push them around. In other stories on TV, the women were always catering to the man, no matter what he said. In reality, my mother was being beaten by men. I just felt like, that is my mother and I am going to save the day. Because I am not going to let this man, who doesn’t even smell right in my world, in my head, come to you. You let him come to you, you let him come in our house. But he’s not kind to you. And you said to me that if I ever get married one day, make sure I look at the man’s shoes. And they should be shiny, and they never should have holes in their socks. But every man she brought home, that’s how he looked.
Barbara: I said, “My God. I think she’s trying to save me, but she’s also afraid that I’ll make the wrong choice because she knows her choices are what they are. And she sees me, I’m her firstborn and I’m coming to save you.” I would come at those men with anything that I could find, that I knew would cause some bodily damage. And then that’s when I was just not afraid and saying, “You’re not going to continue to hit my mother the way you were doing. And I saw it, it’s not going to happen.” So I would hurt them. Well, I’d find things and I’d hide my weapons, my arsenal, I’d just hide it. And whenever that kind of situation occurred, I’d come out and the next thing my mother knows is I’m in the room and I’m wailing on someone.
That’s the way that happened, time and time again. And then after seeing that, Annie Oakley wasn’t really making it for me. I tried sitting with Gunsmoke, Miss Kitty was all right, but she wasn’t really doing it for me really. And then along came somebody named Mary Tyler Moore, and she lived in something called an apartment, in this place called New York. And I said, “I like the way this woman seems positive about herself, she knows what she wants and she lives alone. So living alone must be really nice.” So I decided… I was fresh out of high school and my mother and the neighbor next door wanted me somehow to marry the boy next door, which was the neighbor’s son.
I said, “Mommy, you want me to marry this boy next door?” I said, “I will kick his ass.” I cursed and that was a no-no. But that’s what I said. And she said, “You are going to marry that boy. He won’t beat you.” I said, “What? Mommy, who beats who around here?” So she just said, “Get in that house now and put on your good clothes.” Because we were obviously going to some kind of courthouse, because I don’t remember any of this. I was 18 or 19, fresh out of high school. And we did this. And then right after that, was Vietnam.
Sa’iyda: Oh wow, okay.
Barbara: I mean, he went right away, like the next day. In that day and age they drafted you by your first and last name, and his name was Abrams. So is mine. I kept the name. So he was off to the war and he would come back home on anything that was moving back to Florida. And to check on me, he would hide between houses across the street and all of that, to see if anybody was coming by. I couldn’t take the jealousy stuff. I had a dog, he used to kick the dog. I told him, “If you ever do that again… it just won’t be pretty. I don’t want to fight, but I will protect what I love. You know I don’t love you. You know that. You know this was your parent and my parent. This was their idea, it wasn’t mine.”
It just never got right for him. He couldn’t keep a job because he would tell his boss — my uncle told me this and then I eventually got it from him — that his wife was sickly and he had to leave the job because she had to go to the hospital.
Then I found out that he was doing this and I said, “I want to have a discussion with you, but you are not allowed to talk.” And he looked at me and he was getting ready to say something. I said, “If you say one word, you will never see me again and you’ll always wonder why.” So he didn’t say anything and I said, “I am going to leave you. I’m not going to tell you when, but I’m going to leave you. So I thought you should know that. It’s not like somebody abducted me or anything like that. There’s nothing here for me.” And he said, “But I don’t do anything.” I said, “It’s not you, it’s just that I don’t like you and I don’t love you.”
I was very straight up, I always have been. He looked at me like it wasn’t real and he went to work. And when he went to work, driving the car that we had, as soon as I saw the car turn the corner, I pulled my yellow steamer trunk from under the bed. I had purchased the trunk first and then I purchased five articles of new clothing. My mother always said to me, “Always know what you’re doing…” She was a good advisor, but she didn’t live the advice that she gave me. But she was a good advisor. She said, “Always be prepared to live your life for whatever you want.” I didn’t say, “Well, I didn’t want this.” I just said, “Thank you, Mommy.” I bought five articles of clothing, little by little, and put them in the trunk that was under the bed. And I washed my underwear that I had, that I owned, every night. Underwear and socks every day. So that everything was always clean, whenever that day or that moment came.
Sa’iyda: That you needed to go.
Barbara: Yeah. That’s how I live to this very day. If I’m going to do something, I never do it immediately, I think about it first. And then when I feel like I’m certain, no matter what, then I make that decision and I don’t need people to talk to me about anything. Because I’m sure about my life. I’m only talking about my life, doesn’t involve anyone else but me. So I like for people to not try to give me advice. I know who I am. I left, and about six months later, I saw a lawyer here in New York, and had the lawyer send him notifications that I’m asking for a divorce. And my mother gave me his phone number and I told him, “You need to sign those papers because I’m paying for the divorce and you don’t have to pay out of pocket anything.” Then that was that. Because there was never going to be anything different, never ever. And he said, “But I don’t want this, [I don’t want] anybody to think I did anything.” I said, “Listen, I’m telling you what you need to do and that’s it. I’m not going to talk to you long. I know you heard me, sign the papers.” He signed it and he sent them back, and I got a divorce. I still have the papers.
Barbara: I’m just so excited about that. That’s years and years ago. He’s since died and they tried to get me to take his benefits from his death, as his wife. I said, “I am not your brother’s wife. And I never was. I don’t want things to be more complicated for your young mind. Just accept the fact that I was never his wife. Okay? I know he wanted me to be, but I’m not.” That was the end of it. When I came here [to New York], I asked my mother one day, abruptly to her, “Would you take me to the train station?” She said, “Yes, baby. When?” I said, “Now.” And she said, “Okay.” She didn’t ask me any questions because she knows how I live.
I’m dropped off at the train station, it comes into Penn Station. I see Macy’s when I come up to the street. I know [Mary Tyler Moore] lives around here somewhere. Just because in the movies of course, she threw her hat up—
Sa’iyda: Hat up in the air, right. Yes.
Barbara: So I said, “She lives around here somewhere. But that’s okay, I’ll see her eventually.” My first apartment was 110th Street at Central Park West. It was July of ’69. And that was the junkie era, where people were just bowing down, falling, almost to the street but never really landing. That junkie bow, that’s the name for it on the street. And I went into this building and I immediately asked the super of a building, “Do you have an apartment?” It was like $50 a month or $25 a month at that time. And you were brought up to this little small place and no windows or view or anything, but it didn’t matter. And the super said to me, “Ma’am, close your door young lady.” I said, “Get out of my apartment. You don’t tell me what to do.” Of course when he left and some crazy looking man passed, I might do it… I’m from Florida, we don’t lock anything.
Sa’iyda: You got to lock those doors in New York.
Barbara: I had to learn quick, but I had to learn my way. I saw the evidence that I needed to close that damn door. There was this crazy little man, who looked in at me, and I’m like, “This is my home. You don’t look at my home.” I closed the door, and when I did, I went to pull up the blind to look out the window — all I saw was a cement wall. Like in I Love Lucy or something. So I went out to just kind of figure it all out. Where am I? I sat on the bench at Central Park West and watched yellow taxis go by. I had never seen that many cars.
Sa’iyda: Coming from Florida, that had to be a huge culture shock.
Barbara: It was. But I was enjoying it. That’s the thrill I wanted. “Oh, look at all of these cars. Look at all these taxis. Wow, this is amazing.” And eventually, I found out what the Village was. I knew nothing, I’m just curious to find out about my life. What am I doing? I went to the Village and I used to sit on the street because this was the hippie era.
Sa’iyda: East Village or West Village?
Barbara: It was the West Village between West Village and Sixth Avenue. That side. Sit right there on the street and everybody with their bandanas around their heads, and punky, crazy looking clothes. Because I’m from Florida, everything’s got to be dressed right. I had to get me some jeans and look like everybody else. And start singing folk songs and all of that. So after that era, I went into the super dance era — it was David Mancuso, white guy from Yonkers, that came up with this idea of spinning music all at the same time in his apartment called The Loft. And all of the musical people, Diana Ross, all of these people used to be dancing right next to you. But it wasn’t about fan loving, it was about just dancing.
Sa’iyda: And having a good time.
Barbara: And having a good time. I’ve never been a drug person ever. I drank, I never, ever ordered beverages, I’ve never smoked cigarettes, I’ve never smoked anything. But I was around all of my friends that did smoke and I was the roller. I was the person that used an album cover and a card from a deck of cards, and faced off this big batch of… it looked like weed from a bush. And you rolled it up, crack it up, and used the card until the pieces that you were going to roll up in this tobacco was ready for whoever was going to smoke it to smoke it. I was always in a cloud — like the president [Clinton] said… somebody said he never inhales. But I was in it, so I had to be high to some degree.
Sa’iyda: You were around it, so there’s no way you weren’t.
Barbara: Well, around it because that’s who all of my friends were. Everybody smoked and did some kind of quaalude or something. And I just had fun all the time. Just danced day and night, until I got older. Then you just slow it down and then you go to parties. A friend at the time used to give parties by the World Trade on Sundays. You go there from three o’clock in the afternoon until 11pm that night.
And you just danced. You danced the whole time. Dance was like heaven to me. And then you grow some more, you mature more. I still worked, the job that I had at that time was at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. I had a responsible position — I’m proud of myself for doing all this. I didn’t have a college degree. I earned one, my job paid for it in full.
As long as I had an A performance, they paid for it. So I’m just proud of myself because everything I ever did, in terms of living your life and taking care of yourself appropriately and being financially able to sustain your life and your choices, I did that for myself.
Sa’iyda: So when did you figure out or have inklings, or fully understand, that you were gay?
Barbara: Just before I left Florida, the woman I call my best friend, lived down the street. Her sister was gay. She used to come back and forth home, whenever she felt like it. And it’s the way she dressed and the way she walked down the street. People would pull back the curtain, my mother and her sisters, anybody else that was an adult. I’m not allowed to look at what they’re looking at, because I’m a child.
But I saw her and I was impressed with how she carried herself. Because she knew, had to know everybody was peeking. It’s Florida, it’s a neighborhood. You know that’s what people do.
She wouldn’t care. She’d just give a walk, she’d give a performance for the eyes. And she’d just do her walk thing. And I just thought it was so classy and just so elegant. I just said, “I like that.” And one day I’m sitting on the steps, you can call them stoops or you can call them steps, of my home, and she passed by. Because I had moved from my mother’s house, I had my own house. And I’m sitting there, playing with my puppy and she said, “Hi.” And I said, “Hi.” And she said, “Can I come over?” I said, “Of course.” And she came over and she sat on the steps with me. And she just said, “So how long have you been living here?” I said, “Not that long. I always lived with my mother down the street.” We were just doing fly-by-night talk. All of a sudden, she kissed me.
Barbara: Yes. She just abruptly kissed me. I don’t know, maybe she saw something I didn’t even know yet. And I said, “I think you better go home.” And she said, “Okay.” Her mother had built on the side of their home, an apartment for her just to live her own private life. So I went inside because my mother always preached to me… My mother’s very spiritual, very holy and all of that. And I was just the opposite.
So I went in the house, my home, and I sat on the bed and I looked in the mirror, and I waited for an hour. What I was waiting for was for a fang to fall out of my mouth and I’d become monstrous looking, and not recognize myself as a demon. If you did things like that woman, you become monstrous by God. Gave me one more reason to think God ain’t right. So after waiting an hour, I felt that was sufficient.
I didn’t see any distortions of myself. So I went to this woman’s house and I said, “It’s Barbara.” She opened the door and I did to her what she was doing to me. I don’t know where that came from, but I knew it just felt comfortable and it felt right. And then I said, “Okay, I got to go.” And then the next thing I knew, I was trying it out on another friend, who was married to this guy.
We were talking and we were in her bedroom window. Leaning in the window, both of us, looking at children playing. And it was in the afternoon, late, and she turned… We were very close in body, in this window. And she turned and she looked at me, and I looked at her and we had eye contact. And neither one of us was removing ourselves from that eye contact. So I took the lead because I felt like I’d kissed my best friend’s sister—
Sa’iyda: You already kind of felt comfortable at that point.
Barbara: I felt very comfortable at that moment. I kissed her and she liked it. She told me, she said, “I like the way that felt.” I said, “Oh, you did? You want to do it again?” She said, “I’m scared.” I said, “Well, let me know when you’re not scared.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll leave.” And when I saw her again, she told me she was afraid I’d come back to Florida. She told me she was afraid that she wanted to see me. We had an intimate encounter. And she said she was in love. I’m like, “Oh. You can’t. You can’t be in love. I don’t even know about this part yet. But that can’t be right.” So I said, “Think about it and we’ll talk the next time I come.”
Sa’iyda: You’re exposing them to something they had no idea about.
Barbara: So now I’m back in New York again and I had met two different guys on two different occasions. This one guy, and he looked like a bodybuilder, but when it came time to want to be intimate with me, because he did all the poses and all of that, I’m like, “Oh my God. Look at this guy. There’s no way I could be with him. I just can’t do it.” I could never feel anything toward a man. I could like him as a person, that looked nice and handsome, but I could never… You can’t touch me. So I just accepted the fact that I truly was gay. I had to be gay. That was my acceptance of myself. I made an announcement in my own head that I was a gay woman.
Sa’iyda: And did you have the language and understanding of what that meant, at that time?
Barbara: I knew that it meant I like women. I like the same sex as myself, because that’s the way I explained it to my mother. I had her come to New York, to know where I lived, and to see where I lived, so that she’d know that I was fine. And there was no trouble or reason for her to worry about me taking care of myself. She said, “I want you to have a grandbaby for me. I want a grandbaby.” I said, “Well Mommy, you have to talk to Lamar…” That’s my brother. “About that. Maybe he can have you some grandbabies because I like women.” She says, “Lord, have mercy Jesus. Barbara Jean.”
So I’m just looking at her and I said, “Mommy, what do you think?” She said, “You just can’t go around having sex.” I said, “Do you think that’s what gay is?” And she said, “Isn’t that what it is?” I said, “No, it isn’t. I haven’t even had sex yet, but I’m sure it’s coming. I don’t know what it is. How you really get into it. I don’t know any of that. I just know I like women and I will not be having any children because I will not have an encounter with a man.” And she said, “Lord, have mercy Jesus.”
She just didn’t know how to accept that, but she knew that I made her life comfortable. That’s what she knew for sure. So she just decided to go smoke her cigarette.
Sa’iyda: You put her outside. I love it. So, how did you become an activist and how did you do the work where you speak about your experience?
Barbara: Because I’ve been to many centers where socially, people gather as LGBTQ people, like GRIOT Circle. Once I retired, I knew the woman that started the place called GRIOT Circle, Regina Shavers is her name. She’s deceased. But I felt like I needed to give back by giving my body and time, and energy, and my knowledge about just life in general as a principal status, by being there. I had the time. I didn’t have anything that I had to do, I could be there every day. And because of the type of person that I am, if I’m going to give you my time, I’m going to give you my time a hundred percent. And the people there, where I was a volunteer, saw that. And the next thing I knew, I was having responsibilities. I’m like, “Wait a minute. I shouldn’t be having keys to the office. I shouldn’t be taking money to deposit in the bank. I shouldn’t be having this responsibility. These are employees who have responsibility.” They liked the way I function.
And all those things mattered. If something had to be cleaned, it was cleaned properly. If something was broken, it was fixed properly. Things just had to be right, they could not be shabby. In the beginning, we started with one room, in the YWCA here in Brooklyn. And then we went from there to a big functioning building, to the fifth floor. And that’s where I was spending all of my time, there. So little by little, when people would come in to socially benefit from this senior place, they’d come in with knowledge from anywhere, varying places. And that was also helpful. So whenever I’m anywhere, I talk about the conditions of things that I know, living from this position of how I live my life.
Sa’iyda: Right. And how did you get involved with SAGE?
Barbara: I saw them someplace. I think I was probably working, again, volunteering with GRIOT Circle and SAGE came into place. And then it became a partnership. So therefore, I joined SAGE. And then if something else was around, promoting themselves as LGBTQ+, I joined that too. I join everything. And this way, I’m over here for a minute, I’m over there for a minute, but I’m consistently doing the same thing. I don’t want to be forgotten.
Sa’iyda: Why is it important to you, not only to do these things but to, as you say, not be forgotten?
Barbara: Enough of us don’t promote ourselves because we’re still hung up behind the wall. We hung up behind that curtain. Young people are not, older people still hide.
Sa’iyda: Why do you think that is?
Barbara: Because of society. They don’t want to be judged in a stereotypical way, the way my neighbor asked me, “Are you gay?” And saying, “I didn’t know. I didn’t see you that way.” We deal with politics every day. So you don’t need people that are just like you, in the same manner, to make life rough. We don’t need that. So just be respectful.
Sa’iyda: Yeah. Well, we have been talking for just about an hour, so I am going to let you go on with the rest of your day.
Barbara: It feels like it’s been 10 minutes.
Sa’iyda: I know. I just looked at the time, I was like, “Oh my goodness. We have been talking for almost an hour.” But this has been absolutely lovely and enlightening, and I appreciate your time so very much.
Barbara: Well, it’s been terrific talking to you. Thank you very, very much.