Tribute: Joseph F. Beam

Today would have marked the 57th birthday of Joseph F. Beam, who was born in 1954 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (to December 27, 1988). Joseph F. Beam was a visionary writer, community builder and same-gender loving, African-American leader and gay rights activist who worked to foster greater acceptance of gay life in the black community by relating the gay experience with the struggle for civil rights in the United States.

An only child, Joseph F. Beam’s boyhood was difficult and solitary and he was often the only non-white pupil in his classes. Later, at Franklin College, he was influenced by the civil rights and the “Black Power” movements, and played an active role in the local Black Student Union. After graduation in 1976, he remained in the Midwest, enrolling first in a Master’s Degree program in communications and then working as a waiter in Ames, Iowa. He returned to Philadelphia in 1979.

Joseph F. Beam took a job working at Giovanni’s Room, a cherished bookstore and one of the main contact points for lesbians and gays in the 1970s and 1980s in Philadelphia. Beam became well acquainted with local and national gay figures and institutions. His articles and short stories began appearing in numerous gay newspapers and magazines. The Lesbian and Gay Press Association awarded him a certificate for outstanding achievement by a minority journalist in 1984. The following year, he was hired as a consultant by the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Friends Service Committee. He joined the Executive Committee of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays in 1985, and became the editor of their new journal Black/Out.

Beam began preparing and collecting materials for an anthology of writings by and about black gay men in 1982. His goal was to counteract the absence of positive images of gay men of color in the media and their exclusion from the cultural world of white gay rights activists. Inspired by the humanism of the black feminist and lesbian movement, he saw his work as part of a broad effort to correct and redefine the reality of race, sex, class and gender in the United States. Through his writings, he sought to alleviate the alienation of black same-gender loving men and help create a community of their own. The result was In the Life, the first Black Gay anthology, which was published by Allyson Press in 1986. It was ignored by most African-American critics and institutions, but was greeted as a literary and cultural milestone in the gay community.

Joseph F. Beam was working on a sequel to In the Life at the time of his death of HIV related disease in 1989. This work was completed by his mother, Dorothy Beam and author and poet Essex Hemphill, and published under the title Brother to Brother in 1991. Both books were featured in a television documentary, Tongues United in 1991.

Written by: Stephen Maglott

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2 thoughts on “Tribute: Joseph F. Beam

  1. Thank you for that tribute to Joseph Beam. His mother, Mrs. Dorothy Beam, was adamant that Joe Beam’s work stay alive and available to us to help change lives. If you’d like to own a copy of In the Life, or use it to help mentor a young black gay man, or teach it in a class, it’s available through http://www.redbonepress.com. Thank you again for your kind words!

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