Formed in 1986 by Alan Bell, Black Jack was a club that regularly met for safer sex parties. During this time, AIDS ran rampant throughout the United States and many gay men scoffed at the idea of using a condom. Bell wanted a place where there was no questioning if someone was into safer sex. Because of this, queer black men were educated about using protection and formed a community of like-minded people.
Alan Bell started the organization, Black Jack because he sought to unify queer African American men, educate others, and enjoy sex parties. In 1986, the group was formed because there were no places that implemented the message of Minority AIDS Project, which was the first community-based HIV/AIDS organization established and managed by people of color in the United States. Safer sex was not attractive to many gay men during this time, which was also the time of the AIDS crisis. Among African Americans, safer sex was often done in the dark because it became the butt of cruel jokes. Black health-conscious gays did not have a place where they could meet and socialize comfortably, because the baths and bars were full of scrutinizing party drug users and barebackers.
On the first Friday and third Saturday of each month, Black Jack would host its famous safe sex- meetings, which were held in various hotel rooms. The monthly newsletter advertised these. Members had to be black, gay, and safe- sex oriented, as party drugs and unprotected sex was prohibited. There were two tiers of membership: green members and gold members. Green Members had to meet at a location, typically a fast food place like McDonald’s or Wendy’s, before 10 pm, then the whole group would travel to the hotel together. This acted as a screening because the people of Black Jack did not want anyone with intent to harm or steal, as well as someone who could be trusted to protect the secrecy of the club. In order to secretly find each other at the restaurant, members would look for a group of black men whose table had a “blackjack of spades placed discreetly on the edge.” Those who were late were left behind. As for the gold members, they were given the location of the hotel room and able to enter at any time after 8 pm. In return, they had to pay a $15 annual membership fee, as well as the universal $5 entry fee. Both types of members could bring guests, if they met the criteria of being a member and were willing to share in the evening’s expenses. Green members had the chance to become gold members if they paid the $15 annual fee and satisfied one of the following: attend two Black Jack meetings as a Green Member; be sponsored by two Gold Members in good standing or arrange for verification at a private screening. In December of 1987, the Black Jack newsletter announced that the entry price for safe sex meetings would be increasing to $6. This was done to offset the costs of running the club and to take the pressure off Alan Bell’s wallet.
The newsletter showed transparency to its clients when it gave the breakdown of the expenses for the month of November in 1987. For two meetings: $130 was needed to rent out a two-bedroom hotel suite; $20 was for wine coolers, beer, etc. from Price Club; $10 for soft drinks, juices, and grapes from Ralph’s; $25 was needed for the newsletter stamps; $10 for envelopes and xeroxing the newsletters; $10 for stamps, envelopes, xeroxing, etc. to answer replies to ads; $19 for ads in Frontiers, Edge, and Reactions; $17 for video rentals and the door prize raffle; $2 for the P.O. box rental; and $20 for miscellaneous. This amounts to $263 for two monthly meetings. At this time, they had about 25 members at a meeting, which totaled to roughly $250 of revenue, which was not sustainable for the club to continue running.
Inside one of these safe sex meetings, members can do a multitude of things. To break the ice in the room, the television will usually be playing a black gay porno for those who want to watch and/or masturbate. Members were encouraged to bring videotapes of their own if they pleased. Usually, people would be in the back, masturbating to themselves; others would engage in mutual masturbation. There were also others who simply walked around and watched. Before everybody got deep into sex, Bell—leader of the organization —would cease all activities for five to six minutes. With all the attention on him, he would proceed to give a lesson on safer sex to everyone, which sometimes included condom demonstrations. After he was finished, everyone resumed whatever they were doing. Condoms were then distributed for those who wanted to have anal sex. Soft drinks, beer, wine coolers, chips, and cookies would be provided as well. By the end of the evening, some people would have made friends and exchanged phone numbers.
The club offered more social opportunities than just the bi-monthly “safe-sex meetings”. Sometimes, there would be excursions to places like Lake Arrowhead for 1988’s MLK weekend, or events like a Christmas Party and a day at the ballet. These events charged different fees and diversified the identity of Black Jack. It was a bi-monthly sex party. It was also a place of learning, a place to meet and connect with other queer black men.
Black Jack gave members the opportunity to place personal ads, which were free of charge. For $0.25 a word, men described themselves physically and stated their intentions, which ranged from friends to intimate relationships. This was followed by a solicitation of a response through their listed mailing address or telephone number. They wanted men who fit their criteria to mail a response to their ad alongside a photo of themselves. Ads that were submitted to Black Jack could be rejected if “its content advertises or solicits sexual acts which are currently considered unsafe by current AIDS criteria”. Club officers also reserved the right to make necessary changes to any submissions that were out of line. Before the newsletters were published, the phone numbers listed in the classifieds section had to be verified.
“The Last Jack” was presumably the last “safe-sex meeting”, which was held on Friday, September 1, 1989, in Hollywood. After this, the club was to cut back on its regular schedule of meetings and only host special events. This policy seemed to have changed when the February 1990 issue released with the title, “And You Thought We Had Died”. The first Black Jack safe-sex meeting of the 90s was on Friday, February 2, 1990. Admission was $8 for those who mailed checks in advance, while the general price was $12.
After Black Jack had published the personal ads, Alan Bell felt that the ads needed more exposure. BJ Ads was then created. A few months later, display advertising and the news were added to BJ ads. This resulted in a magazine that would later be known as BLK, which reached thousands of queer people in the Southern California area. While BLK gained traction, the production of Black Jack dissipated.
Black Jack chapters were created in Chicago, Detroit, and New York.
Black Jack Newsletter, ONE Subject File collection, Coll2012-001, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, Los Angeles, California
“Black Jack: The Beginning of Public Black Gay Safe Sex Parties.” In The Meantime Message, no. Spring 2012, 2012.