Young, Gay, and Black in a Southern Town

The Photo Blog
Nov. 5 2013 11:04 AM

Young, Gay, and Black in a Southern Town

Teddy Edwards and his new boyfriend, Chris Lowery, spend time together outside Edwards' home in Chesapeake, Va., in June. Teddy has been out since he was 16. "Coming out being gay, it wasn't that bad. It's gotten so much better over the years. It's comfortable now," he said.

Preston Gannaway

In 2012, Preston Gannaway was living in Norfolk, Va., looking for a coming-out story to cover for the Virginian-Pilot, where she was a staff photographer. Gannaway met Tavaris "Teddy Ebony" Edwards, a 21-year-old gay man living in public housing in Chesapeake, Va., who came out when he was 16. Because Edwards represented several demographics rarely covered in the paper—gay, black, poor—Gannaway decided instead to focus on Edwards and his experience living in Virginia.

Gannaway ended up spending a year photographing Edwards while he was studying at Norfolk State University and Tidewater Community College. She documented him while he participated as a Spartan Guard in the Spartan Legion Marching Band at Norfolk State, as well as his involvement in the ballroom scene.

Throughout the project, she was pleasantly surprised not to see too much prejudice surrounding Edwards’ sexuality. “If someone is just keeping his head above water, struggling to keep the lights on and food in the fridge, he’s not going to be worrying about who some other guy is sleeping with,” Gannaway noted about living in a financially struggling community. “Family and community [are] very important. That seems to trump just about everything.”

Preston Gannaway
Edwards, 22, plays with his pet Chihuahua Diego in his bedroom. "When I'm crying, he licks my tears," Edwards said. He dropped out of high school when he was 16. "School was always tough on me. I was always teased about being gay," he said. "I didn't wanna be around that. So I just left."

Preston Gannaway

Preston Gannaway
Edwards plays with Keion Johnson,his neighbor's son, outside his family's home in public housing. "I want a baby—I may be gay, but I want a baby," he said. He knows by watching the young mothers around him, though, that he's not ready yet. "Babies [are] a lot. Sometimes I watch my friends and I think, 'I couldn't do that.' "

Preston Gannaway

Preston Gannaway
Edwards helps watch out for the Hot Ice dancers as part of the Spartan Guard during the season's first football game at Norfolk State University on Sept. 1, 2012. Since childhood, Edwards has loved Norfolk State’s marching band. Around the time he came out, he began hanging out on the NSU campus. He met a couple guys who were gay and members of the Spartan Guard. "I want to be where they're at," he recalls thinking.

Preston Gannaway


That isn’t to say Gannaway didn’t face other issues while working with a 21-year-old. “My friends would joke that I was in an abusive relationship with him because I was constantly waiting around for his calls or planning my weekend around his activities,” Gannaway said. (She likes to plan; Edwards doesn’t.) “I had to accept that [Edwards doesn’t like to plan] and learn to get into what I call the Zen of Teddy. It’s important that he live his life as he normally does, even if was often frustrating to me as a photographer.”

Gannaway had the additional challenge of going into Edwards’ community as an outsider, a white woman. “Around his neighborhood, there was some initial distrust. And with good reason: White people usually don’t come into Teddy’s housing complex for positive reasons. He often had to tell people I wasn’t a cop,” Gannaway said.

Preston Gannaway
Edwards, center, smiles as Quintay Robinson vogues during a miniball at the LGBT Center in Norfolk, Va. Edwards has been voguing in the ballroom scene since around the time he came out. Members of the ballroom subculture are organized into "houses" and share the same last name as their gay family members. "Voguing is something I love doing," he said. "I love dancing. It's a part of dancing that a gay person understands."

Preston Gannaway

Preston Gannaway
Edwards and Jamesie Johnson,his best friend, take self-portraits for Facebook in Johnson's bathroom.

Preston Gannaway

Preston Gannaway
Edwards and his boyfriend hold hands as they walk across the NSU campus.

Preston Gannaway

The day before Edwards’ story was supposed to run, the Virginian-Pilot killed the story, which devastated both Gannaway and Edwards. “It was probably more of a shock to me than it was to him. Teddy is poor, black, and gay. He’s been marginalized in ways I’ll never understand.”

Time’s LightBox ended up publishing the images, along with Edwards’ story in his own words. Edwards received positive feedback from around the country, but Gannaway said she “got the impression that it wasn’t the same as if his hometown paper had run it. … [It’s] sad to me that this vibrant black gay community is still pretty much invisible to the Hampton Roads white community, and that they didn’t get to know Teddy through the story.”

Gannaway was recently a finalist in Photolucida’s Critical Mass 2013 photo contest. Her Kickstarter campaign to fund the book on her project, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” about a working-class community near Edwards’ hometown ends on Nov. 12.

Preston Gannaway
A friend films Edwards during a birthday party at his neighbor's apartment. Edwards' 22nd birthday was the same day President Obama made his historic announcement in support of same-sex marriage.

Preston Gannaway

Preston Gannaway
Edwards hands his phone to his great-grandma so she can talk to his mom as he checks in on her between classes at Tidewater Community College. At left, a family friend looks on. Teddy's father was killed when Teddy was 2. "My mama raised me on her own," he said. "She had me when she was 14. She did a good job. I made some bad decisions, but she did a good job."

Preston Gannaway

Preston Gannaway
Edwards and his friends hang out during NSU's LEGASI Pride Week in March 2013.

Preston Gannaway

Alyssa Coppelman is a freelance photo editor based in Austin, Texas, who spent most of the aughts as assistant art director at Harper’s.



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