In his home in Mid-City, Los Angeles, a 62-year-old man sits on a red couch that matches his red velvet suit and red, glittery candles. He listens to Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me" and holds a goblet. On it, diamonds spell out his nickname: 14K.
For over two decades, 14K has served as a father figure to many gay black men in LA. "We have really good discussions when we're in the house with my friends, about life and what's going on," he says. On the weekends, 14K opens his house to the city's gay residents. Queens, transexuals, guys on the down low―anyone can come as long as they bring a bottle of liquor. Like a gay Oprah, he talks to younger guys about accepting their truth.
14K knows this journey. He grew up in 1960s Los Angeles, living with his siblings and mother. His mom worked as a Baptist minister; for decades, 14K operated on the down low and dated women. (He has multiple children with three different women.) In the 1990s, he came out, stopped sleeping with women, and married a man.
They divorced 15 years ago, but 14K has remained active in the city's party circuit. Many men know 14K from Catch One, the city's last black-owned gay club, where he worked the door for 27 years. After the bar closed last year, 14K's home turned into the city's unofficial club and community center for black gay LA. Since 14K moved into the house 15 years ago, he has painted the walls yellow and decorated with white (real) fur rugs, a miniature Eiffel tower, and a fountain that he keeps at the entryway. In a cabinet, he stores a collection of clown statues.
For the past year, punk photographer Alexis Gross has been shooting 14K's house parties. Gross may seem like an odd photographer to shoot 14K―she's best known for shooting Juggalos and Vans ads―but last year a punk promoter started renting out the Catch One space. Once a month, punks mingled with Los Angeles's black gay residents, and Gross worked the door alongside 14K. "We were stuck together," 14K explains. They dealt with unruly customers―assholes that 14K often responded to with humor. "He was making me crack the fuck up," Gross says. Many nights, they listened to a homeless man who claimed to have 17 babies with nine different women, bragging that most of the kids were "crack babies." "I would never tell anybody that I had crack babies," 14K says.
Last month, I went with Gross to watch her shoot portraits of 14K and talk to him about the history of Catch One, the time he got ran over by a cop, and why his 87-year-old Baptist mom loves drag queens.
BROADLY: How did you start working at Catch One?
14K: I used to hang at the door with a friend of mine. He was taking tickets, and one day he couldn't show up. I ended up taking tickets, and they ended up hiring me. From there I went from taking tickets to security, from security to management.
Why was the club important?
We hired our own in the community. We became friends and family. We hung out. We did things with the owner when we first started. She would do big, major Christmas parties.
Why did they sell the business?
A lot of black people don't put money back into [black] business. The club was falling apart, and she did what she could, but it's a lot of rent. The new people came in and just weaved out the whole club: knocked down walls, just made it look so much better.
Do you love that your house occasionally functions as the new gay community center?
With the club closing and having a place of my own, I like to come together socially with my friends and have a happy place with no drama, where we can eat, drink, [and] have fun.
Do you try to teach that to younger guys?
Yes, anybody coming by here. I like the young people that stop lying around, trying to smoke the weed. I never got high a day of my life. I drink on occasion, [but] I'm not a drunk. I have so much liquor, I would be a drunk if I drank it everyday. I try to teach them to get up, make something of themselves, go to school, get a job, get what you want out of life, and be honest with people. Don't be taken with people.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
Amazing. I am. I'm amazing. I believe in giving back to the community—that's why I started my foundation. I have a foundation that I collect [for] from my family and friends—money, blankets—and we put together a kit for the homeless every Christmas. We go around the city and give them out Christmas Day. They get $25 on a card, a homeless kit, and a blanket.
Why do you think LA has such a big homeless problem?
Some people want to be homeless. I think it's the drugs. Drugs brought a lot of people down.
Have you seen drugs get better or worse?
Worse, because they bring in new, different stuff. Now crystal meth is the big thing for the youngsters, and it's taking them down. In the 80s, crack was bad, but now meth is taking [its place as the worst drug]. They don't do crack anymore. Crack is cheap. They doing meth and everything else—mollies. I ain't tried nothing.
How does the LA of your childhood differ from present-day LA?
It's pretty rough now. It wasn't rough back in the day. Now, you move into the wrong neighborhood, wrong people move to the wrong place, you have problems.
I was also hit on that corner, when I was five, by a car—by a police officer, right in my face.
What was growing up gay in Los Angeles like?
I had a bad situation growing up because I had a real mean stepfather. [My mother] has property, [with] a front house and two back houses. She gave me a back house when I graduated junior high school. When I was 15, I had my own little place, had my own furniture—still went to school, still graduated. A lot of people think if you live by yourself, you're not going to go to school, but I did.
When did people start calling you 14K?
I used to wear a whole lot of jewelry; I had a ring on every finger. I had a whole lot of chains hanging, so they called me 14K—[this happened] in the 90s. '97, I think that was.
What were some of your first jobs?
At 13 or 14, I worked at a corner store called Helper Market right down the street from my mother's house. I was also hit on that corner, when I was five, by a car—by a police officer, right in my face. He broke my nose, my eye was cut; they said I had a plate in my head all my life, but I found out later that no, I did not. My brother used to always mess with me.
Did the cop go to jail?
No, it was kind of my fault. I was chasing a little girl, and we ran across the street, and she got by and I didn't. I went, like, 35 feet up in the air. I was in the hospital for six months. They didn't think I was going to make it.
You're very out and positive about your sexuality. Were you always this way?
Nooo. Oh my God! I would hit somebody just for looking at me wrong. That's how bad I used to be. [Positivity] came with accepting who I was. Sometimes you fight who you are, and then when you accept who you are, it comes. It took me a long time because I have kids—then the stigma. I come from a big family. My mother had all boys and one girl, but she's the baby, and my mother has ten kids. It was hard because [of] all the brothers. Then I came out.
You had a girlfriend and also have children with three different women. Were they beards?
I always loved women, and I always had children by women, and I always knew I was trying to satisfy people and not me—that's why. I still have a lot of gay women and straight women try to sleep with me now.
I had a girlfriend in Arkansas. I would see her, and then I'd go see the boys. The boys can't have babies
Did your mother accept you when you came out?
No. It took her a minute. My mother's a minister. Being a minister, it was a little tough, but then she said, "I would rather have my child in my life and love him because of who he is than lose him."
[Today] she loves drag queens! [For] her 80th birthday, she wanted me to invite them all to perform for her, and I did! She loved it. One of the guys at the party tried to flirt with one of them—he didn't know [he was a man in drag]. They exchanged numbers and got mad. My mother was like, "I wasn't supposed to tell you!" I announced it, though, that they were all men. If he missed that, that's on him.
Were you still on the down low after you came out to your mom?
My mother would tell me, "Just keep it from your grandmother," and that's what I did. She didn't live here anyway. I would go to Arkansas [to visit her]. I had a girlfriend in Arkansas. I would see her, and then I'd go see the boys—so you know. The boys can't have babies, and that's why I went there.
Are you close with your father?
My dad's dead. My dad's German, white. He died at 90. He was heartbroken when his wife died, so he died of heartbreak. [He was] never married [to my mother]. He was married to the lady he was with when she died, so he was stepping out, but my mother always says that white man was the best man she ever had. She would never go back to a black man. She was married to a black man after that, but now she still wants a man at 87—she wouldn't do black.
Did your family come to your wedding when you married a man in 1996?
My mother came to my wedding, so I know she was definitely accepting. I was still afraid to kiss him at the wedding, but I did.
Where did you meet him?
La Cienega and Slauson. I was coming home from working at the mall. I was the assistant manager at Lane Bryant—first man they ever hired—and I brought them a lot of money. The ladies loved me. I can [sell] anything, I can. I worked at Casual Male Big and Tall, then I left and went to Lane Bryant.
When did you break up?
We moved in together [15 years ago]. He didn't stay here for 11 days. He left me on the 11th day [after] moving in the house. It was New Year's Eve. It was his birthday [on] New Year's Day. He cooked, brought me food up, walked out the front door. I had no idea until what was going on until May. He left me for somebody else, but he left all of his stuff here. He only took the car. I thought [he would come back], but no, he didn't come back. I was going nuts. The police [were] called. A friend of mine found me—I ended up in some mental something on a 72-hour hold, but I knew the lady so she let me go. I went to counseling after that. I've been through a lot, but I've overcome it all.
Do you think heartbreak is good [for the soul]?
Yes because it shows you what you can deal with. It shows you what you're not going to deal with, and it makes you stronger.
Why did you fill this house with clown sculptures?
I'm a clown. They're fun. A lot of people are scared of them, though, because somebody put some negative stuff out about clowns. In movies, clowns kill you. Over time, I designed the [interior of the house]. The couches—those were not bought like that. I designed them and had my upholstery man come, told him exactly what I want, and he did it. [There are diamonds in the couch] and in the pillows. I don't like going to someone's house and having the same stuff they have. I like to be different.
What is the biggest misconception about you?
That I'm a hoe.