The gay and lesbian caucus of the New York Council jumped from three to six members this year — half of them people of color — and their more progressive politics were on full display June 18 at their LGBT Pride Celebration. The Cooper Union Great Hall event emphasized the connections between the community’s issues and those of other oppressed people here and around the world.
In honoring David Rothenberg, 81 — the founder, in 1967, of the ex-offenders group the Fortune Society and, in 1985, one of the earliest out gay candidates for City Council — Councilman Daniel Dromm, an out gay Jackson Heights Democrat, said, “My objective is to help LGBT people understand that we are all in this struggle together.” Noting Rothenberg’s work with the “formerly incarcerated,” Dromm reminded the audience that LGBT people “were at one time outlaws, too.”
Melissa Mark-Viverito, who succeeded out lesbian Christine Quinn as Council speaker, said that the LGBT community “is my political and personal family,” talked about her two gay brothers, and promised to be “a fierce advocate and ally” — something she demonstrated when she pulled the Council’s banner from the anti-gay St. Patrick’s Day parade in March.
She kicked off the Pride celebration with a tribute to the late activist and drag king Stormé Delarverie, who died at 94 last month, and by honoring transgender activist Chase Strangio, founder of the Lorena Borjas Community Fund that provides bail and bond help to LGBTQ immigrants in criminal and immigration cases. Strangio, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and AIDS Project, said that despite the community’s advances, “the struggle is real and immediate” for many, especially transgender folks and immigrants. Among other things, he called for “an end to the cooperation between local law enforcement and ICE,” the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit.
Mark-Viverito also honored Allen Roskoff, an early Gay Activists Alliance member and now president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, who was an opponent of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations as well as a vociferous foe of Quinn’s.
Roskoff gave a militant speech, reminding the audience that when GAA first pushed the gay rights bill he co-authored in 1970 only four Council members put their names on it and the one from Greenwich Village dismissed it as “preposterous.” He recounted war stories — from liberating the Rainbow Room with same-sex dancing to heckling US Senator Chuck Schumer over his long resistance to same-sex marriage.
“We are not in this movement to be polite,” Roskoff said. “Be rude and demand our rights.”
Ritchie Torres, a Democrat elected to the Council at 25 and the first out LGBT official from the Bronx, honored veteran political activist Paul del Duca, chief of staff to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., who was also on hand. Del Duca said that “as we celebrate our collective achievements, we should pause to remember those who go about their lives openly” here and abroad in places where it is not as easy as in New York.
Out gay Councilman Corey Johnson, a Democrat who represents the West Village, Chelsea, and Hell’s Kitchen, honored Christine Marinoni for her pioneering work with the Alliance for Quality Education and for “getting arrested with ACT UP.” Marinoni, appointed to the Department of Education by Mayor Bill de Blasio as a special adviser for community partnerships, praised the diverse Council LGBT caucus as a group that is “truly progressive, speaking to issues well beyond those that affect them directly.”
Marinoni quoted her wife Cynthia Nixon, who famously said, “I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay and I can tell you that gay is better.” She also praised the out members of the de Blasio administration, including “community organizer” Emma Wolfe, the mayor’s director of intergovernmental relations, and “scores of others,” whom she cited by first names, for “doing good progressive work.”
Rothenberg talked about being inspired by his first political hero — Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball — to go down to challenge Washington, DC’s segregation in 1952.
“Before Stonewall, I was deeply closeted,” he said. “I didn’t recognize my own oppression.”
Rothenberg decided to come out on David Susskind’s TV show in 1973 and met with his colleagues at the Fortune Society to offer his resignation. Mel Rivers, one of the ex-offenders, told him, “You stood alongside us for six years. Give us the chance to stand by you.
Rothenberg said that at 81 he was being honored for “hanging around,” but he got one of the biggest hands of the evening.
Jimmy van Bramer, the out gay Council majority leader who is a Sunnyside Democrat, honored Brooklyn Nets player Jason Collins, saying, “Just like Jackie Robinson changed the world, you will change the world for the better by being who you are and being a great basketball player.” Collins, who came out in April 2013, wears #98 to honor Matthew Shepard, who was brutally beaten to death in 1998. Collins works with the Matthew Shepard Foundation as well as GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
Collins, the first active out gay player in the four big male professional sports leagues in the US, said, “I want to make it easier” for others to come out — and Michael Sam, recruited out of college this year by football’s St. Louis Rams, already has. Acknowledging “others who came before me, particularly female athletes” such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, Collins said, “We’re all on the same team. The goal is to lead an authentic life.”
The evening’s emcee, actress Carmelita Tropicana, said, “It feels like we are creating community right now.” Introducing Councilman Carlos Menchaca, she described the out gay Democrat’s Red Hook-Sunset Park district in Brooklyn as the area where “all my exes are from.” Not skipping a beat Menchaca — who grew up in public housing in El Paso and is New York State’s first Mexican-American elected official — shot back that “all my exes are in Texas.” He honored trans Latina LGBT organizer Bianey Garcia, who left Mexico, she said, “to escape transphobia” and now works with Make the Road NY, a social justice group.
Rosie Mendez, a Lower East Side Democrat and now the only out lesbian in the Council, honored Robert Pinter, who came to her more than five years ago after his false arrest for prostitution, a case that the city just settled under pressure from her and her colleagues. Mendez praised him “for obtaining justice for all of those men who were afraid to speak up.”
“In Ray Kelly’s world, I am one of the oldest gay male prostitutes in New York,” Pinter said, decrying the scheme “Bloomberg and the police department” rigged up to falsely arrest unsuspecting gay men — many of them men of color — in adult bookstores. Cute young cops solicited older men and then turned around and offered them money, at which point they were falsely arrested as hookers. The scam was part of what Pinter called a “despicable” effort to rack up violations against the stores in order to close them.
“The police counted on our shame,” he said, but with the encouragement of activists such as Mendez and his friend Brendan Fay, he overcame his “embarrassment” and stood up not only for himself but for others being damaged by the sting. His settlement with the city was celebrated with a rally outside the Stonewall Inn on June 21.
Public Advocate Tish James closed the proceedings, calling herself “an honorary member of the gay caucus” and proclaiming that “closets are a place to hold old clothing. We’ll be marching down Fifth Avenue to celebrate who we are.”