BY ANDY HUMM | Dr. Herbert I. Cohen, who got active in the LGBT movement in the early days of the AIDS crisis when he was in his 50s and became a stalwart in building New York LGBT institutions from the Community Center to SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), died January 6. He was 89 and had suffered a long illness.
When AIDS hit in the early 1980s, Cohen became engaged with Long Island’s East End Gay Organization that raised some of the earliest money to fund service organizations addressing the epidemic at a time when government was slow to respond. He co-chaired the group for three years. In his later years, he served on the executive board of SAGE from 2001 through 2008.
“The loss of Herb is a blow to SAGE, and to many other LGBT organizations in New York City,” said Michael Adams, the group’s executive director. “He was a true friend — always donating his time and expertise and amazing spirit, no matter what else was going on in his life. He was a board member when I started my tenure at SAGE and became a good friend and mentor.”
Cohen’s funeral at the Riverside Memorial Chapel on the Upper West Side was attended by many of the leaders and former leaders of organizations he had assisted, including Richard Burns, who served as the longtime leader of the LGBT Community Center, Janet Weinberg who heads Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Ann Northrop of the Gay USA television program, and Urvashi Vaid, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Vaid said, “I cherished Herb’s optimism, dishiness, and total honesty. He always told me the truth and was unbelievably positive.”
Also attending was Edie Windsor, now famous for winning federal recognition of all legal same-sex marriages in the United States as the plaintiff in last year’s Supreme Court case against the Defense of Marriage Act. Windsor and her then-partner and later wife, the late Thea Spyer, were social friends with Cohen and his partner and later spouse Daniel Cook from the 1960s forward.
At Cohen’s graveside in Kensico, New York, Windsor recalled being afraid to drive down a treacherous mountain road on a vacation together and was reassured by Cohen, who told her, “Just drive behind me and the worst that can happen is that you’ll bump into me.”
“That’s the way he was,” Windsor said, “always looking out for others.”
Mark D’Alessio wrote on Facebook, “I was privileged to serve with Herb as an activist on three boards: FAIRPAC, Pride Agenda, and, most recently, SAGE. In fact, Herb coaxed me with great charm into joining the board of SAGE, which was only fair as I was the one who reached out to him years earlier and lovingly nudged him to join us on the FAIRPAC board [which grew into the Empire State Pride Agenda in the early 1990s].”
Libby Post, who served with Cohen at the Pride Agenda, wrote that he was “a real mensch.”
Cohen was very close with his extended biological family, several of whom paid tribute to him, including his niece, filmmaker Helen Cohen of San Francisco, who, with Uncle Herb’s support, produced the groundbreaking documentaries “It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in School” and “That’s a Family,” about family diversity, including those headed by LGBT parents.
For all of Cohen’s contributions and professional achievements as a physician, he considered his 52-year relationship with Daniel Cook the most important thing in his life. The two became partners in 1961 and were married in 2008 in Springfield, Massachusetts, returning to New York where their marriage was recognized even though the state did not start performing same-sex marriages until 2011.
This reporter was a personal friend of Herb Cohen. I’ve always held him up as a prime example of men of his generation who overcame decades of having to be discreet in the pre-Stonewall Era –– though he enjoyed a rich gay life in those days –– and went on to become mainstays of the modern movement, in his case for more than three decades.
Herbert I. Cohen was born on November 20, 1924 in upstate Rochester. He attended Harvard College and graduated from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1949. In the US Army, he served as an enlisted man in World War II and a medical officer in Japan from 1952 until 1954. After practicing pediatrics in Rochester, he was on the pediatric staff at Babies Hospital of Columbia University, moving into allergy-immunology at Roosevelt Hospital and practicing as an allergist for 41 years.
Dr. Louis Z. Cooper, director of Pediatrics at Roosevelt from 1973 through 1998 and a longtime personal friend of Cohen and Cook, wrote in an email, “Herb Cohen, MD was a highly regarded pediatric allergist, trusted, loved and respected by his patients, their families, and his medical colleagues. As chief of pediatric allergy at Roosevelt Hospital, he was also an effective teacher and role model for the residents and other clinicians.
“As the first openly gay pediatrician in the department, Herb became a strong advocate for patients with HIV infection, even before the virus was identified. He was also a mentor for the younger pediatricians who were still closeted. He played a valuable role in supporting me as I insisted on the same quality of care for all children, regardless of their family financial circumstance. His clinic patients and patients in his private office got the same sensitive and skilled care.”