The LGBT Pride Parade in New York has largely become one long –– and I mean really long, at seven hours-plus –– infomercial for businesses, from banks to Broadway shows, that want the patronage of LGBT folks and those sympathetic to us. But LGBT and AIDS activist and service groups continue to dot the procession, with new and veteran activists and elected officials making a special effort to be there for this year’s last-Sunday-in-June event in the wake of the historic Supreme Court ruling two days before opening marriage to same-sex couples nationwide.
On June 28, Gay City News wanted to know what the focus of LGBT and AIDS activism is now for these leaders and activists. Their responses ranged from questions of survival to the trivial, but there was, over and over again, a lot of concern voiced for transgender people and youth.
Kevin Cathcart, who has been the executive director of Lambda Legal for 23 years, said, “Everything else we have been working on just got bumped up a notch” by the marriage win, “strengthened by this amazing decision. It’s not just about marriage. It’s about our place in the Constitution and the country.”
For Ugandan lesbian activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, one of the parade’s grand marshals, who is from a country where members of Parliament are trying to make its anti-gay laws even more draconian than they already are and where leading gay activist David Kato was murdered in 2011, the priority is basic.
“We want to be protected by our government,” she said. “We can’t do our work without protection.”
Adejoke Tugbiyele, marching with a small contingent calling itself the Nigerian LGBT Community in NY, said, “We march for who can’t back in Nigeria,” where anti-LGBT persecution is widespread. Tugbiyele said she has hope for the youth in a country where “60 percent of the population is under 30. Things will change.”
Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service –– who while in the City Council cast the deciding vote on New York City’s gay and lesbian rights bill in 1986 –– now works “with 47 LGBT groups in 14 countries, letting them define the nature of their struggle. They are at all different stages of social change.”
Messinger acknowledged that, like many of us, she cried when she heard the news of the Supreme Court’s marriage decision, while she was attending a meeting in Mexico.
Gay pioneer Randy Wicker, 77, who joined the Mattachine Society in 1958 and said he is its last remaining active member, was in the parade being pushed in a wheelchair amidst a group of activists from Russia, another nation that has suffered an anti-LGBT crackdown in recent years.
That group was followed by some African Americans with a banner that read, “All of America is Stonewall for Black People.” A woman named Justice said, “We’re still fighting for basic, simple human rights in 2015, still have no justice in the courts and in the streets” — a message emphasizing that legal protections are not the end of social justice campaigns.
Activists from Marriage Equality USA, moved up to the front of the parade in recognition of the June 26 court win, were received with thunderous cheers. Among those cheering was Ron Madson, 68, a teacher who with his now-husband Richard Dietz and two other couples won the right to domestic partner benefits for all New York City municipal employees in 1993, after a six-year court battle. Madson said he wants “full equality in all 50 states –– and get rid of those horrible ‘religious freedom’ laws. They are just James Crow –– Jim Crow dressed up.”
His call for a comprehensive federal law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression was echoed throughout the day –– and one is set to be introduced by Democrats in the House and Senate any day now.
US Representative José Serrano, a Bronx Democrat, thinks the “Supreme Court decision opens the door” to progress on LGBT issues in the House.
“I think everything is on the table,” said Serrano, who argued that his colleagues, including Republicans, will now be more amendable to passage of measures like a comprehensive LGBT rights bill.
Serrano’s colleague Jerry Nadler, a Democrat who represents Manhattan’s West Side and a portion of Brooklyn, was less sanguine about the new bill about to be introduced.
“It’s going to take a couple of years,” Nadler said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
He noted that he was criticized by some allies when he introduced a measure in 2009 to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, but said, “The sooner you start, the sooner you’re finished.”
Some were taking a breath for the weekend following the landmark marriage decision.
“I have a completely free life to do what I want,” said Steve Turtell. “It’s been a long struggle.” Now, he said, “I want to change people’s minds about us, and we do it by being open and honest –– all the time and everywhere.”
Cathy Marino-Thomas, a longtime leader of Marriage Equality, said, “I’m working on helping homeless LGBT youth. It’s not the time to go home. We have to move forward.”
Activist Yetta Kurland, who twice ran for a City Council seat from Manhattan’s West Side, said, “We should enjoy what it feels like in this moment to be truly accepted.” She said she will continue her work as an attorney on employment and housing rights for LGBT people.
Elizabeth Owens, who is 56 and works for VOCAL-NY, which organizes and advocates for low-income people affected by HIV, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration, recalled that she came out at age 12 living in Greenwich Village, but said she still has a long list of to-dos including “making sure HIV/ AIDS is taken care of, affordable housing, HASA for All. We’ve only just begun.” HASA for All is a campaign to expand eligibility for the city’s HIV/ AIDS Services Administration from those living with AIDS to anyone with an HIV diagnosis.
Jennifer Flynn Walker, VOCAL-NY’s executive director, said, “We need to make sure that LGBT immigrants are not in detention and when they are they are treated equally.”
City Comptroller Scott Stringer explained that he has launched a campaign for gender-neutral, single-serve public toilets in New York of the type used in other cities.
“Transgender equality is essential,” he said. “We have to double down.”
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito emphasized, “The struggle’s not over,” citing the need of “LGBT kids in schools,” though she deferred to Queens Councilmember Daniel Dromm, her Education Committee chair, on what steps need to be taken. In the just-completed budget cycle, Dromm succeeded in getting funding for Department of Education staff to work on integrating LGBT history into the curriculum.
Corey Johnson, a gay councilmember from the West Side, said his priorities are “to expand HASA,” pass the state Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, or GENDA, and help LGBT youth. Johnson argued that the Supreme Court’s emphasis in its marriage ruling on the equal protection provisions of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment will help speed progress on key community needs.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, who is also gay and represents the West Side, said he is looking forward to the 2016 elections to regain a Democratic majority in the State Senate. That, he said, will allow for passage of GENDA as well as his bill to bar mental health professionals from practicing sexual orientation conversion therapy on minors.
US Senator Chuck Schumer, who as a member of the House voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and reversed course in 2009 when he endorsed marriage equality, marched down Fifth Avenue shouting through a megaphone, “Pride in Alabama! Pride in Mississippi! Pride is New York’s greatest export!”
Schumer said he would support the comprehensive LGBT civil rights measure set to replace the narrower Employment Non-Discrimination Act that has languished in Congress for more than two decades.
Nick DelGiudice of Geeks Out, noting his group doesn’t “do activism, but social events,” said it does hold a “huge fundraiser for the Trevor Project,” a hotline for LGBT youth, each year.
Tony Setteducate, 75, a member of SAGE, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, said, “The battle is really just getting started. We need equality in the workplace, equality for transgender people, housing, and general public relations to convince people that we’re not weird –– we’re their neighbors, sons, and daughters.”
Veteran activist Tom Smith is at work on senior housing for LGBT people through the new Stonewall Community Development Corporation so “LGBT people can stay where they lived their lives.”
Richard Burns, who formerly headed the LGBT Community Center for decades, said, “I see this as an intersectional movement, working for reproductive justice, economic justice, and a safe, whole, free society for everyone. LGBT people are everywhere.”
Emmaia Gelman of Irish Queers voiced her resentment over “queer conservatives using the power of the movement to build their conservative agenda — from the Human Rights Campaign to individuals like Thomas Roberts,” the gay MSNBC anchor who led a contingent of LGBT employees of NBC, the broadcast sponsor of the anti-gay St. Patrick’s Day Parade, in this year’s Fifth Avenue event, in what many activists saw as a fig leaf to cover the organizers’ continued hostility toward gay Irish groups participating freely.
Eric Sawyer, marching with ACT UP/ New York, said, “There is so much left to do and not just in the US. There are 79 countries where being gay is a crime, nine with the death penalty.”
Bernard J. Tarver, 55, who was marching with his union, SAG-AFTRA, said he worries about the “isolation of gay seniors” and “gay kids being kicked out of their homes.”
“Marriage was one victory, but not the only one we need,” Tarver said.
Thomas Krever, who heads up the Hetrick-Martin Institute, said the Supreme Court decision tells the young LGBT people he serves “that their futures can be filled with love and acceptance. But we can’t rest on our laurels. The homeless rate hasn’t dropped. Let’s not kid ourselves.”
Fred Karger, who smoked out the Mormon Church’s secretive funding of the successful 2008 Proposition 8 campaign in California, is now taking on virulently anti-gay Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee through a new Super PAC.
“He’s a horrible individual with terrible judgement,” Karger explained.
Columbia University law professor Suzanne Goldberg, who while at Lambda Legal won a 1996 Supreme Court victory against an anti-gay Colorado voter initiative, said she was “so happy” about the marriage decision, but misses “people like Paula Ettelbrick and Tom Stoddard who opened up the debate on it.” Ettelbrick, a longtime LGBT advocate in many roles who at the time of her death was sharing responsibility with Goldberg for raising the two children they had while they were partners, succumbed to cancer in 2011 at age 56. Stoddard, who led Lambda Legal for six years, died of AIDS at age 48 in 1997.
Drew Tagliabue, who heads up PFLAG NYC, said his group’s greatest challenge is working with parents of transgender youth, some of whom are coming out “as young as three or five.”
Performer Nora Burns, focusing on New York City, said she is working on “making it a livable city so we can all afford to live where we want.” She lamented the unbridled “free market” that is “killing our neighborhoods.”
Nathan Schaefer, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said GENDA remains the group’s top priority, after having once again been denied a vote in the Republican-led State Senate, where not a single GOP member has signed on as a sponsor. He expressed the hope that a “new generation” in the Senate will make progress possible.
African-American transgender activist Kiara St. James marched under the banner of Black Trans Advocacy: “Become the Change You Want to See in the World.” Asked about her priorities, she highlighted the epidemic of homicides against trans women of color.
Police Commissioner William Bratton, marching with the Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL, pointed to “the larger number of officers who are out and proud, enjoying their sexuality and being police officers,” while Steven Sanfilippo, president of FireFLAG/ EMS, said his group lets LGBT firefighters know “they have a place to go.” Being a gay member of the FDNY today, he said, it is “easier to be out, and we are being accepted with no problems.”
Jeff Stone, who has been engaged with Dignity/ New York for years, acknowledged the challenges posed by a Catholic Church hierarchy that remains anti-gay, “but we continue to work on the people in the pews who are with us.” The group has yet to determine how it will respond to Pope Francis’ New York visit in September and a Vatican family issues conclave scheduled for October.
Upper West Side Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, who led the fight for marriage equality in Albany, said he is currently most concerned about “transgender youth and bullying.” He plans a fall hearing on how the anti-bullying Dignity for All Students Act that he shepherded to passage five years ago “is not working.”
Michael Blake, a Democratic assemblyman from the Bronx, called the Supreme Court decision “the first step in breaking down barriers of injustice for LGBT people,” and cited the need for economic and educational justice for LGBT people and everyone else. The aftermath of the Charleston, South Carolina, murders, he said, represents as a “transformational moment in the country,” calling it “a tragedy, but an opportunity to unite the nation in many ways.”
Assemblymember Deborah Glick said she sees the next big opportunity in Albany –– as early as the 2016 session –– as getting the ban on using conversion therapy on minors through the State Senate.
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who with his oversight of the state retirement pension funds is one of the nation’s largest institutional investors, said he would like to see more “LGBT people serve on corporate boards.”
Veteran AIDS activist Brent Nicholson Earle, 64, said he’s still active with ACT UP and is now working with “the Stonewall 50 Task Force” planning for the half-century commemoration in 2019 of the riots widely credited with sparking the modern LGBT movement. A major display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, he said, will be one part of the commemoration in New York.
Veteran activist Steve Ashkinazy, 66, the founder of the Harvey Milk School, said, “I’m bottom up. I don’t care about the law. I’m for people fulfilling the lives they want regardless of the law.”
Jim Fouratt, marching in a small group of Gay Liberation Front veterans from 1969, said, “We still want the right to be different. We’re not all assimilated and homogenized, and a lot of us don’t want to be.”