BY DONNA MINKOWITZ | “Silence really does equal death,” said Paul Schindler, Gay City News’ editor-in-chief, to several hundred people gathered to build community under the rosy pink, yellow, and blue lights and romantic cherub paintings of Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall on March 30.
The occasion was Gay City News’ 2017 Impact Awards, where queer and trans activists came dressed to the nines to honor artists, radicals, bar owners, and a bishop.
The event, which donated a portion of proceeds to the Hetrick-Martin Institute, was organized to recognize the advocates and fighters, queer, trans, cis, and straight, who have built and continue to build this community by creating healthcare spaces, battling in the courts and the streets, writing poems, and pestering officials.
A large contingent from the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!), the queer-, female-, and people of color-focused arts space in the East Bronx, came to honor writer Charles Rice-González, its co-founder. Rice-González, whose 2011 novel “Chulito” won an award from the American Library Association, told the crowd, “I’m proud to be black, I’m proud to be Latino! I’m proud to be from the Bronx, I’m proud to be working class!” Looking resplendent in a salmon-colored shirt and beautifully fitted black suit, he was easily the best-dressed man in the entire Grand Prospect.
Rice-González told Gay City News that BAAD! recently began a series called “Courageous Conversations,” where artists, writers, and activists help queer community members build resilience in the post-Trump era. The writer, who teaches English at Hostos Community College, said he is finishing a novel called “The Hearts of Hunts Point” and just embarking on a new book that will be both a memoir and a historical account of queer activism in the Bronx.
Lisa Cannistraci, co-owner of Henrietta Hudson, gave a fiercely activist speech: “The old concept of intersectionality is more important now than ever!”
In her sexy, raspy voice, she added, “The most important thing is protecting our Muslim brothers and sisters, our trans community, and people of color — for every reason!”
Cannistraci, honored for her advocacy for youth, seniors, and queer people as a member of Community Board 2 and as vice president of Marriage Equality USA, told attendees, “When we won marriage equality, I did relax a little bit of time, but that was stupid! Now I’m resisting! I’m all about boycotting North Carolina [for its anti-LGBTQ law], just like we boycotted Colorado!,” for Amendment 2 in the 1990s.
Speaking directly to Gay City News’ Paul Schindler, she said, “We’re looking to you to rise and resist!”
Bryan John Ellicott, a 27-year-old bisexual trans man from Staten Island, was honored for his scrappy activism, including suing the city Parks Department when he was forced to leave a Staten Island public pool for changing in the men’s locker room, and fighting the tampon tax and anti-choice politicians. Ellicott serves on the staff of out gay Brooklyn City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, whom he called his “best friend,” as well as on the board of BiNet-USA.
Ellicott told event-goers, “I wasn’t allowed to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Staten Island, because I’m bisexual and transgender. I want us to fight so that the trans community and the bisexual community will not be erased going forward.”
Former New York State Governor David Paterson, one of the most pro-LGBTQ officials ever to serve in the State Senate, was the first honoree of the evening. In a thoughtful aside, Paterson told Gay City News that he thinks it’s urgent that progressives develop the “patience” to learn how to organize and change the minds of many who voted for Trump.
“There’s a very great amount of education that needs to be done. Some of our hysteria is getting in the way of organizing” among those who mistakenly thought that voting for Trump would be in their interests, the former governor said. “We need a more thought-out strategy than just reacting.”
Competing with Paterson for most mobbed awardee of the evening were celebrated U.S. v. Windsor litigant Edie Windsor and performance poet, actor, and author Staceyann Chin. Windsor, looking gorgeous in a little pink hat with a black band that matched her pants suit, beautiful long diamond earrings, and black fingernail polish, was approached by so many well-wishers that her spouse, Judith Kasen-Windsor, practically had to fend them off with a stick so the 87-year-old Windsor could get to her seat.
Introduced by presenter Cathy Marino-Thomas, former head of Marriage Equality USA and a 2016 Impact Award honoree, as “a dynamo in a small blonde body,” Windsor said from the stage, “Given the circumstances, there’s a surprising joy in this room tonight, and the joy is there because it’s a room full of gay activists and their supporters, and we’re all present and not hurt! I can’t tell you how you thrill my heart.”
Chin, the Jamaica-born Drama Desk Award-winner and “Def Poetry Jam” veteran, wore maroon tights and a purple-and-black cloak above a pink and white dress. The performance poet riveted the crowd’s attention in her talk.
“We have to get back to being a radical community,” she said. “Being a dyke for me has always been political, just like being black and being Caribbean has always been political for me. One of magical things about being gay is that we are disruptive of this white heteronormative narrative.”
Chin, who now has a five-year-old child, noted that when she came to New York, she thought, “this is a place where a dyke could be a dyke and have sex with other dykes!”
While being interviewed by Gay City News outside the hall, Chin was approached by many fans, including a Russian immigrant on the Grand Prospect Hall waitstaff who asked with great interest about “what year lesbians really started to come out in New York,” and a very young African-American woman who asked shyly if Chin was on Instagram. (She is.)
Chin told the newspaper she’s working on a piece in response to the gentrification of Crown Heights, the neighborhood she lives in. And she told the attendees, “It’s time to connect with people who are not middle-class and white, and with people who are being forced out of their house due to gentrification. It’s time to pull in all the voices that are invisible.”
For profiles of the 2017 Impact Award honorees, visit here.