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Queens: A Borough of Activists and Obstructionists

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Several early pioneers in the gay rights movements hail from the borough of Queens. Councilmember Danny Dromm led the fight in the 1990s to eradicate homophobia from the curriculum of the Board of Education as well as against the haters of our community in that borough.

That group included our enemies on the old Board of Education. In 1992, board members Ninfa Segarra and Carol Gresser and local community school board member Mary Cummins — three outrageous homophobes — fought the school system’s new Children of the Rainbow Curriculum and its including the book “Heather Had Two Mommies” in its recommended reading guide. The battle pitted Dromm against Cummins, who led the local board that oversaw the school where he taught — and he received death threats. One of the best-liked veteran activists in our community, Dromm also spearheaded organizing for the first Queen Pride Parade in 1993.

Morty Manford was also an early activist from Flushing. An ever-present personality, he was president of the Gay Activist Alliance, though contrary to many reports he was not a founding member. Manford died at 41 in 1992 from AIDS-related illness. His parents, Jeanne and Jules Manford, were heroes as forces behind PFLAG — Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Jules was a dentist and donated his skills to early activists who could not afford dental care, including extensive work for Jim Owles as he prepared for his 1973 City Council bid.

Another early pioneer was Betty Santoro, a lesbian who lived in Bayside and worked tirelessly for passage of the city’s gay right law, including giving riveting testimony at the City Council, organizing protests, and devoting thousands of hours to the cause. Betty died in in 2005 at age 67.

I also grew up in Queens and attended Far Rockaway High School and York College. While in college, I lived in Little Neck and began my involvement in gay Liberation, attending the very first meeting of the Gay Activist Alliance at the Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street in Soho.

Through the 1970s and ‘80s, despite the borough’s homegrown activists, Queens played a pivotal role in blocking the gay rights bill in the Council. Councilmember Morty Povman was an original sponsor of the bill, but that lasted in that role a very short time, because his spiritual leader, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, demanded he oppose the bill under threat of a primary. Povman acquiesced. His wife, Sandy, was quite upset and came to the City Council with her tennis racquet in hand to make sure her husband at least kept his mouth shut.

In fact, it was often the wives and girlfriends of councilmembers who showed the real courage in coming to our aid.

In the 1970s, John Lindsay’s deputy mayor, Richard Aurelio, and another aide, Sid Davidoff, owned a bar/ restaurant on West 52nd Street called Jimmy’s. The venue regularly drew a well-connected political crowd, including the likes of Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Howard Samuels, Queens Borough President Donald Manes, and numerous city councilmembers. I was welcomed into this crowd by the late Doug Ireland, an out gay genius political operative who managed campaigns for Bella Abzug (and years later was a regular Gay City News contributor).

The night before one of the gay rights votes, a married councilmem­ber’s longtime girlfriend told me she guaranteed his vote the next day by threatening to withhold sex that evening. Before a definite “no,” he ended up voting “aye.” In 1981, this councilmember would be sentenced to three years in prison for helping clients conceal nearly half a million dollars in income and evading more than $250,000 in federal income taxes.

Another councilmember, who was in a long-term affair with a close female friend of mine, committed to voting yes in writing but at the last minute switched when his father threatened to disown him. It took a great deal of willpower for me not to reveal how he enjoyed wearing his paramour’s hat while they had sex.

A third Queens councilmember, Matthew Troy, who was also Queens County leader, promised to vote “aye” at a meeting of the Village Independent Democrats — and then voted no. He got kicked in the ass in the City Hall rotunda shortly after the vote by gay activist and Village Voice writer Arthur Bell. Troy pleaded guilty to federal tax charges in 1976 and was convicted of grand larceny in 1979.

The race for the 22nd District State Senate seat in Brooklyn is a contest that Democrat Andrew Gounardes must win. The incumbent, Marty Golden, is a right-wing demagogue who does damage to us all. To help defeat him, Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club members and our progressive allies are campaigning in the district on Sunday, November 4. For more information about the effort, email jimowles@gmail.com. Jim Owles has created literature for Goundardes for a large mailing and door-to-door distribution. Join the club on November 4. It’s time for progressive members of the LGBTQ community and our allies to swing this longtime Republican bastion and make a real difference.

In the next column: Queens today.

Updated 2:37 pm, November 3, 2018
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