Chelsea’s LGBT heritage of activism
BY ANDY HUMM | Yes, Greenwich Village gave us the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion that we will commemorate with the LGBT Pride March on June 24. And yes, Sheridan Square is still a magnet for spontaneous LGBT protest and celebration.
But Chelsea has an even greater claim as the scene, since the early 1970s, of more sustained LGBT activism and the development of social services for the LGBT community.
Chelsea spawned or nurtured the radical Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL) group, the LGBT Anti-Violence Project, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders). During the same era, it was home to such significant movement figures as eminent writers Martin Duberman and Edmund White, ACT UP veteran Ann Northrop (my co-host on the Gay USA cable show) and the late activists Eleanor Cooper and GLAAD co-founder Vito Russo (who both lived on the same West 24th Street block).
When the Village started to become less affordable, gay urban pioneers in the early 1970s turned to the cheaper rents of the Upper West Side and Chelsea. The Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), founded in December 1969 and famous for its zaps of anti-gay politicians and institutions, first met at Chelsea’s Holy Apostles Church on Ninth Avenue and 28th Street before moving to an old Soho firehouse.
WOMEN’S LIBERATION CENTER
By 1972, women in GAA split and formed Lesbian Feminist Liberation, going from that legendary firehouse (which burned down in 1974) to an interim space in Union Square to another abandoned firehouse at 243 West 20th Street that the city rented to a bunch of women’s groups for a dollar a year and the promise to keep the building up.
Chelsea’s Jay Kallio — who was then Joy Kallio in LFL but has since transitioned — recalled the work her partner Eleanor Cooper did keeping the Women’s Liberation Center going from shoveling the coal (and recruiting her partners to help) to running flea markets to pay for upkeep. “We also gave away stuff to homeless people,” Kallio, now 56, said.
“The movement was all volunteers in those days,” Kallio said, but LFL accomplished amazing things, from getting TV networks to stop stereotyping lesbians to being one of the prime movers behind the long fight for the city’s lesbian and gay rights law.
The Lesbian Switchboard, a hotline for lesbians seeking information and support, was run out of the Women’s Center for many years, “staffed every day with volunteers,” Kallio said, “who were a stabilizing force.”
“The Center allowed so many groups to meet that had once only been able to meet in people’s homes,” he said, and this was eight years before the LGBT Community Center opened on West 13th Street.
When Chelsea was still a dicey neighborhood, the Women’s Center had the advantage of being right across the street from the 10th Precinct. “It kept trouble out of the place,” he said. Despite being a hotbed of countercultural radicalism, “we never had a single problem with the police.”
As Chelsea prospered, however, the city decided it wanted to make money off of its properties. “We couldn’t pull together the $10,000 to get the building,” Kallio said, and it was sold off to a women’s non-profit.
CHELSEA GAY ASSOCIATION
One of the first “neighborhood” gay groups sprang up in Chelsea in 1977, and it eventually spun off one of the City’s most essential LGBT services, the Anti-Violence Project.
Arthur Goodman, now 62, had been a president of the GAA and was conscious of how other former presidents had founded new organizations after their presidencies: Bruce Voeller (the National Gay Task Force), Jim Owles (the Gay Independent Democrats), Morty Manford with his mother Jeanne (the Parents of Gays) and Rich Wandell — who, Goodman notes, “took over the Mattachine Society.”
“I’m a demographics nut,” Goodman said, “and it struck me that our GAA mailing list’s two big groups were the Village (10014) and Chelsea (10011). I had lived in Chelsea since 1963 when I was 13 and didn’t know any gay people.”
Goodman said, “I was reading Saul Alinksy’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ and it came to me that 1) a lot of block associations were being formed and 2) when a gay person was sick, who was there to bring him chicken soup?”
Given the “convergence of gay people in Chelsea” that was occurring, “I felt it had to mean something and if we formed a neighborhood association, something would occur.” He found some like-minded people to put up fliers. Soon, meetings got going at St. Peter’s Church (346 West 20th Street).
Burt Lazarin, now secretary of Community Board 4, a partner in a labor relations firm and a former director of Identity House (yet another Chelsea LGBT institution for a time), was one of the founding members of the Chelsea Gay Association. “I had just moved to Chelsea in January of ’77 and I like to be part of organizations,” he said, and noted that some of the organizational principles they used “came from group processes that were developed in Gestalt therapy.” Tenant activist Michael McKee was also part of the initial organizing.
At early meetings, “people would break into small groups based on their interests or around neighborhood issues,” Lazarin recalls, “and then come back to the larger group.” There was a theater group, a newsletter group, excursions to the Bronx Zoo, sensitivity training on gay issues for 10th Precinct cops, and “we reached out to other neighborhood associations to make allies.” The group had some memorable street fairs in Chelsea as well, raising the visibility of the burgeoning gay and lesbian population.
There was great concern about safety in the neighborhood, and the Chelsea Gay Association’s committee on that issue eventually became the agency known today as the New York City Anti-Violence Project — a social service and advocacy group for LGBT survivors of violent crime.
Prior to the formation of that committee, a gay vigilante group called SMASH (Society to Make America Safe for Homosexuals) was formed to protect gay men in the Village and Chelsea, particularly those on their way to and from the leather bars (the Spike and the Eagle) on Chelsea’s Far West Side.
Michael Shernoff wrote about these early Chelsea developments in LGNY (the predecessor to Gay City News), in 1997. Chelsea’s Louie Weingarden, a musician and composer, organized SMASH and, Shernoff recalled, “We began ‘homopatrols’ from the safety of a car with five leather men, all ready to scare off thugs harassing gays on the street.” One night, they followed one of their decoys along the street, and when he was jumped by three local teenagers “the car doors flew open and out jumped the men in full leather, punching and knocking around the thugs, delivering the message that if they continued to attack gays, we were ready.” When police notified SMASH that the local toughs wanted a truce, Weingarden said, “No way. Tell them to stop attacking gay men and they will have nothing to worry about.”
Shernoff wrote, “The attacks ceased,” but not of course forever. Sharon Stapel, the current director of the Anti-Violence Project, said that “Chelsea is not the safe gay haven that people think it is.”
While she said that the worst neighborhoods for anti-LGBT violence are Jackson Heights and the South Bronx — where people of transgender experience are being victimized — “there is targeting of LGBT youth and youth of color” along the Chelsea waterfront park and piers. And just last year, there was a spate of violent incidents around Ninth Avenue and 24th Street that prompted a public march to counter them.
GAY MEN’S HEALTH CRISIS
I was in Larry Kramer’s Village living room in August 1981 when a packed room listened raptly to Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien of NYU Medical Center brief us on the incipient crisis of a disease that did not yet have a name and would become the worldwide AIDS plague. Kramer soon gathered in his kitchen the people who would become the founding board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The group had no budget, just a passion to start doing something about a terrifying situation.
While the group had makeshift headquarters above a restaurant on Eighth Avenue for a few months, founding board member Dr. Larry Mass, a Chelsea resident since 1979, said that record producer Mel Cheren let them use his rooming house at 318 West 22nd Street as their first home from 1982 to 1984 (later making it into a gay bed and breakfast called Colonial House that endures to this day).
“It was almost a shell, a wreck,” Dr. Mass said. But they set up office space and it became a hotbed of activity, some of which is dramatized in Kramer’s Tony-winning “The Normal Heart.”
“AIDS was 100 percent fatal in those days and the stigma was total,” Dr. Mass recalls. “It was a real crisis.”
The late Rodger McFarlane was the first executive director there on West 22nd. He said in 1983, “In one year, GMHC has grown from infancy into adulthood. It was a fast and brutal period, when AIDS exploded all around us and threw us into an emergency that
continues to expand.”
GMHC had a long stint on West 24th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues and has now settled into 446 West 33rd Street just north of Chelsea — but it still maintains a Chelsea presence. Dr. Marjorie Hill, GMHC’s executive director, said, “In the fall of 2011, the GMHC Center for HIV Prevention was launched at 224 West 29th Street. Our presence here is no accident. HIV rates in Chelsea have long been disproportionately high. In fact, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that Chelsea has the highest HIV infection rate in the city, of which the majority of those becoming infected in the neighborhood are men who have sex with men.”
Dr. Mass, who wrote about what came to be known as AIDS months before the CDC or the Times picked up on it, said Chelsea sure has changed since he moved here 33 years ago. “It was considered the least desirable neighborhood south of 96th Street. Sixth Avenue was blighted. Now it is considered the hottest and most desirable in Manhattan,” though he laments the loss of vital medical services at St. Vincent’s Hospital just south in the Village.
SAGE, which first stood for Senior Action in a Gay Environment in 1978 at its founding and now for Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders, had its first offices in the Village at 487 Hudson and later was in the LGBT Center. But it has been headquartered in Chelsea since 1991 — at 305 Seventh Avenue near 27th Street since 1995 — and just opened the nation’s first LGBT senior center through a contract with the NYC Department for the Aging.
SAGE also has a Harlem center and a drop-in center at the LGBT Center, though the latter is under threat of closure due to renovations and SAGE’s intention to consolidate its downtown services up Seventh Avenue. It is also opening satellite sites in conjunction with other community groups in Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
So, while Chelsea is famous for “Chelsea boys,” a vibrant gay social scene, and out gay and lesbian elected officials such as state Senator Tom Duane and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, it also has a rich and important history for community organizing that won LGBT people our rights and saved our lives.
I’ve “only” lived here in Chelsea since 1986 and am grateful to live in this gay Mecca. But I am more appreciative of the groundwork that brave LGBT pioneers did here, inspiring activists and service providers around the world.