The stories, glories and histories of gay culture in our fair borough.
By Josh Parish
Danny Dromm, who came out as an openly gay school teacher in the early 90s, spearheaded the first Queens Pride Parade over a decade ago. He’s also the borough’s first openly gay District Leader. Tribune photo by Josh Parish
While Randi Solomon was attending Queens College during the 70s, she began having a recurring dream. In it, she would wake up, look in the mirror, and discover that her skin had turned a bright shade of blue overnight. It wasn’t an unpleasant surprise, just a fascinating one; she would telephone her friends and discover that some of them had also turned blue, and some of them had not.
“Then I’d go outside, and I’d see other people on the street had turned blue, too,” she says. “I’d get on the E or the F train and there would be businessmen in suits and ties with blue faces, and women in nice dresses with blue skin among the other passengers. And that was the way we could all see exactly who the other ones were.”
The “other ones” in Solomon’s dream were, of course, like her, gay.
The first march of Parents and Families of Lesbians and Gays, originally called Parents of Gays. Flushing resident Jeanne Manford started the group after her son, Morty, was beaten by Manhattan cops.
“I’ve always thought, there are just so many gay people out there, how could anyone deny us basic rights if they were confronted with us all at once? If all of us could be seen for what we really are, wouldn’t everyone eventually just be, like, so what?”
Solomon, now a 51-year-old who deals in manufacturing sales, hadn’t professed her sexual orientation to anyone yet when she had the dreams. Like any other process of sexual maturation, they were a kind of internal alarm clock, slowly awakening her consciousness to the woman she would become, how she would fit into the world around her—and how the world would fit her in.
Coming Of Age
“I always knew I was different than other girls, for as long as I can remember,” Solomon says. “And it was more than just a ‘tomboy’ thing. That’s what they used to call it in the 50s and 60s, they’d call girls like me ‘tomboys.’ I go back to the old neighborhood now and people around there who knew me as a kid will say, ‘Hey, do you still play with guns?’ And I think, ‘Wow, if you only knew.’”
Queens Gays & Lesbians United march in the Queens Pride Parade. Tribune photo by Ira Cohen
When Solomon eventually did come out, the process wasn’t a positive one. Her mother, angry and resentful, took out confusion and unhappiness on her daughter. It’s a common tale among gays and lesbians, even ones with families who are eventually supportive of their sons’ and daughters’ orientations—parents, regardless how open-minded, often bear an initial guilt that their children haven’t turned out “normal.” Others simply fear for their kids’ safety in a world not always gay-friendly. Some families accept it; some, like Solomon’s, push the issue away, and in so doing push away their own blood.
“I never felt wrong, or evil about being gay, even reading books in the 60s and 70s when they still labeled homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder,” Solomon says. “I just thought, ‘I know that can’t be right. I brush my teeth, I say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ I give my seat to older people on the bus, I wasn’t dropped on my head.’ There’s just something intrinsic inside you that knows you’re a good person, you’re just different. Everyone else is a righty—I’m a lefty.”
Solomon did find support from her brother and his family. At the recent wedding of her nephew, himself straight, the bride and groom borrowed the rings used by Solomon and her domestic partner, Julia Cohen, a 47-year-old partner at a law firm in Manhattan.
This stretch of 37th Road, between 73rd and 74th Streets, was home to a gay porn theater, the Earle, and one of Queens’ first gay bars, Magic Touch.
Cohen’s coming out experience was somewhat more positive—and came much earlier—than Solomon’s.
“I was 12 or 13, and I just said to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m gay,’” Cohen recalls. “I’d known I was different from the other girls for as long as I knew I was a girl. It wasn’t a big deal. It was very natural. At that age it didn’t seem like there was anything unusual or odd about it at all. I think she thought it was a phase, that I’d grow out of it. But as time went on, she realized I just wasn’t going to. She was a social worker, about as liberal as you can get, and she accepted me fully—but, of course, she had her own questions. It’s never seamless for any parent to hear their child is gay.”
From Queer Beginnings
Solomon and Cohen share a co-op apartment in Jackson Heights, probably Queens’ neighborhood with the largest gay population. In the 70s, when lesbians and gays were more likely to confine themselves to the closet than a pride parade, it was, in practical terms, one of the only neighborhoods in Queens that catered to gay culture at all.
Brendan Fay marches in Queens’ first Pride Parade.
“I don’t have very good feelings about the early days,” says Dr. Joyce Hunter, research scientist at the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies in Manhattan, gay activist, and lifelong Sunnyside resident. “It felt like you were fighting everyone. You’d walk into your building at night and nobody liked you. Discrimination was a very real thing—living in Sunnyside felt like living in the Midwest.”
But Hunter and her friends in Queens’ gay community were apparently having the same kind of dream Randi Solomon was having. In the years after the Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village (where scores of gay men fought back after being beaten by police inside the Stonewall Inn, considered a major turning point in New York’s gay rights movement), Queens’ gays, more than ever before, came together politically—and publicly.
“This great camaraderie was formed. It was like, ‘We all have to stick together, we have to come out and be visible,’” Hunter says. “People had political meetings in their houses, we started organizing demonstrations whenever a politician came. It was both men and women, and we knew we couldn’t ever give up.”
After Tom Manton, former City Councilman and Congressman, and current Queens County Democratic Leader, made allusions that there were no gays living in his district, Hunter and her compatriots united and marched to his Woodside office in protest.
“We were like, ‘What are we? Chopped liver?’” she says. “It got nasty. People were throwing things at us from the roof. I can’t tell you much happy stuff about those days except that we all stuck together.”
A Long, Hard March
Back then, prior to the boom in gay pride organizations the borough experienced in the 90s, gay bars—all one or two of them—weren’t just the epicenter of gay social life. Outside of political meetings held in homes like Hunter’s, they were gay social life.
“If you wanted to meet other gay people, you pretty much had to drink,” says Danny Dromm, a longtime Queensite and the borough’s first openly gay District Leader. “And the drinking age was 18.”
Combine that culture with a lot of people struggling internally with their own sexual identity, and you’ve got a recipe for alcoholism. Suffice it to say, it was an atmosphere that created a gay community, but not one that fostered a great deal of pride.
“I think what a lot of gay people suffer is internalized homophobia,” says Dromm. It plagued Dromm himself, who came out as a teenager to his family at around the same time the bars ruled the land of lavender. Always close to his mother, the two went out for dinner one night before Dromm was to meet a friend at the bar.
“I came back from the bathroom at the restaurant, and she said, ‘I think I’ll go with you to the club tonight.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re not.’ I told her she was too old, that the club was for young people only. But she already had her suspicions. She just looked at me and asked, ‘Is it a gay club?’ And I said it was.”
Then, Dromm says, she broke into tears. Not because she was disgusted or disappointed that her son was gay—she was scared what would happen to him in the straight world.
“I woke up the next morning and thought, what have I done? I never should have told her.”
Today, Dromm’s mother is active in Parents and Families of Lesbians And Gays, or PFLAG, the nation’s largest organization for families of gays and lesbians. The group, founded right here in Queens, was created in 1972 by Flushing resident Jeanne Manford after her son, Morty, an openly gay activist, was beaten at a gay rights demonstration in Manhattan. Manford watched her son’s attack on television—she also watched Manhattan police stand idly by as he was thrown down an escalator. Outraged, she wrote a letter to the New York Post. The letter, which was published, included 9 groundbreaking words: “My son is a homosexual, and I love him.” Two months after the attack, Manford marched beside her son in the New York Gay Pride Parade.
Originally christened “Parents of Gays” by Manford, PFLAG is today centered in Washington, D.C., and claims about 200,000 members among 500 affiliates. Morty Manford died from AIDS-related complications in 1992.
Coming Out, Coming To Terms
“Queens is simply key to the gay rights movement in New York,” says Brendan Fay. Fay, a 47-year-old Irish immigrant who came to Queens in the mid-80s but still speaks with a crisp Dublin accent, is a filmmaker and gay activist. When he talks about gay culture in Queens, he rattles off important names and dates as though he’d lived though them all. His energized pride in the borough makes sense; Fay left Ireland a confused young man just beginning to question his sexuality, and found himself a gay man studying theology at St. John’s University.
Fay helped organize the city’s first all inclusive St. Patrick’s Day Parade and, along with his husband, Tom Molton, nabbed 15 minutes of fame on CNN as one of the first gay couples legally married in Canada.
“I think about the person who stepped off the plane at JFK, and I see a fear-filled, closeted gay man who had no idea where destiny was taking him,” Fay says. “I also remember travelers at that time were required to fill out this form where you had to declare you weren’t in any of three categories: A Nazi, a Communist, or a sexual deviant. Then, suddenly, I found myself slowly emerging from a world of silence. I was studying theology by day and coming out as a gay man at night.”
After Fay did come out to himself, making his a voice for gay rights would be a given; back at school in Dublin, he had long been involved in activism for Belfast and against apartheid in South Africa.
“I simply could not, as a Catholic person, be working for justice in South Africa and Belfast and be silent about what I was living with on a daily basis.”
But Fay was still struggling with his new identity—he was nearly 30 years old. He hadn’t come out to his family in Ireland or to the faculty and administration at his new job as a theology teacher at Mary Lewis Academy. He was drinking heavily.
“I was pushing it down, wrestling with myself every day,” he says. “Then I realized I just couldn’t live a lie anymore. I got sober, and I went to Ireland to sit down with my family. My father just shook his head and said, ‘Well, knowing you there’ll be trouble down the line, but you’re still our son and we support you.’ I went into the backyard and cried for two hours, it was like a giant weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”
Fay came out in 1986, the same year the city’s Gay Rights bill was passed, legally preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It was also during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, a galvanizing—and petrifying—force within the gay community.
“Everything changed after AIDS,” Hunter recalls. “The first time I heard it mentioned was in 1981, when they were calling it GRID—Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease. That’s what those bastards called it, that’s what the CDC [Center for Disease Control] called it. They made it a gay disease. More people came out, and it played a major role in our pushing for the Gay Rights bill. We all had a common goal, and we were sticking to it.”
But nothing galvanized the Queens gay community—changing its social and political landscape—as much as an event that took place one night in July 1990.
A Murder, A Martyr, A Movement
That cultural catalyst was the beating and murder of Julio Rivera, a gay man who lived in Jackson Heights, by three men later identified as members of a racist group. Though Rivera was an openly gay man, and though his body had been found in an area frequented by other gay men, the police initially refused to assign the case to the hate crimes division, which would have given it special attention.
“That was the seminal event,” says John Azzali, current chair of the Queens Gays and Lesbians United, or Q-GLU. During the 90s, the organization, begun by Ed Sederbaum (the first openly gay man to run for State Senate from Queens) was perhaps the borough’s most integral gay group. “That was when the locals really rallied together. A steering committee was formed, weekly meetings held at a Methodist Church in Jackson Heights, Q-GLU met with political leaders. And Q-GLU engendered a lot of progeny. The Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club, the Colombian Lesbian and Gay Alliance, Queens Pride House—within about four years, two organizations turned into a dozen.”
Among those organizations was a committee to oversee a bold step in making the borough’s lesbian and gay community more visible: a pride parade. The parade was spearheaded by Dromm, who had three years earlier fought a battle with the school board coming out as an openly gay public school teacher.
“At first the cops assigned the [Julio Rivera] case to a detective who was on vacation for two weeks,” Dromm says. “That’s the kind of priority they gave it. They thought ‘He’s just another gay.’ The problem was, people didn’t know us as their families, friends and neighbors. It was critical that we define ourselves, and to do that we had to become visible—and that’s where the idea for the parade came from.”
The first Queens Pride Parade, held in June 1993, brought a crowd of about 10,000 to 37th Avenue in Jackson Heights, the same street where Rivera was killed. Today, it draws over 40,000 participants and onlookers.
The same year as the first parade in Western Queens, Jimmy Van Bramer, a 20-year-old student who had co-founded the first lesbian and gay organization at St. John’s University, was helping to coordinate activity in the eastern part of the borough.
Jimmy Van Bramer, the borough’s first openly gay State Committeeman, being sworn in by Helen Marshall as Queens Council of the Arts President.
“The group was called the Gay and Lesbian Support Group,” says Van Bramer, who would later become the first openly gay man to run for City Council in Queens. “And we held a protest outside the campus. The New York Times came out, and they photographed us—I actually have the old metal printing plate the page was printed from, my father worked as a pressman there and he brought it to me.”
Van Bramer, 36, now Government Relations Director for the Queens Public Library, President of the Queens Council on the Arts, and Queens’ first openly gay State Committeeman, had come out only two years before the St. John’s protest, when he was 18. He’s still young for having accomplished what he has — building gay footholds across the borough. (When confronted by the fact, he answers quietly, “Well, I started early.”)
The support Van Bramer received from his father upon coming out as a voice for gay pride in Queens isn’t all so common, and Van Bramer knows it.
“I was very, very lucky,” he says. “My family’s not simply tolerant, but fully embracing. There’s a big difference. Not every gay, lesbian or transgender person gets that reaction. So many people don’t even make it beyond their family’s rejection—they don’t have the chance to go out into the world and share.”
The current generation of Queens’ gay youth have an easier road ahead, thanks to the decades of struggle by their predecessors, Van Bramer recognizes.
“At least young people today have the opportunity to see representations of who they are that aren’t extremely negative, or sick and dying,” he says. “There was almost nothing in Queens when I came out—no parades, no youth services. You have television shows like ‘Will and Grace,’ which aren’t perfect representations for a middle-class kid from Astoria, but it’s great that it’s out there.”
Randi Solomon and Julia Cohen agree. The surge in lesbian and gay visibility and political action, in Queens and outside Queens, hasn’t brought a gay-topia to the borough—but it ain’t bad.
“Queens isn’t ‘Queer Eye for The Straight Guy,’” Solomon laughs. “But Queens is great, I feel welcome. Our building is especially diverse—it’s like the poster child for Jackson Heights. The first Pride Parade was four blocks from our house. I couldn’t feel more comfortable; this my home.”
“You’ll see these two 80-year-old men helping each other across the street, and you know they’re gay, and you know they’ve been together for 55 years,” Cohen says. “And you’ll see two young, beautiful Latino boys, and you’re like, ‘We have four generations of gay history here.’ That’s Jackson Heights. That’s Queens.”