Bob Kohler, a veteran of the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and a leading AIDS activist for decades, celebrated his 80th birthday with a big party held at Bailey House on Christopher Street on Sunday. A native of Queens, Kohler served in the Navy, where he was stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. As a talent agent, he was one of the first to represent up and coming black artists in the music and theater industries. In the postwar years, Kohler and his partner built a fixer-upper in Amagansett in what became a gay enclave. “We were gay when it wasn’t cool,” he recalled. On the second night of the Stonewall Rebellion in June 1969, Kohler was among a group of West Villagers who called the first meeting of the Gay Liberation Front. He went on to work with direct action and advocacy groups including ACT UP, Sex Panic!, the New York City AIDS Housing Network, Irish Queers, and most recently FIERCE!, where he mentored queer youth in their struggles against displacement and police harassment in the West Village.
In the late 1970s, Kohler became manager of the Club Baths and he fought the closure of bathhouses as a response to AIDS in the 1980s, arguing that they were controlled environments with condoms, soap and water, and information that could help stop the spread of HIV. He also opened The Loft, retail stores on Christopher Street and on Fire Island, where he supported independent designers, including Patricia Field, struggling against larger brand name fashion retailers.
He is pictured here with Rikke Mananzala, Jesse, Corey, Imani Henry, and Joo-Hyun Kang.
Bob’s advice based on his 80 years of life? “Wash your ass,” he said, adding he doubted this newspaper would run that comment.—Andy Humm