Enthusiasm Competes With Complacency

Community leaders urge activism, but some at Bryant Park rally admit fervor has cooled

Undiminished by Sunday’s cloudy skies, spirits were high for the annual Gay Pride Rally in Bryant Park, a midtown event featuring speakers, musicians and performers that is the traditional kickoff to the week of celebrations hosted by Heritage of Pride.

Police estimated the crowd at between one and two thousand people, though organizers insisted it was far larger than that. Nevertheless, enthusiasm pervaded an afternoon punctuated by calls for marriage equality, political awareness and HIV prevention.

Leslie Gervetz, a lesbian who attended the rally with friends, said that gays in New York squander their political power, unlike their Massachusetts counterparts whose political flexing results in an intense courtship by politicians.

“In Boston,” said Gervetz, “they fly the rainbow flag on gay pride,” referring to official recognition of the day at Boston’s City Hall. In contrast, in New York there is no tradition of flying a rainbow flag over City Hall in honor of hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian residents.

From a blanket on the grass, Joey Karpel and several picnicking friends listened to the speakers and the comedic monologues of emcee Karen Williams. Karpel said that despite a relatively light turn-out, he expects that as the week progresses more people will attend various events.

“Sure, you’d like to see more people here, but you have to start somewhere,” Karpel pointed out.

Pamela A. Smith, at the rally with her partner, Susan Denis, and their dog, Maya, said that as a woman over 50, she has for the most part become part of mainstream society, unlike in her 20s and 30s when she was more politically militant. Smith said that “somehow with acceptance has come laziness, the sense that nothing is happening to me, so everything is alright.”

A number of attendees expressed a similar sentiment, while speakers exhorted the crowd to not take any gains for granted.

Susan Sommer, the Lambda Legal attorney responsible for arguing the case that led to a February ruling by State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan ordering the city to issue same-sex marriage licenses—currently being appealed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg—told the crowd that right-wing groups from around the country continue to target Massachusetts in an effort to roll back the same-sex marriage gain so dearly won there.

Sommer said the outcome in Massachusetts will serve as a litmus test for how other states, including New York, approach the gay marriage issue. Sommer urged the crowd to enlist straight friends and family in the “battle for equality.”

A few office seekers stumped throughout the crowd, including two openly gay and lesbian candidates for the Democratic nomination for Manhattan borough president, Brian Ellner, an attorney, and City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez.

Ellner said the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community is very politically engaged at the moment, but Lopez expressed concern with the rally’s low turnout.

Ellner said issues like gay marriage had “politicized a new generation of gays” and that the community is aware that “we have a president who is working against our best interests.”

Lopez said it would be a mistake for New York’s LGBT community to become complacent.

“We need to understand that we can lose everything we’ve accomplished because we are part of a federal government that is now run by George W. Bush,” said Lopez.

For Lopez, gay pride events should be overtly political with direct appeals to voters’ activism.

“Politics is the struggle for power, and we should not take politics out of our activities where we all get together,” said the lawmaker, who is term-limited from running for reelection.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democratic mayoral contender who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, said the biggest issue facing the LGBT community is assuaging the fears of those straight people who feel that civil rights achievements, like same-sex marriage, are an infringement on their prerogatives. Weiner blasted the man whose job he wants, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for deciding to appeal Ling-Cohan’s gay marriage ruling.

Weiner said that, in not letting gay marriages begin in New York City without having the Court of Appeals decide the issue statewide, Bloomberg denied him that “period for me to show constituents like mine, who are pretty conservative, that none of your rights disappear, that the sky won’t fall, but unfortunately we missed that political window of time.”

The grand marshals of the Fifth Avenue parade on June 26 also addressed the rally.

Andrew Tobias, a financial writer who currently serves as the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, told Gay City News that he believes the gay community has made “great strides, and that the older you are the more noticeable it is.”

Tobias, who published the ground-breaking coming-out memoir, “The Best Little Boy in the World,” under the pseudonym John Reid in 1973, when he was in his 20s, said “the idea, when I was growing up, that at least one of the political parties would actively welcome openly gay people, even elect one an officer of the party and 255 of them to be delegates or alternates to the convention was inconceivable.”

Tobias credited hit TV programs like “Will and Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show with increasing the visibility of the nation’s LGBT community. But he also noted “we won’t get full equality until we break the right-wing’s lock on the Republican Party and the Republican Party’s right-wing lock on our government.”

Tobias said this is why he thinks politics, “as tacky and sloppy and imperfect as politics may be, is crucial.”

“Not getting involved plays right into our adversaries’ hands,” he said.

Another grand marshal, Pauline Park, a transgendered woman who is co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, said that since the passage of a city gay rights bill in 1986, some members of the community have grown complacent.

“Some people have been to pride parades and rallies so much that they’ve become old-hat,” Park said, adding that “every single day we live our lives we give voice to our sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in a way that helps educate the public as to who we are.”

The rally included a surprise appearance by the singer Sylver Logan Sharp, whose hit dance number “After All This Time” inspired a few rainbow-flag dancers to get up and groove near the wall of the New York Public Library. Judging from the happy faces and the energy that her song inspired, with some sunny skies this coming Sunday, many enthusiastic New Yorkers might be looking forward to checking her out on the WKTU FM float on Fifth Avenue.

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