No more on the down low, gay leaders vow

Rally supporter

A LGBT supporter showed his colors at the LGBT rally organized by Bronx for Change on Oct. 26. Photo by: Carmel Delshad

In wake of assaults, LGBT community takes to streets

For Bronx leaders in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, “enough is enough.”

United in anger by the highly-publicized assault on four men by members of a Bronx gang, they marched to the steps of the Bronx County Building on Oct. 26, chanting, “It can’t happen again.”

Police have charged members of the Latin Kings Goonies in the Oct. 3 attack in Morris Heights. The victims were beaten, robbed and sodomized with wooden objects in crimes denounced as acts of “vile bigotry and brutality” by Gov. David A. Paterson.

The crimes, coupled with the suicides of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, 13-year-old Seth Walsh and other adolescents, have motivated the LGBT community in Mott Haven and Melrose and elsewhere in the borough to mobilize.

Organizations including the Mott Haven-based Bronx Community Pride Center, the blog “Welcome2Melrose.com,” Boogie Down Bronx, Bronx for Change and the NYC LGBT Chamber of Commerce have formed a two-pronged strategy: persuading LGBT residents to speak out; and educating straight communities about the LGBT lifestyle.

Rev. Carmen Hernandez, the founder of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said it is common to keep mum about issues affecting the LGBT community for fear of a backlash.

Straight family members advise “Whatever happens here stays here,” said Hernandez, a lesbian who came out 15 years ago. “That has to stop.”

“It’s a matter of awareness,” said Dirk McCall, executive director of the Bronx Community Pride Center. “We need to create a dialogue and conversation between communities and make sure people know there’s a safe space to come to in the Bronx.”

This awareness should also spread within the LGBT community, according to Ed Garcia Conde, who calls himself “The Mayor of Melrose” on his popular blog “Welcome 2 Melrose.” As a gay Latino man, Garcia Conde said he believes a large problem in the LGBT community is complacency.

“We are far from getting the equality that we deserve in this country,” Garcia Conde said. “We really have to mobilize a lot stronger and not take no for an answer.”

Charles Rice-Gonzalez, 46, another gay Latino, says cultural forces are partly responsible for the bigotry and violence. The executive director of the Bronx Academy of Art and Dance (BAAD) in Hunts Point, he said his ethnicity played a large role in shaping his views on homosexuality and those of his peers at a young age.

“I am a black Latino man in this borough and I know that kind of shit happens on different levels all the time,” Rice-Gonzales said of the assaults on gay men.

“I think our cultures have to come clean with that kind of homophobia. From a little kid I was taught that gay was bad, and you could punish a gay person and that was acceptable,” he continued.

Eric Soto, 44, said he never felt unsafe being a gay Latino man in the South Bronx. That all changed the night he became a hate crime statistic.

“I grew up in the South Bronx when this was a war zone. I never felt that sense of fear,” Soto said. “And I didn’t get attacked until I was in my 40s. When I found out about the crimes, it was a moment of panic. The terror came back again, and it was a moment of total paralysis.”

Soto asked himself the same questions many New Yorkers may have asked after the recent assaults: “How long have these crimes been happening that we haven’t found out about them? Did we open a Pandora’s box in the Bronx?”

But Rice-Gonzalez recalled encountering anti-gay sentiment as a child.

“I was seven years old and one kid smacked me on the head and said ‘You’re a little faggot,’” Rice-Gonzalez said. “That stays with me. Nobody in my neighborhood stopped him. He could’ve been one of those guys in the room doing the torture, because he got a message early on that it was OK to smack the faggot.”

The Bronx LGBT community wants to ensure that no one receives that message again. Various rallies and “Queer-affirming” events are planned, targeting both LGBT and straight communities.

Many Bronx gay and lesbian activists remain hopeful that increased media will do more to create a nation-wide dialogue.

“If anything, there has to be something positive that’s going to come out of this. That’s my hope,” Soto said.

Garcia agreed: “In other circumstances, we usually see a buildup of energy for a couple of days and then it falls off. But I think that we held onto it well and I think it’s getting bigger. These are the seeds of the new queer community in the Bronx being sprouted right here.”

A mid-November “United As One” rally is currently in the works, along with a series of town hall-style meetings and educational programs geared towards students.

“We need to get our community back,” Carmen Hernandez said. “We live here. The Bronx raised me, it raised nine brothers and sisters and it raised my mother, and I feel I owe the Bronx this much.”

In their own words: Voices from the Bronx LGBT community

A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.