Being LGBTQ in the Bronx: growing despite resistance

A new group called “Free to be Me” hopes that its educational programming and inclusive club name will help lift a negative social stigma for the Bronx LGBTQ community.

“Free to Be Me” club vice president Tiffany Medina, left, and Katherine Azmitia, secretary, plan the group’s upcoming rainbow flag installation. Photo: And Tagle

Of the 70 individual signatures Kevin Devone collected to start “Free to Be Me,” the first LGBT-centered club on the Hostos Community College campus in five years, he estimated about half came from people who didn’t know what the term “LGBT” meant.

“We’re working to bring awareness,” said Devone, 27, sitting at a club meeting with the three other members of his cabinet. “At times, our only resource in the Bronx is our voice, so we’re sharpening the tool to make it stronger.”

The club’s first official event will be an installment of the rainbow flag at Hostos on November 21, with a ceremony explaining each of the flag’s colors. The group hopes that its educational programming and deliberately broad club name will help lift what Devone described as the “negative social stigma” he and others say are often placed on the Bronx LGBTQ community.

“The oppression we have here is due to a lack of education,” said the group’s treasurer, 23-year-old Reynaldo Martinez.

Despite these prevailing social, often-religious misconceptions that many LGBTQ Bronxites feel dominate the borough, LGBTQ-focused organizations in the area are increasing rapidly. In October alone, three different groups— “Free to Be Me,” Destination Tomorrow, and MOBI—set up shop in the South Bronx, each providing services in the community’s own image.

And while it’s unknown how many of New York City’s estimated 700,000 LGBTQ residents live in the borough, experts and community leaders agree that catering to the distinct needs of the community’s members is of paramount importance.

Lisa Linsky, an award-winning LGBTQ equality attorney in New York, stressed the importance of acknowledging and servicing issues of intersectionality in any specific community.

“People use the term LGBT community as if there’s only one singular group, but there are several geographical, racial and ethnic demographics within the capital “C” community,” said Linsky.

“Anytime you have a neighborhood with tremendous racial and ethnic diversity, that can make it even more difficult for LGBTQ individuals because they may be dealing with issues of intersectionality, race, and religion on top of sexual orientation and gender identity,” she added.

Organizers at Destination Tomorrow, a newly Bronx-based nonprofit centered on servicing the transgender community, deal with these conflicts on a daily basis.

“People aren’t trained properly to deal with diversity in the LGBTQ community,” said Dominique Jackson, the group’s regional coordinator of preventive care. “And when you get to the outer boroughs, it’s so dangerous. People think it’s okay to marginalize us, beat us, kill us.”

Destination Tomorrow moved to a co-working space on Third Avenue to be more accessible to their clientele, primarily comprised of Bronx and Harlem-based people of color. The move has helped visibility and allowed Destination Tomorrow to provide job training and group meetings to more black and brown people very much in need, said Jackson.

DaShawn Usher, 31, is pushing a similar agenda with MOBI: Mobilizing Our Brother’s Initiative, an enterprise creating forums for black gay men outside of what he calls the usual two channels: nightlife and HIV prevention.

Before MOBItalks Bronx, one installment in a three-part, citywide professional development series for black gay men hosted at the Bronx Museum in October, Usher touched on themes of diversity within the LGBTQ community, and the challenge of meeting the needs of individuals despite a lack of resources in the borough.

“People think there’s this thriving gay community, but not everyone identifies with the party scene, or connects with every gay person or place in Manhattan. Some environments can be very unwelcoming,” said Usher. “We want to be that nucleus for people.”

The 80-or-so attendees at MOBItalks were grateful.

“There’s a lack of representation for queer people of color; we don’t know where to turn to,” said attendee Adomako Aman, 25. “Things like this bring us together, harmonize us. Having events like this, especially in the Bronx, reaffirms who we are: our beauty, our existence.”