That Was Then, This Is Now

An activist’s take on where we stand after September 11th

The year is 1971. A major terrorist attack has killed, as yet, unknown thousands of people in the Financial District.  The entire country watches in horror and disbelief.  In the ensuing days, traumatized and terrified families try to locate their loved ones.  Wives, husbands, children and parents, all carry photos to designated areas clinging to the hope that their family member has survived.  Money begins to pour in from all over the country for disaster relief.

Down in the Village, and in the bars along Christopher Street, word of mouth starts to spread.  John was there, and he is missing. David can’t get any information.  Nobody will talk to him because he is not a family member.  He doesn’t know if John is dead or alive.  One after another, we learn of more lesbian and gay partners shut out in the cold.

As the weeks pass, the plot thickens.  The apartment was in Mary’s name.  Diane can’t afford to pay the rent alone.  Jane is missing and her parents have taken her child away from Karen.  They won’t let her see or talk to the little girl.  David is fired from his job.  He couldn’t tell them he lost his lover.  A crazy evangelist shoots off his big mouth to the media that this is all the fault of the gays and lefties.  Gay bashing spikes, but we can’t report it to the police.

Pretty scary, isn’t it?  But that’s the way it would have been only thirty years ago.

So, what happened?

Well, it really began with the AIDS crisis.  Nobody in government really wanted to care about a bunch of queers getting sick.  Hell, they brought it on themselves, right? Many viewed it as sort of an ethnic cleansing.
Small volunteer groups began to form to attempt to meet a variety of needs.  Some were political, some delivered meals to the home-bound, some were support groups.  As the need came to light, a group was formed.  As the crisis grew, a community was formed.

The year is 2001.  This time the attack is real.

In the days following the horror of September 11th, one of my first thoughts was, “I know there were lesbian and gay victims.”  As the relief efforts kicked in, and the money started to flow I thought, “Our families and partners are not going to be recognized. We’ll be marginalized and invisible, once again. ”

My first, knee-jerk, reaction was to rally the community.  Get fund-raisers going in the bars.  Raise money and locate the queers who were excluded from mainstream relief.  That’s what we would have done thirty years ago.

After only a few days I was reminded just how far our community has come. The Anti-Violence Project, the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) and the Stonewall Foundation had pooled their resources and expertise and begun formulating a plan.

Thirty years, or even twenty years ago, we would not have had a voice.  Today we do.  Matt Foreman, then Executive Director of ESPA sat down with Governor Pataki, and Governor Pataki listened.  AVP sat down with relief agencies like Safe Haven and the Red Cross – and they listened.  FEMA (Federal Emergency Medical Assistance) listened.  Our families, and our needs, were recognized.

Money dedicated to l/g/b/t victims flowed into the Stonewall Foundation from all across the country – unsolicited. Our Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center and Callen-Lorde Medical Center threw open their doors to help and people came – gay people, straight people, all people.

And, I was so proud.  Proud of what our community has accomplished in a very short period of time. We are no longer isolated gay ghettos.  Today we have established organizations, with skilled and dedicated professionals on staff – full time.  We have an international network.  We are a high profile market segment.  And, elected officials court our votes.
I know.  Right here in New York, we still haven’t gotten SONDA passed.  We still can’t adopt children in most states.  We still can’t get married. We still can’t march in the St. Patrick’s Day or the Pulaski Day Parades. But, I have faith.  I have faith that now, that we have the foundation to win.

Aye, but here’s the rub.  The attack on September 11th drained the cash flow to these organizations.  Private, corporate and government funding needed to be redirected to cope with this disaster.  These organizations, so vital to our community, are all now facing very serious financial problems: particularly the smaller community-based organizations.

George W. is in charge and beholden to the right.  It is, after all, once again time to rally the community.  It is up to each of us to do whatever we can, to pitch in, and help these organizations survive.  Because kids, if we don’t, you may not need me to tell you stories about the “old days.” We could all be living them again.

DOROTHY DERINGER has been an activist in the LGBT community for 30 years. She has functioned as the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Greenwich Village Press, the LGBT liaison to former Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, and has served on the NYPD LGBT Advisory Committee, the Brooklyn Pride Advisory Committee, and the Stonewall Foundation Steering Committee. She is currently the Staff Writer for Borough President Marty Markowitz.