Where Gay Doesn't Play

Think you've got it tough? Try being queer in the Bronx.

"If their sex is woman, why would they believe they are a man?" he has said. "I believe in what God created: man and woman."

Diaz, who has been serving as state senator since 2002 and heads the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, believes most of his constituents support his views. He doesn't see why his positions should fuel violence or fear. "I don't hide my position on traditional values or moral values," he said. "I don't believe in gay marriage. That doesn't mean intimidation or homophobia. I don't believe in abortion. That doesn't mean that I'm anti-woman."

Diaz stressed the need to provide services for the LGBT community as for any other constituency. However, in 2004, the minister and his clergy organization led a huge rally on the steps of the Bronx County Courthouse, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, to oppose gay marriage and demand a constitutional amendment preserving the "sanctity of marriage."

Queer people in the Bronx saw the move not only as red meat for the senator's congregants and constituents, but also as intimidation.

"People think you're messing with God's design," said counselor Tyra Allure Ross, who runs the transgender program at the Bronx Pride Community Center. "Parents beat their children until they become straight."

Hoping to counter the rhetoric and to bring religion back to the Bronx LGBT community, Reverend James Dusenbury began In the Life Ministries, the borough's only openly tolerant church catering to the LGBT community. Despite his message of inclusion and acceptance, the congregation has so far drawn only older lesbians. Gay men, young people, and the transgendered have been staying away. The pastor believes they are afraid to be seen by their neighbors.

Dusenbury, who grew up in Queens, understands. When he came out, his mother took him to church to try to change him. When that failed, his mom threw him out of the house. After being raped in a city shelter, Dusenbury took to the streets. He said it was safer for him to work the streets as a drug-addicted prostitute than to spend time in a shelter.

After getting clean, Dusenbury came to terms with God and realized that he wanted to create a house of worship that accepted him and other LGBT parishioners. He now wants to work with Winters to create a homeless shelter for gay youth. "God didn't make an error. He made me this way on purpose," the pastor said.

For now, Winters and her staff are attempting the delicate work of trying to help LGBT youth and drum up political clout without generating a backlash. To reach the center, young people like Faith endure the gauntlet of 149th Street. They sprint past numerous storefront churches and faith-based social centers, as well as the hostile characters on the corner. They do it because the center is one of the few places in the Bronx where they feel accepted.

"It's a good place for youth to feel comfortable with their sexuality," said 19-year-old Mikey Liriano, who attends the Bronx Pride Community Center daily. "The community tries to put us in a corner. People see us as a threat. It's not a choice. It's who you are."

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