Where Gay Doesn't Play

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

Faith, a 20-year-old transgender woman, celebrated her local gay pride the same way the rest of the Bronx did: on the down-low in the barrio. On the borough’s Pride Day there were no crowds of people waving rainbow flags, no politicians leading the parade past Yankee Stadium. Instead, the borough held a subdued gathering in a park on the Hunts Point industrial peninsula, not far from a landfill where the city wants to build a jail. It was the only the second time in seven years that the Bronx has marked Pride at all.

For Bronx Pride organizers, the June 16 celebration in Barretto Point Park is an example of the complex relationship the borough has with its LGBT population. According to organizer Lisa Winters, simply finding a site was a challenge, because so many queer Bronx youth did not want to march in a parade down the Grand Concourse or any other major thoroughfare. Many gays aren't out to their friends and family, and certainly not to the local street toughs who would harass them. Some Bronx LGBT youth cannot square their homosexuality with their faith, which teaches them that being gay is sinful.

Sage Rivera, who works with homeless LGBT youth at the Bronx Pride Community Center, said that when he sees the kids from the community center in their neighborhoods, he quickly turns away for fear of inadvertently outing them. Rivera said the kids frequently change clothes in the bathroom at the center or in the train station before heading home. Makeup and accessories disappear and mannerisms change before they return to their disapproving parents.

"They've grown up with a punishing God," Rivera said. "It helps to contribute to kids having low self-esteem."

When she was living at her mother's home, Faith was constantly harassed. Her brother disapproved of her being gay, let alone transgender. Her mother was constantly under pressure from Pentecostal relatives who frequently advised her to straighten her son out. "They would probably throw holy water on me," Faith said.

Faith heeded her sister's advice and adopted the uniform of local youth, wearing baggy khakis, a white T-shirt, and a white 'do-rag. Faith has her own apartment now; it's still the only place she feels safe enough to wear makeup. Even at the Bronx Pride Community Center, she wears her street costume. She fears being outed and attacked, even killed. Growing up, she faced intimidation and death threats in school.

Fear of violence hasn't been the sole problem for Bronx Pride. When Winters took over as executive director of the Bronx Pride Community Center in 2004, she was amazed to find that the borough had not had a Pride parade since 2001, and that no one seemed to care. After transforming the center from a tiny operation with a two-person staff into a fully functioning social-service agency for the LGBT community, Winters turned her sights on trying to get a real Pride celebration off the ground.

That was easier said than done. In 2006, the parade was almost canned after city officials dragged their feet on issuing a permit. Winters hailed an intervention on the part of Council Speaker Christine Quinn of Manhattan in getting the go-ahead. Not a single Bronx politician appeared to step up that year—or this one.

"Every step of the way there's been an obstacle to get a park this year," Winters said, in the weeks before the festival. Organizers wanted to have the celebration at Crotona Park, which would have horrified Faith, who lives in that neighborhood. However, parks officials told them that security was too stretched by other events that day.

The huge open field of Van Cortlandt Park in Riverdale was another choice, but organizers were told that construction in one corner of the park made the site unacceptable. Pelham Bay Park, considered the Central Park of the Bronx, and Orchard Beach were off the list because each was having an event on that same day.

A little help from local leaders might have smoothed the way. "Is this a borough that wants a Gay Pride celebration?" Winters asked. "Why do we have a lack of support from elected officials here in the Bronx?"

She said the vast majority of elected officials show little—if any—support for the LGBT community. At a fundraiser gala for the center in April, Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson was the only elected official besides Manhattan Councilmember Rosie Mendez to attend. Winters counts Johnson and Congressman Jose Serrano as the only pols to openly back the center. Serrano has earmarked money to help fund its programs. The Bronx Pride Community Center did receive $5,000 from Borough President Adolfo Carrion. By contrast, the center received $50,000 from Council Speaker Quinn for capital improvements.

"The Bronx still has a culture of machismo, coupled with religious communities, and these fan feelings of homophobia. Being visible is petrifying," Winters said.

The interconnection of religion and politics in the Bronx has indeed proven intimidating to many. One outspoken enemy of LGBT rights is State Senator Ruben Diaz. The Pentecostal minister openly opposes gay marriage and is against the city Health Department's policy allowing transgender people to change the sex designation on their birth certificates.

"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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