Bob Kohler, gay activist, former owner of the Loft on Christopher Street, Stonewall veteran, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front, ACT UP member, and longtime fixture of Charles Street, died on Wednesday at the age of 81. The cause of death was cancer, according to friends.
A Queens native who lost a kidney in World War II, Kohler was a tireless fighter for gay rights even as he battled illness and advancing years.
“At an age when most people were doing nothing much more than using a remote control, Bob was out on the street fighting for what he believed in and often committing civil disobedience,” said Bill Dobbs, a friend. “He inspired many younger activists and helped shape the modern gay-rights movement.”
When the Giuliani administration’s Division of AIDS Services and Income Support (DASIS) failed to provide housing for HIV-positive homeless people, Kohler became an active member of DASIS Watch, a group of volunteers who kept a vigil outside the DASIS offices to ensure that everyone who needed it got an assignment. For 18 months, Kohler stood guard outside the DASIS office on Eighth Avenue.
“I had not done anything like that before, but I was the only one who kept showing up,” Kohler told the Villager newspaper, describing how many of the homeless didn’t trust him at first. “It took a lot of cajoling and begging . . . they told me to get my white ass out of there. . . . It was the coldest winter I can remember. I was out there every day for 18 months.”
In 1999, after his arrest in front of One Police Plaza, where the protesters had set up vigil after the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, Kohler told the Voice: “I do not equate my oppression with the oppression of blacks and Latinos. You can’t. It is not the same struggle, but it is one struggle. And if my being here as a longtime gay activist can influence other people in the gay community, it’s worth getting arrested. I’m an old man now. I don’t look forward to spending 24 hours in a cell. But these arrests are giving some kind of message. I don’t know what else you can do.”
After serving in the Navy in World War II, Kohler eventually started a talent agency in New York. Friends say that he was “among the first agents to represent non-famous black artists and hold classes for black performers.”
A mentor and an inspiration to a generation of queer activists, Kohler was open and unapologetic about his lifestyle in an era when that was more dangerous. “We were gay when it wasn’t cool to be gay, and I like to think that we did make a few openings here and there. We never closeted ourselves,” the tireless activist once said of the days before the Stonewall riots in 1969.
“He was just an amazing role model of what a community activist can do and the difference that one man can make,” said state Senator Tom Duane (D-Manhattan).
Kohler’s friends announced last week that they planned to send him off the only way he would wanted: with a parade and a protest. And so on Sunday, December 9, friends and mourners marched his ashes past the LGBT Center on 13th Street and past the location of his former store, the Loft, on Christopher Street. The procession then made its way to the Hudson River Piers, where Kohler’s ashes were scattered in the river.