Friends of Bob Kohler scattered his ashes through the streets of the West Village on Sunday before emptying his urn in the Hudson River.
By Julie Bolcer
“Whose streets? Bob’s streets!” “Is anyone here fighting for queers?”
More than 100 people chanted on Sunday evening as they marched down Seventh Avenue South in what they called a political funeral to honor Bob Kohler. The legendary West Village resident died on Wednesday at age 81, after decades of multi-issue activism that spanned desegregation, gay and transgender rights, HIV/AIDS, and the anti-war movement.
The colorful but bittersweet send-off lasted just over two hours, and wound through locations of significance for Kohler, and by extension the twentieth-century history of gay liberation. Beginning at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on West 13th Street, and escorted by a police van, it streamed to Christopher Park near the Stonewall Inn. Then, it headed down Christopher Street, to where he once operated the popular clothing store named The Loft. Finally, it reached the Hudson River and the piers, lately the controversial gathering place for queer youth in an increasingly upscale, heterosexual neighborhood. His ashes were scattered at each of the stops, the ground was chalked, and candlelit memorials were created.
“It was Bob’s idea,” said Kara Davis, one of the young dyke activists who cared for Kohler in his final months and mainly organized the funeral. She was with him in his fourth-floor walk-up on Charles Street when he succumbed early in the morning to his recently diagnosed lung cancer. “He made known how he wanted to be remembered. It would be a chance to talk about all the things that mattered to him,” she explained.
What mattered most to Kohler, according to young admirers as well as veteran activists who had known him since the 60s, were the ongoing fights to secure a space for queer youth of color in the rapidly changing Village, to find a cure for AIDS, and to extend city-sponsored benefits such as housing to low-income individuals who are currently HIV asymptomatic. The latter proposal is known as HASA for All.
“He was fighting for things that haven’t been won yet,” summarized Jennifer Flynn, a board member of NYC AIDS Housing Network, who met Kohler in the mid-90s when both were involved with the group, Sex Panic! She later coordinated his work with DASIS Watch, formed to address the regular failure of the Giuliani administration’s Division of AIDS Services and Income Support to provide housing for HIV-positive homeless people as required by law. Well into his 70s at the time, he stood outside the DASIS office on Eighth Avenue and 30th Street every day for 18 months, to make sure that everyone in need of a housing assignment received one.
“He was a fighter,” affirmed an emotional Phillip Spinelli, who was present at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, when cross-dressing street youth unexpectedly fought against a police raid and launched the modern gay rights movement. Kohler helped found the radical Gay Liberation Front on the subsequent nights of rioting. Spinelli caressed a black and white photo of a robust-looking Kohler in middle age, tall and handsome. “He was a great advocate, not only for the gay community, but for people in general,” he declared through tears.
Unfathomable energy and irreverent style were traits that endeared Kohler to younger activists, many of whom refer to themselves as “Bob’s queers.” They describe a cantankerous but accessible man whose cranky attitude was outsized only by his big heart.
“Bob for me was a mentor,” says Michelle Cronk of Harlem. “I never thought of him as being a grandfather even though he was older than us, because he was one of us. He never slowed down.”
And, of course, there was the cattiness and the defiance suggested by the epitaph, “grand old fag.”
“He loved to gossip,” recalls Laurie Wen, who met Kohler through anti-war activities in 2003. She remembers their first conversation that lasted for two hours on Seventh Avenue and 21st Street. “I was kind of shocked at how much he was telling me! It was switching between this really funny, crazy gossip, and really hard-core, social justice activism,” she says.
This paradox of Kohler could be heard during the political funeral, when marchers led by AIDS activist Amos Hough shouted one of his favorite expressions, “Wash your ass!” Newcomers to the West Village neighborhood looked on, bewildered, while some tourists snapped photographs.
One of the most beloved stories told about Kohler pertains to his earliest days of activism, when he headed to the South with the Congress on Racial Equality to desegregate a public pool. He and two black friends hopped in, to the consternation and horror of the white swimmers, and the pool had to be drained to remove them.
“They sat there crouching for hours with the water going down until the entire public pool was empty,” says Kara Davis.
Last night, Kohler was in the water again, for one final time as his ashes were scattered in the Hudson River. He wanted to join his friends, the transgender pioneers Sylvia Rivera, who died in 2002, and Marsha P. Johnson, whose body was discovered floating in the river mysteriously in 1992.
“Have a nice fuckin’ swim!” shouted the crowd as they emptied the urn, and said goodbye.