Allen Roskoff’s never been afraid to voice his opinion. Well, that’s not true. Like so many of the lavender set, the New York-based activist once hid in the closet, but found himself out and proud after falling in with the Gay Activist Alliance, one of our city’s first post-Stonewall rights groups.
Now, as president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Roskoff remains one of the most progressive activists this side of the Mississippi. In fact, it was an email from Roskoff that spurred the following exchange with our editor.
Some of you may recall last week’s story about anti-gay “cult” Aesthetic Realism. Well, Roskoff wrote to us and regaled us with tales of how he and his GAA pals used to rail against the group. Always intrigued by tales of homo history, we asked Roskoff if he’d like to elaborate for you, our darling readers. And he graciously agreed.
Read what Roskoff has to say about the Realism movement, gay activism’s golden years, why homos need to stop cheering for Hillary Clinton, how Barney Frank and HRC do more harm than good, and why Barack Obama must be the Democratic nominee.
Andrew Belonsky: First, Allen, I want to get a little background on you. I know you worked with the Gay Activist Alliance, but what was your political awakening?
Allen Roskoff: My political awakening was the Vietnam War and Bella Abzug. I was totally taken with Bella. I mean, I started out anti-war and Bella was leading the anti-war movement, but I wasn’t out of the closet then. I was struggling with being gay since I was – god, since I was about ten years old. Younger than that! And then I went to a meeting of the GAA and within a very short period of time, I think a few weeks, I was chair of the Municipal Government Committee. And tasked with co-authoring and lobbying the Gay Rights Bill.
AB: So activism really helped you come out?
AR: Yeah. I mean, until I went to the GAA, I had never been open about being gay. I had never talked about it with anybody and I was never around openly gay people. I remember riding around the block and then I called to ask them if anyone would bother me. And then I rode around the block again a few times just to see what kind of people were going in. I had no idea what I was getting myself into!
AB: That meeting must have dispelled some stereotypes you held.
AR: It was great! I walked in and there was Arthur Bell to greet me. I was totally at home. And they got me to come back the next night. And within a few weeks I had moved to the village and my whole life changed.
AB: And you were gay, gay, gay.
AR: Yep. Mister Gay!
AB: The reason you and I are talking right now is because of the Aesthetic Realism piece Queerty wrote about last week. Can you tell me that story—about the zap that you did? AR: Well, first of all, you should know that they had their headquarters; I think it was 67 Jane Street. Apparently Eli Siegel lived there and they got thrown out and they had a petition protesting and everybody in the neighborhood was signing it, because nobody knew who they were. They just talked about Eli Siegel being this great philosopher and all that. And they used to walk around with these little buttons—white buttons with black letters that said “Victim of the Press.” People came over to them and sympathized, because people didn’t know what “Victim of the Press” meant. It was basically, obviously stereotypical gay men with women and the women were claiming them and the men were trying to behave as straight people.
AB: So it was really one of the original ex-gay movements?
AR: Yeah. Exactly.
AB: Do you know if they had any sort of conversion exercise or anything like that?
AR: I don’t know, but they were telling the gay men that it was unnatural to be homosexual. Only opposites could attract in art and in life. The whole philosophy was about opposites, and of course that meant that homosexuality was wrong. I guess they matched up or convinced men—whenever I saw a woman with a button, I would say, “What’s the matter, you can’t find a straight man?” I detested these people. I mean, they were the ex-gay people.
AB: What year was this?
AR: It must have been ’73 or ’74. Something like that—mid-seventies.
AB: What’s your take on the climate in New York today? We have a number of gay organizations—we have Stonewall Foundation, your organization. Do you think all of these are effective?
AR: When I got involved in the movement, everybody was progressive. We were all fighting for gay rights, we had demonstrations, we did same-sex dancing at the Rainbow Room, we got the regulations changed—up until that incident, it was against regulation for same-sex couples to dance any place that had a cabaret license. We did really tremendous things and everybody was in sync; everybody was fighting for our rights, we were all against the war in Vietnam, we were all in tune with the anti-racism fight. It was a totally great place to do your politics. We were a very progressive movement. Now I find the movement much more mainstream. I think we have a lot of professional gays now—people who are involved in politics, where the politics come first before the idealism and the commitment.
AB: Well, some people could say that “idealism” doesn’t get as much done. You have to be realistic and work within the system.
AR: I’ve been part of the system, but I’ve never compromised like most people compromise. I’ve worked for elected officials and if I had an official who took an incorrect position on something that I disagree with, I would publicly disagree with that person, I would not defend that person. I would tell them that they’re out on their own. What you have now is you have people defending Hillary Clinton’s position on being against marriage. Instead of saying, “No, she’s absolutely wrong and it’s reprehensible,” you’re having people saying, “The climate’s not right; she’s doing as much as she can; she’s the element for change.”
AB: But Allen, if the Democrats—Clinton or Barack Obama—were to say, “I believe 100% that gays should get married,” that would take away a huge number of voters who would otherwise vote Democratically.
AR: What I’m saying is that we should be more honest about where the candidates are. I had to make a choice. I had to vote and I voted for Obama. I think he’s the better of the two, but you don’t see me running around saying Obama’s great for the community. He’s not great and neither is she, so I had to take other things into consideration. I’m really tired of the cheerleading for people who don’t deserve the cheerleading. Accept the people for where they are and say why you’re supporting them without trying to sell damaged goods for reasons that don’t exist.
AB: Why did you choose Obama over Hillary?
AR: One of the main reasons is—first of all, he’s been against the war, she voted for the war and never apologized for it. She still says she would have voted for DOMA. She said in the beginning she was against same-sex marriage for moral, religious and traditional reasons. Then we have a meeting with her and she says she’s evolved. Now she’s just against same-sex marriage; she doesn’t say for moral, religious or traditional reasons. As far as tradition, we’ve never had a woman Senator in New York, or a woman President—that’s certainly not tradition. As far as religion, that’s not supposed to play a part in government. So all three, they were venomous to me.
AR: Whereas Obama—at the Democratic convention a number of years ago, he addressed our community. That wasn’t necessary, but he did it. Obama talks about our community before national audiences where it’s not required. I think it’s the right thing to do and I think it’s the decent, progressive thing to do. And I also think it’s the political thing to do. He’s staking out a candidacy of decency. I have never ever heard Hillary talk about our community at a non-gay function. I have seen Hillary go before a gay organization and give an award to somebody and never—she never says LGBT or gay. She could have been speaking at a Boy Scouts convention. She gets up there as if she’s afraid of getting taped. All she would say is “It’s great to be here and give this award, this is a great organization.” Had anyone listened to a tape of her, you never would have known she was at a gay group.
AB: What do you think of James Clyburn’s remarks the other day about how a Clinton nomination would cause an irreparable rift between Democrats and black voters?
AR: Well, I do think that’s true. I think that what’s brought that around is that we’ve played by the rules and if the party doesn’t go with him, the rules will be changing mid-game. I’ve heard elected officials say that they should go by so-called popular vote and they should include Florida and they should include Michigan. You know, neither candidate fought against excluding them when those states broke the Party rules. It would now be that the Democratic Party would be changing the rules mid-game and it would definitely be seen as a way of stopping a black from becoming the nominee. Now, if Hillary wins the next few primaries and superdelegates vote for her, that’s fair game. What’s before us is not whether the superdelegates have to vote a certain way, they can vote however they want, but even if that happens, there will be a segment of the black community angry again and I can understand the anger.
AB: Well, it wouldn’t even just be black voters. I think a number of youth would reject the decision.
AR: Yes, it definitely goes beyond race. There would be a lot of people who believe that Obama is the future and that Obama is the one. There are a lot of people who have busted their asses and believe in him and where his buttons that would think Clinton stole it. I’m amazed, last year I would have bet my bottom dollar that Hillary would be the nominee and we couldn’t lose the election. Now Hillary’s not the nominee and we could lose to McCain. Not because of Obama being the candidate, but because of how fractured the Democratic Party has become. I want to go back to one other thing – we talked about progressive and being practical.
AR: I want to say that HRC and Barney Frank have done more damage to the community than most people even realize. In the early seventies, Bella Abzug introduced a bill into Congress that would ban discrimination against sexual orientation as an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ed Koch joined her and I think there were 43 members of Congress who had signed it and we had the bill in the Senate, also. In 1994, Barney Frank got HRC to withdraw that bill and they put in ENDA, which is a limited employment bill—a limited bill that would protect the LGB community in employment with limitations. If that bill had been passed in the form that Barney and HRC have it written, even if it included the T, it codifies discrimination and it embodies into law that LGBT people ought to considered different and not entitled to the same rights as every other protected minority.
AB: You mean because the bill is so gay specific?
AR: No, because it doesn’t cover all the areas that the Civil Rights Bill covers, even in terms of employment. They say, “Well, we can’t do affirmative action, we can’t do quotas,” but women are in there—it’s based on sex, race or disability and national origin and religion. There are no quotas according to that law for Jews or for Christians, so why would it be an issue for LGBT people? I think what Barney does is that he tries to get along too well with the higher ups in the Democratic party and he moderates and makes the community dance to his drum and sells us out, instead of being a real advocate for true equality. And, quite frankly, if Barney were running for office in my state or my city, I would not support him.
AB: I gathered that. So, are you hopeful for the future?
AR: Yeah, but I just wish we weren’t getting so assimilated and weren’t becoming as part of the machine that, in the seventies, we rebelled against.
AB: I suppose becoming part of the machine is true equality. Or, that’s what people like to think.
AR: I liked it when we were more idealistic, when we weren’t defending a party that’s doing the wrong thing.