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A Rally to Back Marriage Equality

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn
Meghan Keneally Council Speaker Christine Quinn at tonight’s rally.

New York politicos gathered at Cooper Union tonight to kick off the city’s annual Gay Pride celebration, which this year is dominated by the “will they or won’t they” speculation over the State Senate’s impending vote on the Marriage Equality bill.

Though the spectacle’s Broadway-style musical numbers were lighthearted, the real focus was upstate. At last count, 31 senators publicly support the bill, falling just one vote short of the 32 needed to ensure passage. Late Wednesday night, the state assembly passed the bill — and it was the Assembly’s fourth time doing so — leaving the Senate as the final stop before the bill becomes law.

“This is finally our moment,” said Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, who organized the event. “We know this is the moment again that New York can actually call itself the Empire State.”
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Recalling a Haven for Gay Performers

IMG_0296Kenan Christiansen P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue.

In the late 1970’s, the East Village was “a neighborhood about to become something,” queer performance artist Tim Miller told The Local.

“Previous generations had established, in terms of cultural stuff, their foothold in SoHo, so it was already too expensive and certainly in my mind not nearly as radical in its politics or cultural stance” as the East Village where, he said, the feeling “was so different.” Attracted by this, Mr. Miller and other artists like him began to seek out East Village’s real estate with performance space potential.

Though performance art was not new to the area, with already active venues like popular visual artist hang-out Club 57, experimental art venue the Electric Circus, and theater space La Mama, a new wave of influential artists put down roots in the neighborhood during this time and, in particular, established queer performance spaces that would become recognized cultural institutions and cornerstones of the performance art world.

In 1980, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, founding members of lesbian performance art group Split Britches, organized the first annual Women’s One World Festival or WOW, a showcase plays by women authors, at the now defunct Electric Circus Club. Ms. Shaw and Ms. Weaver mounted the festival, “to fill this big dark hole. It was this big vacant space of nowhere for lesbians to perform,” according to Ms. Shaw. To advertise, she told an audience at a queer spaces forum last December, she hung huge banners along St. Marks featuring hand-drawn pictures of naked women.
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5 Questions With | Natasha Dillon

Natasha DillonNatasha Dillon.

Natasha Dillon thinks she’s boring — but that’s not really the case at all.

Earlier this month, Borough President Scott Stringer announced the newly appointed selections to Community Board 3, which covers the East Village, Lower East Side and parts of Chinatown. Ms. Dillon, a 26-year-old East Villager and gay rights activist, was one of these new appointees, after previously serving on the board as a community member. And while some insist that this crop of new appointees seems rather eclectic, Ms. Dillon insists that she’s actually quite boring.

As a financial consultant, who’s currently working on a master’s degree in investment management from Pace University, Ms. Dillon seems like the average young East Village resident, except this activist and founder of a local East Village advocacy group, Queer Rising, has been arrested four times in the last year for her public actions for marriage equality in the United States. Her most recent arrest came earlier this month, after a group of Queer Rising members blocked traffic near Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office on Third Avenue for nearly 10 minutes.

However, Ms. Dillon has a somewhat different, slightly less radical, agenda for the East Village. Serving on the economic development committee, her main concern is to bring life back to local businesses — and to the East Village.
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Remembering Those Lost To AIDS

DSC_1161Meredith Hoffman Top: Jacqui Lewis, left, and Tricia Sheffield grasp a red cloth dedicated to victims of AIDS during a Wednesday night ceremony at Middle Collegiate Church commemorating World AIDS Day.

Debbie Totten knows about loss.

Four years ago, her brother Frank committed suicide after learning that he had contracted AIDS. “He had the beginnings of AIDS but he took his own life,” said Ms. Totten, a 53-year-old native of the East Village. Two years later, her brother’s friend also committed suicide when he learned that he, too, had AIDS.

On Wednesday night, Ms. Totten and 25 fellow congregants silently held candles in Middle Collegiate Church during a worship service to commemorate World AIDS Day.

And though the service’s message was of hope, the story of Ms. Totten and many others was of loss, with entire past communities gone, because of AIDS.

“There’s nobody here anymore I grew up with. Most of them passed away from the virus,” said Ms. Totten. While most of her friends contracted HIV back in the 70’s, she said that she’s known even more infected people in the neighborhood in recent years.

Every Monday with Middle Church Ms. Totten volunteers, giving hot dinners and groceries to people with AIDS. She volunteers at another food pantry on Wednesdays, but came to last night’s service instead, to reflect.
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Rights Protest Becomes Hunger Strike

Alan BounvilleHannah Rubenstein Alan Bounville, who took part in a 36-day vigil outside Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s local office, began a hunger strike earlier this week to draw attention to the American Equality Bill.

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the work of QueerSOS, a gay rights group that was taking part in an ongoing vigil outside of Senator Gillibrand’s campaign office. At that time, activists Iana Di Bona and Alan Bounville had slept on the West 26th Street sidewalk for nearly four weeks, vowing to continue until the senator introduced the American Equality Bill to Congress, which would introduce the phrase “sexual orientation and gender identity” to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After 36 days standing vigil, incurring arrests and disorderly conduct summons, but no response from the senator, the activists decided that something more had to be done to bring attention to their cause. On Election Day, QueerSOS morphed into a new incarnation: the Civil Rights Fast.

Senator Gillibrand has declined to comment on the protest.

In a video Bounville explained his decision to begin a water-only fast, vowing to continue until the American Equality Bill is introduced.

Civil Rights Fast chalkHannah Rubenstein Members of Civil Rights Fast etch sidewalk messages in chalk to bring attention to their cause.

“I know that Senator Gillibrand may never file this bill,” he said. “But I would rather live a short life that was full than a long life never knowing what it was like to walk down any street in America holding the hand of the person that I love without fear or trepidation, looking over my shoulder.”

Mr. Bounville and Ms. Di Bona are beginning a series of public appearances in the city to draw attention to their struggle: Friday afternoon outside Senator Gillibrand’s office, and Sunday at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York and Queer Rising meeting at the 14th Street Y. More information is available on their website.

Spreading A Message of Equal Rights

iana writing
messageHannah Rubenstein Iana Di Bona (top) has been scrawling chalk messages on East Village sidewalks calling for civil rights for the gay community. Her effort is part of larger effort that includes a 24-hour vigil outside the offices of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on West 26th Street.

Iana Di Bona crouches low near the corner of St. Marks and First Avenue scrawling a chalk message that she would repeat on sidewalks across the East Village: “Gay Civil Rights!!” Her electric blues and purples are defiant against the monochromatic city streets.

“Some people don’t want to stop and take a flyer,” Ms. Di Bona says, explaining the chalk that now stains her fingers. “This is a graffiti tactic that brings attention and awareness to the cause.” She places the chalk in a tattered plastic bag and continues walking, searching for the next blank slate.

Graffiti activism is only the latest action that Ms. Di Bona and the group she represents, QueerSOS, have taken in recent days in hopes of promoting gay rights. Two months ago, the 30-year-old Ms. Di Bona quit her job as an office manager in an East Village medical office and began living off of savings, dedicating herself to social activism full-time.

Since Sept. 27, she has been part of a daily vigil outside of Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s campaign office on West 26th Street. For the past nine days, she and her best friend and fellow activist Alan Bounville, a 34-year-old former NYU student, have been sleeping on the sidewalk outside — an act of “political homelessness,” Ms. Di Bona says. QueerSOS, which stands for Standing OutSide, has only one mission: pressuring Senator Gillibrand to introduce the American Equality Bill.
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A Call for Rights Amid Young Lives Lost

Thomas Krever.Rhea Mahbubani Thomas Krever, executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, says recent suicides by gay teenagers reflect a troubling “sense of isolation and hopelessness.”

Growing up, Jairo Alcantara thought it was normal to be treated badly. It seemed ordinary to walk down the hallways of his Queens high school hearing homophobic slurs. “I can’t help the fact that I’m gay,” Mr. Alcantara said in a recent interview. “It’s a horrible feeling when you think God made you the wrong way. It’s an even more horrible feeling when other people tell you so.”

After years of pretending to be someone else, Mr. Alcantara, although still fearful for his safety, grew tired of being weighed down by a single lie. Today, Mr. Alcantara, who’s 18 and a recent graduate of the Harvey Milk High School in the East Village, is candid about his sexuality after having come out twice – first as bisexual and then as gay. “I had to come out,” said Mr. Alcantara, who transferred to Harvey Milk after two years at another school. “I was tired of living in this bubble that I couldn’t breathe in.”

Advocates point to the recent spate of teenage suicides by those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning as evidence of the pervasiveness of bullying and victimization. It is against that backdrop that the gay community today observes National Coming Out Day – an annual call for equal rights that is framed this year by the loss of young lives.
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