LGBT Activists Discuss Solutions to Bronx Intolerance

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By Kristen Gwynne

Through a series of town hall meetings and other public activities, advocates and organizers are working to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender tolerance in the Bronx, a borough that gained a bad reputation for its intolerance last fall when a group of young adults in Morris Heights were arrested for viciously beating and sodomizing two youths and another man because they suspected the victims were gay.

On May 31, at a town hall meeting at the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, Bronx Community Board 7 and other local community organizers pinpointed lack of advertisement, religion, cultural bias and low socio-economic status as the main causes of the borough’s LGBT intolerance. To navigate these obstacles and improve the borough’s reputation, attendees and panelists suggested working with the police and increasing LGBT awareness, especially in notoriously anti-gay communities.

Panelist Francisco J. Lazala, of the Bronx Community Pride Center and Gay and the Lesbian Dominican Empowerment Organization (GALDE), said the goal is to host a town hall meeting in every Bronx-based community board and create a network to distribute LGBT services across the borough.

Many attendees expressed discontent with police response to harassment and hate crimes. Detective Jim Duffey, part of the NYPD’s three-person LGBT liaison team of openly gay officers, told the audience to call on his team if things weren’t working out through normal channels.

“If you have an incident, call the cops first,” Duffey said. “Those who respond may not be as compassionate. If you feel you are not being treated right, contact us.”

In comparison to the other boroughs, panelists and advocates said, the Bronx lacks LGBT advertisement, an effective tool for helping to humanize LGBT persons. Stephanie Zapata, of Lehman College’s Rainbow Alliance, said there is no such thing as too much advertisement. “Publicize it more,” he said. “We flyer the whole campus so people know what’s going on, even if they don’t like it,” she said.

Many attendees attested to harsh LGBT discrimination in Dominican and Puerto Rican communities.
Lazala noted the danger of stereotyping an entire ethnic group as homophobic. “Homophobia is not an issue of the Dominican Republic,” Lazala said. “You are [homophobic] no matter where you come from.”

Joseph Lee, the chair of the youth committee at Community Board 7, said cultural considerations are important but should not be overstated. “It is not helpful to single out groups, but it is helpful to realize cultural motivations,” said Lee.

Lazala said conservative religious values, preached in many Bronx communities, aren’t helping further the conversation about tolerance. “[The notion that] homosexuality, pregnancy, and birth control are wrong is drilled into [many parents’] psyche, so they can’t handle their kids discussing social issues,” he said.

Attendees and panelists also discussed reaching out through schools, where they could challenge the views of older generations.

The low economic status of the Bronx, which has the lowest median income and the highest unemployment rate of any borough, may also contribute to issues with the LGBT community. “Low income communities are correlated with all sorts of intolerance,” said Lee, who attributed the correlation to long work days that soak up time parents could spend in community activities or educating their children.

To wrap up the meeting, panelist Kenny Agosto, the first openly gay elected district leader in the Bronx, shared his experience with a Catholic, Puerto Rican upbringing.

“You’re told the scriptures are against you. I don’t believe God is against me,” said Agosto, who urged attendees to take their frustration to the polls if they think their legislators aren’t promoting tolerance. “If you don’t like what an elected official is doing, you have every right to go to the polls and fire them. You are just as important, if not more, to contributing to community,” Agosto said.

Editor's note:
A version of this article first appeared in the latest print version of the Norwood News.