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 – after the jump, naturally.
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.