In 1991, a year after Deborah Glick became the first out gay state legislator in New York, gay New York City Council candidate Tom Duane stood on the precipice of a potentially risky move. He was running in the Democratic primary against Liz Abzug – who was also out gay – in a newly created council district that included the West Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.
Duane had a good chance of becoming one of the first out gay members of the council. The new district was one of several drawn with an eye toward giving underrepresented minority groups a voice in the council, with one of those groups being LGBTQ New Yorkers. The neighborhoods in the new district have been central to the gay rights movement in New York – both before and after the Stonewall riots. The district was considered “gay winnable,” Duane said.
But he also faced what he referred to as a personal “calling” to disclose that he was HIV-positive, even though some warned against it in light of the ignorance and discrimination toward gay people during the AIDS epidemic. “There were a lot of people who thought that it was a terrible idea to tell anybody,” Duane recalled to City & State recently. “But I was determined. I was going to do it no matter what, and however people were going to react, they were going to react.”
Inspired to disclose his status in a letter to constituents by Brian Coyle, a Minneapolis City Council member who disclosed his own HIV status in a similar way, Duane went on to win the council seat. Along with Antonio Pagán, another openly gay politician, Duane was one of the first two out gay members of the council.
This year marks three straight decades of representation by a gay or lesbian member in City Council District 3. Thirty years after Duane first joined the council, the seat has now been held by two openly HIV-positive members – Duane and Corey Johnson – and has given the council two of its most recent speakers – Christine Quinn and Johnson. Its current occupant, Erik Bottcher, came up as a council staffer, most recently working in Johnson’s office before being elected last year.
Duane’s reminiscence of his 1991 campaign and his seven years in the council – some of which were spent joining advocates in fighting then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to maintain social services for people with HIV, particularly low-income people – served as a reminder of how much has changed for the better. “At the height of the AIDS epidemic, before protease inhibitors or any other antiretroviral drugs existed, he came out as an HIV-positive gay man,” Johnson said of Duane, adding that Duane was one of the first people to whom he disclosed his own HIV status years later. “I don’t think it would have been not just … possible for me to run, but probably wouldn’t have been possible for me to be alive if it weren’t for people like Tom Duane and (gay rights activist) Allen Roskoff, and so many other people who really blazed the trail for people like me.”
“His office was used more or less like a gay community center,” Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club and a longtime resident of the district, said of Duane’s office.
Owles, the late gay rights activist and Roskoff’s former partner, ran unsucessfully to represent the area in the council in 1973. David Rothenberg, another gay rights activist, came close to winning election in the area in 1985, but fell short.
Speaking to City & State a few days ahead of the start of Pride Month, each of the four occupants of the council seat reflected on the strides made for LGBTQ New Yorkers in the past three decades. Duane was elected at the height of the AIDS crisis, before same-sex marriage was legal in New York and before discrimination based on sexual orientation was explicitly prohibited in state law.
But each of the four former and current council members said they were more focused today on what hasn’t yet changed for the better. “Always take a moment just to look back and see how far we’ve come. Because we really have come a very long way,” Duane said. “And then, ‘OK, enough of that.’ Now you have to look forward.”
The war hasn’t been won
After same-sex marriage was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a fundamental right in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, LGBTQ advocates faced a risk that elected officials – at least those open to listening to the community – would pat themselves on the back and consider the war won. “I think many people outside of the LGBT community, and even some people inside the community, thought the battle has been won,” Johnson said of the Supreme Court decision.
Bottcher was eager to draw attention to the need to address the challenges that remain – including ones that have become more urgent on a national scale this year. “The idea of prosecuting parents of trans kids and it being endorsed by mainstream Republican lawmakers, I think there’s a fever pitch to that right now and an edge to it that we haven’t seen in years,” Bottcher said, referring to states that have passed laws allowing child abuse investigations into the parents of transgender children.
And like the leaders of the historically diverse LGBTQ Caucus, of which he is a member, Bottcher intends to focus on the city’s most vulnerable people. “There are many people in New York City in the LGBTQ community who are still forced to live on the margins, who are still subjected to vicious discrimination,” he said. “Particularly the trans community, trans women of color – they are significantly more likely to die of suicide, they’re more likely to be victims of violence, they’re far less likely to be employed.” He said higher rates of homelessness among LGBTQ youth and providing mental care were other areas the council could address with “funding and policy.”
When asked to elaborate on specific actions the council could take, Bottcher pointed to the council’s oversight role. “We have to ensure that every city agency is adequately serving the LGBTQ population in a culturally competent manner, that they are affirming people’s identities and delivering them services,” he said, noting that some progress has been made at historically problematic agencies like the city Administration for Children’s Services – citing instances of LGBTQ youth being placed in discriminatory foster homes.
Working with city agencies to provide better services for the LGBTQ community was also one of the areas Duane said he would focus on if he were still on the council. That included working with city agencies to provide better care for the aging population of openly gay New Yorkers, starting at senior centers. “I remember working with commissioners of aging – and this has to go on still today – (saying) that, ‘Yes, there are senior citizen centers that focus mainly on LGBTQIA elders. But there is also the challenge to make sure that LGBTQIA people feel welcome in every senior center.”
Quinn highlighted the needs of queer youth in the city. “The situation for young LGBT people is still very dangerous,” she said. “Extremely high suicide numbers, off the charts bullying in school, not enough beds for homeless and runaway youth.” Quinn also warned that the seemingly likely rescission of the right to abortion secured in Roe v. Wade could portend a similar rollback by the U.S. Supreme Court of the right to same-sex marriage.
And then there are the strides left to make in representation. Even as the council’s LGBTQ contingent has grown in size and diversity across the city, District 3 has been held only by cisgender white people. (The district is roughly 67% white, 13% Hispanic, 12% Asian and 5% Black.) “It’s not OK that we haven’t elected a transgender person to the City Council,” Bottcher said. “It’s not OK that we haven’t elected a trans person to the state Legislature.”
Ringing in 30 years
Looking back on their time in office, the three former occupants of the City Council District 3 seat – Duane, Quinn and Johnson – pointed to distinct achievements for the LGBTQ community. During the Giuliani administration, Duane fought to keep the mayor from cutting or altogether shutting down what was then called the Division of AIDS Services, which helped people living with the disease access benefits including transportation to medical appointments and rental assistance. The division is now called the HIV/AIDS Services Administration and is codified in city law. Quinn, who served as Duane’s chief of staff at the time, pointed to that example too when asked about her own achievements.
Johnson said one of the first bills he passed as a new member in 2014 made it easier for transgender people to change their birth certificates, and a few years later, he helped secure dedicated funding for transgender groups in the city. “There’s a lot of things that didn’t get an enormous amount of press attention and may not have been headline-grabbing, but really made a difference in the lives of LGBT New Yorkers,” Johnson said.
Despite their many connections – in addition to all occupying the same council seat, Quinn worked for Duane and Bottcher worked for Johnson – you won’t find them gathering regularly to talk about the old days or advise Bottcher on his current term. But while they aren’t ringing in the 30-year history of LGBTQ representation in the district with tons of fanfare, the four members might yield to a little celebration. “We should all go out to dinner or something,” Quinn said.
The significance of his 1991 win wasn’t lost on Duane. “I’ll never know whether someone on the City Council or whether a staff member didn’t want to get too close to me because they didn’t really understand how HIV was passed,” he said. “But I think that many more people felt comfortable approaching an openly gay person, or a person with HIV, that I made it possible for them to grow in not just their tolerance and acceptance, but embracing who I am and who I represented.”
NEXT STORY: Session wraps up in Albany