Margaret Woods, a Newark lesbian, didn’t go to local gay bars in the 1960s and 1970s. She feared losing her job at a social service agency, so she went to Manhattan instead.
Kiyan Williams and Danielle Cooper, both twentysomething, came of age at much different time. Williams helped establish the first Gay Student Alliance group at Newark’s Science Park High School.
Cooper felt shunned by the “cool gay kids’’ and instead hung out with nerdy gay teens, all of whom were open about their sexual orientation.
They told their stories at the Queer Newark conference earlier this month, sponsored by Rutgers, the city of Newark, and more than a dozen Newark-based LGBT and social justice organizations.
The event, "Queer Newark: Our Voices, Our Histories,’’ convened three generations of residents and activists in the city to paint a portrait of Newark’s LGBT community, past and present.
It kicked off the Rutgers Queer Newark Oral History Project, project, in which Rutgers faculty and staff will train members of the community to document each other’s stories.
“We’re making history today,’’ said Darnell Moore, a Newark activist and former associate director of Newark Schools Research Collaborative and an affiliate of the Institute on Education Law and Policy, both at Rutgers. “History is made when we lift our individual and collective voices," Moore. "We’ve created an institution that no one can ever erase. Our voices will be in someone’s library, in someone’s archive, pushing against invisibility.’’
Moore and Beryl Satter, a professor of history at Rutgers-Newark, launched the project to recognize the unsung heros and heroines of the city’s LGBT community. Many of the panelists survived homophobia and the AIDS crisis and went on the launch outreach efforts and create educational campaigns.
“In our view, we don’t need Ellen Degeneres,’’ said Satter. “These are the people that saved lives and created a community and saved a generation that no one was looking at.’’
Organizers thought it was crucial for the older generation to share their experiences with younger members of the LGBT community.
“There was a feeling that the history of queer Newark was vital for the youth of Newark, at least in terms of strengthening and empowering them. That’s why we thought it was important to ask, ‘what could you tell us about your experience that might be useful to the next generation?'’’ Satter said.
Panelists from the first group, comprised of baby boomers, were eager to give advice. “You don’t come out just once. With every one you meet, you come out again and again,’’ said James Credle, co-founder of the Newark Pride Alliance “You have to be honest with yourself and you must know who you are. Don’t take short cuts.’’
“Wisdom is yours. That’s exactly what you have onstage here,’’ said Jae Quinlan, director of True Colors/Newark, which counsels the city’s LGBT youth. “Use us. We’re here to help you.’’
Each group of panelists talked about the the LGBT networks and hang outs of their youth.
Peter Savastano, a native Newark babyboomer and Seton Hall anthropology professor, remembered the “fairy loop,’’ where gay men used to cruise in Branch Brook Park, only to discover that one day, the benches were all removed to discourage them.
Later, there were clubs like Murphys bar, an LGBT institution in the city, Zanzibar, First Choice, and the Dollhouse. It was a time when, despite discrimination, close friends and family members often tacitly accepted LGBT loved ones without labeling them as LGBT. Live-in partners became members of the extended family and being queer was being “that way.’’
Bernard McAllister recalled the '80s-era Newark gay ballroom scene, in which men and women pose and runway walk competitively, often as the the opposite gender. They’re judged on “realness’’ and confidence.
“You wanted to be white women,’’ said McAllister, a member of Newark’s House of Jourdan, a gay “house,’’ or organization which competes in balls and counsels LGBT youth. “You wanted to look like Erica Kane and Joan Collins.’’
He remembered the height of the AIDS epidemic. “I was there when they’re were seven or eight funerals a day,’’ said McAllister, who lobbied in Trenton for funding to combat AIDS in the 1980s.
On a display table outside the conference area, near glittery gowns from the balls, were condoms and rubber penises leftover from a 1990s campaign to promote safe sex with various activities, such as races to see who could put a condom on the fastest.
Federal funding was cut to the group after a public outcry over the mistaken notion that tax dollars were being spent on wigs and costumes, said Credle. The money was never restored.
Although twenty-something members of Newark’s LGBT community have access to mentors and local organizations that offer support, unlike many of their elders, it hasn’t always been easy
Some found acceptance from gay and straight peers, but their families shunned them.
Eyricka Morgan, 23, a transgender Newarker and Rutgers student, remembers when family members told her “all gay men have AIDS’’ and forbid her from dressing like a woman. “I had to make a decision. Either I be myself or let others control me. So at 14 or 15, I packed up all my stuff and I left.’’
Being queer in Newark takes courage and determination, said Moore.
“They’re not just queers first. They’re Newarkers first,’’ he said. “Being able to survive in that kind of urban sphere makes you a very strong person.’’