The Daniel Dromm Collection at the La Guardia and Wagner Archives and the Queens LGBTQ Rights Movement
The Dromm Collection will expand the focus of LGBTQ studies beyond Manhattan to Queens. Queens LGBTQ history, in fact, is noteworthy prior to Dromm’s activism. Though there are no known records of LGBTQ groups in the borough before the 1970s, Queens activists likely were involved in the pre-Stonewall organizations Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society. In the 1970s, chapters of national organizations formed in Queens, including the Gay Activists Alliance in Jamaica and the Gay Human Rights League in Flushing. The 1980s witnessed the establishment of Dignity of Queens, Gay Friends & Neighbors of Queens, and the Lesbian and Gay Political Action Committee of Queens. These groups supported the Gay Rights Bill, passed by New York City Council in 1986 to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
But Queens LGBTQ history is not simply a linear narrative of progress. It’s a tangled story of starts, stops, gaps, and starts again. Recall that in the 1970s the borough’s most famous resident was the fictional Archie Bunker, a reactionary conservative, blue-collar worker, and family man, often described as a “lovable bigot.” During the contentious Democratic mayoral primary of 1977 between Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, signs appeared in Queens urging residents to “Vote for Cuomo, not the Homo.” In a borough made up of culturally conservative neighborhoods, LGBTQ activists faced backlash, especially during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. For example, the establishment of the AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC) in Richmond Hill in 1986 by Douglas A. Feldman generated controversy, as the disease at the time was largely associated with gay men, prostitutes, and injecting drug users. Following a march against ACQC led by Assembly Member Anthony Seminerio, the center moved to Forest Hills. And on July 2, 1990, in an incident that traumatized the Queens LGBTQ community, Julio Rivera, a gay bartender, was murdered in a Jackson Heights schoolyard by three young men out “hunting homos” after a night of heavy drinking. The killing led to demands for justice and sparked a wave of activism.
Against this backdrop of hope and despair, Sunnyside fourth-grade public school teacher Daniel Dromm set out to institute a Queens Pride Parade. Dromm viewed a parade as a forum for people to come out, arguing that the best way to do it was in a public space, with crowds cheering, music blaring, and motorcycles rumbling. He also wanted to draw attention to the relatively unknown Queens LGBTQ population. Until the early 1990s, most New Yorkers associated the city’s gay and lesbian community with Greenwich Village.
The catalyst for Dromm was the rejection of the citywide Children of the Rainbow Curriculum in Queens Community School District 24 in 1992. Amid heated debates about multicultural educational policy in New York, the curriculum promoted racial and ethnic harmony and urged tolerance for gays and lesbians. Advocates argued it was imperative for minority students to see themselves represented in the classroom. Critics cited references to families headed by same-sex couples as well as the three recommended books Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate, and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride. Dromm came out in public as a gay man and became a champion of the curriculum. He also began to plan a parade with fellow activist Maritza Martinez. On November 4, 1992, he held the first meeting for the event in his apartment. Four people attended.
The Dromm Collection illuminates grassroots activism. Behind the scenes, activists raised funds, mailed out newsletters, and lobbied politicians. The work was often tedious but gives insight into the nature of social activism, typically associated with climactic protest, dramatic clashes, and vivid images. What often gets overlooked, but not in this collection, is the work that occurs out of the spotlight, including the organizing, petitioning, and volunteering. One photograph depicts a 1994 “mailing party,” when volunteers sent out some 4,000 newsletters.
The initial Queens Pride Parade was in essence a community event, financed largely by gay bars on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights and sponsored by Queens and Manhattan LGBTQ organizations. Gritty in appearance, the parade reflected a do-it-yourself ethic. To collect money Dromm and Martinez canvassed area bars with coffee cans. They started to appeal for donations at around 11:00pm, after patrons had a few drinks. On the first night, they collected $54. In subsequent years, parade organizers obtained the support of major corporations, such as Bell Atlantic and Citibank.
Stephen Petrus, a historian at La Guardia and Wagner Archives, is co-author of Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (Oxford University Press, 2015). His next book will be a political and cultural history of Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 60s. He also helped to organize the exhibition The Lavender Line: Coming Out in Queens at the Queens Museum to mark the 25th anniversary of the Queens Pride Parade.
For more information on The Lavender Line, on view from June 9 to July 30, 2017, click here.
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