David Rothenberg, Founder of The Fortune Society

Living Boldly After 40 years In the Closet

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

In 1969, the historic Stonewall riots took place in Greenwich Village in response to a police raid on a gay bar. These violent demonstrations, which lasted six days, were a crucial turning point and set the foundations for modern LGBTQI movements around the nation and world. I vividly remember watching the riots unfold from the window of my apartment in Sheridan Square, filled with both fear and excitement as I witnessed the demonstrators publicly proclaim their sexualities on the streets. I was exhilarated that they were fighting for their rights, but I was also scared for the protesters because I understood the extent of the discrimination they would face if their employers, families, neighbors, and friends found out about their involvement and sexualities.

For the first forty years of my life, I kept my sexual orientation a secret. I feared what others would think if they knew I was gay. The homophobic environment I lived in fostered these fears and forced most of the gay and lesbian community into silence. Growing up, my family never discussed homosexuality. In high school, classmates would make derisive comments. The media also fueled anti-gay sentiments within society. When I was living in Manhattan, the brutal murder of my gay neighbor received almost no media coverage. When there was coverage of the gay community, it was frequently homophobic in nature. Gays and lesbians were an invisible population that society deemed unimportant, causing their basic human rights to be ignored.

I also witnessed homophobia while working to establish The Fortune Society. In 1968, some of Fortune’s early members appeared on The David Susskind Show to discuss their prison experiences. The first person who volunteered to be on the show was one of Fortune’s most important pioneers, Pat McGarry.  He was not allowed on the show, however, because he was openly gay.

In 1973, six years after I founded Fortune, I decided that I was ready to come out. There were three factors that propelled me to make this decision.

The first factor was the formation of the National Gay Task Force (now called the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) in 1973 as a platform for organizing LGBTQI activism. This was one of the first grassroots organizations that united the gay community at the time and remains America’s oldest national LGBTQI advocacy group.

The task force was recruiting board members from different professional fields and they had difficulty finding someone from the criminal justice field. Because I had the experience, they reached out and asked if I wanted to become a board member. In order to join, however, I needed to disclose my sexuality— remaining closeted would defeat the purpose of the task force’s mission.

The second factor was that, at the age of 39, I entered my first serious relationship with another man named Greg Norris. Greg was a teacher who had an incarcerated father and we became acquainted with each other while rallying for the rights of incarcerated people. Prior to this, I had never been in a relationship with a man because doing so would have revealed my sexuality to others around me.

Finally, the biggest factor that propelled me to open up was the lessons I had learned during my first six years at Fortune. By listening to the stories of the formerly incarcerated individuals whom I worked with and served, I acquired a vast amount of knowledge about people who were oppressed and ostracized because of their criminal records. However, because I was so intent on keeping my sexuality private, I did not realize that I was experiencing similar oppression as a closeted gay man.

Some of the people I worked with at Fortune lied about their criminal records and past mistakes in order to keep their jobs and homes. I had also lied about my sexuality to others out of similar fears. I admired the people I worked with at Fortune, who lived bold lives despite the stigmas they faced because of their criminal records. I was inspired to take the initiative to be bold about my own life.

If I was going to come out, however, I did not want people to spread harmful rumors about my sexuality beforehand. My prominent role in criminal justice reform and founding Fortune had earned me significant publicity. Thus, I needed to orchestrate my coming out in a positive way that showed I was proud and unafraid to do so.

With this goal in mind, I called Jean Kennedy, the producer of The David Susskind Show. I asked whether she had ever hosted individuals who were not only gay, but also in the American mainstream and leading duplicitous lives. She responded that they hadn’t and I suggested that I appear on the show. After finding others who were in similar situations, she agreed to feature me along with two other men and three women.

Before I proceeded, there was one problem that I needed to address: Would the future success at Fortune be compromised if the public found out that its founder and Executive Director was gay? Would people stop supporting Fortune once I came out? I decided that I did not want to put Fortune at risk because its mission and impact were too important to me, its hardworking staff, and the community.

With the intention of resigning, I gathered Kenny Jackson, Mel Rivers, Fran O’Leary, Bobby Davis, Jeanette Spencer, and all the other formerly incarcerated people working at Fortune’s small office in Manhattan. I informed them that I was gay, that I was going to open up about my sexuality on Susskind, and therefore I would be resigning as Executive Director of Fortune.

Kenny responded, “Well, what are you going to wear on TV?”

I was shocked by this response.

When I expressed my concern that people would stop supporting Fortune once they knew I was gay, Mel said, “You stood by us for six years telling us to be honest about our lives. Give us the opportunity to stand by you.”

After a long pause, Kenny asked, “Can we all get back to work now?”

To this day, Mel’s remark remains etched in my mind. This meeting was one of the most emotional moments of my life because I realized that I did not have to walk away from Fortune. Kenny and Mel accepted me for who I was.

I also opened up about my sexuality to my mother, who had never known. I wrote a letter to her, which was later published in a compilation of letters called Letters to a Nation. In this letter, I explained that I learned to become content with my sexuality and that “I am a total human being with much to be proud of, much which I can offer, and my personal sexual orientation is a problem only if I permit it to be and if I am obsessed with the rejection of an unknowing outside world.” My mother cried when she read the letter, which was the first entirely honest correspondence I had with her.

Immediately following the episode, I felt cautious yet liberated because I was no longer living a lie. Despite the homophobic environment of the time, the response to my coming out on Susskind was overwhelmingly positive and I received an immense amount of support from the public.

The next day, I received hundreds of letters and phone calls at Fortune’s office from people around the country who said that they loved and supported me. Jeanette Spencer, a formerly incarcerated woman at Fortune, saw that I was overwhelmed by this response. She then told me, “Sometimes it’s easier to get rejection than a bundle of love all at once. It’s very tough that you spent all your life being ashamed of something and then finding out that people love you in spite of it.”

My coming out on Susskind also inspired others to do the same. When I returned to Fortune after I appeared on Susskind, I went to the 23rd street YMCA to play basketball during my lunch break, as I usually did. As I walked onto the court, apprehensive about what the men would say, a tall Brazilian man who was the most talented basketball player among us put his arm around me. He said, “You made it easier for all of us.” He then announced that he was gay to everyone on the court. I was stunned as I realized that my coming out set a precedent for other gay individuals who were closeted.

I was soon invited to speak at universities and to join political groups and gay organizations. Community leaders asked me to be a marshal and spokesperson for the gay community at a demonstration that occurred in Times Square in response to the battering of a gay man. Additionally, I advocated for the city council’s gay rights bill, which passed in 1986.

I also became a founding member of the NGTF and was appointed to the New York City Commission on Human Rights. The commission, which was responsible for enforcing human rights laws, was formed on the notion that no person should be judged based on factors that were extraneous to who they were, such as race, religion, or who they loved. The minority groups whom the commission advocated for had all been oppressed and marginalized because of preconceived notions, and we aimed to reverse this.

Additionally, I was part of a group of openly gay executive directors who would meet to discuss issues they faced in operating gay rights organizations. During our meetings, we discovered that we all knew people who had contracted AIDS. Unfortunately, as the number of diagnoses rose, so did anti-gay sentiment. A lack of accurate media coverage and systemic homophobia prolonged the amount of time it took for researchers and the public to understand that AIDS was not limited to the gay population.

We realized that despite the scope and seriousness of the disease, it was not receiving enough political attention. However, we knew that the gay community would have little political input on the AIDS crisis without someone in government to prioritize it on the city’s political agenda. As we discussed the criteria for our ideal candidate, it became clear that I fit the position.

Motivated by the rising death tolls and my visits to AIDS-inflicted individuals, I became the first openly gay man to run for New York city council in 1985.

I ran for the district covering Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and a small portion of the East Side.

During my campaign, I received extensive media coverage specifically because I was running as an openly gay man. The Daily News ran a front page story about me and both The New York Times and New York Magazine featured my campaign despite the fact that they rarely covered city council races. I also had over 250 volunteers helping me campaign from a storefront in Greenwich Village.

At the end of the race, I received the third largest number of votes of any candidate in the 38 council races. Though I did not win, my campaign made important strides for the LGBTQI community and I was proud to have a supportive constituency of formerly incarcerated individuals who had reclaimed their lives.

While both formerly incarcerated individuals and members of the LGBTQI community differ in their backgrounds and experiences, they face the same burden of oppression. Society has placed unfair labels on both groups of people, causing the importance of their needs and rights to be diminished. These labels have caused them to be ignored in the face of injustice. Hearing the stories of formerly incarcerated individuals allowed me to recognize this intersection and for years, I have advocated for the rights of both groups.

The LGBTQI movement has made substantial progress in overcoming the stigma against homosexuality during the past few decades. Yet discrimination and outright violence against the gay community still occur today and LGBTQI individuals continue to face oppression because of who they love. All oppressed peoples, whether it is the LGBTQI community or people with criminal records, do not deserve to live with the ostracization that society subjects them to.

With almost 50 years of experience in helping the marginalized formerly incarcerated population reenter communities, Fortune stands with the LGBTQI community in light of the violence and discrimination they face. Just as Fortune embraces all individuals without judgment and values their success, we hope that society will soon accept both LGBTQI people and people affected by the justice system for who they are and place equal importance on their lives.

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