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What People Say About Us

Gays Go Free at Ninth Street Center
by Judy Chicurel

"But there are so many of them. It's not something to hide anymore. They seem to be everywhere like they all come out of the closet at once." Being gay. A sexual preference, certainly, but is that all there is to it? When it comes to personal growth, self-awareness and basic day-to-day living, how are they different from everyone else?

Apparently, the City Council has determined that they are different enough to be excluded from the Civil Rights Bill, under the category described as "sexual orientation." This bill protects almost all minorities against public discrimination but doesn't include homosexuals. The Gay Amendment, as it is known, was first proposed in 1971 and has been passed in many major -- and some very minor -- cities. Wisconsin passed a state bill recently. "Politically, if it was just (limited to) Manhattan, there would be no problem," said a member of the Coalition for Lesbian Gay Rights. "In New York, it's primarily a borough problem. Thomas Cuite, the representative from Brooklyn rules the City Council and is the main source of opposition on this bill."

"The Center is not set up to fight for rights," Tony Rostron told the Eye after the amendment was defeated once again. "We have to get together and find our own rights. Harping on political processes is like pissing against the wind."

Tony Rostron, counselor at the non-profit Center on East Ninth and a member for ten years, pauses thoughtfully. "The Center to me is a community of relationships that I can explore within the community. No matter how big a fool I make of myself, it'll be alright. There will always be people here to confront me and support me, and find what is really best in me. That's why I keep coming."

John Swedenbourg, president of the Center, explains his feelings in a broader sense: "We're a scientific, experimental community that is working on a science of human nature. We're using our own and others' expanding awareness and abilities to help other people locate what it is to be human and have an identity . . . to be able to use that ability to love and care responsibly about themselves and others. To be able to grow . . . and give to other people."

It is one thing to "come out," another to hang in. That is what the Ninth Street Center is all about -- hanging in after you've realized what you are.

Started in 1973 by Dr. Paul Rosenfels and his students, the Ninth Street Center celebrated its tenth year in existence this past March. Rosenfels, a "renegade psychiatrist" by his own description is the author of Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process. The idea of the community was largely shaped by Rosenfels' ideas and values. Rosenfels himself was very active in Center life until illness made it impossible for him to partake in the day to day existence of the Center.

Originally the Center was like a social club where gay people gathered to partake in acting, drawing, writing and various other classes to develop personal expression. Although they had talk groups over the years, some of which drew many people, it is only recently that open talk groups have become the Center's most popular provision. One of the goals of the Center was, and is, to provide a comfortable place for gay people to congregate and meet others like themselves with the same feelings and questions.

At the several open talk groups I attended, what struck me throughout the conversation was the universality of what was said. A group leader presides over every meeting. The time is loosely structured, very unhurried. But these individuals seemed to be voicing the same grievances which heterosexuals had. There was a lot of discussion about meeting people on a one-to-one meaningful level, about the quality of personal relationships, and the fear of contracting social diseases from strangers: all problems faced by many of my own heterosexual friends. Is it lonelier to be straight or gay? Are empty relationships only a homosexual problem? One guy said that being homosexual enabled him to relate to the heroine of Frances, (based on the tragic life of film star Frances Farmer) because she was so ostracized for being different and wilder than others around her. Listening to these discussions, one could sense the isolation these people seemed to feel -- from their families, employers and the "straight" world surrounding them.

"A real change in the way things are now will occur not through revolution, but through evolution," added Swedenbourg. "You can't expect a set of values that have been handed to you over generations to apply to what you are, if you differ. You have to arrive at your own set of values and it takes a long time. The Hassidic Jewish segment of Brooklyn opposes us so vehemently but they are not our biggest enemy. No one group is. To the Hassidim, what we are is an abomination in the eyes of God. They don't want to acknowledge the possibility of the Messiah being exposed to a bunch of perverts. It's the same as the Fire Department not wanting to hire gay people, and they're not the enemy either."

"If we have to focus on the enemy," said Rostron, "the enemy is gay people who don't take their own gayness seriously. They don't take their homosexuality further than their own sexual desires, and they get lost. Coming out is a continuing process. . . .

"The political scene for gay people can get to be a circus," explained Swedenbourg. "Rebellion, in an adolescent stage, is really looking at everything that's wrong and getting caught up in the wrongness. You end up living your life as a critic knowing what's wrong, but you have to start living by what's right. I could spend time lobbying in Congress, but I don't want to. Independently, I'm taking political action in my life. Lobbying and legislation is not going to stop people from oppressing gay individuals. They won't realize that gay people have something to offer until gay people realize that they have something to offer and get off this sex and celebration trip."

"When you grow up as such an outcast you learn to laugh at a lot because it's your best defense," said Rostron about the gay image. "You've been a slave all your life . . . a prisoner of what people think you're supposed to be. . . . 'they're right and I'm wrong.' All of a sudden, you realize for the first time, I'm right and they're wrong. You feel like a young god and it's a very sexual, psychedelic experience. You don't see it as a passing moment, as a phase. People come to rely on the sexual experience as the key, as the answer. They keep trying to repeat the experience. The sexual event of being gay is a simple thing compared to the next step."

About job discrimination, Swedenbourg said, "You're not at work to be gay, you're there to make a buck. It's not a problem if you recognize that at times you have to compartmentalize your life. You develop adaptive compartments."

"If you're yourself and you're gay," explained Rostron, "you don't broadcast something that's part of yourself as a rule. When most people meet me they don't know that I'm gay."

Interestingly, Rostron and Swedenbourg said there's a difference between gay people living in the East Village and in the West Village.

"There's a sense of group identity that happens in the West Village," explained Rostron, "which makes it easy to feel as though you've arrived. You belong. People come from all over the country to the Village. It's the biggest gay ghetto in the country. I'm glad it exists because it's a good place to learn to be dissatisfied, to find out what else you want in your life. It's comparable to why people flock anywhere in terms of ethnic identity. The West Village is a safe harbor, and it's sad that a lot of people drown there. There's a pioneer spirit in the East Village which enables you not to be a clone, no matter what you do or who you are. You can practice being yourself. Stimulation is still an open thing. The Center is located here because of the quality of what the neighborhood has to offer."

"It's the last bastion of democracy," observed Swedenbourg. "Of course, there's a financial distinction. The West Village is more expensive, but the people who live there are more into making it financially than pursuing their own creativity. Here people are stimulated; they are allowed to be themselves. That's why we're here."

-- reprinted from East Village EYE, Vol. 5, No. 31, April 1983


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