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What People Say About Us

Hot Nights at the Ninth Street Center
by John Paul Hudson

"You can tell when there's love in a home;
You can tell when you open the door;
Ev'ry table and chair seems to smile:
Come on in, do come in, stay awhile'. . . ."

So went a tender, folksy ballad from the 1950s musical Li'l Abner, adapted from the comic strip about the never-neverland of Dogpatch and its mostly counterculture inhabitants. The lyrics of "Love in a Home" were called to mind on a first visit to the nine-month-old Ninth Street Center between First and Second Avenues in the befouled MadDogpatch of the East Village, recent stomping ground of the Flower Children and successor heads, now evolving after its notoriety in the Sixties toward becoming a renovated neighborhood of responsible non-conformists more fertile even than it used to be when the likes of W. H. Auden lived peaceably there.

Beyond the similarity between the mood of warmth and welcome instantly conveyed by the basement quarters of the new gay social center and the spirit of the Li'l Abner lyric, the Dogpatch/MadDogpatch analogy peters out at the front door. The Ninth Street Center is not a hybrid between a mythical escape and a microcosm of the outside reality. It is the New Free Gay reality, a genuine alternative, probably The Alternative fuzzily envisioned by Gay Lib philosophers of the Ultimate Island revolution. By those messianic freaks who predicted that, after the political nerve-center, such as the Gay Activists Alliance's Firehouse, had taken root, it and other enclaves like it would provide space for cultural consolidation and would flower.

Back in the turbulent days of 1969-70, the Gay Liberation Front Alternate University briefly thrived, but as it was a slip stuck into the shifting sands of politics, it failed to attract, or attract and hold, the patient builders/cultivators who follow the rash frontierspeople with plowshares and fertilizer. (Raped and usurped Indians, please forgive the metaphor.) There was something missing from Alternate U., just as to many who seek the social fruit of militant activism there is something missing from the Firehouse.

What? Maybe a quietude for leisurely growth and development where one does not have to respond to the continual challenge of political expediency.

The Ninth Street Center is a haven "where gay people can be comfortable yet where important human challenges are acceptable and expected. . . . With personal development our goal, the horizons are unlimited," declares its descriptive pamphlet. It is "designed for those who want their homosexuality to help them lead more fulfilling lives . . . (providing) a setting where gay people can learn about themselves and develop their relationships with others."

The Center's founders and present staff of about 15 volunteers "believe in the creative individual who is attempting to expand the dimensions of his world," intending for the Center to become "a workshop of human resources."

Who are these second-wave Gay Libbers, what have they already done, and what remarkable "supra-movement force" inspires them? Since its grand opening last March 24, the Center has initiated regular weekly discussion groups "which examine the problems of gay life fully and openly," a drawing class where gay males draw gay males, a weeknight and Friday afternoon counseling service, a non-commercial journal of gay ideas, an acting class, and a superpopular Saturday night contribution-only buffet -- with other activities such as a Sunday game night in the planning stage.

Most participants are male, though as one of the brothers explained in a WBAI "Gay Pride" radio broadcast in the summer, "We want people to relate to each other as human beings and not come up with any sexist . . . ideologies. We are not limited, but the Center was started by a group of men."

Operating on donations by a handful of alternativists -- about half of them former GAA members who "are not opposed or cool to the Gay Lib movement" -- the Center obtained a one-year lease on its suite of two large rooms, kitchen, bath and storage area, every inch of which is now spanking clean. Redecorating was done by a small nucleus. Now upwards of 150 different persons come and go on a weekend night, joyously utilizing the facilities collectively.

"I've never seen such a warm, smiling, spontaneous atmosphere in the gay world," commented one athletic-looking brother crouched between canvas deck chairs in a room bubbling with some 50 males and 20 females early one Saturday night this fall. He was balancing a plate overflowing with meat loaf, lasagna, succotash, salad and chocolate cake -- all prepared at home by the Center's "guiding genius," Dr. Paul Rosenfels, who has rapidly come to be far more than the Center's chief cook.

Paul's youthful lover, Dean Hannotte, is another mainstay of the Center, which has no elaborate organizational structure, just the "standard" officers and a board of directors. Dean is a quietly dynamic long-hair who finds joy in writing, philosophy, art, music, math, the movement and the teaching of Paul.

Talking with him you feel you have just pressed the valve of a spray can containing a concentration of something potent. He's extroverted, but circumspect, inside-out, quite on top of his expanding world. He exudes conviction and strength of purpose.

Motivator/moderator Dean explains that the Center "is reinforcing. You can really turn to somebody else and say, 'Listen, I'm having a bad time about going to the bars and baths. I'd like to meet people on another level.' What's coming about here is a tremendous amount of support to people in their homosexuality. The basic idea is psychological growth. We want people to feel at ease."

He is thoroughly convinced that "homosexuality is not a sickness or perversion. It is a way of expanding into a more human world. People who think and do what they want use homosexuality to explore life because it is an area which society cannot control. Without the automatic imagery and programmed rules of behavior which characterize straight life, gay people are exposed to a great need for insights and tools of mastery that often involves an arduous growth struggle.

"We believed when we started this thing that a need existed for a clearing-house of psychological knowledge about homosexuality, individuality and creative living in general. So we set up a counseling service to deal with problems associated with coming out, living with another person, learning how to make love work, and developing interpersonal power."

He further states that the goals of the Center -- which is non-profit and free (except for a $1.50 donation to pay the live nude model for art class and a similar one for acting workshop) -- are to "help the person use his homosexuality as an asset, to heighten his sense of individual identity, and to work out a creative relationship with society."

Dean has been moving toward a service role in the gay community (even before he knew it) since his high school days when he fell in love with a peer, a "turning point when it was unthinkable to become homosexual. . . . And I realized we are living in a world that doesn't give us information to fulfill our human needs."

Dean met Paul in 1966, and despite the disparity in their ages (Paul being in his 50s), in 1968 they became and have remained lovers.

"When I met Paul it wasn't just that he helped me come out," he asserts, then becoming even more deliberate and confident in describing his personal world, exudes that he "found all the wisdom I had searched for in college was concentrated in one man and his work. The truth that was not to be found in Freud or Aristotle lay in this man, and I have learned more about human nature in living with Paul for five years than by pursuing scholarship for a hundred years."

Paul encouraged Dean to get involved with GAA where he could "find other gays looking for a meaning in life," and he did. He immersed himself in talk groups at the Firehouse and at home. Then he, Mark Liebergall and others decided they had "done enough talking, we wanted to put our concepts into action." That was the genesis of the Center.

Fellow Rosenfels follower Mark declared on WBAI that through the Center he has become "less selfish. I was selfish because I was so isolated in the straight world." He cited the absence of competition as a motivating force at the Center and commented that brothers there "interpret to each other what we're doing." Mark, incidentally, plays bottle washer to Paul's chief cook on Saturdays and is one of the dedicated regular staff.

There include Richard Rosenfeld, Anthony Pepi, Peter Osnoto, David Tesdell, Mel Strong, Giulio Sorrentino, Rick Schupper and Ed Baynard. The last three were also on WBAI, where they all matched Dean and Mark in enthusiastic praise of the Center and the principles on which it is based.

Tumbling over each other to speak, they stressed that at 319 E. Ninth Street people are encouraged to feel at ease, free from pressure to prove their sexual desirability, not being confronted with "outside political pressure."

When asked what distinguished the Center from other gay gathering places, the group chorused, "IT'S THE PEOPLE!"

-- reprinted from Gay Magazine, No. 110, January, 1974


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