Thursday, November 26, 2009
Steve Rose, gay hero
I ran across this photo when trying to do some research on the mind-control-cult-masquerading-as-political-party once known as the New Alliance Party and now more or less known as a faction of the Independence Party here in New York. It shows a one-time roommate of mine, Steve Rose, with his boyfriend at the time--Tato--at a "Dump Koch" rally in the mid or late 1980s. It was on a website of former members of the NAP on a page labelled "People exploited by the NAP." By the time this photo had been taken, my friendship with Steve had ended; I wasn't really a part of his life in his final years when he succumbed to AIDS. But the picture has brought back so many memories of Steve and what an amazing guy he was. I wanted to put down some memories of him because he's one of those unsung heroes of an earlier time: somebody whose heart was in this amazing place but whose struggle ended not with victory or even recognition but with the tragic anonymity of so many gay men of that earlier time.
Steve Rose grew up in upstate New York, in the small town of Chittenango. He was close to his mother, but as someone who knew he was gay from an early age always described his hometown as a hotbed of ignorance and intolerance. His best friend committed suicide as a teen; Steve believed it was because he couldn't handle his own awareness of being gay in such a hostile environment. He moved to New York City in the late 1970s. I don't know where he went to nursing school, but he become an RN at Harlem Hospital. He wanted more than anything to help people; and he loved his job taking care of people there. He used to tell me about cleaning up homeless junkies in humanizing a way that made me think he felt kinship with other castoffs from society.
Steve loved the city; and he loved the freedom it gave him as a gay man. He told me a LOT of stories about his sex life in those heady days. He loved the bars and discos, the baths, the piers, the cars, the trucks, the late-night streets. It was Candyland to him. He was brash, extroverted, and shameless. Somewhere in the late seventies he met and moved in with Albert Torres, who was a few years older than Steve, but devoted to him. They lived together in Inwood/Washington Heights for many years.
Steve joined the Gay Activists Alliance, one of two main gay political groups in NYC in the late 1970s. GAA was the militant group engaging in factional warfare with the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights--CLGR--the more established group which seemed to them more accomodationist and mainstream. GAA was hugely involved in the noisy protests against the filming of William Friedkin's 1980 slasher movie "Cruising" in Greenwich Village.
It's hard to remember that earlier time of gay invisibility, but the community was outraged that gay invisibility in populture culture was about to be replaced with a depiction of gay society as a dangerous, doomed world of murderers and perverts. You can hear the whistles the protesters used to attempt to disrupt the filming of the movie in at least one scene: they were left in by Friedkin and provide a kind of haunting ghostly testament to a flashpoint of old gay activism.
Round about then the Revolutionary Socialist League, a split from the International Socialists in the U.S. with a reputation for direct action (that some would call adventurism), had begun a campaign of work in the gay community. It had won a minority faction of a gay socialist group in California called the Red Flag Union (once the Lavender and Red Union: the majority faction merged with the Spartacist League), and it was eager to create a left-wing pole in the burgeoning gay liberation movement. The RSL started to "intervene" in GAA. "Intervention" was the term used by left-wing sects for having an orientation to a certain political arena, or, if possible, joining a sympathetic coalition and attempting to win adherents to the party program. This is where I enter the story as well: though I was not yet in New York at the time, the RSL's work with GAA was a strong factor in my joing the RSL in 1979 or so.
Anyway, Steve was a true radical. It was clear to him that rights were not won by begging, but by fighting. He was attracted to the RSL's support for militancy, and eventually to the RSL's brand of unorthodox revolutionary Leninism. He was not an intellectual: he struggled with Marxist literature and concepts. His upstate NY education had not exposed him to the history and geography crucial to the arguments of the left, but he knew what he stood for. He loved the RSL's militancy: he loved its stand against the KKK and neo-nazis. GAA exploded; splitting into left and right-wing factions before ultimately disbanding: the left becoming sympathetic to the RSL. I believe Bruce Glauber was the principle RSL member leading the intervention. Although most of the GAA guys only remained peripherally around the RSL, Steve and Albert and at least one other joined the League outright.
I moved to New York in 1981. My skill designing printed materials for the Chicago branch had come to the attention of the national office, and the main guy who designed the RSL's newspaper together, The Torch/La Antorcha, himself an SDS veteran, wanted to give it a rest. I was brought to New York to be the Art Director of the paper.
Steve and I immediately hit it off. We were both big guys, and more or less the same age, if I recall. We became friends. I was looking for someone to show me the ropes of gay and political life in the big city, and Steve showed me his world. Although I had been out for several years, and had spent a number of years in the organized left, I felt shy and inexperienced in the gay world. Steve opened my eyes, and I'm so grateful to have had the experience of that pre-AIDS gay world before it was gone. I'll never forget the year we went to the Halloween parade in drag together: he looked like a hooker and I looked like an out-of-place midwestern schoolteacher on her one night out. There are numerous photos in some Japanese business men's photo albums documenting that night. As fun as it was to hang out with Steve socially, he was a dynamic presence at demonstrations, and a great contributor to internal discussions in the League.
This photo is probably from 1983 or 1984. Note the rat tail. That's me on the left, and Steve on the right.
Steve had his share of demons. Heavy most of his life, he discovered bulimia could solve all his problems, at least temporarily. He used to consume two packages of pasta and two jars of sauce and four liters of Pepsi every night; half way through and again at the end it would all be upchucked into the toilet. Being skinnier made him even more extroverted and gave him a kind of sexual swagger: his appetite for men was as voracious as his appetite for food, and Albert didn't really have a problem with recreational sex. (He had a "tummy tuck" after the success of his bulimia, though there was some horrible episode of lots of bleeding. Anyway as the years went by he got big again.)
Steve's favorite song was Bette Midler's "The Rose." He used to say the lyric "[It's] the soul afraid of dyin' that never learns to live" made him not want to become someone trapped in a life of fear and regret.
Albert was an alcoholic, and after a long period of abstention descended into a fairly unpleasant period of insobriety. He was hit by a car in the village and while he recovered, his life was never the same. Somewhere in there Steve and Albert broke up, and Steve and I became roommates in an apartment overlooking the George Washington Bridge.
It proved to be a bad match: by then our friendship had developed a kind of competitive edge. On my part I had some complicated love/hate issues; and he began dating a friend of mine which brought up some jealousy. What had been a fairly intense friendship became a fairly toxic living situation, and it didn't last long. Somewhere in 1984, Steve moved back in with Albert and I moved off to Brooklyn.
Albert had gotten sick. Make that Sick. By then AIDS had a name but not a lot more. As I recall he didn't live that long after he got sick. Steve was devastated.
AIDS was a challenge, a gauntlet. It changed all of our lives, even those who remained healthy. I found myself drifting away from radical politics; by 1986 I stopped being active with the League. Steve by then had also left. We were no longer really friends. I wandered into him every once in a while in the Village. He seemed no longer his former brash self. The last time I saw him he was with Tato, and he had just joined the New Alliance Party. He seemed a little defeated: we both knew better, from experience, of what a nest of snakes the NAP actually was.
I guess I was surprised but not shocked. The NAP had succesfully created a working-class and multi-ethnic aura about itself, unlike the more orthodox left which was mostly white and not very proletarian. At the time NAP recruited through a mental healthcare center where the message was very attractive to someone like Steve: If your mind is fucked up it's not your fault, it's the system: you're being oppressed and you should fight back (by joing the New Alliance Party). NAP cult originator Fred Newman's called this "social therapy."
The orthodox left was dying anyway, and Steve couldn't stand to not be fighting. He hated Ed Koch, and loved the fact the NAP was heavily involved in the Dump Koch movement. If I recall the details correctly, he was the RN on the scene when the Rev. Al Sharpton was stabbed at a 1991 anti-racism demonstration in Brooklyn.
By then Steve himself had AIDS; he died in 1991 or 1992. I ran into Tato once on the street, who was heartbroken.
Steve deserved better than what he got. He showed me that it was possible to live life joyfully and freely without worrying what other people thought: to challenge convention and to be true to what's inside you. He was brave, even foolhardy. But without fighters like him, the last decades of increasing social acceptance of gay people wouldn't have happened. It's important for those of us who remember those who have gone to keep their names alive. We owe it to them.