40 Change Makers: Chanel Lopez

When Chanel Lopez was approached by AVP’s Client Services department, she immediately became interested in the opportunity to work as a counselor with LGBTQ survivors of hate, intimate partner, and domestic violence. Her seven years at AVP empowered her as a survivor herself of domestic violence, learning new ways to cope with her trauma, to support other survivors through theirs. 

Now, Chanel is New York City’s first Transgender Community LIiason with the City’s Commision on Human Rights. As the first openly trans woman of color hired in the Mayor’s office, she has taken what she’s learned during her tenure at AVP to continue to support and fight for New York City’s trans and gender nonconforming New Yorkers. 

Chanel: When and how did you first learn about AVP? How did you first engage with us?

A: So actually, the first time I learned about AVP, I was working at an organization that AVP was interested in partnering with. I had a meeting with Cat Shugrue dos Santos and Jared Ringer [of Client Services] at the time, and we were sitting in the conference room, and they were pitching me the whole proposal on what the partnership looked like. It was mainly focusing on trans-related issues, and they wanted to reach out more to the trans community, especially in The Bronx.

Q: When was this?

A: This was, I want to say 2011. When Cat and Jared finished pitching the idea, I had told Cat, “This is an interesting position. Maybe I should apply for this.” From the Community-Based Counselor Advocate, I became the Hate Violence Counselor , then the Senior Counselor Advocate. But altogether I was at AVP for [around] seven years.

And it was interesting because it was … an agency that I never heard about and me being a survivor myself of domestic violence and sexual violence, I felt like I was in the right place and I got to learn how to control my triggers. I got to learn how to not call myself a victim, but a survivor.  T and the job was even more rewarding because I got to help other survivors like me through counseling and through referral and resources.

Q: Can you describe your experience being a part of AVP’s work over those seven years?

A: AVP grew a lot over the course of the seven years. I stood there for seven years because it felt like home to me and I was able to build relationships with people in AVP that I didn’t even look at as coworkers, I looked as family. And it made me grow. It actually made me grow into the person that I am today. I mean, because of AVP and my professional growth, I got a job working for the mayor and at the commission on human rights in which now I’m like … not like, I am now the transgender community liaison citywide–. Making me the only trans woman of color working for the mayor.

Q: What was the impact of working at AVP on your day-to-day life?

A: You know, it made me much stronger. It made me realize what I don’t want and what I’m not going to put up with. So in my personal life, it made me a stronger person and it made me realize that no matter how many stones [were thrown at me, I [could still knock them down and overcome whatever was coming my way. And I owe AVP for my strength.

Q: What is the most memorable experience that you’ve had with AVP?

A: There were so many. I used to like purplicious potluck which commemorates domestic violence month. And so we all got to wear something purple and everyone brought a purple dish. And I never saw that in other agencies where I worked at. So witnessing that was very rewarding to my spirit. And then of course the Courage Awards where I got the chance to dress up and be a diva.

Q: What is the thing you are most proud of with the work you accomplished at AVP? 

A: Everything I did came from the heart, so it was rewarding, but I must say helping my trans brothers and sisters who were undocumented find peace in a way where it was security for them.

And …connecting them to Legal Department, and helping them go through U Visas, and obtaining some type of safety net for them to stay here in the United States and have a better life for themselves because a lot of the trans women in particular, that I provided counseling for, came from countries that were not accepting of the trans community and going back for them meant losing their lives. And to this day, I bump into some of them and they [say], “Oh my God, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here right now!” And they’re actually doing advocacy for other trans people now, they’re advocating for themselves, which is also more important, but advocating for others and they’re doing the work. So that to me is rewarding.

Q:  Can you tell us what it’s like being a part of AVPs community today and how your relationship has changed? What is it like to still be a part of AVP’s community?

A: You know, I am going to say, when I first got hired at the Commission, when I went through the interview process, I’m going to admit I was a little sad and I was afraid, but I was more sad because I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve been here for seven years. I built a relationship with everyone”, and I was so comfortable too. But I have to step out of my comfort zone and … continue my progress in life and reach my goals. But it didn’t mean that I had to sever ties with AVP, which was my first home to really help professional growth. And I’m not done.


40 Change Makers: Andy Austin and Michael Sonberg

This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.

In 1978, Andy Austin moved to New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood and found community in the Chelsea Gay Association (CGA), a social group for gay men. He invited his long-time partner, Michael Sonberg, to join and together, they became founding members of the NYC Anti-Violence Project.

When queer men began to face violent attacks coming to and from the gay bars on the west side of Manhattan, some members of the CGA rallied to support the survivors. As members, Andy and Michael supported the formation of AVP’s hotline by launching a home answering service to support people who had been attacked. Read more about the beginnings of what would become the Anti-Violence Project (AVP) 24/7 hotline for LGBTQ and HIV-affected survivors. 

Can you talk about the beginnings and the founding of AVP?

Andy Austin:

AVP grew out of the Chelsea Gay Association (CGA), where I was very involved from the time I moved to Chelsea in about 1978. Of course I was interested, I discovered it and there wasn’t a lot else for gay men in the city at that point. CGA did a lot of community events and offered nice social opportunities. I soon became a member of the steering committee of CGA. I think it was within a year or so after that, probably 1979 if I remember correctly, that there had been a number of incidents, attacks on gay men going to and from the bars along 11th Avenue in Chelsea.

I hadn’t even been to those places at that point, I did later. But they were nasty attacks. We decided to respond. I believe we first started with flyers, to let people in the community know that there was this problem and then before too long, we had a phone number for people to call if they were the victim of an attack. That was kind of the beginning, as part of the steering committee, we made this a project, the anti-violence project, of course.

When you initially put out the hotline number, what was the response when someone would call about an attack?

It was fairly casual, pre cell phones of course, but it was set up so that the calls could be forwarded to one of several volunteers who would be the designated person to receive the calls and would then respond with offers of help with resources. I think there was some, “We can accompany you to the police if you’d like,” that sort of thing. 

Michael Sonberg:

CGA was a means of publicizing what the issues were to more people.

Andy Austin:

And the newsletter.

Michael Sonberg:

And the newsletter, because people didn’t know that you shouldn’t walk down NInth Avenue at night.

Are there elements of AVPs work today that you feel connected to?

Andy Austin:

I’m really pleased that AVP continues to exist and serve. Unfortunately we continue to be in a time which is even a little worse in some ways, where taking on the additional issues like domestic partner violence services are really needed, and within our community as opposed to relying on whatever resources are available elsewhere. I think it’s still very important.

Michael Sonberg:

I spent 26 years as a judge, as a criminal side judge. In the Bronx, where I served, they would want to send gay men who were abusive to their partners to stay in a domestic violence program, and you would say to the prosecutor, “that’s not really a good place to send a man who’s in a relationship with another man. He’s going to have to be closeted when he discusses what’s happening or he’s going to get beat up, because he’s going to be sitting in this room with these people who regularly abused women and they’re going to see the fact that he’s an abuser is less important than that he’s queer.” You can’t put them in the room with straight men who have what you might consider similar problems, but they’re really very different problems and it’s not going to work.

AVP was also important because it was the community organizing to take care of itself. Which really hadn’t happened particularly before then. It was a community based group. It was a neighborhood based group. [AVP] saw our need and came to meet it and focused on it. As  the need expanded, the mission expanded. 

How has the founding of AVP changed your sense of justice or informed it?

Andy Austin:

It certainly made me feel then, and still makes me feel that someone is there for you. That was certainly one element that I know I was very pleased about, AVP really beginning to stand up and say, it’s not okay to beat up gay men on their way to and from bars. It’s not okay to randomly attack people on the street just because you think they’re gay. And honestly, I’m sure on occasion they weren’t even gay they just were assumed as gay. 

AVP showed there’s a community of people who will assist when they receive calls, who will assist by having events and programs when there are incidents of violence, and go to communities where people have been attacked and stage protests and handout materials and just be there and make it clear that people are not alone in this.

It says that as we’ve moved along as a society despite some of the things that are still going on today and probably will for a while yet, that there is movement, there’s been a positive change. Certainly I don’t feel uncomfortable walking in that part of Chelsea that was once considered to be really dangerous and you should avoid it at all costs.

Michael Sonberg:

But we might or might not hold hands.

Andy Austin:

Probably not. But we don’t hold hands in a lot of places, we do in some places.

What do you want to see AVP accomplish in the next 40 years?

Andy Austin:

It would be wonderful if there was no longer a need for AVP. I think that’s the ultimate goal. We thought back when we started it, that it was not going to be something that had to be done indefinitely. We’d respond to a situation, to a set of issues and that hopefully there would be no continued need. Except of course as we learned the need was far greater than we might have anticipated from a few local incidents that sparked it to begin with. And that’s how AVP is, as we learned it grew. It’d be wonderful if we lived in a world where people were not attacked or abused for being who they are or being different from others.

Michael Sonberg:

The reality is that even if you put street violence aside, domestic partner violence isn’t about to go away. That’s an inherent part of humanity, unfortunately. People get taught that the way to deal with stresses in their life is to use their fists, or even short of using fists. The other pressures that people do impose, financial pressures on partners, and make threats, and verbal abuse, and shaming people in public, and all sorts of nasty things that people who supposedly care about each other do to each other. That’s not going to disappear. I think what the role that organizations, like AVP, accomplishes is that it sensitizes people to the fact that it’s not healthy to live in a relationship where that’s the norm..

The societal pressures to stay in the relationship are huge, and economic pressures are even more huge, depending on whether the abuser is the moneyed spouse or was the one that had the job and therefore the one with the health insurance.

Andy Austin:

And therefore the one with the control. I would even broaden it to speak about the national convening of anti-violence organizations that AVP has spearheaded. We’re in New York and New York may be a place where things have gotten better in a lot of ways, but that’s hardly necessarily the case everywhere. So I think there will continue to be more. It’s still 40 years, it’d be nice to think things have gotten better.


40 Change Makers: Cecilia Gentili

This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.

For a decade, Cecilia Gentili has been an ongoing collaborator and community partner with AVP. Working at the intersections of sex work, transgender women’s rights, and incarceration issues, Cecilia Gentili has helped shape critical forums with AVP. Cecilia is well known for advocating for safe and equitable access to housing, employment, and public resources for the trans and gender non conforming (TGNC) community.

Reflecting on the last ten years, Cecilia shares how her work has been impacted by AVP’s hotline and community organizing.

How did you first get involved with The Anti-Violence Project (AVP)?

I first learned of The Anti-Violence Project when I was doing an internship at The LGBT Center for their Gender Identity Project in 2010. I had many things to do, like facilitate groups, do outreach, and work on events. One of my first projects there as an intern was to help organize the first Trans Day of Remembrance event for The Center. One of the people that I was encouraged to invite was someone from AVP. That’s how I came to know about AVP, and I went to the website, and I learned, and then I met with the staffer. I learned a lot about AVP and I thought that was an amazing resource for everybody, but specifically, for the trans community.

While I was working at The Center, I used to facilitate groups. In one of those groups, I met LaLa Zanell when she had just started volunteering at AVP. Then she got hired as an organizer in the Community Organizing and Public Advocacy department, and that made me get closer to AVP. It was very important for me to know that AVP was hiring trans people. So that’s how I got more familiar with the work.

What are the ways you’ve engaged AVP throughout the years?

With Lala, we were growing together as leaders in the community. So we were doing a lot of the stuff together, some organizing, some rapid response to quick events, and rallies, and things like that. As the time went by, I collaborated with AVP in this massive trans and gender nonconforming project. In 2015, we coordinated town halls all over New York, in the five boroughs, as a group of trans people, within organizations.

Then, when I began working at GMHC as the Managing Director of Policy and Public Affairs, I took a participant from AVP’s Trans and Gender Nonconforming Leadership Academy as an intern from that program, Briana Silberg, who ended up being hired at AVP as an organizer after being my intern at GMHC. The work kind of grew in a fantastic way. I was able to be engaged with the work at AVP in different capacities during the years, and in a more active way as the time went by.

How has your engagement with AVP impacted you personally or in your work?

When I was working as a service provider, it was really important for me to have AVP services as part of my linkage to my clients’ care. Working with AVP would always come from a very sad or terrible story because I would be referring clients who were victims of violence.

Then, it would become a more compassionate feeling when my clients would get the services that they needed at AVP, addressing the intimate partner violence, or whatever they were experiencing. Then, when I went to work at GMHC, in a more policy-centered work, I was able to know and be in touch with the amazing work that AVP does in policy. That’s how we started DecrimNY, the sex work coalition. I feel like I’ve been part of many aspects of the work that AVP does. It was always a great experience to have been able to work with them.

What is your most memorable experience with AVP?

I never was in a position to need to seek services from AVP, but I have experienced the work that they do through my clients. I can’t pinpoint specific things, but for example when one of my clients got a legal status after sending them to AVP’s Legal Department. That’s an amazing feeling and a great experience.

I think the most important thing was experiencing change in terms of empowerment of these clients that were victims of intimate partner violence. After sending clients to AVP, you could clearly see how they felt more empowered, in their value, their lives and their well-being in a much more favored way. Just seeing the change, seeing how accessing services that are crafted specifically for people going through violence, it was something that it was so wonderful to see and experience through my clients.

40 Change Makers: Thomas von Foerster

This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity. Some of the content may be triggering for survivors.

In 1978, Thomas von Foerster moved to New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood as a 37-year-old gay man in search of others like him. He soon found community in the Chelsea Gay Assocation (CGA), a social group for gay men. His involvement in the association quickly grew, and he became treasurer as well as the editor of the monthly newsletter with over 1000 members.

When queer men began to face violent attacks coming to and from the gay bars on the westside of Manhattan, some in the CGA rallied to support the survivors. As the editor of the newsletter and keeper of the checkbook, Thomas found himself by happenstance in a unique position to promote the beginnings of what would become the Anti-Violence Project (AVP).

What led to the formation of AVP and how were you involved?

Back in the early eighties, there was a community group called the Chelsea Gay Assocation started by Arthur Goodman and a couple of his friends. When I moved to New York in ‘78, they were just getting started and I joined up because I lived in Chelsea at the time. In the earlier eighties, the gay bars by the water front, The Eagle, The Spike, The Cock — serious leather bars were down there. To get there from the rest of the city you had to walk past the big housing projects that were along the river there. There were several really nasty attacks. When a couple of people in the CGA went to talk to the cops about these attacks, the cops claimed they had never heard about them. The CGA started helping people go to the cops, file complaints, and then follow up to make sure the complaints weren’t just filed away in the wastebasket.  They asked if they could use the answering service from the CGA as a hotline for people who were attacked.

The two people who were active in starting AVP were Jay Watkins and Russel Nutter. They took it very seriously and really organized to make sure that people that got attacked knew that there was this hotline, and they started asking for help, for instance, organizing self defense classes in some of the bars there.

That was the sort of thing that led to starting the hotline. Then in the course of things, the hotline became quite important. We started handing out flyers at the bars and everything else. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried heard about AVP and realized this would be a good thing to support to improve his relations with the gay community in Chelsea. He proposed donating some state funds to the organization to help it get started. So this pure volunteer thing suddenly had to become a serious organization.

What were the differences between CGA and the newly formed AVP? What was the impact on the community?

CGA was a purely social group whereas AVP was always an advocacy group. There were lots of people in the CGA who really resented AVP taking over the focus and requesting money from us all the time because they thought we should use it for more games and things. The CGA was a very different kind of group. Lots of people met dates and friends through the CGA.

There were the same sort of divisions there are today. There were the Republican gays who just wanted to blend in and thought everything would be perfect if everybody was just like them and didn’t make waves anymore, and tried to make sure that nobody noticed that they were living with another man. And then there were the flamboyant queens who just can’t hide it who are the ones that actually get attacked. There has always been a tension between those opposite ends, and of course lots of people in between. All of the sort of safe people were saying ‘well if they just didn’t dress that way, or walk that way, nobody would attack them so why are they doing that!’ It’s still there.

Were you aware of other anti-violence movement work happening at the time?

I learned several years after the New York AVP started that a couple of similar groups existed elsewhere, for instance in San Francisco. I met and briefly dated a guy from San Francisco who had been involved with the efforts there, I made sure that people knew about the connection. By that point the New York AVP was already aware of other groups. They sort of took a leadership role in connecting everybody together.

What is something about AVP’s founding that most people don’t know?

The attack that actually precipitated, that was really serious, that Jay and Russell became involved with, was the Episcopalian minister in charge of the Holy Apostles Church. He was heading to The Eagle or something and got really seriously beaten. Jay and Russell were friends of his. When the cops did not record the beating, they got really upset and that’s what really prompted them to make sure that these things get recorded.

What are some ways you’ve seen AVP transform and evolve over the last forty years?

There were always people with slightly different focuses. For instance, very early on Jay and Russel met a guy that had been going to the courts when the gay bashing cases were being heard and trying to by his presence just simply point out that the gay panic defense was not really valid. Even though lots of people at that point were getting off for beating or even killing people.

So they helped recruit more people for his court watching project. That was an early project and I don’t think that exists anymore but that was sort of one of the sidelines to the Anti-Violence idea that was very useful for a time.

I think for the defendants and everybody, it’s very useful to have support in the courtroom.

What would you like to see AVP accomplish in the next forty years?

I’d like to see AVP become unnecessary. That means that people stop directing violence against minorities of any kind including queer and trans people and all the people that are constantly being attacked, which the current administration in Washington is encouraging. It would be nice if we didn’t have to fight that sort of thing. I think that’s going to be an effort of a lot more than forty years but I think everything one can do to make AVP unnecessary would be great.