40 Change Makers: Tom Duane

This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.

Tom Duane was the first openly gay and openly HIV+ member of the New York Senate and has been integral to legislative reform in the state to better protect LGBTQ+ and HIV-affected people. A former AVP board member and hate violence survivor, Tom’s legacy includes sponsorship of same-sex marriage legislation and the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) in New York State, as well as the passage of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act.

Here, Tom shares how his participation in Chelsea’s Gay Association led to the founding of the NYC Anti-Violence Project, justice reform, and the importance of mental health support for service providers and clinicians.

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

Even before there was an AVP, there was a spark that I think ignited things that created the space for AVP to be developed. I was a member of something called the Chelsea Gay Association, which was the first neighborhood-based gay organization. At the time it seemed almost radical. It was 1977. There were a lot of gay male bars along the waterfront in the teens and the twenties along the West Side Highway. There was a New York City Housing Authority development in Chelsea called Fulton Houses. And the young people there, men, were beating up gay men as they walked towards the bars.

I created a forum where we invited the president of the Fulton Houses Tenant Association to come, Helen Gilson. She came to the forum and she heard some of the stories of what had happened, and towards the end of the forum she stood up, she was obviously touched by this, moved by it. She said, “Well, you’re not my cup of tea, but I don’t think you should be beaten up.” Which was a huge victory in so many ways. Then, she put out the word, “Stop it.” The violence stopped.

As a result of that, there were some people in the Chelsea Gay Association who started sort of an anti-crime thing that was both gay and non-gay in Chelsea. It was really out of that that the Anti-Violence Project was born.   It was really very much needed. I knew of people who had been the victims of violent attacks, and I even knew gay men who had been sexually assaulted. The need absolutely was there.

So from the very beginning, I supported AVP. It was probably in many ways, for me, the most important LGBTQ organization.

In 1983, I went to visit my parents, and I was in the parking lot of a gay bar, and a car pulled up and two guys jumped out and called me anti-gay slurs, and I knew it was like, “Ugh, I’m in trouble here.”  Sure enough, they started to kick me and punch me.  I just protected my head and started to yell for help.  Finally, someone came out of the bar, and they scattered. Fortunately, nothing was broken, but I was really bruised up and in pain. I reported it to the police, and maybe two weeks later I called to ask about my case and they told me, “Oh, it’s over. They pled out to a misdemeanor.” I didn’t get to confront them.  It wasn’t even that they pled to a misdemeanor. That would have been okay with me. I would’ve liked them to say that they knew what they’d done was wrong, but really what I objected to is that it didn’t count.

That was not the only time. That was just the worst time. The AIDS crisis hit, and that was another reason that people felt entitled to beat up gay people. I had someone throw a full bottle of beer at me, just missing my head. I had another time, a guy just smashed my face. I was wearing my glasses, broke my glasses, cut under my eye. That doesn’t even cover the verbal harassment–you don’t know when someone is yelling some anti-gay epithet at you whether it’s going to turn into violence or not. That needs to be reported–that it’s happening and where it’s happening, and where resources should go to make safer places for people. 

The thing about violence against gay people is that there was no one collecting any data on it. I became very vocal that we needed to pass what was to become hate crimes legislation, but especially to document what happens to queer people, Latinx people, people of color, Jewish people, women when there’s a bias-related crime. We need to have data because you can’t fight something if you don’t have the data to really go at it.

Eventually, I ran for office, I ran for the city council, and I did whatever I could there. Then, in 1998, the State Senate seat that included my council district became available, and I ran for it. People said, “Oh, why would you ever want to be a minority Senator? You can’t get anything done.” I thought to myself, “If you think you can’t get anything done, you won’t get anything done. I’m going to get stuff done.” In my first term, I made a speech on the floor. Telling my story on the floor of the Senate, it changed minds. There was a Republican Senator from Staten Island who said, “We have to do something about this.” The next year,  the Senate passed hate crimes legislation.

How did you come to be a part of AVP’s Board?

I went to one of the AVP events and Sharon Stapel, who was the Executive Director, was kind of standing by the elevator when I got off and we talked for a minute, and then she said, “Would you join our board?” I was like, “I’m going to join one LGBTQ organization and I’m going to do one non-gay organization.”, I said “Yes” to Sharon. I was very thrilled to be on board.

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

I want it to go out of business. I want there to not be a need. A boy can dream. I would like it to be funded in a way that whoever is the Executive Director, whoever the board members are, they don’t always have to be worried if there’s going to be enough money to keep providing the services. They raise money and they spend it all, and then the next year they may not have as much and that’s rough. Everyone takes pay cuts. You know what I mean? I would like it to be that there’s enough money that comes in all the time. Because again, the people who work at AVP to a person are just wonderful people. 

Also, the people who work at AVP every day, day in and day out, they deal with very, very difficult situations, and many of them don’t work out very well. I’d like to be able to permanently have some place for them to go to right there. Being a witness is very, very negatively impactful on people. I would like to be able to institutionally make sure that the staff are taken care of emotionally and in any other way that they need help. I want to make sure that there’s cash flow for them to do what needs to be done.

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 Liaison 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: 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.