Only a decade or two ago, a Black History Month celebration of LGBT leaders would have been rare in Harlem. But at a lively party in West Harlem Tuesday evening, about 20 LGBT locals gathered to honor black and gay history.
Times are changing, and Harlem Pride, the local LGBT community group that hosted the event, is working to make the neighborhood a more accommodating place for LGBT individuals, in part by lobbying for the creation of an uptown pride center.
Music played over casual chatter at the event, at Billie’s Black restaurant on 119th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Harlem Pride’s first social gathering outside of the annual pride weekend, the party marks the three-year-old group’s effort to have a greater presence in the neighborhood.
In “the broader image of New York and larger gay pride events, minorities don’t seem to be a critical part,” John Reddick, a Harlem Pride board member, said. And yet, there is a “long history of accommodating gay and lesbian people” in Harlem, he said.
When Harlem Pride was started in 2010, it was just an idea for a house party, founder Carmen Neely said. After gathering friends and neighbors, the event ballooned into a block party on 119th Street that hosted more than 3,000 guests.
The group has since hosted annual June pride celebrations in local parks. While several local churches protested the group’s first few pride events, Neely said the community response has largely been supportive and the group has added members year after year.
As they outgrow the libraries and parks they have been using for meeting space, Harlem Pride leaders have started a petition to bring a pride center to upper Manhattan. As of this week, they have about 200 signatures.
The center, Neely said, would be a “hub and resource center” for the uptown LGBT community—a “safe space for our youth, and a comfort zone for our elders,” she said. It would include meeting spaces, provide educational and social programming, and offer offices to other community organizations.
“We launched this initiative because we feel it’s time we have a center to serve the diverse needs of the same-gender-loving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community uptown,” she said. “We are inclusive of the wonderful diversity that exists in Harlem and are open to all.”
While a pride center already exists in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, Neely said it is difficult for many locals to travel there.
Group members said attitudes in Harlem towards LGBT issues have changed for the better in recent years, making the time right for a pride center.
Issues that LGBT people face are “easier to discuss when you feel like there’s a level of accommodation, a place to eat, a place to chat, to exchange information,” Reddick said. “And so that’s what we want to create—this kind of comfort factor over generations.”
He said that the center will be a place for people of all ages, generations, and focuses.
“It’s not just the young, it’s not just the old,” he said. “It really is about kind of looking at the resources out there and making everyone aware of where there’s resources to support what their interests are.”
Harlem Pride treasurer Michael Hodge, a Columbia Medical Center employee, said that a center focused on gay health advocacy and education in Harlem could do a lot to benefit the community.
The LGBT community has had to stay “underground” in the past, he said. It has always “been here in Harlem, but not right there in your face,” he said—something that is starting to change.
“I think it’s changed not because of new residents moving in, but because of national changes,” Diane Furtell, a lifelong Harlemite, said. “With the recent support of the NAACP and Obama’s administration and the growing public support” for gay marriage, “there have been a lot of changes in the black community in general,” she said.
At the group’s first event three years ago, Reddick’s friends from New Jersey “couldn’t believe it, that Harlem was having an event,” she said.
“There were several of our elders who were crying,” Furtell said. “For as long as they’d lived in Harlem, they never thought they’d see a pride celebration out in the open.”
Kimberly Shen contributed reporting.