Bob Kohler Recalling: Collecting Oral Histories with a West Village Legend
By Benjamin Shepard
(get the PDF)
Last December, Bob Kohler, my friend, and legendary organizer, died at the age of 81. His political organizing had spanned multiple decades and movements: he was a member of Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Fed UP Queers (FUQ), and many other queer direct action groups. Bob was a movement strength; his story is a huge part of what makes the ‘movement of movements’ vital. As another round of political conventions are planned for the summer, I will miss Bob’s musings on the current state of politics and organizing. I will miss running into him during actions or meetings. In lieu of this, all I can do is imagine and reflect on what his life story meant as an activist narrative. Organizing was what drove Kohler. It was part of how he marked the days and decades of his life. Whether mass movement or small actions, the spread of HIV, war, or misunderstanding, Kohler understood that organizing was the essential ingredient to addressing social problems, creating community and social change.
This essay presents a discussion of Bob’s life and politics. Via his story, one connects with a queer activism that functioned as a distinct component of four decades of movements. Through Kohler’s story of activism— from the Civil Rights years, through the Women’s and Anti-War Movements, the early years of Gay Liberation, and overlapping struggles for a queer public commons, and from ACT UP through the global justice movements— one finds a queer politics involving intersections between anti-racist and anti-sexist politics, as well as the imperatives of freedom of assembly and struggles for sexual freedom.
Over the years I knew Bob, he was involved with struggles around homeless and trans youth, the Matthew Shepard and Amadou Diallo murders, FUQ’s direct action campaigns, New York City AIDS Housing Network, Housing Works, ACT UP, Sex Panic!, The Neutral Zone, Irish Queers, and many others who needed a body. He was there with nearly a million New Yorkers and those in cities around the world during perhaps the largest demo in world history on February 15th, 2003 in opposition to the Iraq war invasion. Only a couple of weeks later, he was committing civil disobedience with only a small handful during Operation Homeland Resistance. Kohler could be seen in the streets at many of the demonstrations during the Republican National Convention (RNC), and at most every street rally organized by Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE) in defense of queer youth in the West Village of New York City. I always knew I would have a great time if I ran into Bob at a demonstration.
It is this kind of authentic politics that made Kohler’s life experience and story so rich and compelling. This feeling is reflected within the movements in which Kohler took part. He was one of the small cohort of activists to bridge the gap between the militancy of The Stonewall Riot that he observed, and the ensuing decades of activism in which he was a constant presence.
I was lucky enough to interview Bob on a number of occasions. Even when we begrudgingly dealt with each other, when he was first getting to know me, Bob was willing to share his encyclopedic memories of a half-century of life in the West Village. My first interview with Bob was about Keller’s, the legendary leather bar on the West side of the city. I always wanted to be Bob’s Boswell, documenting as many bits and pieces of Bob’s world as I possibly could. After a brief personal recollection of my initial experiences with Kohler this essay weaves together a chronological narrative of his political life.
I think I only saw Bob once during the RNC of 2004. He greeted me warmly when I ran into him as we all waited for the Poor People’s March to begin August 30th. We chatted and then Bob went his way with a contingent from the New York City AIDS Housing Network, while I marched with CitiWide Harm Reduction, the syringe exchange program started by ACT UP member Brian Weil (where I worked). The Poor People’s March was not billed as a confrontational action.
The more militant direct actions were to take place the following day. The A31 Action Coalition had issued a nationwide call for a day of nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action in New York City on Wednesday, August 31st. The group had not sought permits for any of its activities, all of which were aimed at reclaiming the streets and the city from the Republicans by creating a zone of direct democracy and genuine free speech outside the security “bubble” that Mayor Bloomberg had created for the RNC.
I had been working with the A31 Action Coalition, doing outreach, and trying to pull the coalition together. Yet, when it came time for direct action, I didn’t even make it to the protests before I was arrested. Plain-clothes officers picked me up, announcing there was a warrant for my arrest as I walked to work in the Bronx (see Shepard, 2005).
While I was going through the system, Kohler spent the next few days standing outside of Pier 57, in support of the 1800 arrestees held there. Over a thousand people were arrested on August 31st alone, making it the largest single day of arrests at a political convention in U.S. history. Naturally, Kohler was there giving support. This solidarity gesture was part of a long standing point of principle for Kohler, who had spent his own fair share of time behind bars for participating in civil disobedience, including 32 arrests over the previous four decades. For Bob, an important part of organizing was to remember solidarity and to support others involved in the work (Kwon, 2006). To this point, Bob stated:
If they get arrested and you don’t, put your ass outside of Centre Street and stay there 24/7 until those people come out, because when they come out, they haven’t eaten, they’re scruffy, and they want to go home and burn their clothes…. Know the needs of your people,” he explained in an interview on the occasion of his 80th birthday (quoted in Kwon, 2006).
Shortly after the RNC, I went by Bob’s house on Charles Street in Greenwich Village to catch up with him. Those conversations had become an important ritual of my life in New York City. Sometimes the conversations were taped, though this happened at lessening frequencies over recent years. This was a practice I had been doing in New York for years. We all live through stories, which help us organize and find meaning in our experiences. Through connection with Bob’s life, the movements and actions that we discussed became part of a grand social historical arch.
I first met Bob Kohler during a SexPanic! meeting at the Lesbian and Gay Services Center in the West Village in October of 1997. SexPanic! was billed as a pro-queer, pro-feminist, anti-racist direct action group; its aim was to fight the anti-sex policies of the quality of life politics taking hold of New York during the Giuliani years. Everyone knew Kohler as a famously cantankerous Stonewall veteran. Like many who had watched the skirmishes over the 25th anniversary of the riots a couple of years prior, I was sick of hearing about Stonewall. There were other fights to be fought. And Bob was willing to fight them, all while connecting them within a larger story of social activism. My opinion about Bob started to change when I heard Bob speaking up against the sweep of sex workers at a community forum in New York’s increasingly gentrifying West Village. When I tried to speak out at the same forum, I was roundly shouted down by the mean spirited crowd. Kohler’s anger against the sweeps felt like the only voice of reason or compassion in the room. From then on, I would come to value Bob Kohler’s willingness to stick it out with activism, even when it was not popular.
Bob and I became friends during the spring of 1999. We were still attending SexPanic! meetings, well after the group had stopped being particularly relevant to anyone but the few of us who still attended meetings. All of the academics had long since left the group, but that certainly did not bother Kohler; he was no fan of vanguardism or high theory anyway. The issue of the homogenization of New York City remained, so Bob continued going to meetings, well into his seventies.
Throughout his decades of activism, Kohler retained a radical imagination for social change. To the end, Kohler was interested in a complicated multi-issue activism, even if it was not always easy to put one’s finger on how to achieve it.
In the spring of 1999, Kohler’s face was featured on the cover of a local gay paper accompanying a story that commemorated the 30th anniversary of the GLF. “The queen with the loudest mouth usually wore everyone down,” Bob explained. “GLF was not supposed to last” (quoted in Blotchner, 1999). Yet, its legacy was felt in chapters formed around the world (Hocquenghem, 19972/93; Lucas, 1998). We talked about the GLF article in SexPanic! when it came out. I was fascinated with Kohler’s perspective on thirty years of battles within the community.
I was really pleased with the article. Jay (Blotcher) did his homework and made some nice choices in both direction and quotes. I thought he gave [Gay Activist Alliance] a fair shake…” Kohler wrote in an email after the article came out. I had asked about the best books on the movement. “I’ve been interviewed by every one of them, Ben. Not because I’m so important, rather because there are so few of us left…” he continued, listing the books he liked on the movement. His favorite The Gay Militants by Donn Teal. The tone of the correspondence changed as he mused about the gap between these official accounts and his experience of the early liberation years. “It was a strange and wonderful period, and I don’t know if it can ever be reproduced on paper. I feel very fortunate to have been part of it – the good and the bad.
In June, 1999 Kohler helped organize a small event commemorating the 30th anniversary of Stonewall. Many apparently had enough of hearing about Stonewall five years earlier during the 25th anniversary. Bob was really bothered by this at first. Yet, talking with him afterward, I had my first glimpse into the resilience that would define his career as an activist. “Turn lemons into lemonade,” he would explain, signing on to participate in a call for volunteers to monitor housing placements for people with HIV/AIDS at welfare centers; many would describe this as perhaps Kohler’s finest hour as an activist. He would spend the next several years as an active volunteer with the New York City AIDS Housing Network. This included an almost two year period in which he would stand outside the welfare center to make sure people with HIV/AIDS were receiving housing services entitled to them under local Law 49. He would also participate in as many demonstrations as he possibly could. “I don’t want my life to be defined by Stonewall,” Kohler would recall to me as we walked home from the New York Historical Society after a session commemorating the 35th Anniversary of the Riots.
A Mentor and Co-Conspirator:
As with many younger activists, my relationship with Kohler was built out of mentoring. Kohler favored a dialogue with younger activists and shied away, in contrast to so many others, from taking a condescending view toward them. He encouraged my activism with gardens and the burgeoning global justice movement. “You’re doing good,” he complimented me after a long 36-hour run in jail following the bulldozing of a Lower East Side garden. During 1999— a crucial moment in my organizing experience —Kohler’s presence and openness were important.
On June 18th, 1999, Kohler attended the third Reclaim the Streets (RTS) action in New York City, which took place on Wall Street in Manhattan’s Financial District. Born in London in 1995, RTS is a worldwide movement that throws road parties as both a protest against the encroachment of public space, and as a living example of what public space can be; its mantra is ‘Public Space for the Public.’ RTS conveys this through street parties. The aim is to re-imagine public space as a place for diverse groups to dance and play together to build a more colorful public commons. The police did not see things the same way. Most of the organizers were immediately arrested. The sound system was shut down as all organizational cohesion went by the wayside. Afterwards, I felt dejected that the police had so successfully arrested the organizers and dismantled the event. I had an email conversation with Kohler. One day after that action, in response to an email headed with the words ‘Not Too Fun,’ Bob responded:
Guess what? I thought it was a good demo… I am never happy about arrests and it looked to me like a couple of very first arrestees were treated badly, but, in all, I was very pleased with the anger and the enthusiasm…. I must say some of those cops were ready for us! So – I think we had a good crowd, we tied up traffic, we made some points. I was glad I went.
While it was difficult to initially recognize from some of Bob’s crotchety opinions, his whole life was about trying to make sense of the liberatory impulse that propelled people into the streets. Over the years he would attend and critically assess countless demonstrations, and we’d talk about them. While he was not much of a theoretician, he was cognizant of Saul Alinky’s point that the final step of every action was reflection; he talked about the strengths of actions, what else could have been done, and what work was necessary to keep things moving.
While Bob was always up for large actions, he was also acutely aware that much of social change is about everyday interactions. As we corresponded about the RTS event, I sent him some of the reactions I was getting to a SexPanic! event we were organizing— called “Disappearing Queer New York” — scheduled for June 23rd at the Gay Community Center. Some of the activists on a garden public space list-serve had suggested that the post was inappropriate for the list. Yet, a wide range of queer garden defenders from ACT UP, the Radical Faeries, and Queer Nation— who were also members of Lower East Side Collective— popped up to defend the post. The implicit point here was the linkages between the anti-capitalist global justice movement and the queer/AIDS activist movements, all of which were concerned about the need for open public space for dialogue and debate. “Well, you managed to stir things up a bit! Good for you,” Bob wrote me on June 20th. “I think skirmishes like this one are very good. They tend to provoke immediate reactions from people which, so often, are far more revealing and therefore more pertinent, than well thought out responses.” Afterall, as Bob explained in his article on the 30th anniversary of the GLF: “The personal was political.” He organized his world around these sorts of political views and interactions. “Friendships were severed, too” Kohler explained, describing the days after GLF split in 1970 (quoted in Blotcher, 1999).
If you were on Bob’s side of history, you would privy to great kindness and respect, even in the face of occasional heated political argument. He would challenge me when he thought I was wrong, and compliment me when he was happy with my work. “Fair fucks, Ben,” he wrote me on December 22, 2000, after the Villager published a letter I wrote about the gardens. “(Emmaia’s new girlfriend says that’s what you say when you want to complement someone in Ireland, What do I know?).” Six days later Kohler wrote all the younger activists he had been working with over the past months:
while there is a lower class, I am in it,
while there is a criminal element, I am of it,
while there is a soul in prison I am not free.
My very best wishes for a happy holiday.
Over the years that followed, we shared information about which demonstrations were happening when, what would work best, and what could have been done differently. This process illustrated to me a useful model of respectful intergenerational sharing. Bob brought a great deal of experience, which was always fun to hear about in relation to the work; yet, this insight never prevented Kohler from seeking to engage in the next step of creating change. In this respect, he brought all of those of us who know him into a larger dialog and movement trajectory.
Indeed, Kohler would attend and participate in actions he supported whenever he could, plugging in with whatever was necessary to get a demonstration off the ground. In November, 1999, Kohler helped a group of activists in the Lower East Side Collective and Sex Panic! use theatrics in order to shut down the cash registers at the Disney Store in Times Square. The point was to connect the Disney corporation’s emphasis on heteronormativity over queer difference, their use of sweatshop labor for their products, and blandifying influence on a once pulsing public commons.
Looking back on the action in 1999, Kohler recalled it as a model for activism: “I want it to be fun, like sitting on the floor of the Disney Store and singing that song. That was a pretty terrible song about people chopping fingers off, but the message got out.” Within such actions, Kohler recognized that social change was best fermented within a spirit of passionate engagement, pleasure, and anger.
Within two weeks, protestors involved with the Disney action would take flights out to Seattle to participate in the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). From there, the struggle to regain the commons would take on far larger dimensions and storylines. Throughout those years, Kohler was always looking forward to the next demo, all the while supporting the work of younger activists. In some actions, this meant being a decoy to distract security while others locked down, volunteering to be arrested himself, testifying in court for the movement, donating the money that he’d received from the city for being illegally arrested during one the Diallo protests back to the movement, signing a petition, or speaking to a reporter. In other cases, his support mainly involved giving of his time to support the campaigns organized by younger activists, something as silly as telling funny stories and gossiping on the subway, or walking home from an action.
Congress on Racial Equality
Kohler recalled his start with CORE and the Harlem Riots of 1966:
I don’t know that there was one catalyst, Ben. In those days anything, a bottle breaking could be a catalyst for a mini-explosion of people and anger… In the late 1960s, there were riots everywhere. I don’t think that the gay riots would have occurred had we not been influenced by all of the other riots in the straight radical community.
I had to crawl out on my belly of the Harlem CORE office to my car, which was okay. Of course, when I went in Francis Foster said to me, ‘You know, things are bad and push is going to come to shove and I’m not going to have the time to say, “Hey, he was one of the good guys.” So, before you really commit yourself, know that you are going down if there is time to go down.’ I mean, I was not happy crawling out with fires all over the place and the anger, but I felt okay.
And then I went down South to the first pool that had just been desegregated. And I went down with two black people, a man and a woman. And when we jumped in the pool, every white person jumped out of the pool. And it was really funny. We were the only three in the pool. And we said, ‘What do we do now?’ They were emptying the pool (laughs). The water kept going down and here we stood. And I said, ‘We’re not going to sing because that was going to be too silly to sing, “We Shall Overcome”’ as they are draining the pool. And so finally we got down on our knees and we said, ‘We gotta get out of the pool. This is too silly.’ And so we got out and we left that night to get back East. That was CORE.
And finally, the reason that I left was it was to the point where whites should get out. The blacks needed to handle this by themselves. And we needed to leave. And we were pledged to nonviolence and I thought I don’t know if I can deal with somebody spitting on me again. And Francis also told me that in the South the only thing worse than a ‘nigger’ was a ‘nigger lover.’ And it was true because you were a traitor to them.
We had to have training where we would sit at a milk counter and they’d spit on you, the instructors, that was bad enough. Spit on your face, you know. But when people really spit on me, [which] was nasty. Getting really called nasty stuff, it gets to ya after a while. So it was good. Our time was up. ‘Ours’ meaning white people was up, and CORE. The movement could no longer be nonviolent.
Bob discussed his early involvement in the gay liberation struggles:
By the end of the 1960s I said I was going to take two years off. After a career change I didn’t know what to do and I was doing nothing. And I used to go in the park all the time and that’s where the street kids were. I got very friendly with them and, even though I was older and represented a father figure to them, I wasn’t old enough to be the dirty old man so they trusted me. And they’d confide in me. Their wigs, their stolen credit cards, anything–all their contraband I’d keep for them. They lived in
the park. And those were the kids who rioted. And I’d gotten to know them and I kind of thought I had seen what happens to black people in Harlem; I had seen what happens to poor white people – I had seen all of that, but I had never seen this with gay teenagers. It was something I just didn’t know about. Fourteen, fifteen-year-old kids with cigarette burns all over their bodies from a father who found out they were gay – or were permanently scarred, and certainly mentally scarred forever. And thrown out and living out of bags in Sheridan Square and washing in the little fountain. I did not know that. I had never understood that there were groups like that.
So I got to know them very well. I got to know all of their problems, what they were doing, about their operations. You know they were all going to be huge stars when they got the operation. It got me very angry and the only thing I could do then was give them money and when I say money, I say quarters, not [bills]. And I would collect clothes for them. I was doing that for months and then Stonewall happened.
The kids, we were doing the same thing of listening to their bullshit. A couple of them were primping to go down to cruise at the piers where the Jersey cars came. And whenever they’d go down there or knew they were going out hustling, that’s when I’d get the credit cards and anything valuable and I was gathering all that. During Stonewall, if I’d been arrested, I’d still be in jail now. I had so many credit cards, so much stolen merchandise. It was unbelievable.
But I was there and suddenly all of the things that had been welling up inside me about these kids came to fruition. Not in any way a revolution. I still will defy anybody who tells you, my best friend Sylvia, I don’t care who it is, I do not believe that anybody saw anything. These kids started a riot because that was the only thing that they knew to do. They used to cut each other’s faces open when they’d grab a bottle. And I used to drag these kids to St. Vincent’s hospital with blood pouring down their faces. I mean, I was like a gay Florence Nightingale. But I was the only person they had. It took a lot of that. It was heavy. And I didn’t see the explosion coming. I’d see only minor explosions. I should have seen it coming because there’d been raids over time. But suddenly this raid was (slaps hands) – a riot.
And nobody knows who started it and nobody can [know] because you don’t know a riot is going to start, so therefore you’re not looking to see anybody start anything. You hear something. Maybe it’s a bottle break. Maybe it’s a fire in the trashcan and then it’s a riot. So all these bullshit people who are ‘I saw this. I saw that.’ You didn’t see nothing. Well, one thing you didn’t see was drag queens in high heels. I can tell you that. They weren’t there. It was the kids who started it and then the whole street erupted. But it was just – the kids had the best time of their lives. That was fun. And that broke up the week and they were glad when it happened on Wednesday night. And glad when it happened again. And by Saturday night, they still, none of those kids knew because they didn’t have that kind of a mind”.
I asked Kohler about the now famous Stonewall kick-line. Was it a struggle against attempts at control?
At that point, it was totally impromptu. The kids just decided. Now what it did, whether they formulated this in their heads [or not], it broke the cops completely. It made fools of the cops. It also infuriated the cops. It was totally surreal, and that was what happens when you get a bunch of teenagers doing a kick-line and saying, “We are the Stonewall Girls,” and you’ve got cops in helmets. What are they going to do? Suddenly, even the cop with the thickest head had to feel totally disarmed, totally exposed, totally foolish, and see this riot for what it was. Thus, the playful, campy kick-line thwarted the police attack. Without the kick-line, all there would have been was that awful tension.
But we knew by the second riot that something was happening. So that’s when the organizing started. The first Panther flyer out on the street read:
“Are Homosexuals revolting?
You bet your ass we are!”
“I’ll never forget that.”
On the second night of the Stonewall riots in 1969, Bob and other West Village community members called the first meeting of the GLF, which Bob credits with “establishing radicalism in the New York gay community.”
The lessons of that era would become a part of the next three decades of Kohler’s life. In agreement, Kohler recalled an argument put forward by Lois Hart (a founder of the GLF): “Oppression is like a large tree with many branches, each branch being a part of the whole. They cannot be separated; they draw from each other.” Of course, GLF and the vision of gay liberation linked with universal struggles for social and cultural transformation would not last (see Teal 1971). However, that did not prevent Bob from agitating for the GLF alliance with the Black Panthers. At the same, the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) split with GLF to focus exclusively on gay issues exposing a split that would follow the movement. The assimilationists, such as GAA, thought the only thing wrong with our society was that it oppresses gays; queers, such as Kohler, envisioned gay liberation as a critique of social, sexual, and economic “regimes of the normal” (Warner 1993, Teal 1971, Shepard, 2001).
“The [Stonewall] riot was the theater of the ridiculous,” Kohler explained. “These kids managed to figure it all out. And that to me was one of the big things.” For the next three decades, Kohler would build on Hart’s advice, staying involved with the movement through groups like ACT UP, SexPanic!, and eventually Fed Up Queers (FUQ).
Kohler spent the decade after the riots running a bathhouse in New York’s East Village. He described the space:
At the bathhouse, we had this atrium. We had these huge palm trees, real live trees. For the people coming, you pay your money, there’s going to be sex. Boom, boom. You walk in and there are birds singing. Here you are, you came to fuck. And suddenly you are sitting there and there is a jungle, there’s parrots, and palm trees and exotic flowers. You’ve got to see a bigger picture. You’ve just got to. That’s where there was a sense of theater. Especially at our bathhouse and at the Continental Baths.
As the decade wore on, the baths were increasingly recognized as vital public spaces. With this, all the distinct features of New York City social and cultural life would follow. Local politico Bella Abzug used to campaign at the baths; the baths thus became a kind of commons. Kohler explain, “We had Ronnie Eldridge come and make political speeches,” and on other days, “Bette Midler used to sing at the Continental Baths to men wearing only towels.” High culture intersected with low as any number of cultural and political players frequented the baths. Kohler continued:
You know what a bathhouse is, you don’t really cover parts. And then there are a hundred men or so who have just fucked their brains out, who will go back and fuck their brains out. And here is this woman. Now take it a step further when you go from Bette Midler, who was kind of trashy and fit right in, to the great pop jazz icon Sarah Vaughan.
In a mix Cole Porter would have loved, even opera singers performed at the baths. As Kohler explained: “Eleanor Steiber, the opera singer. Eleanor Steibert was one of the biggest attractions at the Continental Baths.”
While tensions accompanied many of the struggles around gay liberation, the baths remained an island of warmth and safety within a cold world for much of the 1970s and early 1980s. Kohler’s favorite moment running his bathhouse occurred some time after that 1973 Gay Pride day:
I think the most telling thing, which will sum the whole thing up, a good customer came in and it was Christmas day, or maybe New Years. We had all the attendants taking the towels, everybody, me, wearing tuxedos. And everyone else was naked in their towels. And we had this huge feast out in the atrium, turkey, champagne, cocktails, and whatnot. And one guy, when he left, snaps his fingers like he forgot something. I said, “What’s the matter?” He sighs and says, “I forgot.” I said, “What did you forget?” “I forgot to have sex.” I think that sums it up. He came and he just got so involved in all the other stuff that he forgot what he was there for.
As Kohler suggests, “these places were [about] far more than just sex.” In fact, Kohler met a lover he was with for thirteen years at “the old Everhard baths on a Sunday afternoon.” These spaces functioned as “a living room,” for the community, Kohler says. “We called it the living room. It was as big as this apartment. Leather furniture, a huge television. We had complimentary donuts on Sunday mornings. You got breakfast. It was just an incredible kind of atmosphere.” People were free to talk and be themselves in these spaces:
It was amazing to see. People would come out of a big orgy room, fucked everyway but sideways, coming down and having a discussion. I used to get into long political discussions with these people. There was a whole give-and-take which ended when the bathhouse era ended…
These were places where people could be clean. And [where they could have sex] not in the bushes where[ the threat of violence and arrest was constant],” Kohler explains. “We had the health clinic come in once a week for[STD] testing. We had condoms before they [the Department of Health] tried to have condoms. We had literature there. We had political literature there. The bathhouses were beyond sex.”
Kohler fought the closure of bathhouses as a response to AIDS in the 1980s, arguing that they were controlled environments with condoms, soap and water, information, “and that many bathhouses were willing to take on a community organizing role to stop the spread of HIV.”
Kohler explained, “I’ve always thought that closing all the bath houses accelerated the AIDS crisis.” Further:
I think we lost a lot more people that we didn’t have to lose because of that. If people were objecting, go along with some of the regulations. Close some of the orgy rooms. Have only private rooms. But leave these places. Keep people out of the bushes, keep them out of dirty back rooms, husslers who obviously had a disease. We had priests…
I mean, motherfuckers who closed it just put people so much further back and more [susceptible] to STD’s, all kinds of shit. We could have put more restrictions but people needed the spaces.
Speaking with Bob, I suggested the point was that you have a public space, where people could come to meet, where individuals knew each other and had a community, you have a community. The space was very different than going to a chatroom or going to a park. He explained, “Yes, we’ve all been in the park.” Bob continued:
But these people were safe. Well, the safety factor was the one thing that came up more than anything else. We had student rates. This was their first time. When [the baths] closed, people lost more of a central meeting place than they did [a place to have] sex. There was always going to be another place to have sex. But there wasn’t going to be another place to forge the bonds.
Queer civil society was threatened by this loss, and in the end, homophobia and panic prevailed against the bathhouses. So Bob opened The Loft, a retail store with shops on Christopher Street and on Fire Island. He used the wild popularity of the shop to support independent designers like Patricia Field as they started out, and to leverage recognition of the queer community by marketers like Calvin Klein who pulled in enormous amounts of money from queers, but at times failed, to stand up for them. All the while Kohler stayed involved with activism, including ACT UP and, later, SexPanic!
From Matthew Shepard to Amadou Diallo
“I wanted to walk home by myself and just think about what had happened,” Kohler explained after the Matthew Shepard Political Funeral in 1998. The Political Funeral has been described as the largest queer riot since Stonewall. Some eighty activists— including new activists, other ACT UP and Gay Liberation veterans (including Kohler’s best friend and Stonewall veteran, Sylvia Rivera)— were arrested that evening.
By the 1999 protests against the unjust police murder of an unarmed immigrant from Guinea named Amadou Diallo, Kohler’s activist career had moved full circle; he had come back to the struggles against police brutality and racism, and their tenuous link with homophobia. Kohler kept true to GLF’s view on issues of oppression, which was, to borrow a Deni Cavello phrase, “Any oppression is too much oppression.” Kohler was intimately aware that violence was all too common, whether the victim was a person of color or a gay man. Kohler was also well aware that people of color were under attack by the ‘stop and frisk’ aggressive policing policies of the New York Police Department, and he wanted queers who had been sensitized to the experience of police violence through their understanding of Stonewall, or experiences with police brutality during the Matthew Shepard political funeral, to speak out and call for the practice to end.
In the months after the Matthew Shepard Political Funeral, queer activists had sought to connect the links between police brutality, and violence against queers and people of color. While the broader lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities mobilized against the violence to Shepard, Kohler was part of a group of radical queer activists agitating to push GLBT communities to translate their struggles into broader questions of social justice. This was never a simple process.
In March 1999, Bob Kohler was arrested for engaging in an act of civil disobedience, while protesting Diallo’s murder. This was just one of the 32 times Kohler he had taken a bust for a cause. This arrest occurred at an intense moment: there were over one-thousand arrests in the single month since seven other activists— five women and two men from FUQ— chained themselves together to block traffic on lower Broadway, separating themselves from the broader rally over Diallo’s death (Flynn, 1999). The gesture struck a chord (although the seven activists continued to face stiff charges after charges against 1,200 other arrestees were dropped). To an extent, the arrest illustrates Bob Kohler’s entire career as an activist— from work with CORE, to GLF, through ACT UP and FUQ.
As a veteran of the Stonewall Riots and member of GLF, police brutality was nothing unfamiliar to Kohler:
I do not equate my oppression with the oppression of Blacks and Latinos. You can’t. It is not the same struggle, but it is one struggle. And, if my being here as a longtime gay activist can influence other people in the gay community, its worth getting arrested. I’m an old man now. I don’t look forward to spending [twenty-four] hours in a cell. But these arrests are giving some kind of a message (quoted in Trebay 1999).
Fed Up Queers
In 2005, I asked Kohler about his favorite all time street actions: “I think that a lot of the Reclaim the Streets Zaps were great. The Fed Up Queers were really good.” In 1999, Bob helped form FUQ, a direct action group that challenged the rise of right-wing gay groups and discriminatory AIDS policies, as well as Mayor Giuliani’s targeting of queers, people with HIV/AIDS, people on welfare, low-income people, people of color, among others.
Kohler described his work with FUQ in an interview in 2000:
Of all the groups I’ve worked with, I think Fed Up Queers, the group that helped ignite the civil disobedience after [the] Diallo shootings and later the AIDS drugs for Africa campaign, come closest to working in the spirit of Gay Liberation Front. The FUQs think the stencil on the street is as important as the blockade. It’s just as revolutionary. Like all the No More Prisons signs on all the sidewalks, it takes a while to push an idea into the consciousness. I see so many contributions by today’s radicals, including a fierce group of young lesbians.
“You remember the old Margaret Mead statement, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,’ I asked Bob. “I think that’s the ethos of what’s happening now.”
“The last year allowed us to believe Margaret Mead,” Kohler concluded. “ We’ve allowed ourselves to act on Margaret Mead’s statement. We’ve allowed ourselves to act, to make mistakes”… and even succeed. The following year, Kohler would involve himself in perhaps his most memorable long-term campaign.
In 2001, when the City of New York began illegally denying emergency housing to homeless people with AIDS (PWA’s), Bob became the core volunteer in an activist operation to pressure the city. Bob, who was 75 at the time, stood outside the housing agency for hours each day for a year, supporting PWA’s. From there he called on news media to write about the City’s failure to honor its own law and for policy makers to rectify the situation. His work formed the basis of a lawsuit that forced the City into compliance with housing assistance laws hard-won by AIDS activists in the 1990s.
Kohler started volunteering with New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) after the Stonewall 30th anniversary, and we talked about the campaign on many occasions. Perhaps the most vital part of his participation in this campaign was his capacity for flexibility. They say old dogs do not learn new tricks, but well into his seventh decade of life this old Stonewall veteran was willing to try new tactics, including advocating for social services as part of this campaign. He was willing to talk about trying new approaches to bridging the gap between direct action and direct services, integrating these models.
In an interview in 2004, Kohler recalled that campaign in a conversation we shared with Jennifer Flynn, who helped organize the campaign as Executive Director of NYCAHN. Flynn and Kohler recall the campaign:
“Well, you put out the call seeking volunteers. That’s when I heard about it,” Bob recalled, speaking to Flynn.
“Yeah. We were going into welfare centers and putting up cell phones for the press inside the welfare offices,” Flynn explained. “And you could hear the announcement over the loudspeakers saying, “If you’re here for housing, there’s no more housing. Go home.” Which had its own irony: “Go home.” Flynn continued:
“It was really interesting that first week. It was right before Labor Day … for that weekend, which was a long weekend, there were tons of people who were just left to sleep in the streets. A lot of them became NYCAHN volunteers with Bob.
“And the funny thing is, when we first talked about it, they said this was as a result of welfare reform. Diversion was a common tactic that was used. They said people would have to prove that they needed housing before the city would give it to them. So their initial plan, which was to just shut down emergency housing, failed immediately. [Councilwoman] Quinn did some press bits. She stood in front of a center for a little while. But then they decided that, well, we won’t wholesale do it. We’ll do it in a little trickle way. That’s really where the constant monitoring with Bob [became necessary].
“They [the welfare centers] did everything to get us out too,” Kohler recalled. “I remember three days in a row they asked for cops… The precinct guy came by and said, ‘I don’t know, I’m going to go talk to the captain.’ The captain came over and said, ‘I don’t know. I’m going to have to go find a ruling.’ He came back and said that it was a public space until 5 o’clock. That’s when they literally closed and we were not allowed in there. But they still called the cops again the next day. And the cop, who was a nice guy, he was on our side, said, ‘Look, I’m not going to come anymore. You people are allowed in here until 5 o’clock.’ It was ridiculous. They were told. But this was the way they operated.
“And if we’re not there they would tell people there was no housing,” Flynn explained. “We would get there, at say 11, and meet some poor guy who got turned away atM.”
Bob continued: “We had one case up in that little hotel in the theater district, the St. James. Seventeen people had gone up there and been told there was no housing for them. And this was at 11:30 at night.”
“It’s funny,” Flynn reflected: “Bob used to stay in the welfare center until 4:59 and 30 seconds. They literally would have a team of security guards, who we eventually became friends with, just walk him out. They would be waiting, and at 5 o’clock they were going to lock the doors, lock him in, call the police, and have him carted out. “
Bob explained: “They’d come up and say, “Its 5 o’clock,” and I’d say, “I know what time it is.” But I wouldn’t leave until 5. They’d be waiting. They had their clocks synchronized so they could throw me out. But we had another group of people going up to the Habitat, on Sixth Avenue or wherever the hell it was. And they were told, “We don’t want people like you here.” So they were sitting in the lobby waiting for one of us. It was after we had to establish confidence.
I chimed in: “I remember you guys tracking people who were turned away on Thursday, and it [the welfare office] was shut down on Friday, so they’d spend 72 hours riding on the subway to stay out of the rain.” Flynn responded: “Yes, and sleeping on grates to stay warm by the bushes…” “[The grates sent up warm air] Its perfect to sleep in ‘cause it’s by the bushes.”
Kohler elaborated: “These people were so used to being turned away. That is important⎯ it happened so many times that they had their own little ways of coping. The subway was one way; the grates were another. They all had a plan B, because they were so used to being turned away… They would send people to places where they would be turned away. They would send females to the YMCA, and that was deliberate. They knew what they were doing. Wrong addresses, East Side of town, West Side of town.”
“I remember at one point they sent folks to Long Island,” I recalled. “That was the worst,” Bob explained: “Beautiful hotel. Best Western. But it took an hour and a half to get out there. They get there around midnight. They had no way of getting back in the morning. And they were isolated. They couldn’t buy a bag of potato chips…
Throughout, Flynn, Kohler and the rest of NYCAHN built on an organizing strategy to keep the story moving forward. They engaged in direct action in one of the offices, as if they were looking for shelter. Kohler recalled the action:
“It was early on when people starting volunteering. It was hard. It was very hard. And I remember I was having a very difficult time. I was an old white man. Who was going to trust me? At first they didn’t trust me. We had done some things, but they still weren’t buying… And this action was incredibly good. We had blankets and pillows and it was very well choreographed. The way we were able to chain ourselves⎯ I mean eleven people. It was Jennifer and Craig, I think, around the post, and then we all did it. And we all spread out. We were homeless, so we had our pillows and blankets. It was very funny because the security guard who was down there had been the security guard up on Sixth Avenue, and he was the one who liked us. He was always getting in trouble for talking to us and what not. He was laughing and I heard him say to somebody, ‘They are my friends.’ And then the cops came with the wrong saw. Then they had to go back. We were on the floor for, like, an hour and a half. So it was really great. They couldn’t get us in and out. I was in jail three nights.
“But when we went back to the Welfare Center, one guy was saying, “Papi, where were you?’ And I said, “Fuck you. I was in jail.” And he said, “Why?” I answered, “For you.” And that did it. Then the word spread that we went to jail for them. “These people went to jail for us.” That established a trust that we never could have gotten. It would have taken me another two or three months to get [the level of trust] that happened immediately after that bust. It was incredible. All you needed were a couple of people who would tell a few others, “You trust me. It’s OK. He went to jail for us.” That was really important. That was a turning point for us. That action gave us more than we bargained for in that respect.
Throughout the campaign, Kohler, Flynn and even council member Christine Quinn were forced to pay for housing for those who had been left without a real housing placement. “We couldn’t take their words,” Kohler explained.
People would come out with their slips and a lot of them, at the beginning, would say, ‘No, no, I gotta get there,’ because they [the clients in search of housing] were given a time period. But the room they were assigned to might not be available when they get there. And very often, no, that person was not registered [at the hotel anyway]. And then we’d have to get that person back in [to the Welfare Center so they could get a real room assignment]. We were their [DASIS’] enemy. So they [the DASIS management] did everything they could to keep us out. I can remember one night when a woman came up⎯a very pretty woman⎯and she had a raggedy fur coat. It was pouring rain and she was standing very close to me and panting a lot. She said that she needed housing. She got to the [assigned] place. There was no housing and she was sick. She kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ So I knock on the door and I say, ‘Well, she’s sick. There’s a problem with her housing. I don’t know what it is. But whatever it is, let her inside.’ The woman finally started to fall down. I grabbed her, and she just totally collapsed and decided she was dying. She really felt that she was dying. I can’t tell you how cold it was with the rain. They would not help her. They opened the door and threw a chair out and said ‘here.’ Like I said, I wish I had written all these things down when they happened.
Watching all these problems, Flynn, Kohler and company took a do-it-yourself approach and started to fix problems they identified at the welfare centers. “There were no front doors in the bathroom,” Kohler recalled. He continued: “And no water for them. Now, if you looked around the corner, you’d see that there were water coolers for the staff. Yet the clients were supposed to use the sinks. They are filled with shit. You can’t use the sink in the welfare center. So we screamed and screamed and finally Emmaia, who was in Chris Quinn’s office, was a real help. She said, ‘OK, enough, I’m going to take care of it.’ So she called and got the water running and billed the city.
Flynn recalled: “Emmaia (another Fed Up Queer) just called in a plumber to fix it and charged the city. She acted like she was from HRA.” But there was no cool water, there was warm water,”
Kohler continued. “So then we had to fight that battle to get cold water. Then there were no cups. So they were supposed to go get their own cups. When you go to McDonalds, bring your cup back. These were people who had to take meds. You cannot live that way. It was inhuman.
In response to Flynn and Kohler’s vigilance, the city started changing. “That was totally new to me. I was working with youth,” Kohler reflected. Yet Kohler stuck it out. “But when I was starting, it was incredible to watch Jennifer go to the hotels and either bullshit them or intimidate them to the point where people who were placed there actually got housed,” Kohler recalled. “Jennifer knew speaking up for them was a big part of how they got shelter. She did that a lot.”
“We got to the point where they knew we were not going to go away. [For awhile] they thought we were going to go away, because they used to come out and shout at me, “Why don’t you leave us alone? We don’t want you here.” “Well, that’s why I’m here.” So, they realized we were going to be there. People were getting housing, but they were not getting suitable housing. A man with a severe disability and a wheelchair, they would put him in a fourth floor walkup.
And yet things started to change and get better, or it felt like it. I recalled: “I went only a few times, but I remember⎯I think it was in fall of 2002⎯going out and you were not there.” Kohler and Flynn laughed; it was the first time in probably two years that this happened, and it served as a marker of sorts. I remember thinking, “Wow Bob wasn’t at the welfare center at 5 PM on a Friday.” So I went on my merry way. There was a policy shift. What was that shift? “Well, they started housing everybody” Flynn recalled. “I think we stayed out another month and a half or two”.
I remember Mayday 2001, when New York’s Reclaim the Streets had organized a May Day rally, the ‘Super Bario Man vs. Union Busters Large and Small’ street theater, and we went by all the greengrocers that paid sweatshop wages. It was the peak of the global justice movement because we had local issues overlapping with global issues. I remember walking by the welfare center on 34th street and there was Bob, still out there.
“Remember my friend Robin Bird [who runs a local adult TV call-in show]? Robin didn’t want to leave,” Kohler explained, describing the public commons they had created. Flynn elaborate, “There was a time when that was the place to be,” “More popular than Meow Mix [a downtown lesbian bar]… Of course, that was only when it was warm. And things started to change.”
Kohler explained: “I remember I was speaking to one of the caseworkers, the one who was the alcoholic, who was always going to be fired…”He was up at 14th street and he said, ‘Boy things have really changed.’ ‘Mark, you have to ask why?’ I responded. He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, because of you guys.’ He actually never gave us that bad a time. And that worker, Carol, who I still see, said, ‘Things are a lot different now. I guess you people…’ I said, ‘Carol, you guess?’ They had started coming around. We didn’t want their jobs. We just wanted them to do their jobs. We were trying to get the people around them to do their jobs.
Finally, Flynn got legal help from Housing Works and litigated against the city.
Kohler testified at these hearings. “I remember the judge at one point saying to me, “Are you crazy [for doing this]?” This was without a doubt both Flynn and NYCAHN’s shining moment. “It was your baby. We maybe changed the diapers, but it was your baby. It took a lot of nerve and guts. I don’t know if she saw the scope or the magnitude [at first]. But when she did see it, she ran with it…”
Kohler recalled, “But once you get one win…” then you want more. Once you got a water-cooler and doors then you keep going. And it shows you, we got that.”
Throughout his work, Bob was a father figure to activists and street kids, including Sylvia Rivera, who herself grew up to be a parent and mentor to queer youth. Most recently, Bob has mentored the queer youth of FIERCE in their struggles against displacement, police harassment, and attacks by residents of the gentrified and increasingly heterosexual West Village.
Kohler recalled the legacy of the youths who started the Stonewall Riots during an event organized by FIERCE on October 5, 2002:
Stonewall started right here in this park by some kids. Some of them were only fourteen, sixteen. They were all homeless. They lived in the park… These kids were at the bottom of the heap. There was no way out for them.
Yet, even after they made history, there were those who looked down on the street youth who used public spaces—such as the piers—within blocks of the riots. Kohler was aware that the social change which followed Stonewall—including GLF and ensuing liberation movements—owed a great debt to the street youth who had little to lose when they fought back during the Stonewall riots.
Yet, today many of the same youth are being pushed away from the space. When he talked about Stonewall, he narrated a story that connected the legacy of a riot started by street kids, with a decade old struggle by queer youth to find a voice and a place of their own. So Kohler supported the FIERCE in their struggle for a queer public commons, a place where queer youth could converge unencumbered. Years before, in 1998, one of my first actions with Kohler was in support of a ‘Queer Pier.’ Without such a public space, it was hard to imagine democracy of social movements continuing. So Kohler supported those who fought for such a space; he defended them in the community boards, he spoke up about their issues, he defended them against the police and the neighbors who sought to sweep them from the streets whitewashing their presence from the village, voted in their favor, helped them organize, conducted interviews, and he helped everyone understand the history of the piers.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, queers converged on the piers, unencumbered.
It’s very funny, keeping the youth off the piers. Keeping gay people off the piers. Back in my day, that’s where they wanted us. Decent people didn’t go past Hudson Street. That was for us. That was our own personal Casbah. It was called the ‘trucks.’ And that’s where they were so happy we were. They were happy, because we weren’t around the Village and they didn’t have to see us as long as we were down there.
“Now, of course, their property has increased. It’s money,” Kohler acknowledged. With the 1990s economic boom, property values increased at the expense of social tolerance. “They just don’t want you on these streets,” Kohler continued, because when youth hang out, “their money, their property is going to go down.”
Much of Kohler’s understanding of the plight of street youth began during the years before Stonewall when he first met runaway street youth. A famous activist from this group was Sylvia Ray Rivera. Kohler, who had known her since June 1969, was a father for Sylvia; Sylvia, who died in 2002, was a “mother” to many street “children.”
Kohler and Rivera had a distinct knack for connecting their understanding of the Stonewall narrative within a call for advocacy for queer youth. In June, 2001 Rivera put out a call for activists to rally around the trial of the murders of Amanda Milan, a trans woman murdered the previous year. When Rivera heard about Milan, she told herself this time it was going to be different. This was not going to be an unresolved murder. So she made sure that “the girls came out.” In the days before the demo, Kohler put out the call for the pre-trial demo:
I know you all realize how important this action is and if you multiply that by 100 you come close to what it means to the Trannie community. For what it’s worth, it is also extremely important to me — I have been involved in Trannie issues for a very long time and, of course, Sylvia has been a part of my life for over 30 years… It is an extremely important event for a community whose time, as Sylvia says, “has come.” In my mind, it is equally as important to the LGBTQ community as a whole.
Sylvia has been there for us at every turn and she is counting on us to help support her now.” Bob was referring to Sylvia’s lifelong willingness to put herself on the line for the cause of gay liberation. As Sylvia will tell you, in the years after Stonewall, drag queens petitioned and were arrested fighting for the gay rights bill. “Drag queens would be out there,” Sylvia, who was one of the arrestees, explained.
Kohler also understood that for queer and transgender youth, Rivera was the only public idol they had. “She was their Evita. And the Piers was their Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” It was from Kohler that many of us learned that Rivera had passed in February of 2002. “Sylvia (Rivera) died this morning at 5:30 am, of complications arising from liver cancer,” Kohler wrote in an email to friends and supporters.
I think I spoke to Kohler the most during these years between 2001 and 2005, as he put out calls for us to participate in Sylvia’s rallies and community board meetings, where members of FIERCE were scheduled to speak and so on. I spent a day in jail with Kohler in 2003 when the city was threatening to dismantle housing and social services for people with HIV/AIDS. Members of NYCAHN, Housing Works, ACT UP and CitiWide Harm Reduction all took arrests for blocking the entrance to City Hall. We went through some of the old SexPanic! controversies, FUQ, Kohler’s regrets of not doing more for Sylvia, and so on. Kohler, or Broadway Bob— as friends referred to him— regaled the room with stories for most of the afternoon. Days such as that are some of my most meaningful experiences of my years in New York City.
Throughout the years, it was always fun to run into Bob at a demo. I have a vivid memory of greeting him in front of the New York Public Library on February 15th, 2003 during an anti-war rally in which police had us cordoned off in all directions. And there was Bob with a smile and hug, completely in his element, reveling in the chaos.
Later that year, Kohler took part in Operation Homeland Resistance, three days of actions at Federal Plaza from May 5-7, 2003. Some 83 New Yorkers from all walks of life — including teachers, mothers, and students — were arrested for civil disobedience actions over three days. Chanting “No more profiling, no more war,” they linked arms and blocked the entrance to the federal building before they were arrested and dragged away by police. The activists’ involved faced harsh sentencing, with many, including Kohler, facing prison sentences. Yet Bob was more upset with the difficulties among the activists during the myriad of court dates that followed, as efforts at solidarity seemed to break down.
Despite this, Bob remained active through the next five years, participating in the rallies during the RNC in New York and helping to organize the Poor People’s March.
Bob’s health started to decline in the spring of 2006. In response, a group of former members of FUQ — as well as a few of his other friends and I — coordinated the delivery of meals to Bob’s place in the West Village. Many of us were glad to have the opportunity to tell Bob how much he meant to us. I asked Bob about his birthday, which he rarely acknowledged. “When I turn 80, you can put a candle in a cupcake, but before that I don’t want to hear about it.” So on May 17, 2006, many of the same members of FUQ who had coordinated Bob’s meals put together a party. The press release announced: “BOB KOHLER, GAY ACTIVIST AND FATHER FIGURE TO GENERATIONS OF QUEER STRUGGLE, TURNS 80.” It went on: “The New York City queer community celebrates Bob Kohler’s 80th birthday today. Bob has been an activist on behalf of gay rights, transsexual rights, queer youth, and people with HIV/AIDS since those movements were born, beginning more than 40 years ago.”
By that summer Kohler had regained his health and was back on the streets doing his work. I’d meet Kohler for strolls through his old neighborhood. It was such a pleasure to hear Bob’s stories and watch so many greet Bob as he strolled through his stomping grounds, so many of which had been spaces for demos, rallies, or gatherings. Throughout these days, Kohler’s memories of good things mixed with elegiac thoughts about those who had passed. Kohler confessed he could no longer go to Fire Island, where he’d spent so many years. The memories of those who were no longer there to join him were more than he was willing to bear. On other days, we talked about the changing geography of New York City and the mean mood taking over the country.
Throughout these years, Kohler remained involved with ACT UP and FIERCE.
The last time I saw Kohler was during the First Amendment Rally on July 27th, 2007. As always, Kohler was making wise cracks, talking with reporters, and signing a petition asking the speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn to repeal the new parade laws, restricting the right to public assembly in New York. “There is a good Chris Quinn and a bad. You don’t know which will show up.” His presence was notably absent during an unpermitted Parade without a Permit that September.
When Kohler was diagnosed with cancer that fall, many of us had hoped to coordinate another round of meals and visits to Kohler’s home. It was not to be. Kohler and I talked a few times, and while he wanted to see everyone, he also needed to quietly enter a different more internal solitary space. We talked about that. I visited Kohler a couple of times his last week, including a night that I spent at his house immediately before hospice began. By this point, the cancer seemed to be pinching on all his nerves. As Bob went in and out of sleep and consciousness, I could hear him struggling with Sister Death, holding on and letting go. We talked a little. But mostly, it was a time to let go. We talked most of the night. “Go home,” he told me firmly as the clock turned to 6 A.M. So I said goodbye, knowing soon he would be going as well. He was gone the next day, December 4, 2007.
In the End
What Kohler wanted was a more caring abundant world. Some 35 years after the Stonewall Riots, Kohler was interviewed about his insights. “[T]hey asked if I had any advice, and I said, yes I do. Listen to the crazies. This is the kind of thing that Sylvia Rivera could bring to a riot, that Marsha P. Johnson could bring to a riot.” He’d lived in a world where queers were classified as mentally ill, yet it was the crazies who said the system is ill, not those fighting it. I was glad to be one of those who tried to stand with Kohler whenever it was possible.
I am profoundly grateful for the time Kohler afforded me, right until he shuffled off this mortal coil. Five days after he died, hundreds of activists staged a political funeral for Kohler. Activities kicked off at the LGBT Center, marched past the Stonewall where Bob had witnessed the riots, down Christopher Street, to the Piers. Chants ranged from earnest, “81 years fighting for queers!” and “Whose Streets – Bob’s Streets” to campy, satirical, “Wash Your Ass! Wash Your Ass!” in homage to Kohler’s famous bit of advice for most everyone. Like a good New Orleans Funeral March, joyous grateful feelings for knowing such a hero overlapped with wondrous feeling that someone we had really cared for was no longer with us. Some of his friends placed his ashes on the ground in front of the space that had been The Loft, Kohler’s old store on Christopher Street. “Bob Kohler ACT UP,” one activist chalked on top of the ashes as the drum beats got louder and louder. Looking at those words emerge in the chalk, hearing those drum beats, a feeling of loss for both a friend and a piece of history consumed many of us. There is a limit to words. We spread Kohler’s ashes in the Hudson River, where Sylvia Rivera’s ashes had found their final destination with Masha P. Johnson. And the Church Ladies sang in homage to Kohler.
You’re a grand old fag
You’re a radical fag
On the front lines and kick lines with flair!
You’ve got loads of class,
A real cute ass,
And wit you so gen’rously share.
When the chips are down
You are always around
And we know we have nothing to fear!
We swear we’ll keep our butt holes clean
And our eyes on the grand old queer!
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