ACT UP replaces Ritchie Torres display at Trailblazers Park

Trailblazers Park in July of 2022.
Trailblazers Park in July of 2022.
Matt Tracy

Less than 24 hours after the Fire Island Pines Property Owners’ Association honored Rep. Ritchie Torres on June 1 by posting a flag bearing his image in Trailblazers Park, which has honored leaders in the LGBTQ movement since 2022, ACT UP New York removed his flag and replaced it with a flag honoring Cecilia Gentili, a longtime transgender activist who passed away in February, and covered its own flag with a more recent ACT UP New York flag that recognizes that group’s pro-Palestinian position and activism. 

“We mounted these two flags to rehabilitate the integrity of Trailblazers Park,” ACT UP New York said in a June 2 statement just hours after they changed the flags. “We protest the…decision to honor Rep. Torres — who is anything but a trailblazer — instead of Cecilia Gentili, despite widespread support for Cecilia on the FIPPOA board and in the broader community. And while ACT UP NY was not contacted about being honored at this ceremony, we have decided to take part, putting up our own flag to honor Queer Palestinians. By leaving the old flag up, we choose to honor our history as an organization, but we reject the notion that our movement and the AIDS crisis are relegated to the past.”

Trailblazers Park, located near from the Fire Island Pines marina, first opened in 2022 as a space to honor LGBTQ activists and historic figures. This year, flags were installed to recognize each of the 16 trailblazers who will be showcased at the park for two years. There will be another round of honorees in 2026. The flags were made by artists in a residency program in the Pines community and the Fire Island Pines Arts Project. 

ACT UP New York objected to Torres being honored due to his support for Israel that began well before the Oct. 7 attack made by Hamas, the group that has governed Gaza since 2006. Torres made a trip to Israel in 2015 when he was a member of the City Council representing a Bronx district, as he does now in Congress. That trip was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Torres was accused of participating in pinkwashing or the practice of a group or nation, such as Israel, using pro-LGBTQ policies to deflect criticism in other areas. ACT UP New York also objected to Torres’ role in watering down a local law that was intended to increase oversight of the NYPD. Torres spent seven years in the City Council and was elected to Congress in 2020 as the first Afro-Latino, openly gay member of that body.

While the Gentili flag was taken down, she will be honored in Trailblazers Park in 2026. The Torres flag will not be replaced to avoid it being taken down again, but the property owners said in a statement that they will find another way to honor him. Michael Lucas, the owner of Lucas Entertainment, an adult film company that sells to the gay community, took the second ACT UP New York flag down, leaving the original flag in place.

Lucas holds US and Israeli citizenship and is a longtime supporter of Israel. In 2010, he was a central figure in forcing the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center to bar groups that were organizing around the Israel/Palestinian conflict. That policy was ended in 2013 following a community outcry over author Sarah Schulman being banned.

The new ACT UP New York flag has replaced the 37-year-old poster that placed a pink triangle above the phrase Silence = Death with a watermelon slice. In the mid-20th century, the Nazis required members of the LGBTQ community to wear pink triangles. Historians estimate that at least 15,000 members of that community were murdered by the Nazis. The watermelon slice uses the colors that are used in the Palestinian flag and is believed to be used by activists and artists to avoid being censored by social media companies that would remove the Palestinian flag.

ACT UP New York’s actions prompted a skirmish on social media.  

“ActUpNY proudly admits to illegally vandalizing the flag honoring me,” Torres wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “@actupny has been hijacked by Anti-Israel extremists like [Jason Rosenberg], whose mission to demonize anyone and everyone who dares to stand with Israel in the wake of October 7th.”

In another June 2 tweet, Torres wrote, “I received an honor at ‘Trailblazers Park’ in Fire Island for blazing a trail as the first Afro-Latino LGBTQ Member of Congress. Anti-Israel activists tore down the flag honoring me and instead put up a flag honoring Queer Palestinians. These activists openly align themselves with Hamas. Did it ever occur to them that Hamas is a barbaric oppressor of Queer Palestinians? That a Queer Palestinian is far freer and safer in Israel than in a Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas.”

Rosenberg would not comment without getting approval from the larger organization and Gay City News opted to rely on its June 2 press release. 

Hamas is known to be hostile towards gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to the point of killing them. Its views on transgender people are unknown. Historically, some Islamic nations have been more tolerant of transgender people. 

In their statements, the property owners recognized that there was disagreement about ACT UP New York’s action and Torres’ views, but wrote, “We understand that his political views may not fully align with those of other members of the Pines and LGBTQ+ communities. But the fact that his views may diverge from those held by others does not detract from his historic personal achievements, nor his significant contributions to LGBTQ+ rights and equality. What happened this morning — the removal of Ritchie Torres’ flag, among other actions — was wrong. Tearing down exhibits that individuals did not agree with was an affront to the 16 trailblazers who have spent their lives fighting for our rights, and was disrespectful of the artists’ work.”