Bruce-Michael Gelbert, pioneering gay and leather activist, dies at 71

Hal Offen and Bruce-Michael Gelbert.
Bruce-Michael Gelbert (left) and Hal Offen.
Hal Offen

Veteran LGBTQ activist Bruce-Michael Gelbert died on March 4 after a year-long battle against pancreatic cancer. He was 71.

Bruce-Michael’s commitment to leaving the world a better place began in his late teens. He joined Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) when he was almost 20 in 1971, an experience that would shape his values and activities for the rest of his life. 

In those early days after Stonewall, GAA was a leading force in combating the many ways in which LGBTQ people were harmed, and Bruce-Michael was in the thick of it. He was a reliable presence at the many demonstrations that focused a spotlight on the prejudice and discrimination foisted upon us by the church, government, media, corporations, etc. Rarely missing the opportunity to do his part, Bruce-Michael’s booming voice helped show the public why we were justifiably outraged. He was courageous, putting himself at constant risk of police violence, far from uncommon at the demonstrations.

At GAA, he was vice-chair of the Community Relations Committee, helping to create many neighborhood LGBTQ groups all over the city and region. He helped run a series of street fairs in front of GAA’s community center — the legendary Firehouse at 99 Wooster St. In addition to delighting attendees, those first gay street fairs educated an awakening queer community about the injustices we suffered, helping to swell our ranks of activists and grow a movement that would eventually change the world. In addition, Bruce-Michael participated in early visits to high school classes to talk about his experience growing up gay. It was all about becoming visible.

Raised in a Jewish family in Woodside, Queens, Bruce-Michael, born June 7, 1951, was a graduate of Queens College where he was involved in Gay People at Queens College, one of the earliest campus organizations for LGBTQ people. At that time, his life-long love of opera led him to become a supernumerary (a non-singing extra on-stage) at the Metropolitan Opera. 

For many years, he worked at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, founded before Stonewall by Craig Rodwell as the first dedicated queer bookstore. Later, he worked for New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams in his campaign and then in his offices at the World Trade Center. He retired early, as an HIV-positive man with a number of health issues. With the advent of effective treatment for HIV, Bruce-Michael enjoyed years of celebrating the lifestyle of an openly-gay person he fought so hard to bring about.

He wrote extensively for the LGBTQ press for decades, focusing on his many interests, including the opera and the theater in general, the leather community, Fire Island, travel, and queer community issues. He was chosen as the first Mr. Fire Island Leather in 2001, and spent his summers at Cherry Grove for decades. He made many trips to San Francisco, New Orleans and Key West, delighting in the leather sex scene they offered.

He enjoyed singing in local productions, as well as nights at the piano bars singing the old standards. He was an avid reader with a special fondness for Anne Rice, having read every one of the many books she wrote. He lived by his routines, indulging in his crossword puzzles, his daily exercise regimen, his fondness for Perry Mason episodes and Jeopardy, his tight schedule of performances to be reviewed, and his voluminous writing.

Bruce-Michael was deeply devoted to his friends and loved ones and could always be counted on. He was often a committed care-giver, first to his parents and beloved aunts, and then to too many friends at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Bruce-Michael’s memory for dates and details was extraordinary. He often remembered specifics about the lives of his friends that they had long forgotten. He was a kind, generous, loving man whose vision of what a community could be is closer to becoming a reality for his life-long efforts and the example he set.

Rich Wandel, the second president of GAA, said, “I remember Bruce-Michael as a dedicated advocate for the multiple communities that made up the membership of the Gay Activists Alliance. Along with the rest of us, he understood that liberation could only be obtained by each of us publicly being ourselves. In later years I would occasionally see him at the Opera, dressed in full leathers, simply being the proud gay man he always was.”

Bill Bahlman, a comrade of Bruce-Michael at GAA in the early 1970s, said that Gelbert went on to co-chair the Swift & Terrible Retribution Committee in the early days of GLAAD.

The Cherry Grove Community Association posted that “Bruce-Michael was recognized by the Pantheon of Leather with a Community Service Award. Unforgettably and beautifully singing in community theatre productions and events in the Grove from 1998 to the present, he also performed at Folsom Street East, New York’s Leather Pride Street Fair 2000 to 2002 and at Philadelphia Leather Pride Night in 2009 and 2010.

“Bruce-Michael was also a tireless supporter of the visual arts through not only his acclaimed writing for, and Fire Island News, but also via his photography, which was featured in publications since the early 1970s, including the New York Native, Fire Island News, and the Leather Journal.”

Anthony Heilbut, record producer and author of “The Gospel Sound,” said, “Bruce-Michael Gelbert was a hugely committed fan of opera, an obsession he shared with many in the Leather community. In his youth he would often soar into a coloratura soprano, almost three octaves higher than his bass-baritone.”

He was predeceased by his long-time partner Joe Ragocsy and by his best friend, Greg Klosek. He is survived by his beloved husband Joe Saporito, who tirelessly took care of him during his illness. In addition, Bruce-Michael leaves behind a host of loving and grateful friends, as well as generations of younger LGBTQ people who benefit from his efforts and accomplishments. May his name be for a blessing.

Hal Offen is also a veteran of the early days of GAA and a lifelong activist. Andy Humm contributed some additional material to this obituary.