Queer Voices in Zuccotti Park

LGBT activists bring community's issues to Occupy Wall Street while embracing their place in America's family

The banks might still be too big to fail, but the protests against them have become too big not to notice.

That much was in evidence on October 5, a bright, warm Wednesday, when several thousand demonstrators filled Foley Square, surrounded by Lower Manhattan’s massive federal and state courthouses. Their purpose was a march to Zuccotti Park, the private patch of land open to the public that symbolically links Ground Zero with the Wall Street Financial District.

On Foley Square’s central fountain, a massive banner announced “Arab Spring, European Summer, American Fall,” tying grassroots uprisings on several continents on the part of people frustrated and outraged by economic, political, and social inequities. In the Arab world, the popular outpourings triggered violent repression, which in many cases proved ineffective. While there has been violence against protestors by the New York Police Department, notably pepper spraying and body slams along with hundreds of arrests, it in no way parallels the deadly force used in countries like Syria, where thousands have been killed.

The people filling Foley Square were a colorful mix. There was a sense of energy and enthusiasm and a youthful spirit, in spite of the divergent ages represented. There were even parents with small children, who were holding hands as well as signs. Many political statements were waved by the crowd, but most prominent was the declaration that the wealthy one percent have robbed the 99 percent –– workers, the young, and homeowners. The majority of protestors turned out in everyday attire, though there was a decent sprinkling of lefty Che Guevara-worthy outfits.

Humor was in evidence, too. A small contingent wore foam cheese hats in solidarity with the public employee union protesters in Wisconsin earlier this year, and a pig-faced banker slashed at a downtrodden worker falling out of her safety net.

And in the midst of it all, gay voices were present, too, putting LGBT issues into the broader context of opposition to corporate greed and unchecked Wall Street power.

Jake Goodman from Queer Rising, a grassroots group that has worked in New York and elsewhere on issues ranging from marriage equality to repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, has participated in several Occupy Wall Street marches and spent a good deal of time at Zuccotti Park.

“We’ve been telling people there are queer people in every movement, in every gender, in every race, and this is a movement of the people,” Goodman told Gay City News.

One of the messages he aims to get across involves the duplicity of corporations that seem progressive on LGBT issues but have a dark side, as well.

“One of the most politically important and relevant messages here is that corporations will one day boast of their LGBTQ work, but then on the other side, is that they are giving money to right-wing candidates,” he argued. “This is a movement where we can bring ourselves and bring our own interests, but also that of the American people, of which we are a part.”

Cassidy Gardner came to Foley Square with Queerocracy, a social justice group marching in conjunction with ACT UP. She said that about 30 people would be marching in total, and the group had two banners.

Gardner pointed out that the financial crisis created by the banks was sapping money from HIV prevention and other health issues.

“We’re really concerned about the city budget and AIDS service organizations in the city,” she said. “Like many people, I think the banks are getting all the money.”

She added, “Thirty years is too long. We can end AIDS by trying to pull some of that funding to where it belongs –– the health care system.”

The financial crisis, Gardner said, impacted LGBT issues in other ways.

“I think people ought to know that a lot of the homeless are LGBTQ, and others are living in poverty,” she said, challenging the popular notion about the strength of pink dollar spending by a wealthy gay community. The lack of basic job nondiscrimination in many parts of the country is also significant, she added.

“A lot of us LGBTQ got the brunt of this,” Gardner stated. “We’re already discriminated against trying to get jobs in the first place. This is an extra hit. We’re unifying and trying to come together on the issues.”

Gardner said Queerocracy had earlier in the day protested in front of Senator Chuck Schumer’s Midtown office, “trying to go on all angles” in focusing attention on federal government budget priorities. Schumer, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, sits on both the Finance and the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committees.

Celebrities have turned out for Occupy Wall Street events from the movement’s beginning in mid-September. Among the most visible have been documentary filmmaker and activist Michael Moore and actors Susan Sarandon and Mark Ruffalo. Kathleen Chalfant, well known in the LGBT community for her stage roles in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Moises Kaufman’s documentary play about the Matthew Shepard murder, “The Laramie Project,” participated in the October 5 march. Sitting on the black granite edge of Foley’s central fountain, overlooking the crowds, she voiced wonderment she had not come downtown earlier.

“This is the first day I’ve been here, and I am not absolutely sure there are excuses,” she told this reporter.

Chalfant was joined by her husband and a friend, and the group was anxious to march, constantly monitoring the human river leaving Foley Square and pouring into the street in front of Manhattan’s New York Supreme Court to head south.

“I’m here because I am an American and I want our country back, and I don’t recognize it anymore,” Chalfant said. “It’s in danger of not only losing its economy, but also its soul.”

Acknowledging her work in plays that have posed challenging social questions, she added, “A lot of the characters I’ve played would feel the same way.”

Clearly awed by the spectacle unfolding around her, Chalfant, who is 66, said the scene reminded her of marches she attended in her younger days.

“Everybody should be here,” she said as she prepared to step off with a march contingent. “This is what patriotism looks like.”