“The greatest untold story of the last 30 years is how LGBT people created communities nationwide – we built structures, businesses, safety nets – where there was nothing.” At least that’s how Lance Ringel sees it. The most recent chapter in Lance’s storied career in gay & lesbian advocacy begins with his recent election as the new President of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center in Kingston. Since its inception in 2005, the Center has grown by leaps and bounds, settling into a brick-and-mortar home in the city’s historic Stockade district and operating with multiple full- and part-time staff members. A noteworthy feat for such a young nonprofit 501c3.
The Center, though, is faced with the challenge of an after-Ellen condition that’s spreading throughout the country – gay assimilation. As Lance and others reflect on the energies they’ve expended working towards their life goals of equality, they’re faced with the consequences of their actions. They pushed for equality and it’s actually happening. So now what? What of community centers and gay-borhoods and bars and book stores? Do gay people really need to go to gay places anymore? Lance is a short, middle-aged man who is 34 years happily partnered and wears the marks of someone whose life has been dedicated to fighting uphill battles. He’s a soft-spoken, reflective person with a demeanor forged from consensus building. As we share an afternoon over panini, he sits back in his chair, absorbing our conversation and responding with the poised engagement of someone who’s been studying their whole for a test they’re now confident they’ll ace. His connection with LGBT advocacy – and the Center’s famously tenacious former President, Ginny Apuzzo, began 30 years ago in New York City. He was president of Lambda Independent Democrats in Brooklyn, a position, at the time, soliciting awe that gay people existed outside of Manhattan. He was Governor Cuomo’s liaison to the state’s gay & lesbian community. He was chairman of the board of the Hetrick-Martin Institute.
Lance has succeeded Ginny’s tenures in many of his LGBT leadership positions. Citing the ascension dynamic between FDR & Truman, he credits her vision, tenacity and passion for her beliefs as integral to the founding of the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center. “After the 2004 election, we were all so demoralized. She took the gleam of an idea in her eye and made it a reality,” he recalls. At the time no one had any outreach programs operating exclusively for the Mid-Hudson Valley region’s LGBT community except Planned Parenthood. Apuzzo stepped down as Center President recently, retaining a permanent voting spot on the Center’s board as Founding President and opening the door for Vice President Ringel to step up. “We’re focusing ourselves now on consolidation and strategic capitalization of the growth that Ginny charted,” is how Lance sums up the broad inquiry of What’s next for the Center? An overarching umbrella of an answer for an institution whose foundation may becoming eroded by a culture that is becoming less and less afraid of what it means to be gay in America.
“Heterosexism has become more dangerous than homophobia,” Lance asserts. “Being overtly homophobic is not respectable anymore, but marginalizing our existence is still pervasive.” In a democratic society’s struggle for consensus, battles for equality across all platforms are often just that – a war of words and relationships and bank accounts. But pop culture is often leagues ahead of this fight as MTV has a much easier time testing the waters of acceptance than Congress. In a post-Queer Eye world, nightly newscasts and Presidential campaign platforms have made household staples out of the customs and lexicon of gay culture. Stephan and I were the cover story of the Poughkeepsie Journal when we announced our wedding in Amsterdam last July. The LGBT community certainly still has enemies, but it’s gaining friends across demographics at a rapid pace.
While brainstorming in the 1980s at the National Gay Task Force (now the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force), Lance recalls the fight for marriage equality was thought to be a goal for 2030 and beyond. “When I was with Hetrick-Martin, we thought the first battle we’d have to win would be the justification of the existence of gay & lesbian self-identified youth. That was no problem – who thought that we’d see grade school kids coming out in our lifetime!?” As the public profile of LGBT people grows across the nation, battles for legal equality are getting louder as the push for civil equality rages on. Oddly enough, though, we don’t see these fights happening in the pop culture sphere. Lady Gaga and Kathy Griffin openly dedicate award victories to “the gays”. We’ve got our own television channel. RuPaul is giving beauty tips, out of drag, on national daytime talk TV. “It’s crucial that people recognize this diversity,” Ringel affirms. “We’re there all the time. We’ve been there the whole time. The LGBT community is part of the fabric of American life.”
As Lance reflects on how far we’ve come, he’s clearly equally absorbed in where we’re going. As head of a community center, he’s very aware that many in our community have yet to click with the community center. With the accolades it can boast — open-floor event space, the 4th largest LGBT film library in the country, the chance to experience new people and new things – he’s dismayed by this. “By not being involved, people are perpetuating divisions within our community. I think it’s important for us as gay men to acknowledge how much we owe to women’s energy in the creation of the Center,” he says. “I find it so curious – the line in the sand that some draw between gay men and lesbians. During the height of the AIDS crisis, it was gay men who were getting sick and lesbians who were taking care of them.”
As the Center thrives, it too is growing the scope of its diversity. For the first time in its history the board is majority male (6 to 4). “The board feels much more diverse now than when I first joined,” Ringel notes with a look of surprised comfort in his own eyes. “We’ve got youth, trans, people of color, gay men and lesbians, straight allies, parents, all represented on the board now. It’s really very exciting. At the end of the day, we’re working to build an institution where everyone has a home and can feel comfortable. Priority number one is taking care of the parts of the community that are most vulnerable, which right now are youth and seniors. We of course want everyone in the community to know they have a seat at the Center’s table, but we also realize that not everyone needs or chooses to partake. What I want them to understand, however, is the value that the Center adds to their community.” One focus of the Center in the past two years has been with employers and service providers across the region, educating them on the needs and sensitivities of the LGBT community. Health care providers, insurance companies, religious organizations, financial & legal aid groups have all been counseled by the Center on the unique challenges facing our community. “This kind of ‘under the hood’ work isn’t sexy, I know that, but it’s so important for solidifying the foundation and value of our lives in this region as a whole,” Ringel says. “We’re out and proud more than ever, and we’re making sure that the programs and services essential to our lives are available to us all and are best equipped to deal with that.”
In promoting an event for the local LGBT youth community last fall on WDST Radio Woodstock, Ringel’s interview was followed by a phone call from a listener. The gruff voice on the line’s other end barked, “If I knew my kid was gay, he wouldn’t have to wait until he got to school to get beat up.” Lance didn’t even have to compose himself for a retort; the switchboard did it for him. The station was flooded with calls to deliver verbal lashings of shame – mostly from parents who were not LGBT – for the previous comment’s bigotry. Maybe it was the Center’s influence, maybe it was the mainstreaming of gay life. Either way Lance didn’t have to go up to bat again, community allies stood in for him.
As we finished off our third cup of coffee, Lance recounted a trip he’d taken recently to see the Boston Gay Chorus perform. As the show ended and the crowd stood to applaud, the group took a bow. 48 heads of gray hair looked towards the floor in humbled appreciation. It hit him that the community that had created this group is aging. That aging community had made the notion of a community center a symbol of achievement in the fight for civil equality. “If the idea of support and camaraderie created by gay choruses and community centers and the like is to continue, a dialogue needs to be had with younger people,” he says. “Their wants and needs are changing every day, as was the case for us when these institutions were first created. The burning question here is really two-fold: Do you need a community safe space in your life? Do you have a notion of what it would be like if these things weren’t here?”
As our society transitions from an environment of proclaimed visibility to assimilated socialization, our habits are changing – where we shop, where we eat, where we drink, where we live, what we wear, what we don’t. Our identities aren’t beholden to our sexuality, but with that facet of the human experience spending a lot more time in our culture’s comfort zone, do gay people still have to go to gay places? “Sure,” Lance says with a chuckle, “because they make us feel comfortable.” So with a young couple’s wide-eyed toddler watching us from the next table over, we stood up from our Rhinebeck cafe lunch and parted ways with a farewell hug and kiss.