Volume 76, Number 27 | November 22 - 28, 2006

Burns marks 20 years at center of Center

By Paul Schindler

“Doing this work was a tremendous outlet for my rage and my anger,” Richard Burns explained about his first decade at the helm of New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

Burns, who became executive director of the Center on Dec. 1, 1986, when the community gathering place had been open less than two years, recalls that his 20-year tenure there has been neatly divided between two distinct 10-year periods.

“The job of a queer executive director in New York in that first decade was not only to be surrounded by loved ones, friends and comrades who were sick and dying and all the rage, anger and sadness that brought with it, but part of the job was also to go to hospitals to visit people and go to funerals,” he said of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the city’s gay men in the years before protease inhibitors.

A decade after the dying slowed and gay men living with H.I.V. first experienced impressive and heartening improvements in their survivability, Burns sat down to discuss his years as the Center’s leader as well as his prior activism. In the 1840s-era, W. 13th St. former school building that houses the Center, Burns recalled the pull he felt to engage in community work as he graduated from Hamilton College in Upstate New York in 1977.

“When I was a senior in college, I discovered the Gay Community News as a reader,” he said of the Boston newsweekly that during the 1970s and ’80s had an outsized influence across the nation, with subscribers in every state. “And I thought I have to go to Boston and make them hire me.”

The year 1977 was crucial in the development of a nationwide L.G.B.T.-rights movement. Dade County, Fla., had passed a gay-rights bill that almost immediately unleashed a backlash organized by Anita Bryant, a former singer and the spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission. Bryant’s ugly “Save Our Children” crusade succeeded in overturning the ordinance through a voter referendum that June, and she quickly took her show on the road. The backlash, however, also woke millions of gay and lesbian Americans up to the threat posed by Christian-right agitators. Burns cited the episode as a key influence on him.

For him, Boston proved a welcoming home at the center of considerable ferment.

“Boston was really an exciting, fertile queer community,” he recalled. “There were so many gay journals, newspapers, magazines, poetry publications going on. Somebody with an idea and a group of friends — ‘Yeah, let’s publish a magazine, let’s publish a newspaper.’”

By early 1978, Burns was the managing editor of G.C.N. He was part of a burgeoning queer movement, both locally and nationwide. In 1978, Boston’s district attorney based his re-election campaign on overheated claims of a gay “sex ring” aimed at luring underage boys with drugs and money. The gay community responded by founding the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, or GLAD, a legal advocacy group that many years later would score the victory that brought gay marriage to Massachusetts.

Burns was a pioneer in the GLAD effort.

He was also among a group of activists who converged on Philadelphia’s Friends Meeting House in February 1979 to plan the first L.G.B.T. March on Washington, held in October of that year.

When Burns entered law school at Northeastern, also in Boston, in the fall of 1980, he had a strong notion of what he wanted out of the experience.

“I went there with an agenda,” he said.

He quickly met Urvashi Vaid, who has also charted a career as an activist and queer leader, including time as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Kevin Cathcart, whom Burns already knew and has since 1992 led Lambda Legal, the nation’s leading gay public-interest law firm, was a year ahead of him at Northeastern.

“Kevin, Urvashi and I met individually with every member of the law school faculty and said, ‘Where are all the gay people?’” recalled Burns. “We bought Gay Community News subscriptions for everyone on the faculty. And we were received courteously.”

Working as an attorney for the city of Cambridge after law school, Burns soon found the competing demands of his day job and his true passion to be intense.

“So many of my friends were getting sick and dying, so I was rushing through my caseload so I could close my door and do what I felt was my real work,” he recalled, “which was queer activism and fundraising.”

When board members of the newly launched Community Services Center in Manhattan put out feelers to Burns, the approach was something of a lifeline.

“I was thinking, I’ve got to do something because I was going out of my mind and I thought this was a way to do it full time,” he recalled.

Burns arrived in New York in December 1986.

Like 1977, the year 1986 represented another turning point for the L.G.B.T. community. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s sodomy statute with the stinging statement that “to claim that a right to engage in [homosexual sodomy] conduct is ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ or ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’ is, at best, facetious.” Thousands of L.G.B.T. New Yorkers and their allies converged on Sheridan Square in the Village in saddened, yet outraged protest of the high-profile judicial rebuke.

Yet 1986 also saw a significant advance here in New York, as well. In March, after a decade and a half of struggle, activists succeeded in getting the City Council to pass the gay-rights ordinance.

In leaving Boston for New York, Burns was clearly jumping from one “fertile” corner of queer life to another.

Also in 1986 was the founding, at the Center, of Gay Men of African Descent, a leading New York institution that has played a critical role in H.I.V. prevention and community building. In March 1987, three months after Burns arrived, the Center’s First Tuesday speaker series featured an impassioned talk by Larry Kramer that sparked the founding of ACT UP. A month later, Governor Mario Cuomo visited the Center, making one of his first high-profile appearances before an L.G.B.T. audience. The negotiations that made the Cuomo event possible in time resulted in the Center receiving its first state contract for social services, which funded alcohol and drug rehabilitation.

In the years since, the Center has developed dozens of programs aimed at the physical and mental health and well-being of the community, defined to include seniors, queer youth and families headed by L.G.B.T. parents. Project Connect has been a gateway to alcohol and drug recovery for countless gay men and lesbians. The Youth Enrichment Services, or YES, Program provides support, leadership training, creative-arts opportunities and a summer camp experience for queer and questioning youth. The Gender Identity Project serves New York’s diverse transgender communities.

A critical component of the Center’s social services, Burns explained, is to “try to remain flexible enough to adapt to changing needs.” When Project Connect began to see an increasing number of gay men showing up with crystal methamphetamine addiction problems, the Center became home to one of the city’s first Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings based on the 12-step recovery model.

Similarly, in recent years, lesbians confronting cancer stepped forward to relate that they often feel isolated and marginalized with medical professionals and the straight peers they meet in support groups. The Lesbian Cancer Initiative resulted.

The Center estimates that 6,000 people walk through its doors each week — and it does not achieve those kinds of numbers with social services alone. In Burns’s view, its roles in advocacy and social services must be — and have always been — balanced by celebrations of queer culture. He noted that the two oldest ongoing programs are the Second Tuesday speaker series, which brings activists, artists, authors and performers there monthly to discuss their careers, and Center Dances, biweekly Saturday evening gatherings intended as an alcohol-free alternative to the bar scene.

“We don’t want queer, gay people to be made into permanent clients, social-service clients,” Burns said. “Someone may come here in need but we want them to become activists and come here for the gay opera club or the gay Scrabble club, both of which meet here.”

Advocacy is one of the Center’s core missions — and one very close to Burns’s heart. An unreconstructed early queer liberation-era activist, Burns works to move the community toward a progressive vision, while acknowledging that the Center must serve L.G.BT. New Yorkers of widely divergent viewpoints.

“You know the old slogan that we are everywhere,” he explained. “That means we’re all over the political spectrum. And the Center wants to be and must be a home for the full diversity of the L.G.B.T. communities, home to Log Cabin Republicans and gay Democrats. And we want them all to be stakeholders.”

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