A Bronx Lesbian Activist Looks Back—And Forward

SoJourner McCauley is part of LGBTQ and black history in the Bronx. She looks back at progress made and ahead and what still needs to be done

SoJourner McCauley (Simone McCarthy)

SoJourner McCauley (Simone McCarthy)

Bronx-born SoJourner McCauley remembers a time when the only way to connect with the LGBTQ community was to take the train down to lower Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center. “People from The Bronx, we would meet each other in The Center, and we would find out, ‘Wait a minute, didn’t I see you on 149th street?’ Nothing was centered here back then,” she says. “We had to go someplace else to congregate to have fun, to seek medical care, information—the whole nine.”

A lot has changed since 1973. McCauley became a social worker and has spent the last 14 years working at the Bronx community organization, BOOM!Health, and its predecessor, Bronx AIDS Services, incorporating her perspective as a domestic violence activist and an out-and-proud lesbian into her work.

And The Bronx has made a lot of progress offering support and social life to its LGBTQ community since those days, with new developments on the cusp. Yet, McCauley worries about what is still missing, particularly about the baseline issues like domestic violence and homelessness.

Research indicates that homelessness affects the LGBTQ community disproportionately. According to a 2012 national survey by UCLA’s Williams Institute think tank, 40 percent of clients at youth homeless shelters identify as LGBTQ. A recent assessment conducted by Legal Services NYC, a group providing representation to low-income New Yorkers, collected stories and data from hundreds of clients and their advocates. They found that 12 percent of LGBTQ respondents reported that they faced discrimination either at shelters or with landlords due to their sexual orientation. “When we talk about lesbian issues, when we talk about LGBTQ issues, we really need to think about basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. Basic things,” she says.

With her colorful clothes and a nose-ring, McCauley is a woman with a definite style. She is quick to laugh when something strikes her funny or widen her eyes with frustration when she’s talking about injustice. And she has a welcoming nature, which she employs often working at BOOM!Health’s harm reduction center, which is open seven days a week. “One of the reasons why I love working here is that we have showers and we have washer machines and somebody can come with a bag of clothes, and they can take a shower and wash their clothes.”

McCauley says housing discrimination against LGBTQ people is one of those issues that happens across the board, regardless of gender, color, or class. But she notes that the strong religious values within many families of color may contribute to youth homelessness: When a child comes out, he or she may not be welcome in a home where that does not jive with the religious values.

Another issue that she feels is particularly under-addressed: domestic violence among lesbian couples. “The violence that happens in our community is very quiet,” McCauley says. That’s not to say that there are no intimate partner-violence services in the Bronx geared toward LGBTQ survivors. The Anti-Violence Project has counselors specifically trained to work with this community at the Family Justice Center in the Bronx. BOOM!Health, where McCauley is community services coordinator, is another LGBTQ community resource that offers counseling along with a host of other supportive services.

One thing McCauley feels is still missing is a central place for the lesbian community to come together. There has been no centralized LGBTQ community center in the Bronx since the Bronx Community Pride Center shut its doors in 2012, following financial troubles. Instead, The Bronx has a collection of different services and spaces, many of which are geared toward specific communities. To name a few: Destination Tomorrow is space for LGBTQ youth and a center for the transgender community. SAGE Center Bronx caters to the elderly LGBTQ population. Several churches welcome LGBTQ members. BAAD! is a dance and art center that embraces queer culture. Medical services are similarly offered at several different locations and hospitals.

After the Pride Center closed, Destination Tomorrow executive director Sean Coleman says community leaders got together and talked about where people would go for the services and support that they used to receive at the center. Coleman says he “wanted to make sure that the young people didn’t fall through the gaps.” This became one focus for Destination Tomorrow.

That’s one of the things that the Pride Center offered the Bronx community that is currently missing: a place with room for everyone. At the center, different groups were able to make a space for themselves and have their own programs and meeting times, allowing unique communities to form underneath the LGBTQ umbrella.

However a new plan is in the works to rectify this: a new Bronx Pride Center, a collaborative spearheaded by BOOM!Health and one of Councilmember Torres’ focal points within his term.

“It really represents a comprehensive vision of what the community wants,” says John Hellman, assistant vice president of advocacy and communications at BOOM! Health, who says the “community visioning” planning process so far has involved LGBTQ leaders from different communities as well as an online survey open to the community. “It’s been extremely important to engage as many people as possible in this experience,” he says.

While the location has yet to be finalized, John Hellman, assistant vice president of advocacy and communications at BOOM! Health, says that the team has its eye on the Old Fordham Library, and is hopeful that that the new Pride Center will be up and running in 2018.

McCauley is positive about the future for the LGBTQ community in the Bronx. “There are more people of the LGBTQ community living in the Bronx today. There are more people who are out about who they are,” she says. “You’ve got to let people know who you are and what you need and how quickly you need it—and what you can do to change the environment, so that it becomes safe. You can’t do that without speaking up. And people are finding their voices.”

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