Bob Kohler, Gay Rights Pioneer, 1926-2007
Bob Kohler doing outreach for homeless people with HIV in 2000.
photo: Cary Conover
Bob Kohler, gay activist, former owner of The Loft on Christopher Street, Stonewall veteran, co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front, ACT UP member, and longtime fixture of Charles Street, died on Wednesday at the age of 81. The cause of death was cancer, according to friends.
A Queens native who lost a kidney in World War II, Kohler was remembered as a tireless fighter for gay rights, transsexual rights, queer youth, and people with HIV/AIDS who never gave up the struggle even as he battled illness and advancing years.
"At at an age when most people were doing nothing much more than using a remote control Bob was out on the street fighting for what he believed in and often committing civil disobedience," said Bill Dobbs, a friend. "He inspired many younger activists and helped shape the modern gay rights movement."
When the Giuliani administration's Division of AIDS Services and Income Support (DASIS) regularly failed to provide housing for HIV-positive homeless people, Kohler was an active member of DASIS Watch, a group of volunteers who kept a vigil outside of the city's DASIS offices to ensure that everyone who needed it got an assignment. For 18 months, Kohler stood guard outside the DASIS office on Eighth Avenue.
“I had not done anything like that before, but I was the only one who kept showing up,” Kohler told The Villager newspaper, describing how many of the homeless did not trust him at first. “It took a lot of cajoling and begging…they told me to get my white ass out of there.... It was the coldest winter I can remember. I was out there every day for 18 months."
In 1999, after his arrest in front of One Police Plaza , where protesters set up vigil after the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, Kohler told the Voice:
"I do not equate my oppression with the oppression of blacks and Latinos. You can't. It is not the same struggle, but it is one struggle. And, if my being here as a longtime gay activist can influence other people in the gay community, it's worth getting arrested. I'm an old man now. I don't look forward to spending 24 hours in a cell. But these arrests are giving some kind of message. I don't know what else you can do."
This biography written by friends of Kohler in celebration of his 80th birthday last year gives a good picture of the sweep and arc of the man's life:
"Born in Queens, New York, in 1926, Bob joined the Navy and served in the South Pacific where he “left a kidney behind.” After WWII, he worked in television before launching a talent agency in Hell’s Kitchen. Bob was among the first agents to represent non-famous Black artists and hold classes for Black performers who, “since agents would not represent them,” lacked audition experience. Although Bob tells stories of theater circles, A-list parties, and witnessing celebrities’ darker pre-fame moments, he says “don’t make me out to be some big-shot. I was an independent agent who worked my ass off.”
To his younger friends, Bob recounts stories of a queer world in another era: how he and his boyfriend Ed bought a fixer-upper in Amagansett in what became a gay enclave; of the show-biz lesbians who settled nearby Bridge-hampton; about the eventual move to Cherry Grove and the Pines in Fire Island and the class wars that defined relations between the two gay settlements. Of the Hamptons days, Bob says, “We were gay when it wasn’t cool to be gay, and I like to think that we did make a few openings here and there. We never closeted ourselves.”
On the second night of the Stonewall riots in 1969, Bob and other West Village community members called the first meeting of the Gay Liberation Front, which Bob (and historians) credit with “establishing radicalism in the New York gay community.” He went on to work with direct action and advocacy groups including ACT UP, Sex Panic!, The Neutral Zone, Fed Up Queers, the NYC AIDS Housing Network, Irish Queers, animal rights groups, and others. Throughout his work, Bob was a father figure to activists and street kids, including Sylvia Rivera, who herself grew up to be a parent and mentor to queer youth.
In the late 1970s, Bob became manager of the Club Baths. He fought the closure of bathhouses as a response to AIDS in the 1980s, arguing that they were controlled environments with condoms, soap and water, and information “and that many bathhouses were willing to take on a community organizing role to stop the spread of HIV.”
But homophobia and panic prevailed against the bathhouses, so Bob opened The Loft, a retail store with shops on Christopher Street and on Fire Island. He used the wild popularity of the shop to support independent designers like Patricia Field as they started out -- and to leverage recognition of the queer community by marketers like Calvin Klein who pulled in enormous amounts of money from queers but failed, at times, to stand up for them.
In 1999, Bob helped form Fed Up Queers, a direct action cell that challenged the rise of right-wing gay groups, discriminatory AIDS policies, and Mayor Giuliani’s targeting of queers, people with HIV/AIDS, people on welfare, low-income people, and people of color, among other issues. In 2001, when the City of New York began illegally denying emergency housing to homeless people with AIDS, Bob became the core volunteer in an activist operation to pressure the city. Bob, who was 75 at the time, stood outside the housing agency for hours each day for a year, supporting PWAs and calling on politicians and news media. His work formed the basis of a lawsuit that forced the City into compliance with housing assistance laws hard-won by AIDS activists in the 1990s.
Most recently, Bob has mentored the queer youth of FIERCE! in their struggles against displacement, police harassment, and attacks by residents of the gentrified, increasingly heterosexual West Village."
Funeral and memorial arrangements for Kohler have not yet been set.