Bob Kohler: Stonewall vet, AIDS activist, anti-racist fighter
Published Dec 13, 2007 10:24 PM
A multinational crowd of all ages marched on Dec. 9 through the streets of the
West Village, the East Coast birthplace of the modern lesbian/gay/bi/trans
movement. Onlookers repeatedly asked, “What’s going on? What are
you protesting?” Marchers explained that they were actually just saying
Bob Kohler (center) at his
Rickke Mananzala and
Audre Lorde Project;
and Imani Henry and
Cori Wiggins, FIERCE.
Bob Kohler, a Stonewall Rebellion combatant and gay “granddad” to
many New York LGBT radicals, had died Dec. 5 of lung cancer. He was 81 years
With militant chanting and drumming and carrying signs demanding services for
homeless people with AIDS, over 150 LGBT and AIDS activists participated in the
political funeral. Led by a banner that read, “We love you, Bob,”
marchers chanted, “Whose streets? Bob’s streets?” as they
made their way along Christopher Street on their way to throw Bob’s ashes
into the water at the Hudson River piers.
In the week following his death, much was written about Bob’s decades of
activism. What can never be stated enough was how, as a white, gay man, he
spent his life fighting in solidarity with communities of color, transgender
and gender non-conforming people and people living with AIDS.
“Bob was an unapologetic ally, which is what every lesbian, gay, I,
two-spirit trans and gender non-conforming person of color needs,” said
Lucia Leandro Gimeno, development and administrative coordinator for the Audre
Lorde Project, a center for community organizing.
Throughout his life, Bob learned the meaning of self-determination and
respected the leadership of oppressed communities. Without any fanfare, Bob
Kohler would make himself available to do whatever was needed or asked of
According to an 80th birthday tribute written by Emmaia Gelman, one of the
close friends and activists who took care of Bob in his later years, Bob was
born in May of 1926 and raised in Queens, N.Y. After a stint in the Navy, he
spent the immediate post-war years working in television, before starting his
own talent agency. He was a pioneer in representing non-big-name
African-American actors during a time of Jim Crow segregation.
In the 1960s, Bob became active with the civil rights group CORE (Congress for
Racial Equality) and went to the South to participate in the Freedom Rides.
In the summer of 1969 immediately following the Stonewall Rebellion, Bob Kohler
along with other Stonewall combatants formed the Gay Liberation Front. Inspired
by the people of Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, the GLF had a broad
and revolutionary political platform.
The GLF was not only an LGBT anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist formation but it
fought sexism and racism and declared itself in support of national liberation
movements such as the Black Panther Party.
Over the years, Bob Kohler became an activist with many groups, including
ACT-UP and New York City AIDS Housing Network, Sex Panic!, and Fed-Up Queers.
He spent 18 months standing outside the NYC Division of AIDS Services with a
clipboard and a cell phone, fighting the city’s illegal attempts to deny
housing to poor/homeless people with AIDS.
Right up into his 70s, Bob loved to participate in civil disobedience. He was
arrested at an estimated 32 direct actions in the fight against AIDS, for
justice in the police murder of Amadou Diallo, and in solidarity with
immigrants against the Special Registration Drive.
“You always knew you could count on him to show up at a picket, rally,
meeting or special scouting mission that could be helped by an older white man
with blue eyes who just needed to use a bathroom in that corporate
headquarters,” wrote Joo-Hyun Kang, founding executive director of the
Audre Lorde Project.
Two of Kohler’s dearest friends were the legendary trans leaders Sylvia
Rivera and Marsha P Johnson. Marsha and Sylvia were also Stonewall combatants
and founders of the first New York City trans group, Street Transvestites
Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Sylvia affectionately referred to Bob as her
“gay father” because of his love, respect and the solidarity he
genuinely felt towards younger activists.
A longtime resident of the West Village, Bob later in life became a staunch
supporter and ally to the political LGBT youth group FIERCE, which leads the
fight against police brutality and gentrification of the Village.
Bran Fenner, co-director and one of the founders of FIERCE, said, “Bob
Kohler has meant so much to FIERCE personally as well as organizationally. His
work in the movement has been immense and so is the loss that so many of us are
feeling. I feel honored to have been able to work with so many radical queer
elders such as Bob and Sylvia.”
Rickke Mananzala, also a co-director of FIERCE, went on to add, “In honor
of Bob, our work will stay steady on the road to reaching the future that he
and other visionaries fought for. Thirty-eight years after Stonewall,
Bob’s legacy will continue to remind us that the rebellion is not
Bob Kohler, presente!
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