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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 “Good-bye.”

Bob Kohler (center) at his 80th birthday
party with Rickke Mananzala and
Jesse Ehrensaft-Hawley, FIERCE;
Joo-Hyun Kang, 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 old.

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 him.

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 over!”

Bob Kohler, presente!