Cathy Renna

Remembering Ali

Filed By Cathy Renna | December 10, 2007 11:38 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, The Movement
Tags: African-American, Ali Forney Center, LGBT homeless youth, New York City, religion

One of the things I wish our community was better at doing is reflection - taking a deep breath and celebrating victories, analyzing defeats and recognizing loss. Instead, we spend far too much time fighting with each other over differences that at times seem irresolvable anyway. Call me naïve, but after nearly 20 years of activism it still surprises me how rarely this happens. But it happened last week in a New York City church to honor the life and legacy of a young, effeminate African American man. I say call a truce and read on.....

Last week, I had the privilege to take part in a memorial service that marked tens years since the murder of Ali Forney, a then 22 year old African-American gay man living on the streets of New York. It was the kind of gathering that re-energizes me, gives me hope and was a chance to see a great example of a group in our community who struggles every days to save lives and demonstrate the true family and community values I believe most of us try to live out every day.

And I find it very ironic and more than a little bit karmic that is was an effeminate gay black man who is the reason for the existence of a center that has the most comprehensive program helping LGBT homeless youth in the country. This is no "cots in a basement" or "warehouse" Center . The AFC has apartments for young people to live in for extended periods of time, provides job and school assistance, regular counseling and an all-day drop-in Center open to all. It is always a joy to go to any of the facilities - one of the few places where I can simply enjoy the moment, the company and forget that I have work and deadlines. Sitting in the Day Center listening to one kid play a new song he has written on the guitar, join a sing-along of (and of course vogue to) Madonna or Mary J. Blige, I see that this is not just a social space - the AFC is saving lives. Often the lives of the kids that are cast away by their families of origin and certainly not supported as much as they could be by our own community. Carl Siciliano, the AFC Founder and Executive Director often says - "when these kids are thrown out of their homes, they become our kids." As a mother I find it unimaginable that one could cast out their child for being LGBT (or any other reason for that matter) and I completely agree. Recent studies, including one by NGLTF, which looks at the percentages and treatment of LGBT homeless youth, should shock us into action

But back to remembering Ali.

The opening was a fabulous, raucous vogueing number by the Ali Forney Center dancers, who came out from behind the Christmas trees on the Judson Church stage and brought everyone to their feet.

It was also a very religious ceremony - a homily by Rev. Dominique Atchinson set the stage, followed by a personal and moving recollection, by Ali Forney Center Executive Director Carl Siciliano, of Ali's life and what motivated him to create this Center in his friend's name. There was no glossing over Ali's sharp tongue and sometimes confrontational style, but the reality of his living his own truth, as an effeminate black gay man, his larger than life spirit and sense of humor, his desire to help others no matter what his own situation and his deep spiritual beliefs were what brought the group gathered to tears. How many of us can say we have taken bags of condoms to homeless youth prostituting on the streets to help them avoid HIV infection? It was this strength of character and spirit that help Ali transcend the loss of his sister to the foster care system, the abuse and prejudice he faced daily and the dehumanizing way homeless people are treated in this country.

For me, the most intense remembrance of Ali came when his sister Chaka spoke. With her two small children in the front row hanging on her every work, she described Ali as a child - foreshadow of his fierceness as a young adult. She spoke of his strength; of how much he taught her and how she felt his spirit in the room with us. She urged all of us - but especially the AFC youth clients in attendance - to stay true to themselves. She was an inspiration to all of us - having pulled herself out of an almost unimaginably difficult childhood and now the mother of two beautiful children being raised with love and care. When I went to thank her for coming - prior to the ceremony beginning - her 4-year-old son Kevin ran into my arms and hugged me to greet me. I have never met them, but he clearly knew he was in a safe space and had such joy in his eyes. This was one loved little boy.

After Chaka spoke, the audience was asked to come up and say a few words. Many who knew Ali from the streets, counselors and kids, spoke of him in many different ways. Some where about a strong young man who - despite his effeminate nature - took no shit from anyone. One counselor told the "R" rated version of how Ali decided he would help her figure out a way to "keep her man," mostly by describing in graphic detail how to give a really great blow job (Ali's niece and nephew were in the front row!). I experienced a mix of tears, laughter and an indescribable sense of wonder at being present for this event. One current AFC clients, 21-year-old Ari Yanopulo summed it all up when he said, "If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have a place to go."

After this, the Lavender Light gospel choir sang and soprano Natalie Douglas sand Ali's favorite song, "Eye on the Sparrow." I wondered as I sat there - what would the religious right make of this? A very diverse group of LGBTQ people of all races and ages, rocking out to an LGBT gospel choir (if you have never heard of Lavender Light, google them immediately and buy the CD) and crying with a mix of joy and sadness during Eye of the Sparrow. It was a testament to me of what our community is truly capable of when we have the heart and courage to lead and do what needs to be done.

Chaka said that she felt Ali was not only looking down on us, but would, after questioning anyone's decision to name a center after him, be very proud. I know we have been proud to work with the Ali Forney Center on increasing their visibility and educational ad campaigns. As we approach the holidays and think about family, home and how lucky we all are, I urge you to think about our other kids - the ones on the street - who need us now more than ever. Look at and you will see what I mean.

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Leah McElrath | December 10, 2007 4:35 PM

Thanks for reminding us of how we can make a difference within our own community.

Much attention has lately - and rightly - been paid to LGBT-headed families, most of whom have young children. But there are many ways to be a parent, and providing resources for marginalized LGBT youth is an important one.

The Ali Forney Center is doing great work and deserves our support.

Isn't it something? He was a nobody - a kid from the streets. Yet the center named after him has become one of the best resources for LGBT youth in the nation.

We always think that only presidents or really important people get buildings and streets named after them; we're only half right. Famous people do get their names immortalized. The really good ones do too and it sounds like he was a good one. :)