New Jersey’s Asbury Park and the LGBT community
More than anything, the LGBT’s greatest strength is its community. As an example, look at the LGBT community in Asbury Park in New Jersey.
From helping rebuild the area to simple acts of protest in the face of harassment, the members of the LGBT community living here continue to hold steady.
A diverse community, a rich history
Like many places in the US, Asbury Park in New Jersey represents the diverse culture of the many citizens of the country.
“There’s always been a (LGBT) presence here in Asbury Park, just like the Haitian community’s always had a presence. There’s the Latino community. You have the Anglo community. You have the black community,” former mayor Ed Johnson said.
It was also one of the few areas that advertised the presence of the LGBT community, Johnson said: “There was a time when Asbury Park, in the ’60s and ’70s, had numerous LGBT bars, for lack of a better word, gay bars, in Asbury Park.”
Historian and author Kathy Kelly said: “You had gay clubs in Asbury Park in the 1930s when you couldn’t have them, and part of that was because we were a resort town.”
“When you’re talking about the early days of Asbury Park, this was one of the few cities that were a destination for many in the New York City and Philadelphia metropolitan areas,” explained Garden State Equality executive director Christian Fuscarino.
“So the LGBT community, especially at a time when folks were not accepted for who they were, would gather in these cities to find folks like them and be able to interact in a space that was safe,” Fuscarino added.
However, the area suffered during the 1970s riots even as the AIDS epidemic “really devastated the gay community” in the late 1970s, said Johnson. But the LGBT community continued to make a home in the city.
“Asbury Park was a destination, a safe destination, for the gay community, even when it was the least safe place in New Jersey from a perception perspective,” Kelly said.
A place the LGBT community could call home
Kelly cited one of the main reasons why the LGBT community stayed: “Nobody was paying attention. The gay community would go where they wouldn’t get beat up, and so you could go to Asbury Park because nobody you knew was going to Asbury Park.”
“So if you were closeted or you might be out to your family but closeted to the world, you would go to Asbury Park because its devastation protected you,” Kelly said.
Fortunately, Johnson said, the LGBT community and the city at large began to turn around.
“We started to see a resurgence, I guess at the end of the ’80s into the ’90s, and then at the turn of the century we never looked back,” he noted.
“And it was that generation that decided to invest their money in buying homes because they said, ‘This is where we’re hanging out. This is where people are inviting us’,” Kelly said.
Things began to get better when in 1992, the Jersey Pride LGBT parade and festival was first held in the area, where it remains today.
“What we’re seeing over the past five, 10 years is Asbury Park going to new heights because of other communities coming into this beautiful city that was brought back to life by the LGBT community,” Fuscarino said.
Asbury Park: A safe place for LGBT protest against the future
But while the LGBT community has managed to salvage a bright future for Asbury Park, today’s uncertain political climate under the Trump administration means that they also need to protect that future.
A recent attack by a man suspected of bigotry against a woman volunteer who– together with a group of gay, lesbian, and transgender volunteers– were making signs for a Labor Day rally against hate, shows what the community has to contend with.
The man, 22-year old Morris May White from Scotch Plains, attacked the woman on Ocean Avenue using a can of chemical spray and then fled the scene. He was later arrested by the police.
“I consider Asbury Park to be one of the few LGBT safe havens in New Jersey. It’s extremely discouraging that an event like this took place,” Fuscarino told New Jersey 101.5 in an interview.
He added: “But I am confident that love and solidarity and understanding is always stronger than extremism and hate.”