By Perry Brass
Sometimes it’s difficult to realize looking back at an activity how far ahead it was. But for the three founders—Leonard Ebreo, Marc Rabinowitz, and myself—of the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic, the first clinic for gay men on the East Coast, opening in 1972 in an unfinished concrete basement at 247 West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village—this wasn’t difficult. We just had no idea how far reaching the term “gay men’s health” would become. But we knew the clinic was vitally necessary, and the absence of anything like it was deeply felt. How three queer men with no professional background in public health, but a driving desire to understand the needs of a community so marginalized even its name could barely be spoken, could start it is amazing. Part of it came from the ethos of a time when boundaries were being erased between forbidden and allowed, patient and professional, and sexuality and the rest of life.
The story of clinic begins with the conflicting, often infuriating character of Leonard Ebreo, or Lenny as he was known. Lenny was an intense, driven ball of romantic energy that consumed itself too often. All three of us—Lenny, Marc Rabinowitz (a short, very sweet guy from Brooklyn, who talked with a stammer, wore a hearing aid, and worked as an insurance clerk) and I—were in our early or mid twenties. I’d already been involved with the gay movement for three years, co-edited Come Out!, the Gay Liberation Front’s groundbreaking underground newspaper, and was instrumental in launching Mouth of the Dragon, the first journal of gay male poetry in the world edited by Andrew Bifrost. Lenny came from an Italian immigrant family from Brooklyn and Queens; in his late teens he decided to convert to Judaism, and so changed his name to Ebreo, Italian for “Hebrew.” On a trip to Israel with his college friend Alice Bloch, who later became a novelist, he decided that he was attracted to men, Alice decided she was a lesbian, and the two of them returned to New York full of “alleyah,” the Hebrew term for stepping up towards God (as expressed in a holy immigration to Israel), for going forth with a purpose.
Their purpose they decided was to start a lesbian and gay community drop-in center based on a therapeutic model; to do so they took out a dirt-cheap lease on the central storage area of a dank concrete basement in a West Village tenement. They put in a few lights, moved in some folding chairs and a card table, and called their space “Liberation House,” or “Lib House” for short. Liberation House later formed the core of a therapy group that moved to Chelsea, continuing to this day as Identity House. It also housed the first gay switchboard in New York, and hosted a continuous round of nightly consciousness raising groups that Lenny conceived as providing a nucleus for genuine activism. There were women’s groups, men’s groups, a coming-out group, an S & M group, and one group that Lenny specifically formed around the issue of gay men’s health. His model for this was the women’s movement which had already started women’s health clinics in many cities offering counseling, birth control, abortion referral, and free open information forums to women. Using this model, he wanted to provide gatherings where men could talk openly about their bodies—its functions, sexual and otherwise, and the myriad taboos around it that kept queer men isolated and ashamed even in cities like New York. In short, there were no places even to ask questions about gay sexuality, the physical aspects of it as well as the emotional aspects that were often totally dismissed.
These aspects included sexual roleplay, taking responsibility for your actions, and also for the actions of the community itself.
At weekly Sunday coffee house get-togethers, I met Lenny and then Marc and became quickly, almost magnetically drawn into Lenny’s embracing, almost myth-directed personality. He was large, close to six feet tall, well built, fashionably dressed, and broodingly handsome with dark features, silky Southern Italian hair and a jet-black very 1970s mustache. He looked like one of Edgar Degas’s elegant, Sephardic Jewish-Italian cousins; he also stayed in a constant near-boil of anger: he’d journeyed from being Italian-Queens Catholic to Zionist-Jewish to Greenwich Village gay, and found, sadly, that the queer world, once he’d made this plunge, had almost nothing in it for him.
It did not offer him the deep, courageous love he on one hand wholeheartedly desired, and on the other had such a difficult time attracting and keeping for himself. He experimented with all forms of sexuality: backroom promiscuity, romantic vanilla monogamy, the taboo-crossing rituals of S & M; and found satisfaction in none of it. Although a convert, he still adored his family, and felt that Judaism was lacking in the gritty passion of the Italian working-class that backed its kids no matter what, even while instilling in them mega-doses of sexual shame.
We talked about these things endlessly, especially body shame, which Lenny, a Wilhelm Reich fan like many of our generation, felt was at the very center of gay oppression—that sense of shame that stopped huge numbers of gay men from even opening their mouths about themselves. We would never come out of oppression, he decided, until we could accept our bodies openly, with candor, and without fear. Lenny organized a “Gay Men’s Body-Consciousness Raising Group” that I attended. I loved the sheer, jaw-dropping outrageousness of it.
Here, instead of politics, we talked openly about the mystique of the penis, as well as the open fear and revulsion it caused. Instead of patriarchy and how it roped in homophobia, we talked about the anus: what exactly gave it pleasure, when did we first become aware of it, and why were we so intimidated by this part of our bodies? At the end of several weeks of discussions, Lenny had an idea.
“We’ll provide an open community forum on gay men’s health: How to take care of ourselves. Venereal diseases, what to look for—all the things people are scared of talking about. We’ll get experts to speak, but the most important thing is that we’ll be leading it, not the doctors or the health bureaucrats.”
It was held in the community room of Washington Square Methodist Church, an “alternative” church involved with the peace and women’s movements, whose pastor and leadership embraced the idea. A speaker, gay, from the New York City Department of Health came; he was an ex-actor who did lectures on VD to school kids, one of the Department’s focuses. We also brought in Ronald Richman, one of the first openly gay young doctors in New York. The results were impressive: with almost no publicity other than flyers handed out in the Village, almost a hundred men showed up. The audience was rapt: they wanted to absorb everything they could about gay health. Richman talked about the rise of “gay” VD, how dangerous it was, that syphilis and gonorrhea were not “just like catching a cold,” “knocked in the head with one shot of penicillin,” like too many people foolishly thought, but were extremely dangerous diseases that could lead to impotence, paralysis, blindness, even death.
He also advocated using condoms, but realized that there was little chance gay men en mass could be convinced to use a device previously associated with birth control. We became fascinated with the idea though: that condoms could become a part of every gay man’s “kit.” That before going out cruising for sex, which so many of us did, whether we wanted to admit it or not, you’d pack a condom with you. This was in 1972, when such an idea seemed almost ridiculous—but the important thing was to get gay men to understand that their bodies and its problems were not to be taken lightly. That sexually transmitted diseases were serious and the more you knew about them, the safer you’d be and the happier.
Originally posted as “A Prophesy Before Our Time: The Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic Opens in 1972” by the New York Public Library.