Arnie Kantrowitz, pioneering activist who helped pave the way for modern LGBT+ rights, dies aged 81

Arnie Kantrowitz, co-founder of GLAAD, has passed away at the age of 81.

According to his life partner, Dr Lawrence D. Mass, the pioneering campaigner died on 21 January due to complications arising from COVID-19.

In 1969, the Stonewall Riots marked the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement in the US. Around this time, Arnie Kantrowitz began to come to terms with his own sexuality, and joined the Gay Activists’ Alliance in 1970 as its vice president.

A few years later, he helped to co-found the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which sought to challenge mainstream media’s defamatory coverage of the AIDS crisis and the gay community more broadly.

Kantrowitz was part of a new generation of gay activists who rejected shame and embraced pride, as he wrote: “When I see young men and old women coming out of the closet and being called ‘f****ts’ and ‘d***s’ and ‘pariahs’ and ‘betrayers of the family dream,’ then I am honoured to be gay because I belong to a people who are proud.”

Arnie Kantrowitz was a ‘sensitive’, passionate defender of LGBT+ rights

Arnie Kantrowitz was born in 1940 in Newark, New Jersey. In 1977, he published his memoir Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, in which he documented the challenges he navigated while growing up as a gay person in the 60s and 70s, including two suicide attempts. In his memoir, he also charted his growth as a LGBT+ activist: from his discovery of the gay rights movement, to his emergence as a nationally-recognised campaigner.

According to James M. Saslow, an LGBT+ art historian, Kantrowitz’s autobiography “vividly evoked the eternal gay dilemma: Newark was both a home he loved and a prison he couldn’t wait to get away from.”

In an interview with the Queer Newark Oral History Project, Kantrowitz talked about his feeling of ‘otherness’ growing up and feeling “different from what my parents wanted me to be”.

Kantrowitz recalled being taken to a doctor by his mother due to his sexuality: “He didn’t think I was gay, he thought that I was sensitive. And I was! Both!”

Alongside his passion for LGBT+ rights advocacy, Kantrowitz was also a dedicated literature professor and teacher. He worked as an English professor at the College of Staten Island for more than four decades, between 1965 and 2004. During his time there, his visiblility as an LGBT+ campaigner was not always welcomed. Andy Podell, one of his colleagues, recalled that Kantrowitz “had a collection of rocks that he displayed on his desk at the college that had been thrown at his office window.”

Despite the backlash he received for his activism, Kantrowitz continued to act as a role model and offer support to LGBT+ students.

“Students came to me with their secrets and, you know, I was as supportive as I could be and encouraging them, saying, ‘I survived and you will, too.’” Kantrowitz recalled.

As a college professor, Arnie Kantrowitz created on of the first gay studies courses in higher education, and penned a biography on the American poet Walt Whitman as part of the “Gay and Lesbian Writers’ series in 2005.

It is no surprise that many saw Kantrowitz as a “major role model”, as Saslow recalled in an interview with Gay City News.

“It’s hard to overestimate the dramatic effect Arnie had on his students at plain-vanilla Staten Island with his effulgent mustache and outspoken queer politics long before the word ‘gay’ had reached there.” Saslow said.

According to the New York Times, Kantrowitz’s decades of activism gave him “a longer perspective on the movement’s progress” and helped him understand the “personal balance of patience and will power needed to endure being gay in an unwelcoming world”.

Sarah Kate Ellis, the current CEO and president of GLAAD noted the impact of Kantrowitz’s legacy, writing that his “activism paved the way for the growing visibility, protections, and acceptance of the LGBTQ community that we see today.”

She concluded: “His legacy inspires us to continue fighting for a future where the most marginalised among us are seen, heard, and protected.”



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