Adam Eli: Standing Up For Queer Family Everywhere
Day 28 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.
Pulse was Orlando, Florida’s premiere gay bar and nightclub. Founded by Barbara Poma and Ron Legler in 2004, Pulse was named in memory of Poma’s older brother, John. Barbara and John grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and John introduced her to the gay scene there. To Barbara, John was more than just gay; he was her “loving brother” who opened her mind and gave her a zest for life. But then John, like many other gay men in the early 1990s, died from AIDS on February 13th of 1991.
Over a decade later, Barbara, along with her friend Ron, decided to found a nightclub in John’s memory. They called their club “Pulse” as a representation of John’s desire to live. Poma and Legler wanted Pulse to be not simply a gay club, but a place to promote local talent and build community. They used Pulse as a way to raise awareness about issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention, breast cancer, and immigrant rights, as a significant portion of the club’s clientele was Latinx.
On June 12th of 2016, the club was hosting a Latinx night when Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, entered the club armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol. He open fired on the crowd, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. When police officers arrived, Mateen took those inside the club hostage. The scene was one of mayhem. Many did not know what was happening due to the dim lighting and loud music; others were able to escape through nearby exists; some were able to text or call loved ones; and many lost their lives amidst the darkness and confusion as Mateen enacted his violence.
After a three-hour standoff, Mateen was shot and killed by the Orlando police. He had just perpetrated the deadliest act of violence against LGBTQ people in American history. Prior to Pulse, the deadliest attack on a gay club had occurred on June 24th of 1973, when fire was set to the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar located in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Thirty-two people died from smoke inhalation, while another fifteen were injured. Like Pulse, it remains unclear whether the torching of the UpStairs Lounge was motivated by homophobia or other factors. Evidence suggests that Mateen may not have known Pulse was a gay club — he was simply looking for a location to carry out an act of violence that had a high concentration of people.
Adam Eli watched the events of the Pulse shooting unfold on television and social media from his home in New York City. He didn’t quite know what he should do in response, but knew he had to do something. He began posting his thoughts online, and soon others were messaging him, asking what they could do to help. His first act of organizing was a suggestion that people meet at the corner of 7th Avenue and 12th Street to attend a Pulse memorial together. At that time, he had only about a thousand followers, but 30 people showed up, and he began to recognize the power of social media.
He was born Adam Eli Werner to a family of Jewish activists in New York City. His Jewish identity, in the spirit of other Jewish gay rights activists such as Harvey Milk and Larry Kramer, directly impacted his desire to effect change. Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, was influenced by the Jewish ethical principle of tikkun olam, which he learned from his mother, Minnie. Tikkun olam literally means “repair of the world” and conveys the idea that Jews are responsible not only for their own well-being, but for improving the well-being of all people everywhere.
Eli’s mother was involved in the Soviet Jewry Movement, an international human rights campaign that advocated for the right of Jews living in the former Soviet Union to emigrate to other countries, particularly Israel, because the Soviet Union wanted to destroy Russian-Jewish communities through forced assimilation. After the Soviet Union began to imprison movement leaders who advocated for Jewish emigration, the movement spread to the United States during the 1960s and 1970s.
American Soviet Jewry groups lobbied Washington for the successful passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked American trade with the Soviet Union to the rights of Soviet Jews to resist forced assimilation through the right to emigrate. On December 6th of 1987, American Soviet Jewry groups also marched on the summit between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan to demand the right of Jews to emigrate.
Eli was particularly inspired by the Jewish concept from the Talmud that all of Israel is responsible for one another. He began to substitute “Israel” for the words “gay” or “queer” and applied this logic to LGBTQ issues. His belief that “queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere” can be understood as a queer interpretation of the principle of tikkun olam. He was also influenced by his personal hero, Holocaust survivor, writer, and activist Eli Wiesel, who advocated a philosophy of universal empathy.
Eli began wearing a pink kippah, a brimless cap worn by Jewish men to fulfill the traditional observance that one’s head be covered, either during prayer or at all times depending on one’s interpretation of Jewish law, to demonstrate his belief that Jewish principles and LGBTQ rights are connected. His kippah is comprised of four upward-facing pink triangles, a symbol used to mark gay men in Nazi concentration camps that was repurposed by activists during the AIDS Civil Rights Movement, sewn together to form a circle.
Gays Against Guns (GAG), a New York City-based nonviolent direct action group that advocates gun control while raising awareness of the disproportionate impact of gun violence on marginalized communities, formed in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting. Eli was present when the group was founded at the LGBT Center on West 13th Street. Through GAG, he learned the basics of advocacy and the history of ACT UP and soon became the group’s social media manager. Through this work, he established the motto that everything he posted on social media “must be hopeful or a direct call to action.”
That motto was tested when news broke of the government of Chechnya’s persecution of gay men. Chechnya is a mainly Muslim, highly conservative region of the Russian Federation ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, an authoritarian leader loyal to President Vladimir Putin. Homophobia in Chechnya increased due to Putin empowering regional leaders to interpret and implement “traditional values” in any way they see fit. Though Chechnya has long been on the radar of human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, for its oppressive stance towards LGBTQ Chechens, February of 2017 saw the beginnings of a crackdown in which there was an organized campaign to detain gay men and men perceived as gay.
Over 100 gay men have been abducted, detained, tortured, or killed at a center near the city of Grozny. Victims who came forward described being interrogated, beaten, having their phones searched for evidence of gay content, and given little food or water. Some referred to the crackdown as a “gay purge” or “gay genocide.” When asked about the allegations in July of 2017, Kadyrov tellingly stated that “there were no gays in Chechnya.”
Far from dismissing the allegations, Kadyrov, as an autocratic leader, revealed his regime’s true intentions : to symbolically and literally purge Chechnya of queers as a way to consolidate power through appeals to an imagined past in which gender and sexual roles are clearly defined and individual rights and freedoms are severely limited. Through using gay Chechens as an example, the Kadyrov regime sent the message that acting outside of traditional heteronormative roles will not be tolerated.
“Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.”
Eli watched outrage erupt over the Chechen purges on social media. Yet, there seemed little for Americans to do besides sign petitions denouncing Chechen government’s actions. Eli knew this wasn’t enough, and he posted the following message on social media: “I want to march from Stonewall to the Russian Embassy on 96th Street.”
The idea gained traction, and he partnered with RUSA LGBT, an advocacy organization for Russian-speaking LGBT people and allies. At their suggestion, the march was rerouted to begin at Stonewall and end at Trump Tower as a visible representation of the attack on LGBTQ rights by autocratic leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. By the time marchers reached Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan, Eli realized they had created more than just a march — they had initiated a movement — and the organization Voices 4 was founded nearly by accident.
Voices 4 raises awareness of the reality that though, in the Western world, LGBTQ rights have seen significant advances, this is not true of all areas of the world equally. In November of 2017, the group staged a nonviolent protest outside of the Russian Consulate in New York City to demand the Russian government open an investigation into the disappearance of gay Russian-Chechen popstar Zelimkhan Bakaev.
Bakaev disappeared in August of 2017 when he traveled to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, for his sister’s wedding. But after August 8th, Bakaev’s family did not hear from him, and his social media accounts lay dormant. At a press conference in October, Igor Kochetkov, founder of Russia’s LGBT Network informed the press that sources had reported that Bakaev was detained by Chechen authorities due to “suspicion of homosexuality” upon entering Grozny as part of the region’s broader purge of gays. Kochetkov’s source also indicated that the popstar was tortured. “Within ten hours he was murdered,” he gravely told the press.
Voices 4 was tracking Bakaev’s case at their meetings, and in November, fifty members descended on the Russian Consulate carrying signs that read “Where is Zelimkhan Bakaev?” in both English and Russian. “No Murder, No Hate, Russia Investigate, Gays in Chechnya Cannot Wait,” they chanted as they held hands in a show of solidarity with gay Chechens and oppressed LGBTQ people everywhere.
“When one country… detains, tortures and murders their LGBTQ+ citizens without any ramifications, other countries follow suit,” Eli explained. “I want this action to inform these violent governments and their LGBTQ+ victims that we are taking action and will not allow this to continue.” Voices 4’s ultimate demand was the the U.S. government issue humanitarian parole visas, a type of visa used to bring individuals into the country for a temporary period due to an emergency or compelling humanitarian situation, to LGBTQ Chechens.
Under Eli’s leadership, Voices 4 developed a distinctive style of nonviolent direct action that references the history of LGBTQ activism, while moving in a global direction in line with Jewish humanitarian principles. In the style of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), founded in 1987, Voices 4 and RUSA LGBT staged a kiss-in, titled “Kiss 2 Resist,” at the Uzbek Consulate in New York City in February of 2018 to raise awareness of rising LGBTQ persecution in countries like Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, among others. ACT UP, for example, used the protest form of the kiss-in to demonstrate HIV could not be transmitted through casual contact.
Voices 4’s kiss-in was a way to highlight to LGBTQ Americans and allies that in other countries, one could be arrested and imprisoned for an act as simple as sharing a same-gender kiss. As Vinnie Amendolare, a member of Voices 4, later remarked, the purpose of the kiss-in was “not just to resist the forces against us, but to answer them with a more powerful alternative” — in this case love as an expression of shared humanity.
“When one country… detains, tortures and murders their LGBTQ+ citizens without any ramifications, other countries follow suit. I want this action to inform these violent governments and their LGBTQ+ victims that we are taking action and will not allow this to continue.”
On April 21st of 2018, Eli participated in an event honoring the 52nd anniversary of one of the earliest acts of gay public resistance: a 1966 “Sip-In” at the Julius Bar in Greenwich Village. Inspired by the “sit-ins” of the Black Civil Rights Movement, the New York chapter of the homophile organization the Mattachine Society, led by Dick Leitsch and Craig Rodwell, were determined to take on bars who refused to serve gay patrons. While “gay bars” were not technically illegal in New York State, the State Liquor Authority (SLA) employed regulations that made it illegal to serve alcohol to known or suspected homosexuals, as their presence was considered disorderly. Many bars went so far as to place signs in their windows proclaiming: “If You’re Gay, Go Away.”
Mattachine members originally planned to stage their “Sip-In” at a bar on 8th Street that displayed such a sign. Intending to create a sense of theatre and visibility around their activism, they strategically alerted the press; however, the group arrived late, and a reporter from the New York Times had already tipped off the bar, which promptly put a “Closed” sign in their window. The group moved on to Julius, a bar that had been recently raided, because they knew they would be denied service if they announced they were homosexuals.
Leitsch, Rodwell, John Timmons, and Randy Wicker walked into the bar and sat down. When the bartender placed glasses in front of them and asked what they wanted, they announced they were gay, adding that they intended to remain orderly, and simply wanted service. “Hey, you’re gay, I can’t serve you,” was the bartender’s response. He emphasized his words by placing his hand over the men’s glasses.
Mattachine challenged the SLA in court, which ruled that under the United States Constitution, people — including homosexuals — had the right to peacefully assemble. The court also determined that the state Liquor Authority could not prevent gay people from congregating in bars despite cultural reticence to serve gay clientele. Winning the right to peacefully assemble led to the growth of urban gay bars as an important space to meet and build community.
Eli’s activism has built upon a legacy of successful nonviolent resistance such as the Mattachine “Sip-In,” using principles from Judaism to articulate the necessity of building a globally-focused LGBTQ movement in response to the rise of fascism and autocracy worldwide. When LGBTQ rights are vulnerable, or non-existent, in one area of the world, they become vulnerable elsewhere — therefore we must act. If LGBTQ people truly are a people — a nation — then Adam Eli’s direct call to action rings true:
“Queer people everywhere should stand up for queer people everywhere.”