Jackson Heights Rivals Manhattan Neighborhoods as Gay Center

A rainbow flag in front of Queens Pride House blends into the surroundings, off 76th Street in Jackson Heights.

A rainbow flag in front of Queens Pride House blends into the surroundings, off 76th Street in Jackson Heights.

BY PAULA NEUDORF

It’s an unlikely spot for a gay club: an unglamorous corner on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens.

There’s a homely taqueria across the street, and a block north, sari vendors and Middle Eastern shops ply their wares. Working-class families and school kids pass by, unaware of or indifferent to the club’s facade.

But come nighttime, Club Atlantis, on the corner of 77th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, transforms into the focal point of Jackson Heights’s gay scene, full of men, some proudly out, some cautiously curious, all looking for a good party.

Though Jackson Heights has been home to a large Latino gay community since the 1990s, recent developments have transformed the neighborhood into a destination spot that rivals Chelsea and the Village, according to interviews with residents and others.

“For Latino gay people, [Jackson Heights is] kind of a gathering place,” said Paul Schindler, the editor in chief and co-founder of Gay City News, based in Manhattan. The gay community in Jackson Heights is predominantly Hispanic, a reflection of the community makeup. In 2000, over 50 percent of the neighborhood’s population was Hispanic, according to census data.

More proof of the trend emerged last month, when Daniel Dromm, a long-time gay activist in Jackson Heights who is not Latino, easily topped incumbent City Councilwoman Helen Sears in the primary for District 25. Because the district is predominantly Democratic, Dromm’s victory has almost assured him of winning the seat in November. Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer, the primary victor in neighboring District 26, will likely become the first gay council members from the outer boroughs.

“Danny is the one person responsible in the city for taking the energy of a Greenwich Village-based civil rights movement and extending it to the outer boroughs,” said Brendan Fay, who volunteered for Dromm’s campaign.

Fay and Dromm have been friends since the early 1990s, when the murder of a Latino gay man, Julio Rivera, in Jackson Heights, galvanized the community. “It woke up this sleeping giant out there,” said Schindler of the murder. The event led Dromm, then an activist and teacher, to organize the first Queens LGBT Pride Parade.

Caja Musica ("Music Box") is one of many gay clubs lining Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.

Caja Musical ("Music Box") is one of many gay clubs lining Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.

Nearly three decades later, the gay community in Jackson Heights is close-knit. “It’s like a little village,” said Diego Ruiz, a bartender at Caja Musical (“Music Box”), of Jackson Heights. Ruiz, who is originally from Ecuador, moved to the area a year and a half ago from the Bronx. “You have to see at 4 a.m.,” he said, “so much gay people in the street, oh my God!”

A walk down Roosevelt Avenue becomes a gay pub crawl of sorts, starting at Bum Bum Bar (pronounced “Boom Boom”) on 63rd Street. The lesbian bar caters mostly to Latinas and opened in 2007. Moving westward, there is Lucho’s Club on 69th Street, Caja Musical on 74th, Club Atlantis on 77th, Friend’s Tavern on 78th, and Los Recuerdos on 79th.

The census does not include data on sexual orientation, but Daniel Castellanos, the Executive Director of Queens Pride House, said he believes the gay population in the area is up, though there have always been large numbers of Latino gay men at the center. But there are more Latina lesbians attending “Charla!”—the center’s lesbian support group—than in previous years, Castellanos said.

Jackson Heights is also emerging from a real estate slump. “Gay people have been buying,” said Rossy Ceron, an Associate Broker at a neighborhood Remax. Ceron said an $8,000 government credit, set to expire on November 30, coupled with low interest rates, have significantly increased sales in the last three to five months. Ceron added that the numbers of gays buying in the neighborhood has remained steady.

But some aren’t convinced Jackson Heights’s gay scene can really compete with Manhattan’s. Diego Ruiz, a Costa Rican who has lived in Elmhurst for five years, says that though he loves Roosevelt Avenue’s Caja Musical, he still prefers the city. “I usually hang out in Chelsea,” Ruiz said.

Bradley Luman, a fellow Elmhurst resident, said the gay community in Chelsea is more organized than the community in Queens. But Luman has also noticed more gay men than before in the area. “Most are Latin—Mexican, Colombian, a lot are Puerto Rican,” Luman said.

One recent Mexican-themed night at Atlantis had a crowd that was by and large a Hispanic mix—Mexicans, Dominicans, Peruvians and others.

But there’s still room for non-Hispanics. “It’s not all Hispanic,” confirmed Przemek Haraburda, a gay Polish resident. Lately Haraburda said, he has seen “more black people, more white people, more people from different neighborhoods.”

Standing in front of Friend’s Tavern, its entrance decorated with white balloons, Haraburda explained, “I was always hanging out in Chelsea. After my ex broke up with me, I moved here.” Haraburda thinks advertisements in gay magazines like Next are partially responsible for the increased crowds in Jackson Heights.

“I love it here,” he said.

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