In the summer of 1969, when the Stonewall riots transpired, Lujira Cooper felt disconnected from the movement. In part, she said, she was unconscious of problems of the era because she had found a community while working at the YMCA on 34th Street – which served as a haven for gay folks in the city – where she could live her life as an openly gay woman.
“My LGBTQ experience growing up was never a particular problem,” said Cooper, 72, who grew up in Rockaway Beach and now lives on the Upper West Side. “It was more of my being a Black woman who had an attitude.”
It wasn’t until the last five years or so – during the Trump presidency – that Cooper got involved in activism, citing a realization of just how fragile the hard-earned rights of the LGBTQ community truly were.
“I’ve become more concerned about other people’s rights,” said Cooper. “It awakened an awareness in me that had been sort of laying dormant.”
It’s why she’s lent her story to “Not Another Second,” a new photography exhibit in Brooklyn, to help bring attention to the stories of older adults who identify as LGBTQ. In a series of portraits and video interviews shot by German photographer Karsten Thormaehlen in 2019, the 12 subjects talk mostly of the decades spent living closeted in fear of discrimination.
Those featured include: Rev. Goddess Magora Kennedy, 81, an activist and church leader who had been forced to marry a man at age 14 so as to “cure” her of homosexuality; Pearl Bennett, 69, a transgender woman who found herself by performing in drag on Fire Island; and Ray Cunningham, 82, who, while serving in the Navy, was tasked with giving undesirable discharges to sailors known to be gay.
Collectively, the stories accumulate in lifetimes lost, unable to live authentic and free lives due to a hostile cultural climate.
“Too often, the achievements of LGBT pioneers are pushed aside or hidden back in the closet as they get older,” said Michael Adams, CEO of the nonprofit group SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders), which teamed up with Watermark Retirement Communities to put on the exhibit. “SAGE is proud to work with Watermark to make sure LGBT elder voices are brought out of the shadows and widely celebrated, by showcasing passionate activists who have been fighting since Stonewall, the significant impact they have had in our movement, and the spirit that inspires us to continue striving toward progress for all LGBT people.”
Touring the Country
Housed at The Watermark in Brooklyn Heights on Clark Street, the exhibit is free and open to the public via socially distanced viewings. Portraits of the participants line the gallery, and with the help of Augmented Reality (AR) technology, patrons will experience the powerful interviews of each subject, with all of the intimacy intact.
The exhibit will be open every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday through May 2021. A reservation must be made prior to entry. To book an appointment, visit notanothersecond.com. All guests will be required to wear a mask and comply with other COVID-19 protocols, including a temperature check at the door. A virtual experience of the exhibit, as well as a short documentary, will also be available for viewing on the website.
At the end of May, the exhibit will be on the move, touring the country throughout 2021, with stops in art galleries in Los Angeles; Napa, California; and Tucson, Arizona.
When Cooper looks at the exhibit, she is moved by the struggles of her peers in those early days of the movements. She said she hopes the exhibit will serve as a historical record for the next generation who may not know the history of the LGBTQ rights movement.
“Elders need to spend some time with their younger people because [elders] know the history,” said Cooper. “So they know we need to keep pushing, keep fighting for what kind of legacy we want to leave our next people.”
She also said she hopes the movement will continue to become more and more intersectional, fighting not just for queer people, but Black people and others facing injustice, particularly at this moment of reckoning in the United States. But mostly she wants to see a day when people can walk through the world without the threat of discrimination.
“We should be given the right to live the lives we want without fear.”