I recently had the opportunity to have tea and a chat with Jay Blotcher, the illustrious writer, activist, and publicist.
We met in the idyllic New York town he calls home. While closer in style to the puritanical suburban setting (near Boston) of his childhood, the hamlet of High Falls is a far cry from Blotcher's longtime home of Manhattan. High Falls has a population of roughly six hundred people. It is a place where Jay, soon to be fifty-six, and his husband, Brook Garrett, have carved themselves a cozy niche since their relocation in July of 2001.
After graduating Syracuse University, Blotcher moved to New York City in May of 1982. He worked for a gay weekly newspaper, The New York Native, which landed him the exciting but woefully underpaid job working on legendary activist and film historian Vito Russo's "Our Time" TV series on PBS.
"At Vito's knee, I learned about my gay history, heritage and culture. I learned to be proud of my sexual orientation. I learned to be a gay man who stood up to a homophobic society," says Blotcher.
This opportunity gave him a daily history lesson on the queer community--something he refers to as his "finishing school."--and it publicly outed him. In Blotcher's words:
"Vito even made sure I came out in a big way. To all of New York City. On television. It happened like this: One morning, we were preparing to shoot a segment about the group Parents of Gays. The group co-founder, Amy Ashworth, was scheduled to appear with her son, Tucker. But Tucker had a cold. Amy called with the news.
When Vito hung up the office phone, he turned to me. 'Jay, did you ever come out to your parents?'
'Well, yeah, my mother - but -'
'Okay, you're on set in a half-hour.'
And when Vito Russo asked you to do something, you just said yes."
This crash course in Gay 101, coupled with his work as a journalist made him aware of the AIDS crisis before the majority of the queer community had caught on.
Rising to the occasion, Blotcher quickly abandoned the docile, obedient-to-any-and-all-authority personality that was a byproduct of his relatively conservative Boston upbringing and became an outspoken advocate for the marginalized:
"It was the start of the AIDS epidemic and all around me people were falling sick and dying within weeks. I was writing about the epidemic for The New York Native. But I felt I had to do more. Maybe if I did something, I thought secretly, I would be spared. Becoming a street activist meant giving up another identity. That is, my childhood identity. My breeding as a good little boy. Someone who never disobeys authority. Who never breaks the law. Instead, I learned civil disobedience. I learned to go limp at a protest and be carted off to jail by cops."
Blotcher's first step into activism was as a volunteer for Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), helping to organize their 1987 AIDS Walk. He didn't feel he had the stamina or emotional wherewithal to serve as a "buddy" or caregiver to someone dying.
Because of information he learned at GMHC one day, Blotcher attended ACT UP/New York's (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) first demonstration in March of that year. It was so early on, the group didn't even have its name yet. This event, a protest on Wall Street against the high price of AZT, was credited with galvanizing the queer community and bringing mainstream attention to the AIDS crisis.
This new group was full of young, sexy guys who were making things happen--which appealed to Blotcher. He immediately felt at home with this new crowd and gradually became more and more involved. The first demonstration he helped organize in the fall of 1987 was at St. Veronica's Church on Christopher Street, where the homophobic Catholic Archbishop of New York City was scheduled to speak. Blotcher's journalism background made him a natural choice to work on the ACT UP Media Committee--which he eventually chaired.
Blotcher had many positive experiences with ACT UP, not the least of which was his continued education:
"Being a member of ACT UP offered me a crash-course in multiculturalism. A lesson I had never learned from my mostly-white, middle-class suburban upbringing. Because the epidemic disproportionately affected those who were on the bottom rungs of society: women, the poor, the homeless, African-Americans, Latinos, sex workers, intravenous drug users. These were dispensable people in the eyes of the ruling class and the government, the ones who received less health care than their white counterparts.
I took part in demonstrations to support their rights. I learned from my Latino and black comrades about the challenges they faced on a daily basis. I learned to think beyond my white privilege."
ACT UP wasn't the end of Blotcher's journey as a political activist--not by a long shot:
"In 1990, I joined a new activist group in New York City. Queer Nation was composed of ACT UP veterans, and we employed the same aggressive tactics and street theater to address homophobia and gay-bashing. Branch chapters sprang up across the United States. As the founding group's volunteer publicist and spokesperson, I spent months explaining our mission to reporters. I was now a professional homosexual."
Since then Blotcher has continued his career in a manner that includes activism and progressive causes. He and husband Brook Garrett traveled the legal road of same-sex relationships: in April of 2000, they officially become domestic partners in Manhattan. Later that year, in October, they traveled to Vermont--the only state at the time that allowed same-sex civil unions. In 2004, they married in New York in the infamous "New Paltz Weddings" that were led by Mayor Jason West.
This led Blotcher to become a spokesman for marriage equality:
"This meant explaining to reporters why we deserved the same rights to marriage as everyone else, and why we wouldn't accept second best. Years of dealing with the media in ACT UP and Queer Nation had prepared me for yet another public debate on lesbian and gay rights. It meant attending demonstrations, especially when California rescinded marriage equality in 2008, pressured by religious groups like the Mormons.
Brook and I celebrated when New York State passed marriage equality in 2011. And we wept and celebrated some more in June of 2015, when the Supreme Court upheld the right of all lesbian and gay Americans to be wed."
Their celebration didn't cause Blotcher to stop fighting. He is still an advocate for many progressive issues, like GMO food labeling, anti-fracking and animal rights. (He is also a vegan.)
While he describes himself as "blown like a feather through his career" (as in the opening credits of the film Forrest Gump), Blotcher had to learn the hard way to come to terms with his sexual orientation in a homophobic society. But he didn't buckle under pressure and "put a lid on it."
Blotcher has some words of advice for the younger generation:
"Don't follow the example of those who give in to society--don't be like the too many people in my generation who remained in the closet, got married, had kids, and led unfulfilling, insincere lives. Instead, follow your heart and speak up for those who need it.
Practice personal responsibility and safely share your body. Sex is the greatest joy. Savor it while you are still ridiculously young and beautiful.
Support queer spaces. There were more gay bars in Berlin in the 1930's than in New York City in the 1980's. Bring back gay bars as a community place to meet - rather than ordering in men like fast food on Scruff and Grindr. This process demeans everybody.
Inform yourself--no one likes a dummy. Be cognizant of your rich history. Be gracious and thankful for those who have paved the way.
Leap before you look. The resulting adventures will provide great life lessons and memories to reflect upon when you're older. Take chances (but always weigh the risks in advance). Save yourself many ulcers and realize a basic truth: no-one really cares what you do."
The latest chapter in Blotcher's career is as Broadway librettist. He has been working for almost a decade on "Holding On," a musical about Harlem in 1969. He and his (straight) musical partner, Neil Klein, a friend since college, are in negotiations with a Broadway producer. Learn more at www.holdingonthemusical.com
When discussing current major issues in the queer community, Blotcher kept returning to the levels of bullying and suicide we face. He encourages us all to help others--especially those coming out. "It's so easy to just reach out and lend support. There is no reason for all of the bullying and suicidal teens. Let's stop it. Help make them stronger--especially the kids who identify as trans."
Editor's note: I ask you to support The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.
Learn more about Jay Blotcher and his PR company Public Impact Media Consultants here.
This post was originally published on Queer Voices, and it can be seen here: http://queer-voices.com/2016/04/courageous-conversation-jay-blotcher/