Co-Founder of Identity House, Therapist, Activist
January 21, 2019, 12:00pm (Lee’s Apartment, New York, NY)
Gwen Shockey: What was the first place you ever went that was occupied predominantly by lesbians or queer women and what did it feel like to be there?
Lee Zevy: Ok, so in my memory it was the Pony Bar on Barrow Street but according to a newspaper article the Pony was actually on Sixth Avenue! (Laughing) Barrow Street was a different bar. Somehow I seemed to have put them together.
There was a woman Micky at City College who I’d been in high-school with. She did her senior year of H.S. at the Sorbonne and she seemed very cultured. While we were in high-school Micky was dating this other girl Susan and at one point I had them over for breakfast and when Micky said she had to go move her car Susan said she would go with her and when they left my mother said, “Are those two lesbians?” and I said, “Oh no!” (Laughing) My mother was nobody’s fool. She had been around and had been a party girl. She grew up in Coney Island and hung out with the Carnival workers and later was an activist so she had been around and I’m sure knew lesbians and gay men. So, I said, “Oh no, they aren’t lesbians!” Meanwhile, I was having an affair with a girl who lived a quarter of a mile away. I was 17 at the time and she was 16 but an artist so she knew lesbians. We met in camp! But that’s another story. Eventually Susan and Micky broke up and then I met Micky again in college when I was around 19 and she all of 20. I was walking around with the book The Price of Salt and Micky said “Oh, you’ve read that? What did you think of it?” And I said, pretending to be nonchalant, “Oh, I’ve read better!” (Laughing)
GS: Too cool for school Lee (laughing).
LZ: She and I started seeing each other and she was really not one of my stellar choices! She took me to this bar on Barrow Street but I had to wear a man tailored suit, the business suit for lesbians at the time. I had this Pendleton suit that I had gotten in California, so I wore that with stockings and low heels. That was the dress code there. Stockings in those days had seams that you had to keep straight. I could never keep my seams straight. I still remember the outfit. The suit was this blue and green plaid. So, we went into this bar and there was this line of women at the bar and they all turn around to look at me! And I’m feeling anxious and excited and thinking, “Oh my god this is fabulous!” (Laughing) I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
GS: Oh wow that must have been amazing!
LZ: Amazing! But I was totally tongue-tied! I didn’t know what to say to any of them. I was too shy to talk to anybody but I was filled with bravado so I pretended to be cool. And you know, I was very cute in those days. In hindsight of course. At the time I didn’t think so
GS: I bet you were adorable!
LZ: I was! I even have pictures to show. That was my first lesbian bar. I was terrified but very excited. I was incredibly excited. The other bar I went to was this place called The Pines in the woods in Connecticut. I was dating a guy at the time for a few years and when we broke up I decided to date women. This was also later on during college. I actually got thrown out of college three times so I had to keep going back until I finished, it took six years. (Laughing) There were two things going on.
One was that life was just more exciting outside of college. I was working and dating a guy who was Jamaican and we began doing a lot of Civil Rights work at the time so I was involved in a world that was much more important and getting lessons in building a movement from men like Bayard Rustin. And college was… what? It was dry and basically boring. I also had to work because my parents decided, in their infinite stupidity, that I should work because I was only going to school in the afternoons and evenings. I had been doing well but once I started working my grades started going down. I started taking 15 or 30 cents a day from my mother’s purse because you only needed 15 cents for the train. I’d eat in the morning, go to school, spend the whole day there and I wouldn’t eat until I got back or people would feed me stuff from the snack bar.
In the snack bar there was a table that this guy Seymour sat at. Wherever Seymour sat, all the lesbians sat. He was probably in his thirties or forties and seemed old to us. (Laughing) He was like the beard or something. So, you knew if women were sitting around where he was they were probably lesbians. The other interesting thing that happened in college is that Randolph Wicker from Mattachine Society came to speak and I went to see him and I realized that anybody who went was probably gay. He was talking about homosexuality and how it wasn’t a pathology. Mattachine for men and the Daughters of Bilitis for women were two of the first organizations to try to do something about the pathologizing of gay people and the horrible use of treatments like electric shock therapy in mental health hospitals to make them straight.
GS: These were still highly used practices at the time?
LZ: Oh yeah. And you can see from Boy Erased that they still are in certain places.
GS: This was the 1960s?
LZ: Yeah, this was the early ‘60s. So, I was hearing this for the first time around ’62 to ’64 but these practices are still continued in certain places.
GS: So you were kind of moving between homosexual worlds and heterosexual worlds?
LZ: At the time yes. Finally, when I broke up with the guy I was seeing a whole other story I called Susan from High School and said I was wanted to meet women and so she invited me to this dinner party. I didn’t know what to wear. I had a pageboy haircut at that point and I was wearing this lavender sweater and this woman looks at me and says, “So are you butch or femme?” And I said, “Huh?” (Laughing) I didn’t know what she was talking about! (Chuckles) Because with Micky it was never an issue! Micky had some weird practices that I won’t go into… (Chuckles)
GS: That’ll be for the x rated version of our interview. (Laughing)
LZ: (Laughing) I told this woman, “I don’t know!” So then I tried practicing being butch but I couldn’t light a match for a girls cigarette with one hand. You had to strike the match with one hand! (Laughing) And I kept forgetting to hold doors open. And you can tell I’d never make a good femme.
GS: Was the woman at the dinner party older than you?
LZ: No she was around my age. You had to be butch or femme then. I was accepted by the group though and they took me to my second bar, the Pines. The Pines was a bar hidden in the woods in Connecticut and was the first mixed bar I would ever see for a long time of straight and gay people who would hang out together. The woman who ran it was a singer and she’d sing “there are fairies in my garden…” and other gay tunes and there was a whole gay scene going on there. But also townspeople and we’re talking construction workers, farm people and gays all mixed.
GS: Really? How did you find this place?
LZ: Somebody from this particular group at the dinner knew about it and so one night we took a trip there. That was the weirdest experience. The third bar I was in was the Sea Colony and I lasted there for less than an hour. (Laughing) The Sea Colony was known as a diesel dyke bar. The diesel dykes, mostly big women in black leather jackets all had their girls on their arms. I walked in and somebody poked me in the chest and says, “HEY! It’s a girl!” And I make a quick exit. (Laughing) The Sea Colony was in Abingdon Square. It felt like a dangerous bar to me because of what happened and so I never went back.
GS: Yeah, that sounds really intense.
LZ: It was and I wasn’t interested in the diesel dyke scene at all. Later on there was Gianni’s which I think was on 19th or 20th street. That was known as more of a working-class bar. For me though Kooky’s was the next bar on 14th street I spent a lot of time at. We hung out a lot in Kooky’s. At that time there was still no dancing and it could be raided but we assumed the Mafia, who ran all the gay bars, paid off the cops. Not that it was ever a guarantee.
GS: Were the bars where you primarily met people or was it through school or friends of friends or…
LZ: Yeah. The bars were primarily where you met people and where you found other lesbians. Kooky’s was definitely a mafia bar so she worked for them. Kooky had this very high bee’s nest hair style and we couldn’t figure out how it stayed up. (Laughing) One time somebody poked it when she wasn’t looking and said it felt like concrete. We never knew what it was made out of. She was this like, vamp. She dressed like that. We were all lonely and looking for partners. You could go there and you could find kindred souls. Some women would hook up but most of us were longing to fall in love so you had to be careful who you ended up with. I never found anyone at the bars. I met them at school, work or parties.
GS: What kind of people hung out in Kooky’s?
LZ: Kooky’s was a mixed women’s bar. A lot of “straight” gay women would come from New Jersey. They were probably housewives and they would come hang out at Kooky’s. It was more of a middle-class bar and a college bar. Bonnie and Clydes on Bleeker Street was known to be more of a working-class bar. None of us believed in people who claimed to be AC/DC, bisexual. We thought it was only a matter of time before they came out.
There was also Fire Island and the two communities Cherry Grove and the Pines. These were two places I hung out one summer in 1966. The fact that these gay meccas existed was astounding. Cherry Grove was wall to wall mostly gay men at the time but women too enjoyed the luxury of being open and the Pines a more mixed straight and gay community was also open. Except that you couldn’t dance together. In the bars guys would sit up high on ladders shining flashlights into the dancing crowd to make sure no one was touching.
GS: Did you enjoy being in these spaces or was it more of a necessity?
LZ: The bars were a necessity that turned into enjoyment as I became more confident. Earlier on I never quite knew how to strike up a conversation and I was not that approachable. My skill set was very limited. After I met Lucy we would meet friends at The Duchess at Sheridan Square and this later became our main hangout.
Then later on there were the other bars like Sahara and Julie’s a fabulous supper club. Fabulous. You could have dinner there, they had mirrored panels, it was like a bar from the 1920s. They had a huge dance floor. By then things were changing a little bit so I’m not sure who owned Julie’s. Harry’s Back East was not a lesbian bar but was sort of a mixed bar and that was near 3rd Avenue in the 70s. Judy who was the niece of a woman my father was dating ran it. One night my father and she took me and my close friend Mike who was also involved in Identity House at the time to that bar. Since we never talked about anything gay we were like, “What are we doing here? Who are these people?” (Laughing) We were all dressed up because we had gone to this conference that this mental health center called Post Graduate Center and my father and Jean took us to this bar that Judy ran! I think they were just being kind to us and because nobody talked about it and Mike and I weren’t out. It was really bizarre! (Laughing) I think in hindsight my father and she were just trying to show us they got it.
GS: That’s so funny! So, the dynamics of these spaces was really butch/femme in the 1960s and into the 1970s?
LZ: Into the middle of the 1970s. And then what happened was the flannel shirt set happened in the 1970s. I met Lucy in 1967. I took her first to this restaurant called Aldo’s, which in fact my mother had been to, and I passed her a note that said, “Guess what, you’re in a gay restaurant!” (Laughing) Because she didn’t want to go anyplace gay. I was always dragging her places. Aldo’s closed about ten years later. My time sense is probably off. The Duchess became our hangout and when we wanted something more upper-crust we went to Julie’s. Sahara was a nice bar. A really nice bar and the there was Peaches. On 125th street there was a bar I think called the Pink Lady, I’m not sure of the name. That was a black bar. It was for the black lesbians. Cynthia Grant may remember that bar. I think I was there once. I remember being terrified because it wasn’t my scene. Here I am, this young white girl in a lesbian bar in Harlem! During Civil Rights I was in Harlem a lot. I was part of the Congress of Racial Equality and their headquarters were there. So, I would hang out a lot there.
GS: Were you involved in political groups in college?
LZ: Yeah! I got involved in CORE for the most part and Civil Rights. It’s a long story because New York CORE split and then there was East River CORE, which was more political and radical. We worked with Bayard Rustin to close down the Throgs Neck Bridge during the World’s Fair because they wouldn’t hire blacks. I would go rent busting too. So I would go with a white guy and they would say, “Ok, we’re going to rent to you.” And then a black couple would go and they would say, “We have nothing available.” And then we’d take them to court! These protests worked over time and things began to change.
These were scary times though and the worst one was the race riot I was involved in. I still have clippings about what happened. By then my family had thrown me out so I was living with my boyfriend at his family’s apartment in the South Bronx. And then we and a friend moved to an apartment near the Yankee Stadium, which was a completely Irish neighborhood at the time. I was sort of oblivious to how dangerous it was. We were having a party one night and all of the Civil Rights people were coming to the apartment and the Irish guys went nuts and started pouring out of the bars with chains and baseball bats. The guys from CORE began defending themselves and five of the Irish men ended up in the hospital. That’s a whole long story because there was a court case that followed which taught be a lesson up front on how the collusion between the police and the courts operated. My boyfriend and other members of CORE got off because of a good social justice lawyer.
These were very historical times because on the heels of Civil Rights the Women’s Movement began to gain strength and then in 1969 Gay Rights took off. Let’s not forget also that during the sixties the “Hippies” broke loose from the rigid systems they had endured and a huge migration began.
GS: How did you see these movements interacting or overlapping?
LZ: I saw them all as part of the same process of trying to humanize and equalize people divided by the rigid categories of race, gender, and sexual orientation. These categories were being kept in place by irrational laws and fears. People were not only being harmed by these systems but they were also craving more freedom. Basically they said, “Enough!” it had to stop. The whole planet was changing. In 1968 there were student riots in France when people took to the streets and then the riots here. That followed the Civil Rights marches in ’63 and ’64 and now unfortunately a lot of it is back again. We go through periods…
But for me and other LGB people the bars were really central meeting places aside from all of the organizations that started to spawn. The Gay Activist Alliance among others. I still have flyers from all of these organizations. I used to give presentations all over the city. And then in 1971 I was part of forming Identity House and I finally found a home of gay men and women working to bring to the LGB community an mental health and social alternative to the bars.
GS: Wow, what a time to be coming of age and exploring your own identity. What was it like to come out at that time?
LZ: (Laughing) Well I never officially came out! What happened was I started living with Lucy and people just knew that we were a couple. I never officially came out except to a couple of people one of whom was this friend I was very anxious about so it took me about five hours because I didn’t know how she would react. I never came out to my parents. My mother passed away when I was 27 but I’m assuming they knew. Oh yeah. I never talked to my father about it. My younger sister is an interesting story! She was about 22 at the time and she was married. Her husband Michael and I knew each other from college. We all went to City College. He knew the people I hung out with but he never told her. So, we’re watching television one day at their house and Lucy and I are involved so this must have been the early ‘70s and we used to have a lot of parties up at the house. The whole Identity House crowd would come up there. Rose Jordan who was a big time lesbian activist at the time came on the television in a news story about gay activism and I said to Lucy, “We have to remember to invite her to our party!” My sister asked me why we never invite her to our parties and Lucy said, “That’s because you don’t like homosexuals!” So, my younger sister got up and went into the kitchen and so I went into the kitchen and asked her if she wanted to talk and she said, “No.” Next thing I know I get a letter from my older sister who was living in Venezuela because my younger sister had written her and she wrote in the letter, “I don’t know any lesbians but you’re my sister and I love you.” It was the sweetest thing. It enabled me to forgive a lot of her sins throughout the years. (Laughing) I have to remind her of that. So, that’s how my family found out about it! I don’t know what the hell my younger sister thought. She was like clueless in those days. I don’t know what the hell she thought Lucy and I were doing. (Laughing) We were living in Peekskill with like six dogs! (Laughing) Oh yeah, one day I’ll go over the dogs because that’s a whole other story! Lucy had four dogs when we met. She was totally an animal person. I had to push the dogs out of the bedroom.
GS: (Laughing) Disrupting your sex life a little bit?
LZ: Disrupting everything!
GS: How did you meet Lucy?
LZ: Ah! My mother introduced us! There was a small hospital, French hospital at 330 West 30th Street between 8th and 9th and my mother was working as the executive secretary and Lucy was running the nuclear medicine lab. So, my mother calls up and was raving about this incredible woman at the French hospital that she knew who was the funniest, most interesting, most intelligent person she ever met and she was telling Lucy about her gorgeous, intelligent daughter! I was in my last two years of college finishing up credits and a secretarial position opened up. My mother called me and asked if I wanted to apply for it because I was working as a receptionist for a clinic at 34th Street just to earn money. Where was I then… I think I was living in Queens. Yeah, I was in Queens living with Nancy and then Nancy ditched me and moved to Manhattan and I was left in Queens. Nancy was another story! (Laughing) Oh and I have to tell you about Scott! who used to sleep with all the girls in her high school. She had what we would call hutzpah and was fearless. (Laughing) She was what one would call an elegant butch.
GS: What does that mean?
LZ: There was a certain kind of look and a certain kind of way they related to women. I guess today you’d call them a soft butch but in those days they were called an elegant butch. They would wear like velvet jackets and they would be the suave butches.
So I was living in Queens and my mother told me about this position working for this doctor and did I want to apply for it because it was a little bit more money than I was making. So I applied for it and he hired me which was a mistake because I was a lousy secretary and he was obsessive compulsive! (Laughing). But I got friendly with the Director of Medicine so he protected me when my boss wanted to fire me. So, I go to the interview right? And afterward I’m having lunch with my mother and looking like 14 because I always looked younger and very anxious and Lucy joins us for lunch. At that time, Lucy was going into a Hashimoto Thyroiditis, a virus that kills the thyroid gland so she’s not looking too good and I’m not looking too good either and so we both thought my mother was crazy about all the things she was saying about each of us to the other! (Laughing) I get the job and we start meeting up at lunch and Lucy was getting sicker so I started going down to her lab to give her a hand.
In between work, Lucy began telling me stories about her 6 years in Italy and her energy comes alive and magic starts to happen! She’s telling me all these stories about Italy and she becomes a totally exciting, sophisticated, mature (she was 12 years older) person. Lucy was always one of those people who is either on or off and when she’s off you can’t tell that she has a furnace! So all of the sudden the furnace comes out. I was between lovers at the time because Nancy had dumped me and moved to Manhattan and I was involved with Scott for a year and that wasn’t working out so she’s sort of dumping me and I’m thinking, “Well who am I going to date…” One day I finally come out to Lucy and start telling her about all my dating life and that I’m going to date this Ukrainian woman Ava. Lucy says, “No don’t go out with her, come out to dinner with me.” We start going out to this coffee shop on 86th Street called Leo’s and one hour, two hours, three hours… (Laughing) You know how it is but nothing else was happening! One night I said to her, “Oh, you know I really want to meet somebody so I’m going to go out with Ava.” And Lucy says, “Oh no don’t do that. come upstate with me.” So on the way upstate she tells me that her four dogs and we’re talking BIG dogs, English Pointers, don’t like strangers.. So the dogs don’t like strangers and she’s also giving me her philosophy about not trusting anybody who walks upright. Of course I’m 25 and ignoring it all because I’m 25 and we never listen at 25! (Laughing) So we go upstate and she has to feed the dogs and since she’s working two jobs, one at Peekskill Hospital doing blood banking and the other in the city running the Nuclear Medicine Lab she’s on call but luckily that night its quiet. And sure enough all four dogs come barking to the fence but turn out are lovely and I fall in love with it all. Then we turn around and go back to the city.
So far nothing else has happened but one day Lucy comes into my office and she’s wearing a white lab coat and I’m a sucker for white shirts and white lab coats and she stands behind me and puts her hands on my shoulders and the HEAT! The room is flooded with the most amazing heat! All of the sudden Lucy’s furnace is in full gear! (Laughing) I take her to Fire Island for a weekend and then the rest is history!
GS: What a history! From the furnace to Fire Island!
LZ: From the furnace to Fire Island! And then we were together for fifty years! We separated for five but we lived next to each other so we saw each other almost every day. We couldn’t sell the house and we had the animals to contend with.
GS: You were connected in a lot of ways.
LZ: Totally connected, Soul mates, so we couldn’t leave each other.
GS: Could you talk a little bit about how Identity House started?
LZ: Ok! So, Michael Altman and I were working for the city as case workers and we start hanging out together and we don’t know each other as gay yet. One day we’re having lunch and I’m talking about living upstate with Lucy and he’s talking about friends and we sort of come out to each other.
GS: Had you gone to school for Social Work already?
LZ: No. That was later. This was in 1968 - the early part of 1968. We wanted to do something sort of social work related but also helping people. We decide we want to put together a resource phone service. So we go to Philadelphia and we interview a group called HELP, which was a sort of drop in place for people who needed mental health services. Michael’s in therapy and his therapist tells Mike that there is a group of Humanistic and Gestalt therapists who are forming this organization. Now, prior to that this guy named Ralph Blair had put together a group called Homosexual Community Counseling Center and Chuck Silverstein, a Psychologist, who’s still around, was working for them. Ralph was very dictatorial. So, Chuck decided to form a new organization and arranged for the first meeting that Mike found out about in 1971. We all meet in the East Village apartment of Bernice Goodman and her partner Bea Kreloff. The meeting was to talk about putting together a peer counseling and psychotherapy service for gay people. Something beyond the bars.
GS: And nothing like this had existed prior?
LZ: Well the HCCC had existed but it was not a peer counseling service. It was more of a therapy service. So, we go to this meeting – Mike and I – and we get very excited. They wanted to put together this organization where people can just walk in and be met by other gay people who have already come out and talk peer to peer. Mike and I had no training at the time. We were just caseworkers. Two Gestalt therapists who were there Patrick Kelley, Karen Humphrey and a couple of others who were either Existential or Humanistic therapists push for it to be modeled on a format similar to the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy model of consensus and membership. The idea was to prevent the organization from becoming hierarchical and bureaucratic. We start to meet regularly to flesh out the way the organization will be structured and the son of Bea Kreloff, a graphic artist, comes up with the first logo. We all figure out how best to provide services to the LGB community and we start counseling at The Church of the Beloved Disciple on 28th street! In 1971. And, you know all of a sudden I’m working as a peer counselor and people are starting to come in after fearfully walking up and down outside before they get the courage to come in to talk. From the beginning we attract a wide range of people some of whom also had a mentally illness and we provide resources and referrals. As peer counselors we are all in 12 week supervision groups with therapists who also begin joining up and in once a month training groups on various mental health topics. (Laughing) I was eating, sleeping and dreaming Identity House on top of having a full time job. We started advertising and then Marian Howard and John Kane, two peer counselors, put together a plan to have drop in groups so gay people could talk to each other facilitated by a peer counselor.
By then we had to leave the church and we started doing counseling at Patrick’s apartment on 16th street because he had a front room. We’d sit on the floor on rugs in this room that was painted bright yellow (laughing) and gradually more and more people joined! By the end of the first year Chuck, who was then Clinical Director, sent a note around to everybody saying he’s disbanding Identity House’s peer counseling and he’s going to run the organization as a professional mental health center for gay people. Well! We go nuts of course! Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love, who had written Sappho was a Right-On Woman, and who were a lot more savvy than we were fly up to Albany and reserve the name Identity House and they give it to us. And then Chuck gets furious, just furious! (Laughing) and has to come up with another name so he comes up with the Institute for Human Identity. That’s how that came about.
So, here we are again putting together a new organization. All the therapists and peers who remained with Identity House begin meeting again to form a new structure that will preserve peer counseling as the main focus with psychotherapy as back up and equally important an organization that maintains gender parity. A group of us were trying to write bylaws and a mission statement and we’re trying to figure out how we can be a normal non-profit except none of us know what we’re doing! (Laughing) So, we start meeting in Patrick’s office on 16th street and we’re trying to use Robert’s Rules of Order but none of us had ever used it and there was no rule about not drinking so the wine would come out and we would get stuck hilariously on various aspects of the rules and little would get done.
Meanwhile Lucy and I are living in Peekskill an hour upstate and she keeps waiting for me to go home… the things I did to poor Lucy. One day she gets tired of waiting and she comes in and she sees this drunken lot of us trying to write Robert’s Rules of Order and she bangs her cane and says, “Ok, from now on no drinking until you finish!”
GS: So Lucy is the reason that IHouse is now dry. (Laughing)
LZ: (Laughing) So, Lucy becomes the first Executive Director! Patrick Kelley the first Clinical Director, I become the first Peer Counselor Coordinator for women, Michael becomes the first Peer Counselor Coordinator for Men and we had a bunch of other people who took different positions. Gradually we build an organization! It’s amazing that we pulled it off.
GS: I didn’t realize there was so much debauchery in the beginning!
LZ: Oh my god! And then every New Year’s Day to pay the troops for all their work we would have a champagne breakfast catered! And after every meeting of course we all went to the bars. We would go to The Duchess and Patrick and the boys would go to One Potato, a gay bar or sometimes we would all go to One Potato to eat and and then go to The Duchess and every Wednesday Lucy and I would go to The Duchess and go dancing – she didn’t dance, I would dance. (Laughing) She would watch and she would schmooze. That was always her thing. She loved to schmooze.
GS: That’s so funny!
LZ: Yeah! We had a great time. The interesting thing is, is that everybody talks about oppression but they don’t talk about the excitement. For us it was probably 80% excitement and 20% oppression.
GS: What did it mean for you to have this LGBTQ organization in time that was so fraught and so focused on oppression?
LZ: We were focused on bringing people out of the fog and bringing people out of the darkness. That was the exciting part! It was also at a time when the marches started. I didn’t march until probably the third year because I worried about work. I was working for the city and I didn’t know what the reaction would be. We couldn’t wear pants to work by the way until 1968! (Laughing) And then you had to wear pantsuits. You couldn’t wear dungarees… you had to wear pantsuits. After work in 1973 I realized I needed more training and began training at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy and started seeing clients and practicing psychotherapy under supervision because there was no licensing. The NYIGT was the only institute that had always accepted gay people for training and to be faculty and it became a third home for me. I worked out of Karen’s apartment, which was on 82nd or 83rd on the Upper West Side. She had a big apartment and a lot of our meetings would take place there. She and I became close friends and started working together and I would get clients (laughing) and we would run groups together.
GS: So that’s when you started taking classes?
LZ: I didn’t go to grad school until 1975 because somebody said I should go to grad school! So, I said, “Ok! I better go to grad school!” (Laughing) They were the wild and wooly days! I would be doing presentations all over and I would be going to conferences. There was the famous Barnard S&M conference.
LZ: Oh yes. That was wild! Barnard went nuts afterwards. It was one of the most well attended conferences! (Laughing)
GS: What was the nature of that conference?
LZ: It was about kink! But it was not called that then.
GS: In the early ‘70s?
LZ: Uh huh! It might have been earlier, I can’t remember. I’ll look for the date. I probably have a flier. After that they refused to allow any organization… (laughing) because it was written up in the paper: Barnard has conference on S & M!
GS: (Laughing) No one would send their sweet little daughter to Barnard after that! They’d become a lesbian kink queen!
LZ: (Laughing) Right! Oh and this was hysterical! Identity House had one of our therapists do a training workshop on S&M. and in order to bring reality to the workshop on S&M she comes out in this dominatrix outfit in black leather with this feather boa and fingernails out to here, carrying a whip and the guys take one look at her and start backing up! (Laughing)
GS: Wow that’s awesome!
LZ: Yeah! And you see this time is also dovetailing with the whole movement on Experiential Psychotherapy, which started in the 1950s builds in the 1960’s but now in the 1970’s is really rising as a force. So there was this huge humanistic political force going on to try to change the laws and rigidity of Psychoanalysis and mental health.
This is also a time when Ruth Bader Ginsberg was working on changing laws that were prohibiting women from doing all sorts of stuff. Lucy only got her house because the woman who owned it before her had what was called an assumable mortgage and she could give the mortgage to anybody she wanted. So Lucy, and her two friends didn’t have to have a male co signer. She wouldn’t have been able to get the house unless she had a male sign for her. It was nuts.
GS: So, it’s crazy to think about! You started a mental health organization for gay people at a time that was so fraught politically, socially and culturally and also in the world of psychology!
LZ: Yes, and meanwhile there were people who had joined us. Brad Wilson and Hal Kooden were Identity House Psychologists who were fighting in the world of Psychology and Psychiatry to change the nomenclature that homosexuality was a pathology. Frank Keaton was a priest and he was fighting in the Catholic Church to change the Church’s views on homosexuality: Dignity for gay Catholics starts to grow, Metropolitan Community Church for Protestants comes into being and starts to grow, and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah for Jews opens in 1973. On many, many, fronts at once following the Stonewall uprising of 1969 gay people and people from all areas of society were simultaneously attacking the rigidity of society and pushing for change.
Identity House as a walk-in clinic was a haven for people who were terrified and it still is! We had someone last week who was walking up and down, up and down the hall before he came in to talk to a counselor. In those early days people would read about it months before they dared to come talk with somebody.
GS: What year was it that homosexuality was taken out of the book of psychological disorders?
LZ: I’m not sure. We’ll have to look that one up. (It was 1987)
GS: Were trainings done at that time to talk about these things?
LZ: We not only had supervision groups where people talked about that but we had trainings once a month. It was sort of mandatory once a month on a Sunday. One of the therapists or somebody would do a training. There was no such thing as cultural competency in those days. We were just trying to get people to talk about what “gay” was. And of course there was only L G B, there was no T Q I. There was nothing like that. Christine Jorgensen and people like her were outside the realm of what was considered the circumscribed gay world and it was a rigid world in those days about what you were supposed to be as a gay person. Amongst lesbians for example a separatist movement sprung up and a lot of the lesbians in those days started going back to the farms and back to nature. I could tell you hysterical stories about buying land in Tennessee and then the women going down there, taking one look at the hard labor and going back to New York! (Laughing)
GS: Oh my god (laughing) that might be me. I was gifted a magazine about lesbians and women going back to nature and it has some amazing articles in it like the anatomy of the horse and how to plow your own field!
LZ: Yup. Uh huh! So it didn’t work. (Laughing) These back to the land lesbian communities. They had no comprehension about how much work it was! No running water, out houses you know… it was hysterical. I knew a couple of women – one of my exes actually – went to Tennessee to try to do that with an ex of hers. (Laughing). Neither one lasted very long.
Along with a sense of freedom come trial and error about what fits and what doesn’t. And of course around all that experimenting the bars were still the major socializing, unwinding places we were going to which still comprised the major social scene! Following The Duchess there was The Saint, which was a fabulous place. They had a… what do you call it. What is that camera that they use at observatories – a planetarium-type light that they would turn on and it would flash stars and all sorts of things.
GS: You’re talking about The Saint Nightclub right?
LZ: Uh huh!
GS: Did you go out mostly with people from I House?
LZ: Mostly! People from I House became most of my social group and to a large extent still are! We would go dancing. Lucy and I were both very social. Lucy’s expertise was in building community where she lived so she knew everybody in the neighborhood and mine was bringing people from the outside. So of course there were birthdays and anniversaries and it was mostly I House people and then mostly Gestalt Institute people because the institute and I House became intertwined as more peers became therapists and trained there and then joined I House as therapists. It was sort of an entire community system and a lot of us lived in the Chelsea area. I took the apartment here because Patrick lived on 16th street and I House’s second home was up on 6th avenue.
GS: So it was all clustered together. Would you say the opening of Identity House coincided with the Stonewall Rebellion coincidentally or was it more a product of that moment?
LZ: IHouse started forming in 1971. Well, following 1969 there was a proliferation of organizations around gay life at that point. IHouse became one aspect of the proliferation. There was the Women’s Firehouse, Columbia had the Gay Academic Union where I used to do workshops, there was the women’s coffee house just below Christopher Street, which was a little nook that had a coffee house downstairs, I would do panel discussions… so there was a lot of stuff happening at the same time. I House was one of the only ones strictly devoted to mental health and enabled people to talk one-on-one so they didn’t have to go to the bars, so it wasn’t part of the sex scene but of course all sorts of liaisons sprang up during that period. (Laughing) A lot of hanky panky was going on.
GS: (Laughing) In I House?
LZ: Sure! It was a fertile field for meeting people! Like-minded people!
GS: You know I have to say that so much of the experience I’ve had at Identity House working in supervision groups, the one-on-one interactions with clients, the active listening and the storytelling with peers and clients has inspired so much of the artwork I’ve done over the past five years.
LZ: That’s fabulous.
GS: I think the importance of mental health, of in-person gathering is just becoming more and more important. I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on how the function of I House has changed over the years. Or not changed with digital culture burgeoning.
LZ: Well in certain ways its mission hasn’t changed much or its gender parity and in other ways it has. The sophistication has changed and there are many more places to meet people so our specialty really is for people who have no one to talk to. We’re starting to get more and more tourists and immigrants for example who come to New York, look up gay services, see I House and come to talk and they come from countries where they could still be killed. So this is the first time they’ve ever talked to somebody face to face. So we’re now providing an international service that’s very different from the insular service that we used to provide for people in the immediate area.
GS: Do you think that’s indicative that people living in the immediate area are feeling more liberated?
LZ: More liberated, they have more places to go – the Gay/ Straight Alliances in schools for example and they start the process of coming out earlier on. Although I’m not so sure how successful they actually are. It’s interesting, I’ve been invited to be a distinguished Gestalt visitor at a residential training program in Italy in July.
GS: Oh my gosh congratulations!
LZ: He wanted to know what I might want to present on and I gave him a list of things and he said that there was this other woman who also wanted to present on LGBT and could we talk to each other. She’s been out a long time, she’s in her 70s also and been involved in long term relationships so we started to talk and she started to talk about oppression and shame and I’m saying, “That’s not what I’m interested in! I’m interested in the excitement, I’m interested in the creativity, I’m interested in how beneficial it is to be gay when you’re coming from dysfunctional families because it pulls you out of the system.” And she said, “Oh yeah! That’s right, that’s true.” So we might work together, we might not because her focus of attention is on the history and it’s not the focus of my attention or is it my experience!
More importantly my interest is in the changes to the community which are enormous. The new shifts around gender identity, in particular the eradication of the old forms as the trans population and gender non binary possibilities grow in strength is shifting the whole discourse. People are free now to choose an identity which fits them on an individual basis and may have little to connect them to the one they grew up with.
This is one of the main changes that Identity House is facing today as counseling has taken on a whole new meaning and direction.
GS: I think it’s thanks to your focus on the positivity of queer community that I House really has become not only this safe haven for people coming to use our services but for the members of I House also. You’ve made an amazing community that has lasted over generations now. How do you feel over all these years watching it change and grow?
LZ: I was telling the supervision group a little while ago what we can’t forget is that this is still a therapeutic community both for our clients and for the people who join! The people who are joining these days are not like we were. There aren’t a lot of problems about being gay among the counselors as there were then. Some of the people who joined had pretty serious mental health problems. But as they became counselors and as they went through supervision and as they gained confidence and self-esteem and as they started to get more interested in working in mental health and went to therapy themselves they changed and became part of the backbone of the organization. The beauty of I House was always that it was two-fold: it worked from both ends. It still does to a large extent. That is still in place. But the sophistication and the political awareness and the awareness and understanding of mental health has grown by leaps and bounds beyond what it was. This is a very sophisticated group of counselors these days and therapists. We just took in three new therapists because I’ve been pushing people I know to join. They’re young, they’re excited and they’re aware in a way that we weren’t and there is still a prodigious creative force. However, my supervision group is an indication that people are still lonely for our kind of communication. That hasn’t changed. And because of the internet and because bars are diminishing face-to-face is being lost and the loneliness is increasing. So, places like Identity House are going to become increasingly more important as a place where people stop feeling lonely because they feel mirrored and met and reflected. That hasn’t changed at all.
GS: Maybe it’s just becoming more and more important. The individuals in the coming out group Nikki and I led expressed how they got more from 8 weeks of in-person meeting than years spent on dating apps.
LZ: Right. And they’ll never forget it. And it gives them an idea of what actually works for them.
GS: Right exactly.
LZ: What time is it? Oh my god I have a 4 o’clock! (Laughing)
GS: The day just slipped away! Thank you so much for this Lee!