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50 years later, Kennedy killing a vivid memory

A year in mourning after president’s assassination

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John F. Kennedy, JFK, President of the United States of America, gay news, Washington Blade
John F. Kennedy, JFK, President of the United States of America, gay news, Washington Blade

President John F. Kennedy (Photo public domain)

By PAUL KUNTZLER

The weather was surprisingly warm on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. I left my Capitol Hill apartment that morning in a blue dress shirt, slacks and Bass Weejan loafers. At 21, I worked for Structural Clay Products Institute at 1520 18th St., N.W.

At 1:30 p.m., I went to lunch at the Dupont Pharmacy. While walking back through Dupont Circle, two young men were scurrying about me. I crossed over to P Street and turned left onto 18th Street.

It was 2:36 p.m. when I entered my office. I noticed immediately that no one was at the receptionist’s desk. Then I saw that the staff was in the boardroom.  I asked the secretary to Executive Director Richard Alderson, “What’s happening?” She said, “The president has been shot!” Walter Cronkite was on television.

Within a minute, Cronkite took off his horn-rimmed eyeglasses, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

I started crying.  I said to myself, “I’ve got to get out of here!”  I ran into Mrs. Ballad. She was stunned at the news.

My partner, Stephen Miller, was in the Capitol Building on House Appropriations Committee staff. After seeing the United Press wire, he went into Kenneth Sprankle’s office. “Mr. Sprankle, the president has been shot!” Sprankle, chief of staff and a conservative Republican, looked up from his desk, “Well, he’ll surely be re-elected now!”

The Washington telephone system ceased functioning at 1:30 p.m. At home, I turned on television. Stephen told me what Sprankle had said.

For the next four days, television programming and commercials were canceled. It was reported that Kennedy was hit in his throat just below the Adam’s apple and that a German Mauser rifle was found in the Texas School Book Depository Building.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested as a suspect in the killing of Patrolman Jefferson Davis Tippit. On the first of his many trips through the third-floor corridors of the Dallas Police Department, Oswald said, “I didn’t shoot anybody, sir. I haven’t been told what I am here for.”

At 6:05 p.m., Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base. JFK’s casket was unloaded with Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy into a Navy ambulance.

What I did not know then was that Kennedy’s casket was empty, according to multiple reports, including the 1988 British series “The Men Who Killed Kennedy, The Cover-Up.” Before Air Force One had left Dallas Love Field, Mrs. Kennedy came forward for President Johnson’s taking the oath of office. During this period, the Secret Service removed Kennedy’s body from his casket.

At Andrews, JFK’s body was taken off on the other side of Air Force One and flown by helicopter to Walter Reed Army Hospital. Mortician John Melvin Liggett using his mortician wax altered the wounds and removed two bullets. Then his body was flown to Bethesda Navy Hospital for the autopsy.

Stephen and I went to dinner at Mike Palm’s wearing our Kennedy buttons.

Later Oswald said, “I do request that someone to come forward to give me legal assistance.” By then, Oswald had been charged with the Tippit killing. At 1:30 a.m., Oswald was arraigned on the charge of murdering JFK.

In American law, every person accused of a crime is presumed innocent unless and until he is found  guilty in a court of law. But District Attorney Henry Wade said, “I would say without any doubt that he is the killer. The law says beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty that he is the killer of President Kennedy.”

Late Saturday morning, we went down to the front of the White House where Kennedy’s body was lying in state. Diplomats were arriving to pay their respects.

That evening Oswald said, “I emphatically deny these charges!” And finally, “I’m just a patsy!”

On Sunday afternoon, Stephen and I were on the Capitol grounds when Jacqueline Kennedy arrived with Caroline and John Jr. in their blue suits. Kennedy’s casket was carried up the Capitol steps. We watched John Jr. salute his father. It was then that I learned that Jack Ruby had shot Oswald.

At 10 p.m., we got into line on East Capitol Street with tens of thousands. Walking east with the enormous crowds to Lincoln Park and back again, we finally passed through the Rotunda of the Capitol at 7 a.m.

Offices were closed that Monday for Kennedy’s funeral at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and for his burial in Arlington Cemetery.

John Kennedy was the first important person to die in my young life. I regarded his passing as if I had lost a family member.

For an entire year, I remained in mourning.

Paul Kuntzler is a longtime LGBT rights advocate based in Washington.

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Claiming our power in the HIV-AIDS epidemic

‘It is my experience that our community is heroic’

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Larry Kramer, gay news, Washington Blade
Larry Kramer (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

“Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die,” wrote Larry Kramer in the New York Native in March 1983. Before Kramer’s article “1,112 and Counting,” gay people were doing what they could to care for the sick and mourn their dead with quiet dignity. 

After the article appeared in gay papers across the country, gay people grew increasingly unwilling to be quiet about the deaths of gay men and the preternatural silence about the epidemic from elected officials.

In San Francisco, the momentum generated by a July 1984 political march spiraled into support for an independent gay AIDS activist group in San Francisco. Gay community leaders tapped Paul Boneberg, then 31 and president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, to head the new group.

Mobilization Against AIDS came into existence in the fall of 1984 with the express goal of organizing street demonstrations, a goal it accomplished by staging monthly protests. Besides its street demos, Mobilization, beginning in 1985, took on the task of organizing the annual AIDS candlelight vigil that the San Francisco People with AIDS Coalition had started in 1983. 

As the 1980s wore on, and tens of thousands of gay men died with still no effective treatment for AIDS, Larry Kramer’s nerves were shot. 

In a March 10, 1987, speech Kramer gave at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, today known as the LGBT Center of New York, he laid into the gay community as only Larry Kramer could. “If my speech tonight doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble,” he told the group. 

By then, 32,000 AIDS cases had been reported across the country—nearly a third of them in New York. President Reagan still hadn’t spoken about AIDS to frightened Americans. 

“If what you’re hearing doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men will have no future here on earth,” said Kramer. “How long does it take before you get angry and fight back?” The crux of the speech was Kramer’s simple question: “Do we want to start a new organization devoted solely to political action?”

The answer was a resounding “Yes!” Two days later, about 300 people again showed up at the center where they formed ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. The group’s first demonstration—a protest on Wall Street against the exorbitant price of just-approved AZT, the most expensive drug ever to that point—introduced what became the group’s distinctive brand of street theater. ACT UP took the camp humor and theatricality of the Gay Liberation Front “zaps” to a whole new level.

As Kramer told me in our interview for “Victory Deferred,” “The fact that everybody responded to ACT UP, I think was more just a question of time, and moment, and frustration. It was the right time for it to happen.”

As in every catastrophe humans have faced throughout history, there were only two options for gay men when the viral cluster bomb erupted in the community: fight or flight. 

“AIDS made us choose,” said Paul Boneberg, in our interview in San Francisco for “Stonewall Strong.” “Most chose to stay and fight.” In his characteristically understated manner, Boneberg added, “It is my experience that our community is heroic.”

Larry Kramer put it a little differently in our 1995 interview. We talked in the living room of his Fifth Avenue apartment, the setting for some of gay America’s most historic moments, including the world’s first AIDS fundraiser in 1981 and, in 1982, the formation of GMHC, the world’s first AIDS service organization. Reflecting in particular on ACT UP, Kramer said, “Singlehandedly, we changed the image of gay people from limp-wristed fairies to guerrilla warriors.”

John-Manuel Andriote has reported on HIV-AIDS as a journalist since 1986. His most recent book, which he calls a bookend for acclaimed debut novel ‘Victory Deferred’, is ‘Stonewall Strong: Gay Men’s Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community.’ The research materials and recorded interviews for Victory Deferred comprise a special collection curated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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Mother of slain gay youth speaks out

Promoting power of kindness to heal our broken world

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Blaze Bernstein (Photo via Facebook)

I told myself I would not do it again: explain who I am and who my son was as an introduction to my story. I love writing, but how many times can I talk about the horrific things that happened? What you need to know: he was gay, Jewish, and the victim of a hate crime. This tragedy propelled me into the public eye and gave me a chance to be an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community, and it also ended the beautiful life of my son Blaze Bernstein. He should be enjoying gay pride month this June, but instead his body lies in an Orange County cemetery since January 2018. He died at just 19 years of age.

I don’t want to be a captive storyteller, forced to regurgitate our sad truth and the story of how we endured Blaze’s disappearance and violent death. I want to talk about the great things we have accomplished since then and the miraculous things people around the country did and continue to do to show their support for those who identify as queer and for the kindness movement we wholeheartedly embraced when we started #BlazeitForward in honor of Blaze. The story of my brilliant and kind son who was going to change the world, should not start with the horrific ending of his life. The story should start with hope because his life started with and even in death continues to give hope to all of us.

The night he disappeared many of my dreams for my family ended and a radical new timeline began. I came out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQIA+ and a parent of a gay teen. While Blaze was alive and living in the closet, he was not comfortable with us participating in any activities that would draw attention to his sexual orientation. While we encouraged him to live openly, he was young and we respected his right to “out” himself. We will never know how our failure to educate ourselves and our family on how best to support a gay child impacted the tragedy that came to us.

Our family lived in the shadow of the normative Orange County world that we raised him in that did not understand the needs of gay teenagers or the dangers they face both from alienation that can lead to teen suicide nor did we understand the dangers posed by malevolent outsiders and ignorant peers, teachers and strangers. It was this revelation after his death that spurred our entry into the public eye when the opportunity arose.

My husband Gideon and I made the quick decision that Blaze’s death should herald a new age of sex positivity. We also wanted to do something about the stereotypes and hateful tropes we heard about Jewish people and that inundated the media. While Blaze would not live to see a world where his uniqueness and kindness became an ideal, we live to promote it. We exposed the haters and hate groups as we did the unthinkable: put our mourning on hold and immediately used his death to educate the public about the danger hate groups such as Atomwaffen pose to all of us. We also began promoting the power of kindness to heal our broken world and to promote and support LGBTQIA+ community and ethnic diversity.

As the years after his death progressed, a pattern began to develop. The polarization in political, religious and sexual beliefs became unmanageable in our country. We could not come together to fight the pandemic when it began. Civil unrest ensued. Corruption and racism exposed throughout the United States caused rioting and more polarization. Reforms were proposed. People began to see the need for learning how to have respectful discourse. Some became more sensitive and either apologetic for wrongs against the marginalized or outraged by the way the system has kept us marginalized. No one was left untouched by the violence, inequity, and unhappiness that was left in the wake of the events of the last few years.

We coined the term #BlazeitForward and use it to encourage people to do intentional kind acts in honor of Blaze and his legacy. My husband and I spent the last few years powering the Facebook public group #BlazeitForward where we encourage our members to post stories of kindness, community philanthropy and everyday miracles. We also oversee endowments created in Blaze’s name that fuel college scholarships, the Blaze Bernstein school of Culinary Arts at the Merage Jewish Community Center, annual Orange County School of the Arts conservatory funding, an annual Real Arts internship for the University of Pennsylvania, and annual donations to various foundations such as homeless shelters, Orangewood Foundation, the Human Relations Council, Second Harvest Food Bank, Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Tilly’s Life Center, the Anti-Defamation League, The LGBTQ Center of Orange County, and The City of Hope, to name a few.

In addition to our advocacy for marginalized people and Holocaust education, we speak out against homophobia and hate groups, conversion therapy, bullying and hate speech. We do all of this to give life to Blaze’s legacy of kindness while we await the commencement of the criminal trial set to begin by the fall of this year.

In June we stand proud with good people around the country and celebrate Gay Pride. I cringe at the absurdity that I could not do this with Blaze. We “came out” and support the LGBTQIA+ community because there are parents out there who do not know what to do or say to help their LGBTQIA+ children. Hearing me speak out could be the first time, they learn the importance of giving these kids acceptance and love.

If you want to repair the world, you need to start at home with your own family. Do it right now. Call your younger siblings and tell them you are a proud supporter of this community. Give your teen a hug and tell them that their sexual orientation is not something they need to hide – you love them and support them unconditionally. Tell your kids that hate in any form and for any reason is something you will not support. Educate your kids on hate groups, the Holocaust, the dangers of ethnocentrism and the beauty of diversity. Go to a Pride parade. Show your support for and be curious about people who aredifferent. Listen non-judgmentally to the stories of others. Join the #BlazeitForward group on Facebook. Create a legacy of kindness in your family.

Jeanne Pepper is a writer and the mother of Blaze Bernstein, who was killed in an anti-LGBTQ hate crime.

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Pride centers this father-daughter relationship

Love, acceptance, and open communication are key

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Wrapped in acceptance, Eden Ungar celebrates Pride with her father Stuart, who joined her in the annual Louisville, Ky. parade.

Eden Ungar, now 19 and a student at University of Kentucky, vividly recalls the day she came out to her father, Stuart.

She was a freshman in high school and the two were driving to the gym. She told him she’d be going to the upcoming Louisville Pride parade with her friends.

Stuart Ungar, 55, said “It’s okay if…” and then trailed off.

Eden’s response: “Yeah, I don’t like guys.”

Her dad accepted it immediately. “Yeah, ok… cool, that’s fine,” he said.

Stuart’s recollection of the conversation isn’t nearly as clear as his daughter’s because it didn’t change anything for him.

“It’s great if she is. It’s great if she isn’t,” he had once said when his son asked if Stuart thought Eden was gay.

Her father’s laid-back reaction to her revelation was unsurprising but also a relief to Eden.

“Usually people make such a big deal out of it, but I knew I didn’t want that,” she said in a recent interview with her father. “Obviously I wanted some reaction, but I didn’t want anything over the top. I wanted to know I was supported but not anything too crazy. This was really the best-case scenario.”
For a long time Eden “didn’t say anything about anything,” Stuart said.

But when she talked about joining the Pride Parade for the second time in 2018, he saw an opportunity to further cement his support for his daughter: Stuart had started an organization called Evolve Kentucky to increase awareness about the benefits of electric cars. The group had participated in parades before so he thought, ‘Why not Pride?’

The positive reaction surprised and touched him. An organization member who worked for Tesla and had a brand new Model 3 had the ‘T’ logo on the hood in rainbow colors and put “LOVE” across the front grill also in rainbow.

For Eden, it was the “I [HEART] my lesbian daughter,” shirt Stuart wore as they marched together that meant so much to her. Eden said that especially among the adults in the crowd, “you could see how much they cared that he is such a good dad because they might not have had that in their own lives.”
Stuart picked up on the crowd’s response.

“Actually it was just really emotional for me,” Stuart said, pausing as he choked up. “I guess it’s still emotional.”

His daughter, watching him closely, laughed good-naturedly.

“I really felt like people were really smiling at me and giving me the thumbs up, and it really dawned on me that not everybody is having a great time with their parents being supportive,” Stuart said. “That is really sad.”

Sad, and potentially dangerous. A 2009 study by researchers at San Francisco State University on the health impacts of LGBTQ adolescents who were rejected by their families found that these young adults were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide and almost six times more likely to report high levels of depression.

The Trevor Project’s survey of nearly 35,000 LGBTQ youth in 2020 found that only one in three reported their home to be affirming of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“LGBTQ youth face unique mental health challenges and continue to experience disparities in access to affirming care, family rejection, and discrimination,” Trevor Project Executive Director Amit Paley wrote.

Eden knows she is lucky to be able to speak about her sexuality with ease and self-confidence in front of her father.

“I’ve heard slurs,” Eden said. “The f- slur, guys yelling in the hallways. I knew people in the GSA who had parents who weren’t supportive. I have friends … who cannot come out to their parents because they don’t accept it or they even deny their child’s sexuality.”

She said that both her father and her mother, Laura Ungar, have made her life so much easier with their love and acceptance, and also by keeping things normal. They maintain open lines of communication.

“There are some parents who are supportive, but they don’t want to talk about it. They’re like ‘I know this about you and I don’t hate you for it, but we’re not going to talk about it.’ But it still is a big part of my identity,” Eden said, smiling. “I can talk about LGBTQ issues that I’m thinking about, or like – just make a joke.”

Vanessa Falcon is a rising college freshman who lives in the Miami area and is an intern with the Urban Health Media Project. Mary Stapp teaches journalism in D.C.-area high schools and for UHMP and is the D.C. state director for the Journalism Education Association.

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