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Dr. Bruce Voeller: Gay Rights and Public Health Pioneer

Dr. Bruce Raymond Voeller, a pioneer of AIDS research and a significant early gay rights activist, was born on May 12, 1934 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s no household name, and his early biography would provide few hints as to why he should be. He graduated from Reed College in 1956, was awarded a five-year fellowship to the Rockefeller Institute, earned his Ph.D. in biology in 1961, and by 1966 became an associate professor at the Rockefeller Institute specializing in plant physiology and phtocytology.

But at age 29, Dr. Voeller came out as a gay man, forever changing his life and the focus of his research and work. He became a specialist on human sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases who was at the forefront of the fight against AIDS while also leading the fight for gay rights. He became one of the most important (and unsung) gay rights advocates of the post-Stonewll period. And nearly all of his groundbreaking work was done from our neighborhoods.

Dr. Bruce R. Voeller

Dr. Voeller was an early president of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA – founded in 1969), whose other early leaders included its founding president Jim Owles and Arnie Kantrowitz, who was at one point secretary and vice president. All three men made their home in the 1970s and early 1980s at 186 Spring Street, in what Kantrowitz described as a “gay commune” (a building which Village Preservation sought to save from demolition with landmark status, but which in 2012 the City shamefully allowed to be demolished, and remains a hole in the ground today).

186 Spring Street

The GAA played a key role in having the first bill introduced in the New York City Council and in the New York State Legislature in 1971 that would have banned discrimination based upon sexual orientation. Even more impressive, these were the very first “gay rights” bills ever introduced anywhere in the country. Versions of these bills were enacted by the City of New York in 1986 and the State of New York in 2002, but it must also be noted that since this first bill was introduced at the initiation of these residents of 186 Spring Street (among others), twenty-two states and the District of Columbia, as well as literally hundreds of municipalities and counties, have passed similar legislation.

Dr. Voeller left the GAA to found the National Gay Task Force (which became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1985 and is now the National LGBTQ Task Force) on October 15, 1973, where he served as director until 1978. The Task Force was the very first national LGBT rights organization in the United States, accomplishing groundbreaking changes in those first dozen or so years and laying the foundation for many more in the years which followed, as well as initiating battles for civil rights which are still being fought today.

Press conference on October 15, 1973 announcing the formation of the National Gay Task Force, the first national gay rights organization in the United States. NGTF co-founders (l. to r. front row) Ron Gold, Dr. Howard Brown, Dr. Bruce Voeller, and Nathalie Rockhill. (l. to r. back row) Martin Duberman, Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny.
80 Fifth Avenue

Initially located at 80 Fifth Avenue in the area south of Union Square area for which we are seeking landmark designation, this was the Task Force’s very first headquarters and its only one in New York. It remained here for more than a dozen years until it moved to the nation’s capital in 1986. The Task Force’s accomplishments during the time they were located here and under Voeller’s leadership represented several giant leaps forward for LGBTQ Americans. After employing tactics including staffing booths at the American Psychiatric Association’s Convention to challenge the group’s official categorization of homosexuality as a mental illness, in 1973 the Task Force secured the removal of homosexuality from the APA’s official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, reducing a significant stigma attached to LGBT people and paving the way for further legal reforms. In 1975 the Task Force advocated for the successful ruling by the U.S. Civil Service Commission eliminating the longtime ban upon gay people serving in federal government employment, ending decades of witch hunts against government workers suspected of being gay which dated back to the McCarthy era and before.

National Gay Task Force members after the historic 1977 White House meeting

In 1977, the Task Force brokered another historic first – the very first meeting of any LGBT group with the White House. The meeting directly resulted in changes in policies at the Bureau of Prisons and the Public Health Service, while also initiating policy discussions that would continue for decades and contribute to the incorporation of support for gay rights within the Democratic Party platform. In 1978, the Task Force got the U.S. Public Health Service to stop certifying gay immigrants as “psychopathic personalities.” Also during its time at 80 Fifth Avenue, in the late 1970s, the Task Force staff conducted the first national survey of corporate hiring policies (called Project Open Employment) to determine whether U.S. employers explicitly barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This was followed a few years later by another of survey municipal police departments, laying the groundwork for successful campaigns, beginning at this time and continuing to this day, to secure protections by government and private employers against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (and eventually gender identity as well).

Koch and Abzug, both Congressmembers from Greenwich Village representing neighboring districts, were often rivals, but came together to introduce the first federal gay rights legislation in 1975.

Toward that end, the Task Force was instrumental in drafting and securing the introduction of the very first federal gay rights bill in Congress in 1975 by local Congressmembers Bella Abzug and Ed Koch, as well as several other representatives. While the bill did not pass then and still has not passed the entire Congress (a current more limited version, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, has passed both the Senate and the House, but not in the same session), it has been consistently reintroduced in various forms in the years since, gaining increasing support. This bill, first put forward by the Task Force, has become the basis for non-discrimination laws passed by 22 states and the District of Columbia, as well as hundreds of cities, counties, and localities throughout the United States.

As one of the leaders in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s of the response to a mysterious deadly ailment afflicting an increasing number of gay men and others in New York, Dr. Voeller changed the inaccurate and stigmatizing terminology for referring to the condition from “Gay Related Immune Defense Disorder,” or GRIDD, as it was initially known, to “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” or AIDS, a name her coined and by which it is now known.

Dr. Voeller also founded the Mariposa Education and Research Foundation, one of the very first such entities established to educate and change attitudes about homosexuality and to reduce the stigmas attached to sexuality generally. The Foundation commissioned the George Segal sculpture “Gay Liberation” that was placed in Christopher Park at Seventh Avenue South and Christopher Street to commemorate the Stonewall riots.

Gay Liberation Monument at Christopher Park

Dr. Voeller and the Mariposa Foundation also conducted the first study in the early 1980s establishing the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of AIDS; this study was published in Consumer Reports and had a profound impact upon the response to the epidemic. Dr. Voeller was also the subject of a landmark United States Supreme Court case regarding parental rights for lesbians and gay men. Dr. Voeller successfully sued for visitation rights for his children (he had had three children with his wife Kitja Scott Voeller, whom he divorced in 1971), which was considered a landmark case in establishing the legal rights of lesbians and gay men in relation to their children.

Dr. Voeller died in 1994 of an AIDS related illness. However, he and his legacy are very much recognized and honored. In 2019 he was inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor as one of the inaugural 50 American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” within the Stonewall National Monuments.

Learn more about Village Preservation’s efforts to protect LGBTQ landmarks and history here.

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