Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Antonio Pagán, 1st gay Latino NYC Councilmember, dead at age 50

I must have met the man more than a few times but, for the life of me, I can't remember a single encounter. I wasn't living in New York when he became the first openly gay Latino man to be elected to the New York City Council in 1991, but I certainly was involved in city politics by the time he left the Council in 1997, and had become well-aware of his notorious reputation.

Last week his name crossed my mind as in "Whatever happened to..." Now comes word that Antonio Pagán (right) died on Sunday at the age of 50 at Beth Israel Medical Center of a heart attack.

You might think that the Latino LGBT community would be mourning his loss and declaring him the Harvey Milk of our generation but let's say that: 1) Aside from past articles archived at The New York Times there is little online material to make others aware of his historic run for office (I mean, was he the first openly gay Latino to be elected to political office in the United States?); and 2) Hm, how can I put this gently? By all accounts he was a brilliant man but also an asshole who held petty grudges against enemies and pushed policies that were an anathema to the people he represented (not that I can't think of a few people in political office that fit that description).

Paul DeRienzo put it best when he wrote the following in response to a NY Times' City Room blog report on Pagán's passing:
Antonio Pagan was a brilliant man, but also a petty and personally vindictive one who did not embody the values of the majority of residents of the Lower East Side. He was an advocate for landlords and big business and a close associate of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Mr. Pagan’s decisions closed community gardens, community centers and evicted residents, while driving up rents in what is still fundamentally a poor and struggling neighborhood. He was also directly involved in instigating a police riot in Tompkins Square Park on August 6th, 1988 that caused hundreds of injuries to local residents. That riot happened because Mr. Pagan and others made decisions about the rights of homeless people living in the park in secret, while conspiring with police officials behind the back of the community. Mr. Pagan will not be missed as a political leader in our neighborhood, but most feel sorrow that a young man should be cut down in his prime. My condolences to his family, but to all the poor people who suffered because of Mr. Pagan’s desire to have as he once said "my piece of the rock,” they deserve condolence as well.
At that site, some defend him but most are vitriolic in the hate they spew against Pagán (he would probably rejoice in the fact that his actions still bring so much venom a decade after his City Council stint).

As for the cause of death: There is some online chatter that Pagán might have died after a longtime battle with HIV/AIDS which certainly is pure speculation at this point in time. But if that is the case, and those close to him are uncomfortable with disclosing his HIV status, what does that say about a man who was among the founding board members of the still-existing nonprofit organization Hispanic AIDS Forum? Or - if it is true that he had been battling HIV/AIDS - was it his personal wish that if he died others would not find out that he was HIV positive?

If that is the case, it certainly honors Pagán's conflicting personae, but it also speaks to how in a certain segments of the Latino community - even among openly gay folk - AIDS is still silenced.

Interestingly, since Pagán was elected to the City Council representing the Lower East Side of Manhattan, his successors have also been of Puerto Rican descent and openly gay. First came Margarita López who held the seat from 1998 to 2005 before she sought higher office when term limits came into effect, followed by Rosie Méndez who currently holds the seat.



Some Other Guy said...

He used to come into my friends store, Farfetched on 4th Ave in the E Vill. Very nice guy, handsome too. Sad. Didn't know his politics, except he was a politician.
And Farfetched is now shuttered as of yesterday.

Bernie said...

Thanks for the history lesson, Andres. All of this was new information to me.

sean said...

It's sad that someone leaves us so early but it's sadder when your memories are portrayed in such a light.

No escaping karma...


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