Renowned author, professor and LGBTQ activist Arnie Kantrowitz died Jan. 21 in New York City's Upper East Side Rehabilitation Center due to complications from COVID-19. He was 81.
Kantrowitz was born Nov. 26, 1940, in Newark, New Jersey, and spent his childhood and adolescence there. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University-Newark in 1961 and a received his master's degree in English literature from New York University in 1963. While at Rutgers, Kantrowitz was the English Club president and 'Gallery' student literary magazine editor.
A pioneering LGBTQ activist, Kantrowitz came out publicly in 1970. He was the Gay Activist Alliance's vice president in 1970 and co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in 1985. GLAAD was created in response to the anti-gay coverage in the New York City tabloids, most specifically surrounding the AIDS crisis, and to this day advocates for fair and accurate representation of LGBTQ people in all forms of media.
Kantrowitz wrote Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay in 1977. That book was revolutionary at the time because he combined his life story and activist work into one memoir. He was also a leading and persistent activist for the literary, academic and popular recognition of Walt Whitman's status as a gay man. This included writing a book, Walt Whitman, in 2005.
Additionally, Kantrowitz contributed to many anthologies; had numerous articles published in various LGBTQ press for over three decades; and conducted many interviews about LGBTQ liberation and the AIDS epidemic.
Kantrowitz was also invited to speak about LGBTQ issues on various radio and television talk shows in the 1970s including Jack Parr, Geraldo Rivera, Bill Boggs and Sally Jesse Raphael as well as appeared in the documentary films Positive, After Stonewall, Gay Sex in the 70s, Here With Pride, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon and Vito.
His academic career began at New York State University College at Cortland where he taught from 1963 to 1965 and then at the CUNY College of Staten Island from 1965 until his retirement in 2006. While at CUNY College of Staten Island, Kantrowitz was made chair of the English department in 1999, established the college's first gay studies course and was active in the now-defunct Gay Academic Union. Among the many courses Kantrowitz taught was one of the first focusing on LGBTQ literature; it was called Homosexuals and Literature.
Kantrowitz met his life partner, Dr. Larry Mass, in late 1981. The two became a couple shortly after that time and moved in together in 1983. Mass is also a writer who co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982; he was also one of the first to write about AIDS in the press.
Among the accolades and honors Kantrowitz received was being named Staten Island's Pride Parade grand marshal in 2009 and receiving a New York State Assembly testimonial citation for his decades of LGBTQ activism. Kantrowitz's personal papers (spanning 1951 to 2008) can be found at the New York Public Library.
Kantrowitz is survived by Mass; his brother, Barry Kantrowitz; and many extended family members and friends.
"Arnie was my dearest friend and a beloved colleague," said longtime friend Maryann Feola. "He was the sort of friend who you could set your clock by and know that if you had a disagreement he would forgive you immediately. Arnie was the embodiment of compassion. We met when I joined the English department at CUNY College of Staten Island and immediately recognized in each other two people who enjoyed life and a good laugh and we had many of them over the years. His students simply adored him. There would be a line outside his door throughout the semester of students who wanted to work on their writing and of course were looking for encouragement and support as they were coming out of the closet. He was the original safe place at the college. When he became chairperson he made a firm commitment that no one else had done before, introduce diversity into the department in every way possible and that ethos continues to this day."
"I now occupy Arnie's office at CUNY College of Staten Island," said friend Matt Brim. "I am so lucky and honored to follow in his footsteps and continue the work he started on the campus in the LGBTQ studies field. Arnie was beloved on the campus and I very much appreciated the support he gave me after his retirement. I get to teach students about all of his LGBTQ academic and political work, which really hits home with them. I am proud to continue his legacy."
"Arnie was also the best friend of, and literary executor for, Vito Russo," said his longtime friend Michael Schiavi in a Facebook post honoring him. "When I began researching Celluloid Activist, my biography of Vito, I knew I would need Arnie's cooperation and approached him with no small trepidation. He did not know me from Adam, and if he turned me down, I would be sunk. Arnie being Arnie, he simply handed everything to me … I dedicated my book to him with profound gratitude. We spent many raucous evenings at his place watching Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies. In 2010 and 2012, Arnie came to LGBT-themed literature courses I was teaching at New York Tech and Pace. I could not have been prouder to introduce my students to this giant of the movement, someone who had made it possible, through a lifetime of activism, for them to have the rights that they had, that we all have now."
"I am saddened today to hear the not unexpected news that Arnie passed away due to Covid," said friend Karla Jay in a Facebook post honoring him. "Arnie and I crossed paths for decades in what seemed like countless groups. Over the years, I sent a number of researchers and documentarians his way, as he was such a font of information and knew everyone. I would always add, 'And after you are done, someone needs to make a film about Arnie.' He was the stuff the post-Stonewall movement was made of. Rest in Power, Arnie, and love to his partner, Larry Mass."
"Arnie accomplished so much but he was very modest about all that he had done to help society," said his longtime friend Judith Stelboum. "We taught together at CUNY College of Staten Island for decades becoming close friends along the way and co-wrote a piece for the anthology Sister and Brother: Lesbians and Gay Men Write About Their Lives Together. Arnie would come and visit me and my partner at our home and we would always have one of his suit jackets in our closet so he could wear it out to fancy dinners. He was a very important person in my life and I will miss his sense of humor and warmth very much."
Mass said that memorial services are being planned. Details TBA.