Arnie Kantrowitz and Staten Island

Arnie Kantrowitz and Staten Island

by Larry Mass

photo: Queen of the Click

“By his example, openness, and honesty, Professor Arnie Kantrowitz, over more than a quarter of a century, affected the lives of many hundreds of vulnerable, questioning College of Staten Island students, and perhaps a few faculty and staff, too.”

— John Adrian

In 2008, I had the privilege of joining Arnie in an open-air vehicle at the head of the fifth Staten Island Pride Parade and Festival. Arnie was asked by his former CSI student, John Adrian, to be the Grand Marshal of that event. This is the lovingly embroidered sash Arnie was given to wear.

Sash worn by Arnie Kantrowitz as Grand Marshal of Staten Island’s Fifth Annual Gay Pride Parade. photo by Larry Mass

As his life partner, I was honored and delighted to join him. The honor and delight were real, and surpassing, but along the route lined with a scattering of supporters, there was a religious group carrying hate placards. I remember feeling more afraid than brave.

Not Arnie or John. As a resident of Staten Island, John was long aware of the local bigotry that has once again erupted around the Staten Island St Patrick’s Day Parade. Against the grain of most other regional parades, including New York City, that have embraced inclusivity, Staten Island’s Hibernians again moved to retain LGBTQ exclusion. It’s an old, disheartening and recurrent story of religious, conservative and provincial intolerance.

As Adrian recalls, after coming out in 1969, and as we otherwise know, Professor Kantrowitz was one of the early out and proud gay men who was willing to talk about himself and his people, and as well to students and faculty, privately and publicly as well as in his writing. He was a pioneer of gay studies, of what he was calling in 1973 “Gay Men’s Literature.” In supporting him in this venue of subcultural study, for teaching and development, CSI was being as brave as Arnie.

“Professor Kantrowitz by being open and honest about his own homosexuality, became a prime example of an ‘out, proud, gay man’. Over the years many students came to him for advice and counsel about their own orientation. He was always willing to talk with anyone, and especially to reassure them that their non-heterosexual orientation was not a choice, and nothing of which to be ashamed.”

Let me tell you a little more about Arnie’s courage. Arnie is best-known and beloved for his wisdom; and as well for his sentimentality — old Hollywood tearjerkers would get him every time. But alongside his razor wit, encyclopedic knowledge and gifts of communication, he had a personal courage few of us could begin to imagine, even with what we know of his bravery as a pioneer of gay liberation.

Arnie’s last hospitalization for COVID was his 53rd in our 40 years together. Arnie could be a kvetcher about small things, often putting himself down for being a Jewish stereotype as such — “so the waiter asks the Jewish mother, ‘is anything ok?” But his unwillingness to give into self-pity was as formidable and inspiring as his integrity and honesty. Though we often teased Arnie for being “the good one,” the teasing was based on levels of character we knew to be real. Marcia Pally has described Arnie as “gentle and fierce.” Arnie was the personification of their blend.

I am truly honored to be here today, to be part of today’s remembrance and tribute to our beloved Arnie, a hero of conscience and courage. I want to express special thanks to today’s co-hosts, Maryann Feola and Matt Brim, and CSI faculty and staff for organizing and inspiriting this event.

It’s from one of his Chinese dinners with Maryann, often coupled with a film, that Arnie brought home a fortune cookie saying that he left centrally placed on his desk at home:

“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”

On one of our shelves is a tile that reads: “To teach is to touch a life forever.”

And overlooking our one-person-at-a-time breakfast nook sits a trophy Arnie was awarded by his students. It’s a bronze shining star, beneath which is a caption: “Professor Kantrowitz — A Rainbow of Inspiration.”

Thank You CSI for your legacy of opening minds and hearts, as exemplified by the CSI career of Arnie Kantrowitz.

I’ll conclude with a CSI-based remembrance of Arnie. When the outing of anti-gay politicians who were “secretly” gay or bisexual was a hot controversy, Arnie and I debated the issue. As a writer and activist, I felt that outing was about serving truth, and that nothing was more important than the truth. Arnie thought for a moment and then told me the story of a moment of awareness he had with a student. “So, Professor Kantrowitz,” she asked him, “what do you think of my new dress?” For whatever reason, he decided to tell her “the truth.” The dress seemed wrong. In response to which her demeanor went from beaming with pride to crestfallen. “Oh,” she said. “I made it myself.” That was one of those moments, Arnie said, when he realized that in fact there was something that can be more important than truth — kindness.

One more show and tell — the original Lambda ring created by GAA co-founder and close extended gay family friend Tom Doerr, who died from complications of AIDS. When Tom passed away, Arnie inherited his ring. Here it is, precious totem of the Gay Liberation Movement.

the first Lambda ring, created by Arnie’s fellow GAA activist Tom Doerr. The lambda was chosen for its scientific symbolism for kinetic energy

The other day I saw an article entitled: “Being Nice Doesn’t Make You a Good Person. It Makes You Weak.” That would seem to dovetail with the street-wise observation that “Nice guys finish last.”

Well, world at large, take note. Arnie Kantrowitz was a genuinely nice guy whose strength conveyed itself through conscience and kindness and whose life and example were winning. However much that credo of conquest about nice guys finishing last might seem to apply in the face of today’s social and political upheavals, and however much an anomaly Arnie’s decency and plain-spokenness could seem in our lofty intellectual discourses, Arnie Kantrowitz was a thoroughly nice guy who finished triumphant.

For the College of Staten Island (CSI) Zoom Memorial Service in Honor of Arnie Kantrowitz (1940–2022), March 18, 2022