It was 3 p.m. at the Queens Center for Gay Seniors in Jackson Heights. Twenty people arranged wooden chairs in a circle for their weekly meeting on a Wednesday afternoon. The Center is located in a synagogue, but it is not decorated with religious symbols. Instead, pride flags and weekly black-and-white activity calendars adorn the walls.
Normally, this room bustles with Zumba, sex education classes and nude painting sessions. But on this day, the mood was somber. Just a week before, a gunman shot and killed five people at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. Now the group, which is usually full of spitfire dialogue and constant sexual innuendos, was quiet and still. Many sat with their hands and ankles crossed.
“We are a gay group and meet in a Jewish center,” one of them said.
People in the circle squirmed a little in their seats, looking uneasy and uncomfortable.
“It’s a double whammy,” said another group member.
A few days after the shooting, the Queens Center for Gay Seniors had held an open forum about politics and current events. The Colorado Springs shooting at Club Q was a hot topic of conversation then, and the seniors at this day’s discussion seemed ready to jump right back in to engage with the event.
“Attacking people with guns seems to be the American way of attacking people you don’t like,” said a man with an Irish accent.
But the group’s members were not at the Center to talk about hate crimes or Colorado Springs. They were conducting an interview with a candidate for the director of the Center. This candidate, Olga Baranova, was in the final hiring stages and this was her chance to meet the Center’s regulars.
Baranova started off by introducing herself. She is a Russian activist who fought for years for LGBTQ rights in Moscow as the government persecuted and prosecuted queer people. She opened Moscow’s first gay community center, which served as refuge for those people at risk. In 2017, after she helped evacuate over 2,000 people facing prosecution, Baranova found herself in trouble and was forced to leave Russia.
“It wasn’t safe for my family in Russia. Some people wanted to kill me,” she said.
She stood in the center of the circle of chairs at the Queens center. She spoke enthusiastically but softly, with a certain intimacy — as if addressing each person around her individually. She didn’t turn her back toward anyone for more than a few seconds each. She told her story like the plot of an action movie.
Some seniors in the circle leaned forward. Others leaned back, again crossing their Velcro sneakers, but remained fixed on Baranova.
Baranova dressed in an all-black outfit. Her vest had an upside-down pink triangle on it, a symbol previously used by Nazis to identify gay men, but now claimed by the LGBTQ community to represent queer liberation. She wore round tortoise print glasses and an array of silver jewelry including earrings and rings. Her socks, which peeked out over a pair of high-top sneakers, read “FUN” in big, bold text.
When Baranova finished telling her story, she opened the floor to questions. The seniors took turns quizzing her, mostly about her plans to increase membership and offer resources they need. It felt like a town hall meeting, where locals would ask a candidate about what they plan to do for the community.
The mood shifted sharply when one group member spoke up. She challenged Baranova’s ability to lead the Center. It’s important for the seniors to be able to understand and converse with their director, she said, and Baranova has a rather thick Russian accent. She went as far as to ask Baranova how long she’s been in the United States and speaking English.
This set off a conversation about diversity, and America, and Jackson Heights as a microcosm of it all. One member pointed out that members are unlikely to find many Midwesterners in Queens, but you do encounter a whole lot of immigrants. Why, then, shouldn’t the director represent the diversity of Jackson Heights?
Many in the circle offered their agreement to this in the form of “mhm” and “you’re right,” some muttering under their breath and others speaking loudly. It seemed the rest of the group was at odds with the concerned member. They told her that she might just have to deal with some of her own biases. Maybe her comprehension of Baranova’s Russian accent would improve over time, they said.
A man with an Irish accent seemed to clinch the debate. “I think a lot of us have difficulty hearing anyone,” he said.