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April 24, 2012

Archiving the fight against AIDS at Rosenthal

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The unveiling of the Robert Rygor papers at the Queens College Special Collections and Archives brought together students and faculty to witness a collection chronicling the struggles of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender community.

Held on April 18 in the Benjamin Rosenthal Library, the event told the story of Robert Rygor, a gay activist who challenged social norms and fought for the rights of LGBT individuals during the AIDS crisis.

A Queens College student observes the new addtion to the LGBT Archives in the Rosenthal Library. Photo by Dana Amrami.

Rygor, who had AIDS, fought tirelessly for the promotion of research about the disease, gay rights, and for the redirection of national funds away from warfare and toward the creation of schools and a better healthcare system.

Rygor’s parents and Brendan Fay, a friend and fellow activist, attended the event. Fay is an activist affiliated with Act Up New York, a non-partisan organization Rygor led committed to ending the AIDS crisis. He directed a commemorative film in remembrance of the late Rygor called “Silence to Speech,” which was played at the event.

In the film, Rygor’s father, Stanley, speaks about learning that his son was diagnosed with the disease.

“When I heard of his disease I yelled and cried ‘my baby, my baby,’” said Stanley Rygor, who described the AIDS epidemic of the 1970s as “a whole generation of fine young men and women plundered and damned.”

Rygor remained an activist until the day he died. He ran for public office in NYC and traveled to Africa in the final months of his life to spread global awareness of the AIDS epidemic. He passed away in January 1994.

Rygor’s father spoke with candor and emotion about his initial struggle with, and eventual acceptance of, his son’s identity. Eventually, he too became an advocate for gay rights.

“Accept them, support them; they’re your kids and you’ve got to love them, you’ve got to love them,” Rygor’s father said.

Today, the Rygor family displays the rainbow flag outside their home in memory of their son. About the hardships that LGBT individuals face, Fay said, “People don’t understand what it is like to be deprived of civil rights.”

“Our mission is to preserve and make accessible this history to the QC community and beyond,” said Annie Tumino, archivist and main speaker at the event.

Corinne Klee, co-organizer of the event, is the graduate student that actually processed the entire collection piece by piece.

“I tried to pick material that developed a relationship so that people could get a sense of who Robert was and then develop an emotional connection to the material,” Klee said.

Fay called Rygor’s papers a treasure trove of heritage that could serve to instill pride and inspiration among LGBT youth.

“I find this collection an amazing resource to have on our campus. It tells me something about my history as a queer person; about the stark contrasts between life in New York City today and life here only 20 years ago; about the struggles that people living with — and dying from — AIDS faced and still continue to face,” said Noam Parness, vice president of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Alliance.

This extensive collection of writings and pictures is open to the public at the Rosenthal Library’s Special Collections and Archives and can be found in the civil rights collection.

Robert Rygor had said of himself, “I am here because AIDS is a crisis without a leader,” said his father: “I know wherever he is, he’s proud.”



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