If you think your Pride weekend plans are jampacked this year, check out Corey Johnson’s dance card.
Following a bevy of commitments Friday and Saturday, the proudly out New York City Council speaker will walk the Pride March route not once, but twice on Sunday. He’ll first complete it with his council colleagues and then run back to the beginning to march with constituents from his West Side district. “When the parade is over,” he tells Alexa, “I’m usually a hot sweaty mess, so I go back to my apartment,” a 319-square-foot studio in Chelsea he shares with his cat, Mousse. “Then, I’ll rest, meet friends for brunch and go to a few house parties.” In the evening, he’ll head out dancing: “There are two things I like to go to: the Pier Dance, and then a boat cruise with old disco music, my favorite.”
Originally elected to the city council in 2013, then re-elected this past November, Johnson broke into NYC politics by serving on his local community board, eventually becoming the youngest person to ever lead one. When he was elevated to speaker by his council colleagues in January, he became the first openly HIV-positive person to hold that position. But Johnson was making headlines long before that.
During his junior year of high school, the multisport athlete — who grew up in public housing in the Boston suburbs and had just been named co-captain of his football team — came out as gay. “It was six months after Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming,” Johnson, now 36, recalls. “I didn’t know what was going to happen when I came out … but I was surrounded by love when I did.”
He wasn’t shocked by the support his family showed him, he says, “but I was surprised by how well it went with my high school, my football team and my town.”
His story hit the national news; Anderson Cooper even embedded himself with the family for a “20/20” story. All the attention led to a speaking tour, which eventually brought Johnson to NYC — and his life’s work. “That act of coming out and being honest about who I was, that’s what opened the door to my activism, and gave me my entree to politics.”
To the speaker — who keeps photos of iconic gay activists and personal heroes Harvey Milk and Larry Kramer in his office — Pride is more than parades and parties. “It’s a day to be ‘born this way,’ however we are — a time to be ourselves. But it’s also a time of reflection.”
And not just to consider the past and how far LGBT struggles have come, but also, he says, “to think about the battles we still have to engage in for full rights and equality.
It’s a day to be ‘born this way,’ however we are — a time to be ourselves.
“I’ve been to Prides all over the country and, to me, New York’s is really special,” says the currently single and nine-years-sober Johnson, who describes himself as being in an LTR (long-term relationship) with the Big Apple. “The city is considered the birthplace of the modern gay-rights movement. Marching past Stonewall, being on the streets of Greenwich Village, the energy — it’s one of my favorite days of the year.
“When I was a suicidal, 15-year-old gay boy in a tiny town in Massachusetts,” he continues, “I never thought that one day I’d be marching on Fifth Avenue as speaker of the New York City Council. To reflect on and contemplate my own journey is special in many ways. It’s an honor and privilege to serve in this position, and to do so as an openly gay, openly positive person is amazing.”
Described as “the man glitterbombing NYC politics,” Johnson has clearly earned fans. “He has been an indispensable supporter,” says Kelsey Louie, CEO of Manhattan’s nonprofit GMHC, which provides HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy services. “Corey cares deeply about people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. We’re thrilled we get to work with such an ally, as well as such a good friend.”
Another top political priority for Johnson? Creating a city that’s more affordable, whether that means lower housing costs or cheaper MTA fares for those who need them most. “One in five New Yorkers lives below the poverty line,” he points out.
Term limits will prevent Johnson from making a third council run in 2021, and (so far) the otherwise open-book politico has been uncharacteristically coy about his future aspirations. (Mayor Corey Johnson, anyone?)
But as far as his council colleague Ritchie Torres, Democrat of The Bronx, is concerned, there’s nothing Johnson couldn’t do. “Corey is the most talented elected official of his generation,” Torres enthuses. “He’s refreshingly and radically authentic in a business where officials are trained to be guarded and scripted. There’s a humanizing power to his authenticity, and that sets him apart.”
A few of the New York City Council speaker’s favorite spots to celebrate
Elmo | 156 Seventh Ave.
“There’s a lot of energy. It’s affordable, in a great location a few blocks from where I live, and I love that it’s still a predominantly gay restaurant.”
Mister Sunday at Nowadays | 56-60 Cooper Ave., Queens
“This is a great weekly party on Sundays. It’s now in Ridgewood, on the Queens-Brooklyn border.”
Flaming Saddles | 793 Ninth Ave.
Flaming Saddles, a Hell’s Kitchen Wild West saloon-style gay hub, gets Johnson’s vote, “especially because of the bartenders’ dancing on the bar.”
Metropolitan | 559 Lorimer St., Brooklyn
“A lot of my close friends live in Williamsburg, which has such a bustling, burgeoning gay scene” — and Metropolitan is a frequent stop.
Horse Meat Disco
This roving party “is one of my favorite places to dance,” says Johnson. “I try to go to every month.”