James W. Owles Is Dead at 46; Was Founder of Gay Rights Group

By David W. Dunlap • August 08, 1993

James W. Owles, the founding president of the Gay Activists Alliance and the first openly gay candidate for political office in New York City, died on Friday at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. He was 46 and lived in Manhattan.

The cause was AIDS-related toxoplasmosis, said Ethan Geto, a friend.

Until illness forced him to step down this year, Mr. Owles was a special assistant and liaison to the lesbian and gay community for the State Senate minority leader, Manfred Ohrenstein. He had worked for the Senator, a Manhattan Democrat, since the early 1980's.

Mr. Owles was born in Calumet City, Ill. He attended the University of Illinois and then served in the Air Force.

In December 1969, he helped found the Gay Activists Alliance in New York City with Arthur Bell, Morty Manford, Martin Robinson and others. As president of the alliance from 1970 to 1971, Mr. Owles advocated anti-discrimination bills in Albany and New York City.

"We do not ask for any respectability or sympathy from straight people," he declared in a letter to the State Legislature in February 1971. Others' opinions, he said, "are of no interest to us except to the extent that these private bigotries are allowed to become public policy."

In 1971, on the eve of the second annual gay pride march, Mr. Owles said: "It's a lot more difficult to march out of the closet than to march for peace. It can cost you your job or your career." He envisioned a future in which homosexuals would "show straights and themselves that being gay means something more than the baths and the bars," and he said he expected to work for gay rights "till I die."

During demonstrations, known as "zaps," mounted by the alliance, Mr. Owles was arrested many times. In April 1972, at the annual Inner Circle dinner of City Hall reporters at the New York Hilton, Mr. Owles grabbed the microphone onstage to denounce press coverage, and a melee erupted in which he and Mr. Manford were seriously injured. Ran for City Council

In January 1973, Mr. Owles declared his candidacy for the City Council district encompassing Greenwich Village, which he called the nation's "largest gay ghetto." He described himself as the first openly gay candidate for office in New York City.

He challenged the incumbent, Carol Greitzer, as someone who "voted right" but "failed to organize pressure to get things done." In the Democratic primary in June 1973, he received 3,632 votes, to 16,814 votes for Councilwoman Greitzer.

Mr. Owles went on to be a founder of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats in 1974, the first such political club in the city. In 1985, he was one of the seven founding members of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which monitors the coverage and depiction of lesbians and gay men in the media.

He is survived by three brothers, Kevin and Robert Jr., both of Calumet City, and Michael, of Munster, Ind., and two sisters, Penny Pivourinas of Calumet City and Sharon Homola of Hammond, Ind.



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