He’s taking action to make the impossible possible
June 25, 2008
By Laurie Mittelmann
Pink fliers stuffing his messenger bag, Tim Doody pedaled uptown to organize a protest for homeless people who can’t afford the bus fare to their Ward’s Island shelter.
On the streets, Doody, 34, is known as a gay-rights activist, but he also chants and beats drums for bicycles, community gardens, civil liberties and ending wars.
These are only some of the numerous calls for social and political change that Doody has been making since getting active against police abuse 13 years ago as a cab driver in Pittsburgh, where black co-workers told him stories of misconduct and trumped-up charges that led him to his first demonstration.
“I was totally moved by angry mothers worried about the future of their sons,” Doody said. “As a spectator, I chanted when I was told.”
Doody, who lives in the West Village and studies creative nonfiction at The New School, now leads his own workshops on tactics for dealing with police at full-blown demonstrations. He knows to wear a bandana soaked in vinegar to protect his face against tear gas and to rinse his eyes with a solution of water and antacid to minimize the painful effects of pepper spray.
“We have a birth and we have a death, and in the time in between we’re asked to do the impossible,” Doody said of his activist’s credo.
His forearm is tattooed with the alchemical symbols for lead, gold and the philosopher’s stone, which was also once thought to do the impossible by changing common metals into gold.
Doody came to New York 10 years ago with two changes of clothes, $300 and a guitar. He made the trip to rappel off a Midtown building with a 30-foot-by-60-foot banner reading, “NYC – Don’t Destroy Rainforests for Benches, Boardwalks and Subway Ties,” for the group Rainforest Relief.
The action failed before it started. As he was painting the banner on a rooftop, 10 police officers came up the stairs while a helicopter circled overhead and plainclothes and uniformed cops surrounded the block.
“Now there are thousands of asses still sitting on [benches made of] dead rainforests,” Doody said.
A week later, Doody attended a multiday anarchist convention called “Queeruption” in Brooklyn. As they hosted workshops and parties, shared skills, showed films and performed music, the people he met there convinced him to stay in New York.
“Suddenly, it was a room full of crusty and freaky radicals,” Doody said. “And they were all gay.”
His first project was saving a community garden called Esperanza on the Lower East Side. He slept there, ready to chain himself to concrete blocks in the ground if the bulldozers came rumbling.
Brooklyn activist Ben Shepard, 38, remembers screaming “big sticks, small pricks” at the police in the garden when Doody approached him to say it was the wrong message.
“He was looking scruffy, tough and adorable with his dreadlocks, and he was right,” Shepard said. “The process counts and he makes it respectful.”
Since then, Doody has chopped his hair, a mop of soft brown that falls over his tanned face. A red bicycle chain hangs on his wrist as a bracelet, a constant reminder of his passion for cycling, which he once did for a living as a bike messenger. He walks much more slowly than the typical New Yorker, taking in the scene around his neighborhood.
“He’ll point out the most beautiful things that I take for granted,” said his sister Katie Doody. “He’s my third parent that I can keep it real with.”
After the bulldozers did come to Esperanza — with a police escort — Doody and Shepard spent the next 30 hours getting to know each other in jail. They have since collaborated on numerous campaigns by Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE), More Gardens, Time’s Up!, Radical Homosexual Agenda and Friends of Brad Will and also against the 2004 Republican National Convention.
“He’s able to see how pieces of broad social activism fit together,” Shepard said of Doody.
That holistic view of activism also led Doody to fight the expansion of New York University. Like older neighborhood residents, who are angered because their favorite historic buildings have been levelled for more lecture halls, he is also miffed by the transient student body — now occuping space, but soon moving on.
“Dormication — it’s a fate worse than gentrification,” Doody said. He has nothing good to say about John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president.
“It’s kind of like he leads an occupation — like U.S. in Iraq,” Doody said. “We need N.Y.U. out of N.Y.C.” If the N.Y.U. graduates stayed in the city to fight injustice, as he is doing, that would be different.
Back in Pittsburgh, his parents recently sold the family’s home and left for their own mission — the Mormon kind, helping to perform eternal marriage ceremonies at the Temple of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Washington, D.C. They raised Doody in a religious environment.
“It’s funny, because I went from radical faith to radical activism,” Doody said.
His mother, Joyce Doody, 56, said she taught her son life lessons by reading his assigned books from school and discussing the characters’ moral dilemmas. She had hoped that he would continue Mormonism, but respects his right to leave the Church.
“We have agreed to disagree on certain things,” she said. “He’s raised our consciousness and caused us to be more responsible citizens.”
Tim Doody encouraged his parents to buy reusable cloth napkins and compact fluroscent lightbulbs. He told his father he was gay just before hopping out of the family car. His father told him that he and his mother would love him no matter what, but that he should reconsider.
Bad experiences with his first two boyfriends convinced Doody that all gay people were insane. One began speaking in tongues to his dead grandmother. The other robbed a New Jersey Turnpike tollbooth with a rifle while wearing paisley boxer shorts over his head.
His parents tried to tell him that he didn’t have to participate in what they called a lifestyle choice. He’d been puzzling over his sexuality since he heard the leader of the Mormon Church announce in a television broadcast from Salt Lake City that homosexuality was a “crime against nature” and a “deep, dark sin.”
With the book “You Don’t Have To Be Gay,” Doody began therapy. “At the time, I thought it made sense,” Doody said. “Then I slipped up and had a threesome at college with my roommate and another guy.”
After returning home from college for a visit, he received a call from his roommate to alert him that their other sexual partner was infected with crabs. Doody became so worried that he would infect his family that he confessed to them. He had his second coming out.
“I had a Huck Finn moment,” Doody said. “When he decides not to support the social instituions around him that endorse slavery and says, ‘I’m going to hell — whatever.’”
In the years since, Doody has not only embraced, but fought for, his sexuality both independently and as a member of the Radical Homosexual Agenda, a group of likeminded gay-rights activists. It was with them that he first started to advocate for the rights of homeless people, who are often gay people kicked out of their family’s homes or otherwise pushed out by society.
He sees many of these individuals along the Christopher St. Pier at night. FIERCE is working to get a 24-hour counseling center on Pier 40 at W. Houston St. to serve the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth who frequent the area.
“My neighbors and I should be using our collective wealth to support FIERCE’s efforts,” Doody said.
Doody has often crossed paths with his own city councilmember, Christine Quinn, the first woman and first openly gay person elected as City Council speaker, the city’s second highest government position. Lately, Doody has clashed with Quinn over her support for a new law requiring police permits for possession and use of environmental air-monitoring devices by public health groups, labor unions, environmentalists, community organizations and university programs.
Fighting the bill is one of his current projects, which he typically undertakes with his partner of six years, a lawyer who speaks directly with Quinn, while Doody addresses members of the community about her plans.
“We’re seeing this trend where she claims to be this progressive voice, but she’s leaving a legacy of squashed civil liberties in her wake,” Doody said of Quinn. “And this is especially upsetting because those civil liberties are the very reason that she, as an out lesbian, enjoys the power she has today.”
Doody is upset when people don’t recognize how issues of race, class and environment can all intersect. He has the same objection to the largest national gay-rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, because it lauds Shell Oil Company, among other corporations, for extending employee benefits to domestic partners. Those benefits should be a given, Doody said, and support for the world’s second largest oil company is intolerable.
“It’s the same Shell that lied about the effect of industry on climate change,” Doody said. “H.R.C. pushes the belief that gay rights exist within a shiny, pink bubble, far removed from anything else.”
Everything about Doody indicates that he won’t give up until he pops the shiny, pink bubble.