Most people don’t know it but, despite my Philly pride, I’m actually a Jersey girl. I was born in Passaic and most of my relatives still live in North Jersey. This week’s profile is also a Jersey native. Robert de Anthony is the entertainment coordinator for Southern New Jersey LGBTQ Pride, a wonderful celebration being held right across the river Sept. 14.
PGN: Tell me about something near and dear to your heart.
RD: First and foremost is the nonprofit organization I started for LGBT youth here in Jersey City. I started it in 2006. It’s called Our Youth and it’s a safe haven for kids, a place where they can be themselves.
PGN: What kinds of things do you do?
RD: We help them find jobs and get into college. We offer free HIV testing and have different nightly activities to keep them off the streets. We have book night, family night, movie night, yoga night, stuff like that. I’m proud to say we just opened up a new facility in New York City.
PGN: What is your connection with DeAnn Cox and South Jersey Pride?
RD: I have been the entertainment coordinator and host of South Jersey Pride for the last four years. One of the things my organization is doing with South Jersey Pride this year is a pre-party at Club Revolution in Hammonton, N.J., on Sept. 13. There is a $5 suggested donation and the proceeds will go to our scholarship fund, which has been one of the most successful programs in my organization. It’s called the Our Youth Diversity Scholarship and we give out one to a high-school senior in New York and one in Jersey. Last year, we gave each student $1,100. This pre-party will be the first fundraising event for our new scholarships this year. We do one event a month from September-June.
PGN: I noticed your phone number comes up with a Newark, N.J., exchange. Where are you originally from?
RD: Jersey City.
PGN: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Jersey City.
RD: I have two sisters, but they are from my father’s first marriage so they’re considerably older than me. One’s in her 50s, the other is in her 60s. In essence, I grew up as an only child. My father is elderly, 80 years old, so I take care of him. He was a truck driver for 38 years. My mother has been a taxi dispatcher for the last 25 years.
PGN: That’s pretty cool, so did you get free rides everywhere?
RD: Yes! To school and everything. It was especially convenient if I was running late. She knew and trusted all the drivers so all I had to do was get in a cab and ride to school.
PGN: What was your favorite class in school?
RD: I was very active in high school. My senior year I was the editor of the newspaper and prom committee chairperson. I went to a media-arts high school so I was the host and editor of my own weekly television show that covered different issues in the community, and I started the first gay-straight alliance.
PGN: So you must’ve come out pretty early.
RD: I don’t think I actually ever “came out.” I was always just me, it’s always been very natural. I never had that moment where I had to sit somebody down and tell them. It’s never been a problem. Growing up, there were a bunch of gay men who lived in the house next door to us. It was one of them who taught me how to write and how to tie my shoes. In our house it was me, my mother and her lover and another lesbian couple.
PGN: So your mom’s gay?
PGN: Did you grow up with your mom more than your dad?
RD: Both. It was a couple of years with one, then a couple of years with the other.
PGN: And how old are you now?
RD: I am 31.
PGN: You look like a baby!
RD: Ha, the only baby is my organization, which I started right out of high school. The reason I started the gay-straight alliance was because I had several different students and faculty members come to me with questions about sexuality and sexual orientation. I would get questions like, “I think I am … “ or “I have a family member who is … ” Then I was diagnosed with lung cancer in my senior year and I had to take a few months off to deal with it. Even while I was in recovery I had people calling me and texting me with questions, so I thought, Let me just start this organization so that there’s a place where people can come with questions and get good answers. Thankfully, I’ve been cancer-free for 10 years now.
PGN: What was your scariest moment dealing with that?
RD: There were probably two. The cancer had taken over about 83 percent of my left lung so I had to have it removed. Then they gave me too much radiation, which messed up one of my kidneys, so I had to have that removed. So I’m walking around with one kidney and one lung. That was pretty scary.
PGN: So after high school did you go to college?
RD: Yes, I attended Barry University in Miami, Fla., for a year and then I went to Bloomfield College in New Jersey for a year.
PGN: Ha! I wanted to go to the University of Miami because I’d heard it was a great party school. My parents nixed that right away and I ended up in Boston.
RD: I would have still been in Miami if my father hadn’t gotten sick. I came back here to help take care of him.
PGN: How did you first start and get your organization off the ground?
RD: Well, as I said, I was in high school and had started the gay-straight alliance. In addition to all the teachers and peers who used to ask me questions, I also had my niece come out to me during that senior year. She would tell me about her friends, who also had questions and nowhere to get them answered. So I decided to open a place where kids could come and talk to someone. It started out in the basement of my church. The pastor allowed us to meet there for about a year but then the church was closed down and we moved to our current location.
PGN: It’s pretty amazing for someone so young to start their own foundation. I’m sure over the years you’ve heard countless stories from the teens you’ve helped. Any one that stands out?
RD: I wouldn’t isolate any specific story but over the years we’ve dealt with kids who have been thrown out of their homes in the middle of the night, and I’ve had to go find them and then find shelter for them. I’ve had situations where I’ve been in the home sitting with a child as they told their parents that they were gay or lesbian and dealt with the parents’ reaction. There was one incident where the mother pushed me down the stairs. Most often, though, it’s dealing with kids who have no place to go and trying to find a safe place for them. Many times they haven’t had food or they don’t have clothes and we work to supply them with the bare necessities. The past two years the main difficulty has been helping kids get into college so we started the scholarship program.
PGN: What’s something we old heads don’t understand about LGBTQ youth?
RD: I don’t think there’s much that we don’t understand because we’ve been through it all, but I think that the youth don’t really understand our history, where we’ve been and what we’ve been through. We need to educate young people and focus them on the right path. It’s hard to get them steered in the right direction if they don’t know where we came from.
PGN: So very true. I’m glad to hear it’s part of your curriculum.
RD: Oh yes, we did a field trip to the Stonewall Inn and did a whole tour of the village. The new facility that we just opened up is actually on Christopher Street, right on the same block as the Stonewall Inn. So they are immersed in it.
PGN: That’s great to hear.
RD: Yes, it’s great because we have kids from all over — Brooklyn and the Bronx, Manhattan — kids who may not have felt comfortable coming over to Jersey now have their own place. We get a lot of celebrity guests too; the girls from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” come often, Patti Labelle supports the organization and Melba Moore, as well as Martha Wash from the Weather Girls and 2 Tons of Fun. You might remember she did the song “It’s Raining Men.”
PGN: Of course.
RD: Patti actually headlined the first fundraising event that we did. She’s phenomenal. She did that fundraiser with us and, ever since, she’s been very close with the kids we work with. When she was on Broadway, she sent us 50 tickets for the kids to come and see her show. She’s been a big supporter of the organization and gives not only her money but her time.
PGN: Favorite celebrity encounter?
RD: Probably working with Miss Patti. She’s so warm and down to earth. Martha Wash has also been really good for the kids. I just met her on the street in New York City and told her about our program. She came and did a few events for us and has been close to us ever since. They just did a profile of her on “Unsung” and she mentioned her work with our organization in the episode.
PGN: Where do you get the drive to do what you do?
RD: I love these kids. Knowing that there are actual young adults out there whose own families, mothers, fathers don’t accept them and won’t help them is what drives me. On a day when I might have had health issues and be really sick, I’d get out of that bed because I knew that one of those kids was counting on me to do this or that. I feel as though I got a calling from God and my purpose in life is to help these young adults. Regardless of how frustrated I get sometimes personally or financially — because we’re not as strong as we’d like to be — or from the lack of help, I always remember that God has put me here for a purpose and if I have to give the last dollar out of my pocket, it’s going to get done. But I’m not alone. I have a great board of directors. We also have a pageant for Mr. and Miss Gay Jersey City and they go out into the community and represent the organization. They’ll be performing at South Jersey Pride as well.
PGN: Are you a performer too?
RD: No, I just host. I also manage different acts and host a variety of shows to raise awareness, and I do motivational speaking at high schools and universities on different issues like HIV/AIDS, love and acceptance, homophobia, bullying, etc., etc. One of the sponsors of South Jersey Pride this year is Comcast and together with them we are creating the Comcast/Our Youth Anti-Bullying Wall that will feature different youth in the South Jersey-New York-Pennsylvania area. It’ll have their pictures and stories about overcoming bullying. There’ll be a section where people can write their own stories.
PGN: Nice. You should check out the Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. They have an area where, if you’ve ever been bullied, or if you ever were a bully and regret it, you write it down on a piece of paper and then shred it so that you can leave it in the past and move on.
RD: Wow. Oh, that reminds me, in Montgomery, Ala., they have the National Wall of Tolerance. My college, Barry U., invited me back to do a motivational speech in 2005. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said, “I hope you don’t mind but I recorded your speech to show it to the president of our organization.” A few months went past and I got a call from her and she put a woman on the phone and, I swear to you, it was Rosa Parks herself. She spoke to me about how she liked the speech and believed in my message and what I was trying to do. She wanted to know if she could put my name on the wall! She was asked to pick the first 50 names and she chose me to be one of them!
PGN: Amazing! So let’s do some random questions. Are you single? Dating?
RD: [Laughs] Oh, I don’t even know how to answer that. No, I don’t have time. I’m 31 and have been in two long-term relationships. I was in a very bad situation for seven years, from physical abuse to mental abuse to cheating, you name it. From there, I jumped right into something else that I guess I wasn’t ready for and that lasted a year-and-a-half. That was five years ago and I’ve been single ever since. I’m good.
PGN: What’s a historic sporting event you wish you could have witnessed?
RD: Oh boy, me and sports? [Laughs] We took the kids to an NBA game because the New York Liberties are one of our sponsors and the kids teased me because I was sitting there waiting to see a touchdown at the basketball game!
PGN: Got it. [Laughs]. And the Liberty is WNBA. If you could journey into any book, which would you choose?
RD: “The Great Gatsby.”
PGN: If you had to gain 10 pounds, what would you eat?
RD: Anything chocolate.
PGN: If you could do something dangerous without any real risk or harm, what would you try?
RD: Sword swallowing.
PGN: What are three shows we’d find on your DVR?
RD: Anything “Housewives,” anything “Love and Hip Hop.” My DVR is very ratchet. And “Dance Mom.”
PGN: Your most meaningful family heirloom?
RD: My grandfather was in the Marines and at the battle of Iwo Jima. He came back with no hearing in his left ear and, when he passed, he got a full military funeral and they gave me the flag.
PGN: I’m so gay …
RD: Hmmm, if you ask me, I’d probably say I’m not that gay, but if you ask DeAnn Cox or anybody else who knows me, they’d probably have a list pages long!
PGN: What time period would you go back to?
RD: Late ’70s-early ’80s so I could experience Sylvester.
PGN: And finally, what can people look forward to at South Jersey Pride this year?
RD: The festival runs from noon-6 p.m., and there are going to be merchandise and community vendors. At 2 p.m., I’ll be hosting the show along with Philly’s own Icon Ebony Fierce. The Mr. Continental pageant is the longest-running and most prestigious in the gay community and our headliner is Mr. Continental himself, Kalil Valentino, who is flying in from Los Angeles. We also have “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Mimi Imfurst. We’ll be crowning the first-ever Miss South Jersey Pride, Iownna Benzz, who is actually a pastor in Philadelphia — the Rev. Jeff Jordan by day, Iownna by night! We’ll be doing a runway and vogue battle, a whole bunch of things. We encourage people to bring a blanket and picnic basket and enjoy the afternoon!
For more information on Southern New Jersey Pride, visit www.snjgaypride.org.
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