As recently as four years ago, Harlem resident Damian Jack says he felt unsafe holding his date’s hand above W. 110th Street.
“I was like, ‘Get off me! I don’t want to get killed up here,’ ” says Jack, 32, the general manager at Melba’s, a restaurant on W. 114th St. and Frederick Douglass Blvd. that is one of a growing number of gay-friendly establishments in Harlem.
Now, Jack says it’s becoming more commonplace to see couples along the streets of Central Harlem openly displaying their status.
“I was like, ‘Whoa! there’s a guy crossing the street holding his boyfriend’s hand in Harlem,’ ” Jack said, recalling the time when he began to notice the change.
Jack and others say that gay men who used to date on the down-low are now coming out of the closet more readily.
Harlem may have a ways to go before it could be described as the new Chelsea. Still, one year to the day since New York State legalized same-sex marriage, members of the gay community and those who move in its orbit say they detect a palpable change in the way gays are being treated.
“There is more acceptance and higher tolerance now,” says Tezra Bryant, who until this month worked as a manager at Corner Social on W. 126th St. and Malcolm X Blvd. “Businesses are starting to see the value of the gay community,” she adds. “People know that when they enter a business they are to be warmly welcomed.”
Harlem does not count the array of gay clubs and bars that have long been a staple of Chelsea and the West Village; there are no establishments that display a rainbow flag in the window. But the number of gay-friendly meeting places has been on the upswing.
Red Rooster Harlem, Corner Social, Lenox Lounge, Melba’s and Billie’s Black, along with Club El Morocco, Picante and others, are all regarded as part of Harlem’s gay nightlife.
Along with the state’s ratification of the Marriage Equality Act, the evolving positions of the NAACP and President Obama have fostered a growing acceptance among members of the black community.
“There is a shift that’s happening,” says Pastor Joseph Tolton, whose Rivers at Rehoboth congregation ministers to hundreds of black gay and lesbian worshippers each week. “It’s intangible, but it’s just starting to bubble up and coming to the surface . . . you can feel it.”
Some Harlem residents who do not identify themselves as gay or lesbian say they support gay marriage. Maria Beltre, 23, says she has gay friends throughout Manhattan and the boroughs.
“Even before I met them, I always believed everyone should have the right to be with who they want to be with,” Beltre says. “It’s no one else’s business.”
Others say they believe it runs counter to the teachings of their religion.
“I don’t support it because I’m a Christian,” says David W. Hunter, a vendor who sells DVDs on 125th St. “If God wanted to have a woman and a woman or a man and a man, he would have created that.”
One year ago, several Harlem religious leaders sparked controversy by condemning Harlem Pride’s annual Pride Day celebration in Marcus Garvey Park, which took place the day after Gov. Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act into law.
Carmen Neely, the president of Harlem Pride, said she expected this year’s celebration — which was scheduled for Saturday at Jackie Robinson Park — would go off without incident.
“I think it’s the fact that we’re family oriented and not having lewd displays,” Neely said. “There won’t be any booty shaking. I think the community is seeing what we represent and getting to know us better.”