Harry Wieder fought for civil rights by teaching people about pride.
Whether he was advocating for gay rights with the group ACT UP, writing lengthy and humorous emails about the city’s transportation policies, or instructing his friends to “get down on your knees and hug me,” Wieder was unapologetic in his demands.In his 57 years of life, Wieder fought many battles for equal rights and respect as a gay, disabled, Jewish dwarf. He was remembered as a four-foot giant with an edgy sense of humor and a persistent presence in society’s cultural, educational and political institutions. His work often focused on New York City’s transportation network, which enabled Wieder to access his activities.
Wieder passed away in late April after being struck by a taxi as he left a meeting of Community Board 3 in his Lower East Side neighborhood. He was a longtime member of the board. Friends and politicians held a memorial for Wieder at The Cooper Union May 20.
Weeks later, friends hung a pair of white crutches on a metal pole where he was struck, joining him with the Ghost Bikes project that memorializes bicyclists killed by vehicles. The crutches are a symbol of inclusiveness, linking street safety for all people the same way Wieder brought disparate groups and causes together in his life.
Wieder’s diverse interests and ability to unite people were evident at his memorial, where a jazz musician from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Rome Neal, joined Wieder’s Lower East Side neighbors, as well as politicians, writers and activists from the Fresh Fruit LGBT International Cultural Festival and Disabled in Action.
Ellen Nuzzi, a disability rights advocate, praised Wieder for helping her to connect social causes. “Harry also got me involved with gay rights even though I’m not gay,” she said. “I became impassioned that gay people need the same rights as disabled people need.”
Wieder dedicated himself to transportation activism because it enabled him to connect his social circles and hobbies, maximizing the activities he loved by reducing the barriers between them. He fought for accessible transportation and parking because they stood between him and the 504 Democratic Club, his community board, The Stonewall Inn, and the revival of the musical Hair at Lincoln Center.One of Wieder’s transportation campaigns was to increase the number of accessible taxis in the city. Only 240 of the city’s 13,000 taxis are available to people with wheelchairs. The taxi that killed Wieder was probably not one of them. Click here to read about taxi accessibility.
In addition to his activism, Wieder was treasured for his snappy and humorous comebacks to insults. Marvin Wasserman, executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, recalled a recent meeting where a candidate for the 504 Democratic Club used the words “wheelchair-bound," a term that offends many people with disabilities. Wieder responded by saying, “I’m only wheelchair-bound in the privacy of my own home and in the company of a consenting adult.”
Wasserman (left) is pictured with Angela Melledy, publisher of Able News, and Wieder. (Photo by Charlotte Rubin.)In the last weeks of his life, Wieder sent a now infamous email to the city’s Department of Transportation criticizing parking and transportation policies that he said were making it more difficult for him to get around. He titled it, “Focusing Right Now On Just One Upstanding New Yorker's Progressive Shut-Out, Because Sometimes Just One Upstanding New Yorker Needs To Matter The Most.” Click here to read about his requests.
Wieder commuted primarily by car, using a vehicle he drove with hand controls, and he often brought company. Carol Polcovar called Wieder her teacher, and his car a “friend trap.” She recalled her last adventure with Wieder in search of a Uigur suit advertised as one of the top 100 suits in New York.“He was like life itself – erratic, messy, demanding. What a damn lesson,” she said.
Wieder’s pride in himself and his body was part of his activism. When it came to sexuality or disability, he was known for encouraging people to love who they are.
Brendan Fay, a friend of Wieder’s who is gay, said Wieder helped him accept his sexuality. “Harry held me and mentored me to move beyond my own shame of my own body,” said Fay. “This man probably helped so many of us get over our shame of our bodies.”
Harvey Epstein, who served on the community board with Wieder, recalled spotting him in Tompkins Square Park one day doing push-ups against his car without a shirt. “In that moment I realized he was always proud of who he was, no matter what,” Epstein said.When the board was fighting for sidewalk corner ramps, or curb cuts, for streets in the Lower East Side, Epstein remembered Wieder driving around the neighborhood to make a list of all the curbs without them.
Speakers at the memorial also included playwright Craig Lucas and Ann Northrop, co-host of the weekly national cable show Gay USA. Betty Adelson, Arthur Zelman and Rocky Chin were a few of the many friends who told stories about Wieder’s life.There were performances by singer Rome Neal, a singer with the Nuyorican Poets Café’s Out Jazz show, Kitty Lunn (pictured) of Infinity Dance Theater, singer Ana Iza Otis, and poet Rafaela (Ronni) Bilini, who performed “Harry in a Hurry” with live music.
The next step in memorializing Wieder’s life is a move to name a street in his neighborhood after him, as was done for activist Freida Zames last year. Click here to read the article about Frieda Zames Way. Forsyth Street, where Wieder lived, is one possible location for a street sign bearing his name.