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“It was a significant amount of work to get volunteers to do something as simple as breakfast bagels.”
Kenneth Majerus moved to New York in 1984 from Bellechester, Minn., a small farming community of around 150 people. “It took me three months to accustom myself to it,” he says, “and after that, I knew this was the place for me to be.” Kenneth, 59, is Deputy Chief of Administration at the New York City Law Department at the City of New York and was president of Front Runners in both 1999 and 2000. He ran his first marathon at the Gay Games in 1994 in New York, which started at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. “Running New York City was when I learned I hated all that noise,” he says.
Quentin Fottrell spoke to Kenneth on April 5, 2016 on the Upper West Side:
FRNY: You came to New York in 1984. What was New York like back then?
Kenneth: It was a lot dirtier then than it is now. I distinctly remember going down to Chelsea and people telling me not to get out of the car at that time. People were very kind without my even expecting that. I once parked my car in the Lower East Side packed full of everything I owned, locked it and left it overnight, and someone left me a note under my windshield saying, “Never do this again.”
Before coming to New York, I attended the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and Minneapolis, studied for a year abroad in Germany, returned, and came out. I wasn’t quite fresh off the farm. When I ran my first New York City Marathon I realized the raucous nature of that marathon didn’t make it one of my favorites. The next time, I ran in the middle of the road, away from as many slapping hands as possible. I learned what it meant to hit the wall Gay Games Marathon and I did that in a big way.
FRNY: When did you start to see changes?
Kenneth: In the early nineties there was some kind of turnaround.
FRNY: Why did you join the club?
Kenneth: Two friends convinced me to run a marathon. We began running in December 1993. I remember getting a bus at 5.30 in the morning to Central Park. I was living at 30th and 3rd in a little studio apartment.
FRNY: What was your platform running for President?
Kenneth: I don’t think there was a platform. You needed to have a president, organization and a board. I had knee surgery and, since I wasn’t able to run, Patrick Barker said I should be president. Foolishly, I agreed. It was a lot of work. There were a lot fewer people in the club and there was a lot less money, and maybe volunteerism was different at that point. It was a significant amount of work to pull the races together and get volunteers to do something as simple as breakfast bagels.
FRNY: Given those circumstances, what was your style as president? Trying to get people to do as many things as possible?
Kenneth: I can distinctly remember Jim Gibb who was the president before Patrick Barker, and the difficulty he had in getting volunteers to keep things going. During his presidency, he put on the Pride Run, which is an incredible amount of work. So you spent a lot of time trying to corral people to get different things. Purely by chance there were some truly terrific people in the club who did a lot of volunteering. They came forward to aid me in making it happen. I just wanted people to have fun and get along —everyone — from runners to walkers to cyclists. I tried not to be in a clique. I also wanted the club to move forward, so I tried to forge consensus.
FRNY: Do you care to name-check a few people now?
Kenneth: Lenore Beaky was one, she was terrific for me, and Ruth Gursky was really helpful. My friend TJ Storch, was tremendous, especially when it came to work on the Pride Run, Marty McElhiney and Gary Appruzzese, and all the work they did as race captains, Sue Foster and Michael Orzechowski. A lot of these people were particularly helpful in getting things going. And I know I’ve forgotten people.
FRNY: When you became president in 1999, that would have been just before the new HIV treatments came out. Did you have fundraisers for HIV/Aids through Front Runners?
Kenneth: I didn’t have so many friends who were suffering from Aids at that point in time. I had friends later who had problems. The new medications were out then. I had one friend in particular who often called them all rat poison. They were very hard on the body, but they helped them survive and I have a number of friends who are long-term survivors.
FRNY: What were your happiest memories from your time as president?
Kenneth: Talking Jen Aitchison into running for president the year after me in 2001 was a big one. I felt like I was a caretaker president, just keeping things moving along. We reached out to other gay clubs, to the wrestlers and we tried to do more with Fast and Fabulous and we tried to get some unifying events going. I wish there had been more but we got that going.
FRNY: Fast and Fabulous?
Kenneth: It’s a biking club.
FRNY: It sounded like there was a lot of camaraderie among gay groups at that time.
Kenneth: We were trying to foster camaraderie. I don’t think there was as much as what there might have been. We tried to get different events where they would begin to mingle with each other.
FRNY: Why wasn’t there?
Kenneth: People isolated into affinity groups. If you were a wrestler, you didn’t necessarily want to go out running. The bikers wanted to bike. The people who did crossover athletics tried to get the groups to join a bit more. The reasoning: Diversity is more exciting and gives people different opportunities to find a field or sport that they excel in.
FRNY: What was your greatest challenge as president?
Kenneth: Money was a huge challenge for us always: Getting enough money to put on the Gay Pride Run. There was a challenge with the foundation and trying to determine how some of that money could help people within the confines of the bylaws for the foundation. Being out as a running group was still a problem in much of the running community. We had some terrific supporters. [Former Front Runners president] Patrick Barker was tremendous with his contacts in Road Runners. Every year we helped at the finishing shoot at the marathon. We did the 24-mile water station. Stacy Creamer from the Central Park Track Club really helped. She stepped up. She absolutely thought [the Gay Pride Run] should be a points run. Some straight men didn’t want to be seen running in the Gay Pride Run.
FRNY: You’re still a member?
Kenneth: Yes, but I don’t run. I think that the club meant a lot to people. It was a visible organization. It helped a lot of people who needed some place to come to for support and for community. And I remember how difficult money was for us back in those years, and probably even much more difficult in the earlier years.
FRNY: Were a lot of people not “out” in 1999?
Kenneth: Absolutely, it changed over time. But in 1999, there were still a lot of people who did not want to be identified. There was still a struggle over the membership list and where that could get published and who could get a hold of that, and even a struggle about whether we could take it into an electronic format. So, yes, there was still a significant amount of fear surrounding being in a gay-identified club.
FRNY: Is that because people feared for their job? Or because people weren’t comfortable being gay and thought others would dislike them for it?
Kenneth: All of the above. Absolutely people still feared for their job. I was out in 1999. I had been outed many years earlier than that. I didn’t necessarily fear for my job, but there was — and still is frankly — a fear for your job among a significant amount of people.
FRNY: I feel remiss leaving that hanging there. You were outed at work?
Kenneth: Yes, it was not my choice. Someone wrote a letter to my managing attorney. It was because of a hiring decision I had made and they disagreed with it and it became in their mind this “gay cabal.”
FRNY: There is less protection.
Kenneth: We’re seeing it in the news right now, Mississippi and North Carolina, and a whole fleet of states where that’s happening.
FRNY: Was there any antipathy toward members who were more closeted or did other members just see it as a product of the time?
Kenneth: There was a tremendous level of understanding as to people’s concerns and I think I thought I could help bridge that gap and just slowly and easily bring people along. I don’t remember if I was successful or not! I have a feeling I wasn’t.
FRNY: What does the club mean to you today? Will you go back to being an active member?
Kenneth: I was one of those people who started doing something different. I started swimming. I started doing deep water running. I did join the gay swimming club, New York Aquatics. It was a little too competitive for me so I stopped going. I’m not sure what the club means to me right now. It’s there. I remember so many people and a lot of those people are still there. The running times were the same time I wanted to be in the pool. Gradually, I fell away from it. In the last five years, I had personal obligations that have taken up most of my time, and I haven’t been running.
FRNY: And you were president during the Clinton years.
Kenneth: I was out when I came here. Pretty wildly out. I had been out when I was in Minnesota. It was an extension of that when I came here. I never really felt the sting of homophobia. And if I did, being a farm boy, I just turned around and went to face it. I didn’t shy away from people’s comments or shouts.
FRNY: You came from a small farming town.
Kenneth: I wasn’t out in the community when I was growing up. After high school I left and went to college. I did a junior year abroad and went to Germany, which probably cemented something. By the time I came back, four months later I was out. I had a wonderful mentor at that time who challenged me and challenged my thinking and, frankly, wouldn’t hear of me staying the closet, and I didn’t want to. I fell in love and within three months came out to my family.
FRNY: What was your proudest moment as a member of Front Runners?
Kenneth: Probably driving everyone safely back and forth to Philadelphia, the first time I ever drove a van. We would always go to Washington D.C. for the cherry blossoms and go to Philly. I don’t know if it was my proudest moment, but it was a good one.
FRNY: Finally, have you stayed in contact with many Front Runners?
Kenneth: There are still people I talk with: A few people on Facebook and I still people running in the park, and we wave and chat a little bit, and say hello.
This interview has been edited for space and style.