Identity House: A Half-Century of Love

Waiting to exhale: At a party celebrating their trip to the City Clerk’s office, Zevy realized, “A lot of people we knew were holding their breath, waiting for us to finally get married.”
Waiting to exhale: At a party celebrating their trip to the City Clerk’s office, Zevy realized, “A lot of people we knew were holding their breath, waiting for us to finally get married.”

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  After they first met within the halls of Chelsea’s old French Hospital, 46 years went by before Lee Zevy and Lucy Ianniciello finally got married last October. And quite a lot happened during that time — much of which they spent making an indelible mark on New York City, by helping to found and sustain Identity House, its oldest continuously operating, all-volunteer LGBT organization.

It was an unlikely match from the beginning, aside from the obvious struggles of the time. The year was 1967, and Zevy, a 25-year-old girl from the Bronx, had recently finished college and was working as a secretary at the West 30th Street hospital — a position she gained through her mother, who’d already been working there for some time. Queens-born Ianniciello, who was 37 at the time, had also already worked her way up the ranks to lead French Hospital’s nuclear medicine laboratory. And one day — for reasons perhaps unknown — Zevy’s mother introduced them to each other, quickly igniting a spark that has never gone out.

“We still don’t know if my mother knew exactly what was going on,” said Zevy, now 72, with a laugh, sitting next to her wife, now 84, in their longtime home on West 17th Street. “But she definitely set us up, and my mother was a party girl from Brooklyn, so she probably had some idea.”

One thing that was never in doubt was the connection between the two women, which cut through the forced secrecy, silence and pervasive prejudice of the day, as well as their dozen-year age gap.

“I just started flirting, and she didn’t know what hit her,” said Zevy, flashing another smile.

Ianniciello had a house upstate in Peekskill at that time, and within a year Zevy took the leap and moved in with her. They both continued commuting into the city — Ianniciello remaining at her hospital post, and Zevy beginning her career in earnest as a caseworker for the Department of Social Services.

It was during her time at the city agency that, in 1971, Zevy and a male co-worker decided to come out to each other.

“Even that was dangerous back then,” said Ianniciello.

But the experience had a deep effect on Zevy — who would soon go back to school to get a master’s degree in social work — and made her want to get involved in helping other closeted men and women who were in periods of personal crisis. She started learning more about how counseling, originally through phone hotlines, was truly helping struggling gays and lesbians, and she heard about some people working to create new walk-in counseling centers at which otherwise frightened people could share their feelings, and their stories, with trained peers.

At that point, the psychotherapist Ralph Blair had already founded the Homosexual Community Counseling Center, New York’s first such organization, which, as opposed to the idea of peer-based counseling, was run in a clinical setting. Therapist and gay activist Charles Silverstein — Chuck, as Zevy calls him — worked for Blair at that group, but later changed course, according to the women.

“Ralph was kind of autocratic, so Chuck eventually split with him,” said Zevy. “And then Chuck got together this group of humanistic and gestalt therapists, with the idea of setting up a new, different organization to counsel gays and lesbians.”

Zevy got word of the development, and she was there for the first meeting, alongside Silverstein, to set up what would become the revolutionary organization called Identity House. Initial planning sessions took place late in 1971 and into 1972, at the West 16th Street office of gay therapist Patrick Kelley. A new group began to form that, although overseen by licensed therapists, would allow gays and lesbians to counsel their peers in a more intimate, non-medical setting.

While continuing her own job, Zevy volunteered as one of the first counselors, and Ianniciello took some time away from her medical career to do much-needed administrative work for the group. By the end of 1972, in coordination with a gay-friendly pastor, Identity House began holding its first walk-in sessions in the basement of the Church of the Holy Apostles, at the corner of West 28th Street and Ninth Avenue.

Due to scheduling and space constraints, the organization began its somewhat nomadic journey by moving back into Kelley’s office in 1973, where many troubled men and women traveled to speak with Zevy and the other peer counselors as they agonized over whether or not to finally come out to their friends and families.

“These people had never actually talked to anyone about being gay before, and they’d walk up and down the stairs, up and down, before getting the courage to come up to the office and talk,” said Zevy. “And after having the one-on-one counseling, we also started men’s and women’s groups, where they could talk to each other about what it meant to be gay, about going to the bar or dating, and really about any topics they wanted to discuss.”

Those at the forefront of the sessions quickly realized the effect they were having on these people who had spent so much time with a burden that carried such emotional — and sometimes, as the result of attacks, physical — pain and scars.

“People changed after their very first meeting,” said Zevy. “They gained self-esteem, optimism, hope. They learned about each other, and formed their own friendship groups. It was everything we wanted.”

But by the end of 1973, Silverstein had set in motion another organizational schism — this time among his co-founders at Identity House. According to Zevy, he wanted the therapists to take charge, rather than maintaining the new walk-in, peer counseling model. And at that point, although Zevy was on her way to becoming a licensed psychotherapist (she would eventually start a private practice in 1976, alongside her volunteer work), she and others at the organization still strongly favored the less clinical approach.

“It was a major split, a huge conflict,” she explained. “He basically wanted to exclude the peers from doing counseling, but there was this revolution in response, because those of us who were not yet therapists wanted to keep doing what we were doing, since it was so successful and the clients didn’t want it to change.”

Silverstein ended up leaving, and put his ideas to work by founding the Institute for Human Identity, a non-profit psychotherapy center that, to this day, remains based near the corner of West 26th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Silverstein originally wanted to take the name Identity House with him, but was prevented from doing so by two quick-thinking women who backed Zevy and her cohorts. It was Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love — feminist co-authors of the 1972 book “Sappho Was a Right-On Woman: A Liberated View of Lesbianism” — who saved the day, as the story goes.

“They were members of Identity House, and after the split, they drove right up to Albany to make sure we could reserve the name, before Chuck could take it,” Zevy recalled.

So Identity House continued on its way, eventually moving its headquarters once again, this time to the second floor of a Sixth Avenue building, between West 14th and 15th Streets. The larger space allowed the organization to expand its programming to include workshops and conferences, as well as — until the early-‘90s — parties, which served more than a hedonistic purpose.

“The value of those parties was that they weren’t the bars, which had really been the only places to meet other gay people at that point,” said Zevy. “We wanted to provide a more neutral, non-alcoholic setting for people.”

And with the plague of HIV/AIDS emerging in the ‘80s, Identity House worked closely with groups like the newly formed Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the staff of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital to deal with new sources of fear — even as close comrades fell victim. One particularly deep blow to the organization was the death of Patrick Kelley, who became infected at a time before doctors could treat the disease.

“It was a horrible death,” said Ianniciello. “Pat was so sick that the doctors could guess it was HIV, but nobody really knew what it was.”

Identity House pushed onward — and, aside from its primary funding source of donations, it is still supported in part by large endowments left by some of those first victims of HIV/AIDS, who had worked with and recognized the importance of the city’s first peer counseling organization.

In the late ‘90s, the group moved again to a different, but nearby space on West 14th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Around that time, Ianniciello — then in her late-60s — ended her medical career and retired from her administrative role at Identity House.

The organization stayed in place until a massive rent increase in 2006, after which Identity House decided to cut down on costs by renting space at the LGBT Center on West 13th Street. It has remained there ever since, and in 2012 also began renting space at the Washington Square Institute, another nonprofit that’s based near the corner of East 11th Street and University Place.

And with Zevy now serving as a supervising therapist — alongside her work in private practice, and as president of the New York Institute of Gestalt Therapy — Identity House is still thriving in the 21st century, with two nights of counseling per week at both the LGBT Center and Washington Square Institute, along with other related workshops and programming.

But even though they had some more free time on their hands after New York passed marriage equality in 2011, Zevy and Ianniciello — together for nearly half a century — initially didn’t want to tie the knot.

“We didn’t see any point in doing it,” said Zevy. “We’d never wanted to get married, since neither of us was particularly enamored with the whole idea of it.”

However, practical concerns changed their minds when Ianniciello suffered a heart attack last July and was hospitalized for two months. That experience involved a lot of paperwork that was made much more difficult by the fact that their relationship wasn’t legally recognized — so, shortly afterwards, the decision was made.

The women exchanged vows in decidedly austere fashion, with a ceremony at the city clerk’s office on October 23. But they ended up having a party anyway, in December, to celebrate.

“What we never realized until the party was that a lot of people we know were holding their breath, waiting for us to finally get married,” said Zevy, with a laugh.

And now with decades of peer counseling behind her, she doesn’t mind frequently handing the conceptual reins of Identity House to younger counselors who bring fresh ideas with them — particularly involving the needs of a growing, yet stigmatized transsexual community, and the desire to more frequently bring gays, lesbians and trans people into the same group sessions.

“The truth is that this isn’t our world anymore,” said Zevy, looking over at her wife. “Lucy and I are dinosaurs compared to where the kids are at, especially when it comes to using the new technology.

“Things don’t matter to our community’s young people in the same ways they mattered to us back then,” she continued, “because they have access to information and connection in a way that’s totally foreign to us. So the young people are going to create things that are totally foreign to us, but as long as they still know the history, that’s okay.”

But some things never really change, and Zevy pointed out that the direct connection of peer counseling — the in-person, conversational and deeply personal element that can sometimes be forgotten in a digital age — still has the same effect it did more than four decades ago.

“A lot of these young people come to us and they want to be counselors, and they’re often very accomplished because they’ve been driving themselves to work hard in school, or to build their careers,” said Zevy. “But before an orientation, before we train them at all, we ask them how they feel. And it’s still a sort of revolutionary thing, because you see that the young people are starved for the connectedness, for the humanity.

“This is what makes our organization function,” she noted. “At school, or at work, people are worried about completing tasks, but here, we’re worried about how you feel. So, yes, a lot of our peers have, and will, go on to become therapists, psychiatrists or lawyers — but now they really have a heart. We send them off with a heart.”