We can all agree that Long Island is no San Francisco when it comes to celebrating Pride. But local queer activists and residents have been working to uplift Long Island’s LGBTQ community, and to create a safe space for each generation.
Active LGBT Network volunteer, Drag icon and Sag Harbor resident Robert Kohnken knows what it is like growing up being unaccepted. For the last couple of years, he has been working hard to turn his hometown and surrounding community into an accepting place for upcoming queer youth.
“[Growing up] at the time was very different than it is today for sure,” said Kohnken. “Sag Harbor is a very small town– my high school graduating class was just under 80 people. You pretty much know everyone by name. I came out at a very young age to friends, which quickly came out of my hands when those friends decided to share with others that I was gay. Being such a small school, word spread really quickly, so my coming out to friends basically became coming out to everyone.”
And as the only out gay student at his school, Kohnken immediately became a target of his peers.
“There was a lot of bullying,” recalled Kohnken. “I had a lot of different aspects about my own personal self that weren’t ‘mainstream.’ I was fat, I was gay, I was the theater kid, I was in special ed classes. So there were a lot of factors against me. It wasn’t the best time of my life but looking back, it did really help teach me to keep going and to persevere and to find my people.”
Perseverance became the drive that led Kohken through a successful 10-year drag career, one that ultimately inspired him to bring his art and talent back to Long Island in order to create an in-demand queer scene..
“Particularly out here in Sag Harbor and in the Hamptons, there is no established Drag scene,” said Kohken. “There is no established ‘Gay scene.’ When I moved back up here after working in Orlando, one of my missions was to charge this road and create that scene. There’s such a large population of us with nowhere to go. Since 2016, a couple other performers in this area and I have been making leaps and bounds. We’ve created inclusive environments and events for the youth population to attend, to have that sense of community.”
Through his drag persona, Naomi, The Crown Jewel of the Hamptons, Kohken uses an elevated version of himself to bring his audience on a journey through the stories of his creations.
“I think a lot of people when they see drag have this misconception that it’s just putting on a dress and wig, throwing on some makeup and dancing around,” said Kohken. “It’s funny and light hearted– and some people do that, that’s their drag and that’s totally okay. But for many of us, it’s so much deeper than that. It’s really a platform that talks about deep issues and brings up really serious things. And we use that ‘light-heartedness’ to kind of translate these topics, make them visible and accessible.”
As an actor and singer with years of theater experience, Kohken is passionate about giving his audience a unique and conceptual performance. He believes in the artform of drag and its ability to impact an audience, especially one filled with young individuals who are still in the process of understanding themselves.
“It’s heightened art,” said Kohken. “If I can be that point of strength, that wim of light that reference for someone that they can look at and be like, ‘Oh wow, it does get better. It’s not always going to be like this.’– that’s what gives it some value.”
As pandemic restrictions loosen during this year’s month of Pride, the new and growing LGBTQ scene on Long Island is celebrating. And thanks to influences like Kohken who helped build a foundation for a more accepting environment, young LGBTQ members can feel safe to be proud of who they are, and can continue to strengthen the pride of the community.