Talk about your "fools for God." I expect any day to hear a report that Kenny Gallo has been gunned down on the street. He has several strikes against him -- he's a 'former' Mafia soldier (and it's said that there's only one way you leave that life); he was a long-time FBI informant; he's written a book about his criminal days; and now he's attempting to transform ingrained gangster homophobia into something more like tolerance, if not actual acceptance. Any one of those could put a bullseye on his back -- taken together, I'm thinking, his days are numbered.
Those of us who shrink from too much honesty in our lives (and that includes me more often than I'd like to admit) are surely put in the shade by Gallo's kind of gutsiness. Maybe only a reformed gangster could do it -- and maybe only an avowed heterosexual could survive ... IF he does. Why would a man who isn't gay himself put himself so at risk? He provides an answer, but for those of us conditioned to the fears of modern living (and who isn't?), it seems woefully inadequate, without a huge infusion of religious spirit.
Gallo doesn't use that terminology, though he does speak of redemption. And maybe religious talk isn't the place where he feels comfortable; a lot of us can identify with that. We often shrink from faith-talk even among our TLGB friends, from whom we have nothing to fear but a little doubt or disdain.
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Clipping: EDGE San Francisco, Aug. 17, 2009
GANGSTER TO GAY RIGHTS ACTIVIST:
KENNY GALLO'S ROAD TO REDEMPTION
By Scott Stiffler, EDGE Contributor
What would a heterosexual career criminal be doing devoting himself to gay rights? If you believe Kenny Gallo, it's part of his personal redemption-- the second act of a live fully lived.
Several lifetimes after F. Scott Fitzgerald famously chided "There are no second acts in American lives," our culture's boundless appetite for hot topics is best fueled by tales of redemption and reinvention. From scandal-plagued politicians who win reelection to celebrities who go from hot to has-been to hot again; America loves to bestow upon its fishbowl residents nine lives rather than a mere two acts.
Add now, Kenny "Kenji" Gallo to that list of those who've sinned, been given a second chance and emerged from the process determined to change not only their public persona, but their purpose. Beginning his criminal career at the age of fourteen, Gallo worked with such feared criminal organizations as Pablo Escobar's Medellín Cartel, Los Angeles' Milano Mafia family, and New York's Colombo Mafia family.
Beginning in 1997, he spent eight years working for the FBI and NYPD -- wearing a wire and living as a clandestine undercover operative against organized crime. He was relocated by the federal government under a new identity and has since lived out of the public spotlight and apart from the violent criminal world of which he was once a part.
Gallo's self-imposed anonymity and low profile, however, is about to change. His memoir of life in the Colombian cocaine trade, porn industry, and the American Mafia ("Breakshot: A Life in the 21st Century American Mafia") was released earlier this month. In June, Gallo announced his conversion from gangster to gay rights activist. To that end, he has created the LGBT rights initiative "Street Tolerance," which seeks to promote tolerance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people by reaching out to the notoriously homophobic world of gangster and Mafia culture.
Though a straight man, Gallo believes that the best way he can atone for a lifetime spent victimizing the vulnerable and the weak is to defend GLBT Americans, one of the most vulnerable and victimized minorities in American society. "As a criminal, I committed sins for which no punishment could ever suffice and no penance could ever atone," says Gallo. "It was thanks to the love of one woman who believed in me that I was able to reform myself," continues Gallo, "so it is unbelievable to me that GLBT Americans are persecuted for something as beautiful as the act of love. I owe it to the people I hurt on the street to strive to make a difference on behalf of the victimized, oppressed, and defenseless. "
Since the launch of Street Tolerance, Gallo has been speaking to criminalized teens, ex-cons, men with troubled backgrounds and violent tendencies. His message focuses on getting others to accept (or at least tolerate) others for "the way people are born. I am half Japanese. I didn't choose this; this is what happened. This is me."
Gallo acknowledges that even though his criminal background gives him status and credibility in the eyes of others, "You can't change them. You have to educate them." Speaking recently to a group of 15- to 19-year-olds in Orange County who were "real close to be getting into trouble with gangs and drugs, I explained to them that it's OK to talk about it (LGBT issues)." Gallo says he sees the current generation as being "a little bit more accepting" of LGBTs, but intolerance and ignorance is "still ingrained in the culture."
True crime writer Matthew Randazzo V is the co-founder (along with Gallo) of the BreakShotBlog, which offers insider commentary on the American underworld. His book, "Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend," offers an insider account of life within the New Orleans Mafia and will be released in November 2009.
Randazzo says Gallo has an uphill battle in his campaign to change the hearts and minds of the criminal underworld. "The American Mafia is extremely homophobic traditionally, " notes Randazzo. "Things have changed over the last couple of decades, but historically, if you were found to be a gay or bisexual man, it was a death sentence."
As for street gangs, "Hispanic and black gangs are virulently homophobic outside of a prison setting where things get a bit vague; but on the street, it's very unlikely you could be an out homosexual and a gangster at the same time."
'HE'S EXTREMELY TOUGH'
Randazzo believes Gallo has "some chance of success in moving delinquent and criminalized teens, because a lot of people in the underworld believe homophobia is a prerequisite to being tough. He's a guy who has crossed major mafia families and made major enemies. He's extremely tough, and the fact that he's tolerant and gay friendly has the potential to reach people who are at the stage where they can be influenced."
Randazzo also notes Gallo has a unique credibility with, and opportunity to influence, "Asian American gang members and teenagers, because there are so few famous or well known Asian American gangsters." Coming from Gallo, the Street Tolerance message may be "a revelation to these kids who are trying to emulate the African American gangbanger culture. He can get the message across that it's possible to be street tough without it having anything to do with how you treat people who have nonconformist sexual or gender identities."
Gallo's mission, and message, has not come without its risks or consequences. Enemies remain from Gallo's days in the Mafia as well as the new ones he may incur through his gay rights work. Despite that, Randazzo says, "He's not scared for his life, he's not in hiding. Though I don't think this will increase the danger he's in, I've seen firsthand the amount of hostility" to Gallo's gay-positive blog postings -- which has "risen sharply, almost 400 percent."
"In the end," says Gallo, "I hope StreetTolerance.com and the work I do going forward will help promote the idea that bigotry is a sign of weakness, and tolerance is a sign of toughness. Take it from a guy who has gone to war against Colombian drug dealers on the street, bedded world-famous porn stars, and fought world champion martial artists: a real man is secure enough with himself that he accepts everyone, no matter their sexual preference or gender."
[Scott Stiffler is a New York City-based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace ... Don't Tell Mama" -- a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive. ]
Copyright 2009 EDGE Publications Inc.