By the time he was in 10th grade at William Cullen Bryant HS in Queens, Jimmy Van Bramer had spent many school days on the roof of his family’s Astoria apartment building instead of in class. At the end of the day, he would return to the apartment and pretend everything was just fine. The reality was he wanted to die. No longer was he an engaged and enthusiastic “A” student, who had many friends. He bore an unspeakable burden. “I knew I was gay and I knew I could never tell a soul,” says Van Bramer, now the majority leader of the New York City Council. “I felt if I even spoke people would know. So, emotionally, I tried to disappear.” His disengagement proved unacceptable to 10th-grade global studies teacher Carol Gomez, who intuited his intelligence as well as his intense isolation. She insisted he participate in class. “About halfway through the semester, she told me — not asked me — to try out for the moot court and mock trial teams, both of which she ran,” says Van Bramer, now 47, who lives in Sunnyside Gardens. “She said, ’You are smart, Jimmy. You have a voice. A voice is power. Use your voice.’ She changed my life. It is not an overstatement to say she saved my life.”
I grew up in Astoria. I was number five of eight kids. My stepfather was a school janitor and my mother worked three jobs, including at the local supermarket.
I went to PS 70 and JHS 10. I was a top student, one of those kids who loved school and loved learning, especially history.
In junior high, I had this history teacher, Maura Bradshaw. We were studying the 1960 election and I was obsessed with John Kennedy; I was feeling very Catholic and inspired at the time. One day, I went up to Mrs. Bradshaw and told her I wanted to be the second Catholic president of the United States of America. She didn’t laugh. She looked at me very seriously and said, “That’s terrific! I hope you do.” I remember nodding my head “yes” with great pride and walking out of the classroom. I think that moment crystallized for me my desire to run for office.
But I was beginning to realize I was gay and I certainly didn’t know a single elected official who was openly gay. So I felt it was an impossible dream. Some kids had started calling me “gay” and “fag.” I don’t think I understood just how depressed I was. By 14, I had shut down completely. I was skipping school and hiding on the roof of my apartment building.
Then came Mrs. Gomez, my global studies teacher. She was tough, had high expectations, was a professional through and through. She was a small woman, thin and impeccable in the way she dressed. She had a wickedly sly sense of humor.
Mrs. Gomez kept calling on me and I, in fact, knew the material. Then she started asking me my thoughts and opinions about what we’d read. Later in the semester, I tried out and made her moot court and the mock trial teams.
As I think back, she did something that was transformative not just for me but for all of us, the working-class kids on her team, her band of bright misfits. Our mock trial team competed in courtrooms in Manhattan. Mrs. Gomez never took us straight home. One night, we went to Little Italy to eat dinner at Puglia. I cannot stress enough how magical that was, eating pasta with all those fancily dressed people. I remember there was a singer who went through the dining room, and everyone clapped and sang along to Italian songs. We were laughing and looking at each other like, “Can you believe we’re here?”
Many of us had never been out of our Queens neighborhood. Astoria is not far from downtown Manhattan, but for us it was a world away.
Mrs. Gomez also took us along all the fancy avenues and department stores in midtown and downtown Manhattan.
I came out of the closet during college at St. John’s University. I also became a gay rights activist. I marched as a student activist in the first Queens Pride Parade in 1993. The next year, I graduated from college and Mrs. Gomez came to the ceremony. I later worked for 11 years at the Queens Library, where I served as the library’s link between community members and government.
All of it led me to where I am, to what I’ve always wanted to do: serve as an elected official. I have done what Mrs. Gomez told me to do: Use my voice.
In 2012, I invited her to my wedding to Dan Hendrick, the man I’ve been in a relationship with for 18 years. As always, Mrs. Gomez was impeccably dressed for the occasion.
— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos