Richard Ruperto walked into a record store in Harlem with a friend to buy CDs. As the two teens spoke, a man intruded on their conversation.

“Put some base into your voice, you fag,” he said.

Afraid, the boys bolted out of the store, leaving the Missy Elliot album they intended to buy.

As vivid as the memory is, the incident occurred seven years ago. Some things have changed since then, both for the now 23-year-old Ruperto, an openly gay East Harlem-bred rap artist also known as Loco Ninja, and his neighborhood.

“A lot of men don’t flip out on us the way we used to get flipped out on or bashed,” said Ruperto. “Like five years ago, it was such a bad thing. You couldn’t even be friends with gay people. It was like we were aliens living on Earth,” he said.

Over the past decade, a steady demographic shift and new developments sprouting throughout the upper Manhattan neighborhood have served as constant reminders of its changing face. Locals say change has also trickled into attitudes towards Harlem’s lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) community. Those affected, however, believe there is still a long way to go.

Today, census data shows that there are more same-sex couples living in Harlem than years past, although the exact comparative figures in all of Harlem are difficult to gather. The increase mirrors the 27 percent spike in same-sex couples all over the city’s five boroughs between 2000 and 2010.

“There is definitely a greater sense of acceptance, but it’s not all because of the demographic shift. The black LGBT movement has to be given some credit here,” said Pastor Joseph Tolton of Rehoboth Temple Church in Harlem, whose congregation is 90 percent LGBT.

“People are more open about who they are,” he continued, ”It’s much more about how gay people are feeling about their lives than how Harlem feels about gay people.”

Tolton added that Harlem's LGBT community is congregating more openly in public places, like Billie's Black, a lesbian-owned restaurant on 119th Street, but that overt signs of Harlem's acceptance of homosexuality are scarce.

In late June last year, over 3,000 people attended the first Harlem Pride event, a celebration of the neighborhood’s LGBT and Same Gender Loving (SGL) community. This year, the turnout grew significantly larger, according to Harlem Pride Board Member John Reddick. The three-day activity drew support from elected officials, community organizations and local pastors, but also received serious backlash from other religious leaders.

“We got a lot more support than pushback,” Reddick said, “Culture has changed overall, and we’re benefitting from that change. I’m glad that we’re finding an audience and growing more and more successful every year.”

This outside support paired with the inner efforts of Harlem’s LGBT community is typical of societal change, explained Dr. Juan Battle, a Sociology professor at the City University of New York and former Fulbright Distinguished Chair of Gender Studies at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria.

“It’s a multilayered phenomenon, it’s both internal and external, as seen with any social movement,” he said, drawing comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement. “I wouldn’t limit the change to just Harlem, it’s around the country and what’s going on around the world,” he said.

But as Harlem’s attitude towards the LGBT community evolves, there are still stark reminders that there is more work to be done, Ruperto said. Even after growing up in Harlem, there are parts of the neighborhood that he rarely frequents.

“I know my areas,” Ruperto said, “At certain times at night or even during the day, I stay away from 125th Street towards the west side, because I’ve had incidents over there.”

The threat of being attacked or harassed because of his sexual orientation in Harlem is still a reality. His hometown has earned a reputation of being homophobic, one that hasn’t necessarily gone away, despite the progress that has been made, he said.

“It does have a lot to do with religion, because every damn religion says it’s bad,” Ruperto said of some locals' perceptions of homosexuality. He recalled being kicked out of a Christian camp as a kid because camp leaders found out he was gay.

The link between religion and homophobia has been the topic of countless studies and research. In Harlem, certain black churches, religious institutions with largely African-American congregations, have voiced staunch opposition to the LGBT lifestyle. In the weeks heading into this year’s Harlem Pride event, Pastor Ronald Ferguson of the Antioch Church of God called it an “abomination,” according to the Daily News.

The viewpoints of certain religious pockets of black America have falsely blanketed African-Americans as homophobic, Battle said.

“There’s a narrative we buy into that black America is much more homophobic than white America,” he said, “Quite often, in regards to homophobia, we’re really not measuring race but church attendance.”

Although various studies state that blacks are more homophobic than whites, Battle notes that the numbers are drastically different between blacks who attend church at least once a week and those who do not. He added that research data shows blacks being more supportive of civil rights and against discrimination than whites based on sexual orientation.

While some of Harlem’s long-standing black churches are steadfast in their disapproval of homosexuality, a few others have earned a vibrant LGBT following because of their tolerant approach.

“There’s no particular group that we target to accept, we just radically accept our mandate, which is to love all,” said Pastor Tory Liferidge of First Corinthians Baptist Church, which has been in the neighborhood for decades.

“There’s no way you can say ‘I’m radically practicing God’s love,’ and in the next breath say ‘I hate you’,” he continued, “Many of our churches are so steep in religious and traditional practices that it doesn’t allow room for the love.”

After growing up Catholic, Ruperto no longer attends any of the local churches. “Personally, I’m just spiritual,” he said.

Through his music and organization, “Operation Protect and Survive,” the native Harlemite has his eyes set on growth, both for his neighborhood and beyond, concerning attitudes towards the LGBT community.

“It’s going to keep changing,” Ruperto said, “We just really need the right ethnic groups, people from the inner city and the hood to speak up. That will be me.”

Loco Ninja "I'm In Love" video: