Bronx Jeer Against Equality

Ministers Lead Flocks in Prayers to Reform “the Gay Lifestyle”

On Sunday morning, March 14, opponents of same-sex marriage filled the steps of the county courthouse on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, called to action by state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a Democrat, who supports amending the U.S. Constitution to prohibit marriage for gays and lesbians. Diaz is a Pentecostal minister who mobilized other Bronx clergy members to bring together a crowd that Diaz later estimated at 30,000 people. Published police estimates put the crowd of protesters between 5,000 and 7,000.

Nevertheless, the event was an unprecedented outpouring of public sentiment in a borough that is a Democratic bastion, but where protesters last Sunday stood under a banner stretching across the broad courthouse façade that said: “No! To Homosexual Marriages Yes! To President George Bush’s Constitutional Amendment.”

“Our people are sending a clear message to City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and all the politicians,” said Diaz in front of the large crowd. “We oppose marriage between homosexuals!” Diaz has been a longtime opponent of gay rights, most recently filing a lawsuit with religious groups seeking to prevent the city from funding the Harvey Milk High School, a public school whose students are mostly gay, lesbian and transgendered.

On Sunday, Diaz’ anti-gay message did not go unopposed by roughly 75 same-sex marriage proponents who remained separated behind a police line in a park across the street from the courthouse. Queer activists carried signs condemning homophobia and supporting equality. While small, compared to the huge rally across the street, the group of activists was spirited, chanting against homophobia both in Spanish and in English.

That group’s organizers, Andres Duque, Mark Reyes, and Charles Rice-González are longstanding leaders in the Latino LGBT community. “We thought it was important to have a Latino and Bronx-based response,” said Mark Reyes, director of the Bronx Lesbian and Gay Health Resource Consortium.

Speakers at the pro-amendment rally included nationally prominent members of the anti-gay crusade. A key force in that movement is the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, or CONLAMIC. The group has close links to leading conservative social policy networks.

Some clergy who spoke at the event declared that their congregants’ opposition to same-sex marriage comprised the “moral majority” opinion on the issue. “Those of us who have come here represent seventy percent of the U.S. population,” said CONLAMIC’s president, Rev. Miguel Rivera. “This is a struggle for all Christians,” declared Milton Donato, president of Radio Vision Cristiana Internacional.

Many protesters arrived straight from their churches, while others seemed to have been brought from outside the Bronx. “There were a lot of charter busses that brought people in from other places,” said Andres Duque, of Mano a Mano, a Latino LGBT advocacy group that, among its initiatives, provides safe-sex education to stop AIDS.

Duque also pointed out that the national CONLAMIC web site had called on people to mobilize for Sunday’s rally. “Conlamic is actually pretty progressive on immigration issues, but ultra conservative on everything else,” said Duque. “They provide people with food and housing, but then they push an anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda.”

Less than two weeks earlier, a similar confrontation between supporters and opponents of gay marriage was more evenly matched. Diaz led a press conference of roughly 80 anti-gay religious leaders, opposed by 25 supporters of gay rights. The counter protest was on the front page of El Diario, the leading Spanish language daily paper.

When e-mailed, CONLAMIC’s official website flashed a message that official access was required to view the site’s contents. Attempts to reach Rev. Rivera by phone were unsuccessful.

Sunday’s mobilization appears to be a conscious effort to counter the Spanish language press’ mostly progressive coverage of the movement for gay marriage and of LGBT issues. In recent weeks, El Diario and Hoy have carried front page stories on Marriage Equality New York’s press conference at City Hall, Jason West’s appearance in Sunnyside Queens, and on gay bashing in Jackson Heights, Queens.

This press coverage has been influenced by the work of Latino activists. “Informally, there have been meetings between Latino LGBT organizations from Florida, California, and New York,” said Andres Duque.

“We had some editorial meetings with Hoy and Diario. Out of that came important ideas of the coverage they should do of LGBT issues,” said Duque. “If we hadn’t had that meeting and strategized, I’m not sure that the Spanish language media would have reached out and covered this.”

Sunday’s crowd held bibles in the air, and many people carried signs quoting biblical passages often cited as justifications for homophobia. Some signs read “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve,” and “If Gay Marriage Now, What Next?”

Another male participant who favors amending the Constitution held aloft a sign that he wrote: “It’s not against you guys!! It’s against the lifestyle that you want to live!! It’s not the will of God for you!!! We love you.”

However, while the event resembled a fundamentalist revival, with preachers intoning passages from the bible and congregants responding with “Amen,” the afternoon’s goal was also politically explicit and aimed at promoting the constitutional amendment that Pres. Bush has endorsed. At one point during his speech, Diaz went so far as to declare that the Democratic Party should give its full support to the anti-gay effort.

While Diaz was the only prominent Democratic leader at the rostrum, he is hardly alone in courting the Christian Right. The office of the Bronx Borough President, Adolfo Carrion, denied any involvement in organizing the rally. Nonetheless, Carrion’s administration does include an Office of Faith-Based Initiatives led by Hermes Caraballo. On March 17, a spokesperson said Mr. Caraballo was out of the office at a funeral. By press time, Caraballo did not return phone calls seeking his comment.

Eldin Villafañe, communications director for Carrion, said that the borough president’s office had absolutely no involvement in Sunday’s event and that any overtime work completed in constructing the sound platform or hanging the pro-amendment banner was not authorized by Carrion, but by the Department of Citywide Administration Services, or DECAS.

An official in the Bronx DECAS office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, responded, “we are asking ourselves the same thing,” when asked what official assigned workers to Sunday’s event. When pressed to answer what borough official typically handles such events, the DECAS official said, “I’m telling you that we don’t know. We came in here on Monday and asked who it was. I don’t know, but somebody made over time.” Then he hung up the telephone.

When asked to describe the official duties of Caraballo, the Bronx’s director of faith-based initiatives, Villafañe, Carrion’s spokesperson, said: “They do a lot. They organize the churches on a lot of events, such as food drives and other community-based events.” Villafañe also said the faith-based director was leading a trip of Bronx-based clergy, both Roman Catholic and Evangelical, to Israel on May 23 in order “to educate these clergy members about anti-Semitism.”

Villafañe also said that Caraballo did not coordinate with the Bronx clergy responsible for orchestrating the pro-amendment rally.

When asked why the borough president had created an office of faith-based initiatives, which is more typically associated with Republican elected officials, Villafañe said, “You’re engaging in talk radio-like ideology. It is not such a black and white issue.”

On Sunday, police assigned gay activists to a small area penned in by barricades where their chants were effectively drowned out by the rally’s enormous sound system on a platform erected before the courthouse. Activists refused to be silenced and later moved a short distance away to a knoll in Joyce Kilmer Park. Chanting, “Hate kills, gays fight back,” activists stood firm in the face of the far larger crowd, some of whom yelled homophobic taunts.

Maribel Pazos, who joined the gay activists with her partner, pointed out what she termed the hypocrisy of the clergy’s rhetoric. “They say their goal is to preserve the family, but the family is destroyed much of the time. Many heterosexual marriages don’t function like it says in the scriptures. People are here because of ignorance,” said Pazos.

While clearly the city’s largest public protest thus far against same-sex marriage, Sunday’s rally was not indicative of monolithic homophobia in New York’s ethnically diverse Latino community. According to a Daily News poll released on March 15, Latino opinion on gay marriage is split down the middle, with 41 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed.

In fact, many of the gay activists at the event said that the effect of the rally was to allow Sen. Diaz a platform to show his political muscle during a highly polarized time before a presidential election.

Reyes spoke of the challenges posed by LGBT activists in mobilizing sentiment for gay rights in the Bronx. “Looking at the reality of people’s lives in the Bronx, many people can’t be out or can only be out in certain ways,” said Reyes.

He also spoke of the need to connect issues of gay rights with wider questions of racism and economic injustice. “People in my community are concerned about racism, about being poor, or unemployed—the issues that people rally around are going to be different.”

“Making these connections will be key,” said Suzie Schwartz, a Columbia University activist. “Bush wants Latino support on gay marriage, but his proposal on immigrants’ rights is dressed-up indentured service. People at Sunday’s rally have been victimized by the Bush administration for years.”

Last July, Rivera, of CONLAMIC, figured prominently in legislative meetings conducted in Washington, D.C. by Latino religious and civic leaders and Sen. Bill Frist, the Senate’s majority leader, to gain amnesty for undocumented aliens facing deportation.

Duque also underlined what he saw as a contradiction in the evangelical clergy’s position. “The phrase ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ lets the clergy tell people that they’re not homophobic,” he said.

For many of the gay and lesbian activists, the size of the pro-amendment mobilization was a reminder of how much outreach and education needs to be done to win the battle for public opinion.

“I knew Diaz had the ability to gather folks,” said Reyes. “I didn’t expect him to pull together such a large gathering of Latinos spewing this kind of hate.”

Activists with Marriage Equality New York left the courthouse rally more committed to undertaking broad outreach in the boroughs to win support for same-sex marriage. “The movement for gay marriage can give people the confidence to come out,” said Mitch Day, a New York University student, who identified himself as a socialist. “This is an issue that straight people can support, and that will make more people feel they can come out of the closet.”

“With more visibility of the community, will come a larger, more visible community,” said Mark Reyes.

Sunday’s rally on the steps of the Bronx’s superior court was clearly aimed to show that conservative Christians are well organized, well funded, and ready to fight against legalizing same-sex marriage.

As indicated by their comments, gay activists are equally determined to push for marriage equality.

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