An Invisible Reception

Robert Mugabe, the combative leader of Zimbabwe who has for years scapegoated and brutally harassed gays and is currently in the world’s spotlight for a controversial land redistribution plan aimed at that nation’s powerful white farmers, attended a City Hall reception on September 12 hosted by Brooklyn City Councilmember Charles Barron.

The invitation to Mugabe from Barron indicated that the reception was being hosted by the Council’s Black and Latino Caucus, but repeated efforts by Gay City News to obtain a list of councilmembers in attendance from Barron’s office were unsuccessful.

In fact, councilmembers generally seemed reluctant to discuss the event, which drew editorial fire from all three of the city’s major dailies.

Neither Margarita Lopez, the out lesbian Puerto Rican councilmember from the Lower East Side, nor Phillip Reed, the out gay and HIV-positive African American councilmember from Upper Manhattan and parts of the Bronx, responded to Gay City News’ request for comment about a ceremony honoring a world leader who has come under fire from Amnesty International for encouraging and condoning harassment and violence against gay men and lesbians. Mugabe has publicly referred to gays and lesbians as “pigs” and “perverts” who have no legal rights. Earlier this year, in response to rumors of gays within his cabinet, Mugabe launched a witch-hunt using secret security forces.

Reed’s staff noted that the councilmember did not attend the reception and that he is not a member of the Black and Latino caucus.

Bill Perkins, an African American councilmember from Harlem who has been a strong supporter of LGBT rights and took a leadership role in formulating an ordinance protecting transgender civil rights, similarly did not return calls from Gay City News. Perkins’ staff confirmed that the Mugabe reception was on his schedule for September 12. Amanda Lugg, who works for the African Services Committee which does health and social services work with African immigrants in the U.S., was one of a handful of protesters outside the reception and saw Perkins exiting City Hall at the time of the reception, but could not confirm that he had attended.

Perkins is among a number of councilmembers who are joining Barron on a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe paid for by Mugabe that leaves New York on September 28.

Lugg was critical of the mission.

“What facts do they still need?” she asked in reference to what she sees as the nation’s clear record of human rights abuses. She said her group would be sitting down with Perkins on September 26 to lay out their concerns about Mugabe’s positions, but added that the trip would have far more credibility if it were not being funded by Mugabe.

Christine Quinn, the out lesbian Councilmember from Chelsea, echoed Lugg’s thoughts about the fact-finding mission.

“The trip would be more appropriate if it were not paid for by Mugabe,” she said.

Quinn said she respects the right of her colleagues to host their own receptions and credited Speaker Gifford Miller for not “squelching” the event, but said, “I wish it hadn’t happened.”

She said she discussed her concerns about Mugabe’s anti-gay posture with Perkins, who she said seemed unaware of the issue.

Miller issued a press release the day of the reception saying that he would not use his power as Speaker to block the event: “Any attempt to quash free speech––a commodity that is apparently in short supply in Mugabe’s own country––is a terrible mistake.”

At the same time, the Speaker underscored his concerns about Mugabe’s human rights violations.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg also issued a statement the day of the reception saying he had no interest in meeting with the Zimbabwe leader.