Cher as an Agent of Change

Celebrity impersonator flap rips open gay debate for Jersey Dems

It’s difficult to imagine that a Cher impersonator could raise a ruckus on a Friday night in Atlantic City.

But that’s exactly what happened on September 8 when the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) caucus of the annual New Jersey State Democratic Party Conference held its meeting.

The extraordinary events that took place over just a few minutes of that caucus reverberated in Trenton, the state capital, for days, finally leading to a Wednesday meeting that over the long run just might make Cher a significant agent of change.

In past years the caucus has been a hum drum gathering—last year only eight Democrats turned out, as other caucuses within the party spilled out into the hallways. For Friday evening’s meeting, the organizers—from Garden State Equality, New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, and the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey—decided to mix business and pleasure by topping off the evening with an appearance by “Cher.”

A record 120 folks showed up. The working portion of the caucus began at 6 p.m. and the celebrity performer arrived a few minutes before 7 to get ready for her star turn.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

According to Garden State Equality’s Steven Goldstein, Diane Legreide, executive director of the Democratic State Committee, immediately turned up, and pointing at Cher, said, “We cannot have that walking in the hallway…. You cannot have that inside your caucus… The State Committee will not have someone like that attending the dinner. That cannot come inside the ballroom… What if the press sees that? What if they report on that in tomorrow’s papers?”

In a press release issued Monday, Goldstein alleged that Legreide seemed indifferent to the fact that she was repeatedly referring to a transgendered performer as “that,” even as she stood near Barbra Casbar, a leading trans activist who is president of the Stonewall Democrats.

Goldstein added that state Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat who led the fight for the 2004 domestic partner rights bill in Trenton, took Legreide to task for her comments.

LGBTI activists were outraged as well, and immediately reached out to Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, Senator Robert Menendez, also a Democrat in a tough race to hold onto the seat Corzine appointed him to when he became governor in January, and the Democratic National Committee. According to Goldstein, all three were helpful—though he particularly credits Brian Bond, a longtime gay activist at the DNC, for helping make a fence-mending meeting happen in Trenton Wednesday morning.

The meeting included, among others, Legreide, state Assemblyman Joe Cryan of Union, the party chairman, Goldstein, Casbar, and Joan Hervery, Garden State’s deputy executive director.

The group clearly made progress on a rapprochement, issuing a joint statement committing to stronger action on a transgender rights bill in front of the Legislature in Trenton—Cryan has signed on as a co-sponsor—and announcing the appointment of Denise Brunner, an LGBT community member, as a deputy vice chair of the State Committee.

In an interview, Goldstein was more specific, saying his side demanded that the Legislature, with Democratic majorities in both houses, pass the gender rights bill in 2006 and that it work to bring LGBTI Democrats into positions of power at the county level statewide. The community leaders also impressed on the Democratic honchos their intention—should the gay and lesbian marriage plaintiffs represented since 2002 by Lambda Legal lose their case before the state Supreme Court—to battle for a same-sex marriage bill in the Legislature. (The court is almost universally expected to rule by October.)

“They said there was no reason to discuss hypotheticals at this point,” Goldstein said. “In other words, they punted, which is not surprising politically, though it is disappointing.”

When contacted for comment, officials from the Menendez campaign asked to see an e-mail copy of the Garden State press release, but then did not offer any response. A spokesman for Corzine’s office referred this newspaper to the State Committee, and Rich McGrath, the committee’s spokesman, responded by e-mailing the joint statement.

Asked how Legreide could have become so unhinged by the sight of a Cher impersonator, McGrath, in a telephone interview, said, “It was a misunderstanding and a miscommunication. There was no offense intended and we sincerely regret if any offense was taken.” The joint statement echoed that sentiment and said all sides agreed on that point.

But for Goldstein that is not the last word on the subject. Legreide, he said, never apologized for her remarks and in his view the flap is symptomatic of a larger problem.

“I am not sure there is a state where there is a bigger gulf between local Democratic voters and party officials on LGBT issues,” Goldstein argued, pointing out that 67 percent of all New Jersey Democrats support marriage equality and an even higher total favor a gender rights law.

The reaction from state party officials when Goldstein and his allies began to voice anger about the Friday evening confrontation, he said, was pure “hard-ball politics.”

“The went on the attack with us like they would be on the attack with the Republicans,” he said, noting that an anonymous party insider told the Newark Star-Ledger that Goldstein is “the Ralph Nader of New Jersey.”

“I managed Corzine’s first campaign, I’ve worked with Spitzer and Schumer in New York,” Goldstein responded. “I’ve been an insider for a long time. I’m hardly Ralph Nader.”

Still, Goldstein came away from the battle happy that the state’s top Democrats—the governor and Menendez—were supportive, as was the national party.

And there was another benefit from the war over Cher.

“Donations and new memberships [in Garden State Equality] have been rolling in for the past four days,” Goldstein said.