Bronx Councilmember Ruben Diaz, Sr., donning his signature cowboy hat, sat defiantly in his dimly-lit district office in the Bronx on Monday afternoon while he was bombarded by news reports and tweets over his recent homophobic comments.
The beleaguered Bronx politician showed clear agitation, pounding his closed fist against his desk multiple times over the course of a 40-minute interview with Gay City News. More and more colleagues were demanding his resignation after he said the City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community,” but he was not budging. He would not apologize or step down.
Nothing, he said, would prompt him to remove himself from his post. Instead of making any attempts to rebuild the bridges he has burned in the LGBTQ community, he simply claimed he was not homophobic and opted to place blame on gay folks for a series of events over the years.
“What is wrong with what I said?” he asked incredulously. “That the gay community has power and control? Yes, they do! Because look at the way they’re doing it. If anyone’s being harassed, it’s me. Look at the way they write their tweets, with their nasty words, the foul language that they use. I didn’t do that.”
The 75-year-old lawmaker is facing his first major public relations disaster since returning to the City Council after spending more than a decade in the State Senate. Until now, he had lately managed to avoid spouting his classic anti-gay sentiments, even as that side of his reputation simmered just below the surface. The fresh outrage over his comments reflect the deeply-rooted tension stemming from his history of homophobia dating back to at least 1994 when he made abhorrent statements about LGBTQ folks with HIV/ AIDS during the discussion over whether the Gay Games should be held in New York during Stonewall 25 celebrations.
According to a letter written at that time by Daniel Dromm, now an out gay Queens councilmember, Diaz also said gay men and lesbians were “cursed” and that they fit in the same category as “thieves, slanderers, murderers, idolators, drug addicts, misers, swindlers, and criminals.”
Some of Diaz’s comments on Monday were eerily similar to those decades-old statements. When he referred to his opposition to marriage equality, he tied gay marriage to substance use in the same breath.
“I don’t believe in gay marriage, I don’t believe in abortion, I don’t believe in drinking, I don’t believe in smoking, and I don’t believe in dancing,” said Diaz, who is a Pentecostal minister.
On multiple occasions during the interview, he complained of political control amassed by LGBTQ folks, pointing first to a time when Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, now among the candidates for public advocate, made a $1,000 donation to his campaign.
“The LGBT community found that and put so much pressure on him that he had to go public,” Diaz said. “That is power. That is control … They made an elected official take away that donation.”
Diaz, seemingly well-prepared to lay out his beef with gay people, then recalled an incident stemming from last year when he was caught using his government email to send a column he said he wrote for 16 years, which was known as “What You Should Know.”
“Rumor has it that one member of the gay community accused me and asked for an investigation. They opened an investigation on me,” he said without naming any names. “Come on. So, who is the one being harassed? I am the one being harassed.”
As if that weren’t enough, Diaz couldn’t resist mentioning that a gay person threw a pitcher of water on him many years ago, even as he failed to provide specifics on that incident. But as often as he blamed LGBTQ folks, he quickly tried reclaiming his innocence on gay rights. He asked how he could be a homophobe if he voted for Corey Johnson, who is openly gay, to be the speaker of the City Council. He asked the same question about gay family members.
“My niece, my sister, brother, they’re gay, and I’m a homophobe? I am no homophobe. I don’t believe in gay marriage, but it doesn’t make me a homophobe. People want to paint me that way, that’s their choice. I’m no homophobe.”
His repeated attempts to wipe his hands clean of any wrongdoing were met with a new question: If he is not homophobic, which LGBTQ rights initiatives would he support in his capacity as city councilmember?
“Why do I have to?” he answered while throwing his hands in the air. “Why? I mean, that’s the problem.”
When asked if he would support Dromm’s proposal to implement LGBTQ education in city schools, he said he would need to review it.
Lost further in the mix of the entire story surrounding Diaz’s comments were other statements he made about a sit-down meeting with his son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Bronx Democratic Party chair Marcos Crespo, a state assemblymember, to determine which positions the elder Diaz wanted on the City Council. He ultimately settled to serve as chair of the Committee on For-Hire Vehicles, a position that he rightly said was now in jeopardy because of his comments (the Council dissolved the committee two days later).
But on Monday, he rejected that any sort of deal was made among Diaz, Jr., Crespo, and Johnson, who doles out the committee assignments as speaker.
“I was just bragging,” he said without elaborating further on why his story changed so quickly.
Diaz remained rather tight-lipped on whether his comments could hurt his son’s potential bid for mayor in 2021, saying only that answering the question would be “above my pay grade.” Diaz, Jr., who strongly criticized his father’s remarks as “antagonistic, quarrelsome, and wholly unnecessary,” has called for an apology. But unlike many other local politicians, he has not demanded that his father resign from public office.
In what was a clear reflection of the chaotic nature of the last several days, Diaz was often interrupted by phone calls during the interview. One such call was from his attorney, Christopher Lynn, an out gay man who has long represented Diaz and is a staunch defender of the councilmember. Diaz passed the phone to this reporter with Lynn on the line.
Lynn heaped praise on the councilmember and cited the work he did to assist an ACT UP activist, Christopher Hennelly, in a police brutality case. Hennelly’s case had been closed, but Diaz watched video of the incident, saw improper conduct, and successfully lobbied that his case be re-opened and investigated, according to Lynn.
“I’ll never forget that,” said Lynn, who is now representing Abel Cedeno, a bullied Bronx gay high school student who faces manslaughter charges from a fight that left another student dead.
“Because of me, the guy got $300,000,” Diaz added regarding the Hennelly case. “Nobody wants to talk about that. I’m not a homophobe.”
Lynn pushed back against the recent outrage concerning Diaz, saying it “gives people an opportunity to dump on him.”
Diaz wouldn’t say whether LGBTQ constituents have voiced concerns to his office in recent days, but he did call into the room a man named Anthony, who was in the office at the time of the interview.
Anthony, who told Gay City News he used to be involved in the queer ballroom scene, was visiting Diaz’s office because he said he was receiving unfair treatment from his landlord and was facing eviction. Diaz’s office, he said, helped keep him from losing his apartment.
Anthony offered positive words for Diaz, Sr., and Jr., noting that both of the politicians have helped him when he needed them the most. He excused Diaz, Sr.’s history of hostility towards the gay community, saying, “Sometimes the brain is very vulnerable, but the heart is still strong and unique.”
“If you ask me if this man is of love or hate, I can tell you he is of love,” he said. “He’s not perfect. He might trip sometimes.”
In the midst of his refusal to admit his well-documented history of homophobia, Diaz nonetheless acknowledged that he is losing support — and unsurprisingly blames that on gay political power. He said people are now afraid to donate, support, or identify with him out of fear that they could be branded as homophobic. He cited a need for allies — and noted that he is currently supporting Bronx Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez in the race for public advocate, who would abstain the following day in the vote over dissolving Diaz’s committee.
When asked on Monday afternoon if he had heard from any other councilmembers, Diaz said Johnson was the only one to call him since the comments surfaced over the weekend. Diaz spoke with the speaker on Friday, he said, but was unable to reach Johnson when he called on Sunday.
“I left a message, but he hasn’t returned it,” Diaz said, something Johnson confirmed Wednesday.
Johnson announced that same day that the Council was “reviewing all potential disciplinary scenarios” and “nothing is off the table.” Diaz, fully aware of that, reiterated that he would not back down even if he were stripped of his committee assignments.
“I won’t apologize,” he stubbornly concluded. “The only people who could ask for my resignation are the people of the 18th Council District, and that will be in June 2021. I will not resign.”