LGBTQ Rights in the Bronx — Then and Now

Having been the lead lobbyist for the Gay Rights bill in the early 1970s, I got to know city councilmembers from the Bronx very well — and we received a decidedly mixed reception from them. The fate of our bill was originally in the hands of the longtime chair of the Council’s General Welfare Committee, Bronx Democratic Councilmember-at-Large Aileen Ryan — a staunch Roman Catholic who detested everything about us. She became a well-known figure in the gay community, notorious for being our number one enemy for quite a while. She claimed that she was sent a jock strap in the mail and that someone visited her parish priest to tell him she was a bigot.

Another foe was Michael DeMarco, who represented a largely Italian area of the Bronx and also wouldn’t budge on the bill. So we went to the Bronx and picketed DeMarco’s small private house, which remains a fond memory for me. Also dead-set against gay rights was Bronx Republican Councilmember-at-Large Joseph Ribustello, who owned a funeral parlor that we visited and leafleted.

But we did have some friends, including City Councilmember Father Louis Gigante, a priest and brother of two legendary figures in the Genovese crime family, boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante and top capo/ acting boss Mario Gigante. Councilmember Gigante called a press conference to announce his position in favor of the bill — shocking the press and community leaders who expected him to forcefully oppose it. His stance didn’t shock me, though. I helped write Gigante’s pro-gay statement in his car on his way to the press conference.

Also in favor back then was Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams and two councilmembers, Barry Salman and the wonderful Muriel Stromberg, who just loved us. Also supporting us was Councilmember Ramon Velez, a famed South Bronx leader who ran a large anti-poverty program and was the subject of Mayor Ed Koch’s ire. Koch referred to people of color like Velez who ran social service programs “poverty pimps” — which says a lot about Koch’s racial attitudes.

When the bill was first introduced, the Bronx County leader was Pat Cunningham, who supported and even lobbied for it. He got in trouble with the law and was replaced by another supporter, Stanley Friedman, who also wound up in prison.

In 1986, when our bill passed, Bronx Councilmember Freddy Ferrer introduced an amendment to exempt owner-occupied one- and two-family homes (originally the amendment would have exempted owner-occupied three- and four-family homes, as well). Ferrer claimed it was a “side agreement” with gay leaders needed to hold the Council coalition for the measure together, but it really was a “slime agreement” with some community sleazeballs. Koch vetoed Ferrer’s amendment — perhaps the only good thing I can think of that Koch did in public life.

Where are we now in the Bronx? The current county leader, State Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, voted against marriage equality twice and still holds that position. He is also anti-choice. He “credits” his religion for both positions. Borough President, Ruben Diaz, Jr., voted against marriage when he was in the Assembly and was one of the very last big-wig city Democrats to come out in favor of equality. He is the son of the notorious anti-gay, anti-abortion City Councilmember Ruben Diaz, Sr. — a former state senator — and has always supported his father’s bids for public office.

In addition to Diaz Jr. and Crespo supporting arch-bigot Diaz, Sr., they also support Councilmember Fernando Cabrera — also a reverend who is anti-gay and anti-abortion. In a YouTube video he made while visiting Uganda, Cabrera praised that nation’s anti-gay forces as they were pushing a notorious law creating severe penalties for homosexual conduct — in its earliest drafts, the measure included the death penalty.

Diaz, Jr. clearly plans on running for mayor in 2021. The thought of having a mayor who supports anti-gay and anti-choice candidates turns my stomach. The beep also recently endorsed State Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the supposedly disbanded rump Independent Democratic Conference — who long gave their votes to the Republican leadership. Many progressive elected officials are supporting Klein’s September primary challenger.

Then there is out gay Councilmember Ritchie Torres, a rising star in city politics who has captured the attention of New Yorkers through his work on demanding better conditions for public housing tenants. Torres now heads the powerful Council Committee on Investigations. It is great to have a fighter who is gay, young, and charismatic in the room watching our backs in the Bronx. Torres will go far in government — perhaps Congress, borough president, or citywide office.

I admire Torres for his gallant effort to reign in the police with his Right To Know Law — but am disappointed that he caved to NYPD pressure at the end, producing a law that angered advocates who felt it was woefully insufficient. Torres tells me there is yet time to strengthen it. I certainly hope that happens. In 2016, Torres was a Bernie Sanders delegate but this year became an early supporter of Andrew Cuomo. So there is some inconsistency there, in my view.

The Bronx also boasts other progressives who are dependable friends to the LGBTQ community, including State Senators José M. Serrano and Gustavo Rivera, and Assemblymember Victor Pichardo, as well as Congressmembers Adriano Espaillat and José E. Serrano, the state senator’s father. And, of course, come January, the Bronx congressional delegation will also include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose June primary victory as a Democratic Socialist was one of the most exciting political developments in years.