A crowded field of candidates vying to replace outgoing Congressmember José Serrano in the South Bronx packed into Destination Tomorrow’s Bronx LGBT Center on January 7 for a two-hour forum covering a range of queer issues facing the 15th Congressional District.
Against the backdrop of the Rainbow Flag, the Trans Flag, and an adapted Rainbow Flag with black and brown stripes aimed at being inclusive of queer people of color, a whopping 10 candidates were on hand, including Bronx Assemblymember Michael Blake, former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Manhattan Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, and out gay Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres.
Homophobic City Councilmember Ruben Diaz, Sr., who made headlines earlier this year when he griped that the City Council was controlled by the gay community, was, not surprisingly, absent despite receiving an invitation.
Torres, the only out LGBTQ candidate in the race, leaned heavily into his own personal story as the first out gay elected official in the borough. He immediately established a connection with an audience that consisted of many queer Bronx locals.
“No one in this race has secured more funding and passed more laws for the benefit of the Bronx LGBTQ community than I have, not only because I represent you but because I’m one of you,” Torres said as he touted his work in enacting a law allowing queer-friendly shelters to serve homeless youth until they are 24, among many other measures.
And when candidates were asked whether they believed that heteronormativity “is superior of all the sexualities,” Torres did not shy away, saying, “My life as an openly gay man is a rejection of heteronormativity.”
The topics discussed at the event included important issues facing the community, like healthcare, the decriminalization of sex work, poverty, and the daunting task of repairing the damage President Donald Trump has inflicted on LGBTQ people during his time in office.
Some lesser-known candidates, like Black Lives Matter of Greater New York co-founder Chivona Renee Newsome, took thinly veiled shots at entrenched elected officials, painting them as “career politicians” who have perpetuated the status quo.
Several candidates, including Newsome, Mark-Viverito, Samelys López, and Tomas Ramos touted support for Medicare for All, but they were largely short on specifying whether they would back a public option or a full single-payer approach. Torres echoed the rhetoric of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, but carefully avoided aligning himself with the presidential candidate’s full-throated support of single-payer.
“It is a disgrace that the United States is the only country in the industrialized world that fails to provide universal healthcare,” said Torres, who wrote in a Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club questionnaire for this race that he supports “Universal Healthcare including the availability of Medicare for All” and “a version of single-payer” that satisfies organized labor’s healthcare union, 1199, and results in no loss of healthcare funding or jobs in the Bronx.
Mark-Viverito described herself as a “proud supporter of Medicare for All” and stressed that, in the meantime, it is important to immediately improve access to healthcare services and ensure that people of the 15th Congressional District do not need to leave the borough to receive the care they need.
The former Council speaker cited the LGBTQ-specific work she carried out in that post, such as banning conversion therapy outright — a ban since repealed amid anticipated legal challenges from the conservative right because the prohibition was not limited, as most such bans are, to minors. Along with other candidates, she raised a sense of urgency about improving the plight of trans women of color in the face of unprecedented deadly violence targeting them.
Multiple candidates, including Mark-Viverito, Newsome, and Lopez, brought up the movement to decriminalize sex work and Lopez explicitly voiced support for “fully” decriminalizing the sex trade, siding with advocates who are seeking the removal of criminal penalties for buyers and those who help facilitate sex work as well as for the workers themselves.
Blake, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, recalled working for former President Barack Obama and playing a role in helping usher in the Affordable Care Act. He also mentioned that he co-sponsored the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which last year added gender identity and expression as a protected class in the state’s human rights and hate crimes laws. If elected to Congress, he said, he would fight for a “Bill of Rights for the LGBTQ community” on the federal level.
Some candidates, however, struggled to demonstrate the connection between LGBTQ issues and larger issues facing constituents. Rodriguez, who welcomed the endorsements of anti-LGBTQ Bronx Councilmembers Fernando Cabrera and Diaz, Sr., when he ran for public advocate last year, voiced his desire for stronger penalties against those who commit hate crimes against queer people but otherwise spoke in broad strokes about improving the district. And David Philip Franks, Jr., a former NYPD sergeant, positioned his candidacy as a sort of alternative to the emerging left-leaning trends in the Democratic Party by conveying his strong belief in the benefits of capitalism.
Those in attendance at the forum included a diverse crowd of locals, community advocates, and celebrities like Dominique Jackson, a Black transgender actress who portrays Elektra Abundance in the award-winning show “Pose” and serves on the board of Destination Tomorrow. Jackson was disappointed with what she heard from the candidates on stage.
“I think sometimes they miss the point,” Jackson, the former director of programs for Destination Tomorrow, told Gay City News. “It’s not about showing up and telling us what you can do for us because you think this is what we want to hear. They were just answering questions, some were stuck, some were reading, and that doesn’t make me feel comfortable.
She continued, “Politicians have to be invested in what they’re doing, they have to be invested in the community that they are trying to get votes from, and tonight I must tell you I am not into politics like that and I was not impressed.”
Other members of the audience felt differently. Tabazz Ebony, a Black gay man involved in the ball scene who hails from the House of Ebony, said he thought the candidates were informative.
“The candidates all spoke out, each one as an individual,” Ebony said. “This is the poorest [congressional district] in the Bronx and they came here to pitch what they want to do to the community. I applaud that.”
James L. Goode, Jr., known also as Junior LaBeija from the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning,” was among the moderators of the evening.
“Tonight we allowed our potential candidates for District 15 of the Bronx to understand and learn what our specific needs are within the community,” he said after the event concluded. “We also let them know that we do not consider ourselves exclusive; we are to be inclusive. It cannot be ignored that the LGBTQ community exists everywhere. We are here, and because we are here we must educate you on how to meet our needs. If you meet our needs, we will be more willing to give you what you want.”
Other candidates on stage included Jonathan Ortiz, a financial counselor at Phipps Neighborhoods Financial Empowerment Center, and Frangell Basora, a former intern for Serrano.