The Rudy We Knew

Labeled “Pro-Gay” Even in Retreat, Giuliani's Record Was Modest.

By: DUNCAN OSBORNE | According to David Yepsen, a columnist with the Des Moines Register, Rudy Giuliani holds a “moderate” stance on gay rights. Liberal columnist Bill Press called the former New York City mayor “pro-gay rights.”

In story after story in the mainstream press, readers and viewers are told that some Republicans will not back Giuliani, in part, because of his support for gay rights.

A common feature of such stories is that these reporters and pundits have not bothered to ask lesbian and gay community members what they think of the two-term mayor. What they would find is that Giuliani's record on gay rights is mixed and in some parts of the community he remains an unpopular figure.

“I think that more than anything else the mainstream description of Giuliani is tempered by the fact that he is a Republican,” said Ken Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College. “My guess is that the mainstream press description of Giuliani… is interpreted to mean 'as Republicans go.'”

In a November poll of 768 gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans, Sherrill and several Hunter College colleagues reported that 36 percent of the respondents said Giuliani was a gay rights supporter and one percent called him a “strong supporter.” Just over 23 percent said he was an opponent or “strong opponent” of gay rights while 40 percent did know him well enough to rate him.

Just less than 28 percent of those polled had a “favorable” or “very favorable” view of Giuliani while 55 percent rated him as “unfavorable” or “very unfavorable.” The remainder offered no rating.

The poll found that as gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans come out they become more engaged politically and more liberal. To a degree, Giuliani suffered from his association with a party that has generally been hostile toward the lesbian and gay community.

“What they do know is that he's a Republican,” Sherrill said. “One of the amazing things about the sample was how intensely negative the attitudes were toward the Republican Party.”

Certainly, Giuliani, who was mayor from 1994 through 2001, is a longstanding opponent of same-sex marriage, a goal that many in the community seek. In a 1996 press conference with members of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, Giuliani said, “I believe that marriage should remain between a man and a woman. I've always felt that way… It's a traditional position, one that has a lot to do with the way I think families should be constructed.”

He did not oppose all ways of giving benefits to same-sex couples. Prior to his 1997 re-election campaign, Giuliani closed a deal with the Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide gay lobbying group, in which ESPA remained neutral in that race and he supported city domestic partnership legislation.

The law, which was enacted in 1998, codified the city's domestic partnership registry and the health, pension, and death benefits paid to the domestic partners of city employees. These items were established with executive orders by previous mayors. Under the law, any city regulation that gave a benefit or responsibility to a spouse was changed to include registered domestic partners. When he first ran for mayor in 1989, Giuliani opposed such benefits.

Some gay activists objected to the deal and the secretive way the law was written. Only ESPA was allowed to see drafts of the legislation. It has since come to be seen as deficient in some ways.

“It only enshrined in place what existed at that moment in time, but, as we said, it did not ensure that any benefits going forward would be guaranteed,” said state Senator Thomas K. Duane, a Democrat who represents parts of Manhattan including Chelsea. “It was a snapshot in time, nothing going forward.”

Duane, who is openly gay, served in the City Council from 1992 to 1998 and was a frequent Giuliani opponent.

Giuliani has again changed his position on benefits for same-sex couples. In early 2007, he opposed a New Hampshire civil union law that gave all the state benefits granted to spouses to gay and lesbian couples who enter into a union under the new statute.

The former mayor's presidential campaign did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

Perhaps the most contentious issue of Giuliani's time in office came early. AIDS groups had long complained that the Division of AIDS Services (DAS), now called the HIV/AIDS Services Administration, was ineffective at delivering government benefits and assistance to thousands of New Yorkers with AIDS. Giuliani's solution was to scrap DAS and have clients served by the city's welfare workers.

“The whole focus of the welfare system was getting people off the system, exactly the opposite of what you want to do with people with HIV and AIDS,” said Charles King, president of Housing Works, an AIDS services group. “It was part of the larger wave of 'let's crack down on poor people.'”

In the face of intense opposition, led by Housing Works, the new mayor's effort was changed to a restructuring plan with AIDS groups managing the delivery of services, but that also failed in the face of stiff opposition.

“The only thing that was ever put on the table was new and more insidious ways to make cuts,” Duane said. “They were going to shift all of the responsibility onto the community-based organizations without giving them any additional funds to do it.”

During Giuliani's mayoralty, Housing Works filed five successful “impact lawsuits” against the city charging DAS services were substandard. In 1997, the City Council passed legislation that established DAS under law and created benchmarks for the delivery of services. Advocates still complain about service delivery at that agency, but in 1996, at an ESPA awards dinner, Giuliani said that his efforts had worked.

“I want you to know that we've worked very, very hard during times of grave fiscal problems and difficulties to make certain that we sustain the Division of AIDS Services,” he told the crowd. “We've increased the budget from $66.6 million to $125.2 million… We've worked hard with the Gay Men's Health Crisis to restructure the division so that it spends that money more efficiently, more effectively, and in the best possible way.”

Much of that increase resulted from growth in mandated spending on Medicaid, the government-run health plan for the poor, and increases required by court decisions.

“They had to spend a huge amount of money,” King said. “They were put under a magistrate's supervision… They had to really expand in response to our litigation.”

Unquestionably, Giuliani engaged in other acts, both symbolic and substantive, that benefited the lesbian and gay community.

Giuliani supported a state hate crimes bill as well as a measure, also being considered by the Legislature in Albany, that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. He regularly marched in the city's annual pride parade and held pride celebrations at Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence. During his administration, the city gave $1.5 million to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center for its capital campaign.

As well, Giuliani definitely took actions that were opposed by the gay community.

In 1995, some gay activists (including this reporter), who were alarmed by the proliferation of gay sex clubs and a new bathhouse in the city, lobbied the Giuliani administration to regulate those sex businesses. The mayor declined to do that and instead he aggressively enforced the state health code that bans oral, anal, and vaginal sex in businesses, resulting in more than 30 such venues being closed, far more than any administration before or since.

Both the closings and the possibility of regulating those businesses were vehemently opposed by many gay activists as well as some gay and AIDS groups. Many of those same activists objected to a 1995 city law that was championed by Giuliani that limited where porn shops and theaters could operate.

“He's going around saying he cleaned up New York City,” said William K. Dobbs, a lawyer and gay civil libertarian. “No, he didn't. However, he took a big bite out of the First Amendment and he really diminished the right of people to sexual free expression and erotica in this city.”

That porn law was part of the motivation for 20 protesters who briefly forced Giuliani off Fifth Avenue and onto the sidewalk by chaining themselves together across the avenue during the 1998 gay pride march. The protesters, who were arrested, objected to the law, what they said was Giuliani's failure to respond to anti-gay violence, and his blocking effective AIDS education in city schools.

Giuliani's relations with the gay community soured further in 1998 during a New York City vigil for Matthew Shepard, a gay man murdered in Wyoming, when police were overwhelmed by the crowd of five or six thousand. In the chaos, police arrested 115, though 30 of the arrests were later voided, and seriously injured three people when police horses charged into a crowd of marchers on West 43rd Street. Roughly 20 marchers complained to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the police monitoring agency, and three sued the city, winning just over $650,000.

In 1999, Giuliani faced more hostility when he entered the gay pride march in the middle of the People of Color contingent. His relations with the African-American and Latino communities were generally tense and queers of color were no exception. Those tensions were often stoked by police misconduct and killings of unarmed African-American men.

In the 1999 march, Giuliani was guarded by uniformed police officers, who marched on the sides of Fifth Avenue, and roughly two dozen plainclothes officers, identified by the yellow sweat bands they wore on their wrists. As marchers in that contingent booed the mayor or tried to push past him, police pushed back, ultimately arresting two marchers.

“I find it ridiculous that on a day that is supposed to be a celebration… that we would be threatened with arrest,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, then the executive director of the Audre Lorde Project, the city's Fort Greene-based community center for queers of color.

Giuliani's relationship with queers of color did not improve. In 2000, when the mayor announced an increase in funding for the police hate crimes unit, some in the gay community applauded while others dismissed it.

“I think it's a diversionary tactic on the mayor's part to make it seem that he cares about communities of color or that he is concerned about other hate violence,” Kang said at the time.

Prior to the terrorist attacks of September 2001, as his time in office was winding down, Giuliani was asked what his legacy for the gay community would be. After nearly eight years in office, Giuliani did not have much to cite.

“I think my legacy for the lesbian and gay community is precisely the same as for all others,” he said before joining that year's gay pride march. “I've tried to make things as safe as possible for them, I've tried to provide as many job opportunities as I possibly can… If the gay and lesbian community focuses on it, they will say that I've probably done more than any other mayor to help the gay and lesbian community.”