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Last Saturday evening at Midtown's Roosevelt Hotel, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gave the keynote address at the annual leadership conference of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay and lesbian conservative group. But an evening that began with the most supportive gesture that any Republican politician has ever made toward gays and lesbians ended in violence, when a small group of protesters calling themselves Fed Up Queers (FUQ) stormed the hotel lobby and were forcibly removed from the premises by hotel security. When this weekend's boisterous bipartisanship inside the Roosevelt Hotel had runneth over and the blood, sweat, and tears outside the hotel had been mopped up two things were clear: the gay vote is not a foregone conclusion for the Democrats in 2000, and more important it is by no means predictably or sheepishly monolithic. Gays may now be more divided politically than they have ever been.
Something significant has shifted in queer politics. On a weekend when the traditionally gay-friendly probable Democratic candidate for the New York Senate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was fundraising among moneyed heteros in the Hamptons, the usually hard-boiled Republican contender, Mayor Giuliani, was extending a sizable olive branch to gay New Yorkers. On a weekend that also saw an unprecedentedly wide array of gay activists joining forces, the straight media had its first strong hint that gays feel almost as betrayed by one another as they do by the Christian right and that they may be one another's worst enemies in the year 2000.
A third of the way through the mayor's speech to Log Cabin members and VIPs on Saturday, a thunderous banging erupted in the back of the hotel ballroom as FUQ protesters, some of whom reportedly pushed their way through one of the hotel's kitchens to gain entry, pounded on the ballroom's closed doors. "Here come my protesters," quipped the mayor in response to the noise. "Now I feel at home." After a few moments the din quieted, and the mayor delivered the remainder of his speech, then left the hotel without incident.
Soon after his departure, however, and unbeknownst to banquet attendees, a melee broke out downstairs in the hotel lobby between FUQ members and hotel staff. The protesters, who had made their way up to the ballroom, were apparently being herded back downstairs when things got ugly on the main floor of the hotel. One protester who had forced her way into the hotel, Suzy Lee Korn, kicked at a security guard as he tried to drag her back outside. The security guard then punched Korn in the face, bloodying her nose.
On Sunday morning, having been released from the hospital the previous night with minor cuts and bruises, Korn said she planned on pressing charges. "I want to see a formal apology on behalf of the Log Cabin Republicans," she said.
Log Cabin's executive director, Rich Tafel, responded calmly but firmly to Korn's demands: "If anyone owes anyone an apology, it's a group that begins a violent action like that and escalates it into a media situation where they say they are the victims. We were organizing a peaceful convention with activists from all over the country who are on the front lines of gay and lesbian rights. We had people speaking on a panel from a variety of perspectives and things were conducted with mutual respect. If those people wanted to exercise their First Amendment rights, they should have done it across the street."
When Tafel heard about what was happening on the street Saturday night, he left the banquet midway through dinner, went out to the front of the hotel, and attempted to talk with the handful of remaining FUQ protesters, who were still shouting anti-Giuliani slogans and attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to file complaints with the police. (For the purposes of full disclosure, I should add that earlier that afternoon I delivered a speech at the conference. Though I am not a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, I attended the banquet.)
Such diplomacy is typical of Tafel. In fact, at a conference plenary Saturday morning, he made a point of dissuading anyone from hissing, booing, or otherwise disrupting conference proceedings. "We're here to talk to each other in a civilized manner," he said. Panelists at this session, entitled "Visions for the Movement's Future," included representatives from across the gay political spectrum: outspoken progressive Urvashi Vaid, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute; libertarian Jonathan Rauch, a correspondent for National Journal; Brian Bond, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund; Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the bipartisan Human Rights Campaign (HRC); and State Representative Steve May (Republican of Arizona). (May, who also serves part-time in the army reserves, was front-page news in The New York Times last week when the army announced its intention to investigate him under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, because he came out as gay during a bitter dispute in the Arizona legislature over a bill that would have denied the use of public funds to pay health benefits to same-sex partners.)
Though Tafel didn't witness the climactic kicking and punching on Saturday night, he saw it on the news that evening. On Sunday morning he had this to say about what he'd seen: "Someone kicked a security guard. That is not a peaceful demonstration. Violence begets violence. I would denounce violence on both sides."
Corroborating the allegation that protesters had initiated the violence, a security guard who asked not to be named said: "They bum rushed us. They were carrying chains." Protesters intended to use the chains to lash themselves to hotel furniture.
However, one witness, LGNY journalist Ann Northrop, who was standing outside the hotel when the violence was at its height, claims to have seen a security guard choking a protester while screaming "motherfucker."
At a press conference held on Sunday morning, Clarence Patton, a representative of the Anti-Violence Project, a counseling and advocacy service for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and HIV-positive victims of violent crime, voiced his concerns, but he did so, interestingly enough, without acknowledging FUQ's role in provoking the brawl. "The questions we'd like answered are whether these people were harmed simply because they were peacefully demonstrating or if it was escalated because they were in fact lesbians and gay men," he said.
By the end of the evening, police had arrested five protesters, including Korn, but as of press time, they had yet to arrest anyone from the hotel staff, even though the news channels have repeatedly aired footage of a hotel employee punching Korn in the face and her bleeding on the ground afterward. The hotel has declined to comment on the incident, but the NYPD have said that they will accept a complaint against the hotel if one is filed. Still, FUQ members see this as too little too late (one protester said she tried to file a complaint on the spot Saturday night but the police were not cooperating), and they see the NYPD's failure to protect the protesters or to arrest hotel staffers as just another example of what they deem the NYPD's discriminatory policies toward minority groups.
At an impromptu press conference held late Saturday night, FUQ spokeswoman Sue King defended her group, saying that she and her fellow protesters had shown up at the Roosevelt to make it clear that not all gays and lesbians support Giuliani or Log Cabin's endorsement of him in New York's 2000 Senate race. "Giuliani is not a friend of gays and lesbians," said King.
But, in response, Rich Tafel insisted that the gay far left is spreading a myth that the mayor is antigay. By way of evidence, Tafel pointed to legislation the mayor wrote and passed in 1997 that extended domestic partner benefits to lesbians and gays. Tafel called it "the most sweeping domestic partnership legislation that has been passed in the entire nation by anyone, Republican or Democrat."
Giuliani also marched in June's Gay Pride parade, where he was booed and heckled, ostensibly for breaking into the parade and disrupting a minority contingent. Given the mayor's already strained relationship with the African American community after the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo tragedies, it's not entirely surprising that minority groups disdained Giuliani's efforts to appear at Gay Pride and, in their view, make a political bid out of it. Simply because he is a Republican, it's also not surprising that Giuliani has been unpopular among left-wing gay and lesbian groups.
But the Republican stance on gays has softened remarkably in the last month, what with George W. Bush declaring in early August that he would have no qualms about hiring homosexuals. In the same vein, Elizabeth Dole whose husband curtly rejected a Log Cabin contribution to his presidential campaign in 1996 said that she would gladly accept money from a gay Republican group. The staid senator John McCain even went so far as to say that he could imagine there being a gay president someday.
Back in May, gay Republicans were in the news again when a public debate was sparked by a controversial piece written by Carol Lloyd that appeared in the online magazine Salon, questioning whether there was any truth to the rumor that Abraham Lincoln was gay. The rumor surfaced in a speech that writer-activist Larry Kramer gave last February in which he quoted the diaries and letters of Lincoln's longtime pal Joshua Speed: "He often kisses me when I tease him, often to shut me up. He would grab me up by his long arms and hug and hug. Yes, our Abe is like a schoolgirl."
In light of recent publicity, then, Mayor Giuliani's appearance at the Log Cabin convention may well have been only the latest, if perhaps the most auspicious, sign in a series of signs that Republicans are courting the gay vote. But early in his speech Saturday night, the mayor offered an unequivocal handshake to the gay and lesbian community. "It comes down to respect for human freedom," he said. "That is why it is not at all inconsistent for me to say that a Republican should support gay rights legislation. Republicans should basically say that our party is all about economic freedom, personal freedom, and therefore with regard to people's sexual orientation, with regard to the decisions they make about their lives, their personal lives, government should be as far removed from that as we possibly can."
He went on to praise the activities of the Log Cabin Republicans specifically. "Your presence in the Republican Party, in a very, very important philosophical way, keeps pushing all of us toward the very highest and the very best mission of this party. I can't thank you enough for being willing to remain in a party in which, and this is an understatement, not everyone shares the views that I have."
Despite Saturday night's disruptions of their banquet, and the vaguely besmirching media swirl that has surrounded it, Log Cabiners are more committed than ever to supporting Republican candidates for state and national public office. At the end of their meeting on Sunday, while FUQ activists were still holding press conferences and pacing the sidewalk outside the hotel, Log Cabiners announced the results of a straw poll they had taken earlier in the day among conference attendees in New York City. Senator John McCain was a clear winner with 57 votes. George W. Bush came in second with 43 votes, and Elizabeth Dole brought up the rear with only five votes.
If this weekend's internecine clash between the right and left wings of gay activism is any indication of things to come, gays of all stripes may be in for a rough ride in the next year. Democrats, who, in the last two decades, have virtually taken the gay vote for granted, and who, in 2000, will be leaving gays with a checkered legacy that includes the homophobic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act, may be forced to consider the question most gay voters are starting to ask of all candidates, Republicans and Democrats: What have you done for me lately? Republicans, on the other hand, may seem to be warming up to gays, but as the Human Rights Campaign's Stachelberg warned last weekend, gays shouldn't count their chickens too soon. "The tone and tenor of much of the Republican Party and of many Republicans has changed," she said. "There's an acknowledgment that didn't exist before that there are gay men and lesbians in everyone's district across this country. And this is a very positive sign. . . . But we have to be careful not to make too much of that. It's important that we get results."
In a tone that seemed to express both his excitement about the campaign trail ahead, and his sadness about some gay activists' apparent unwillingness to work together, Rich Tafel agreed with Stachelberg. "We've got a long year ahead of us," he said.