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The New York Senate is debating whether gay and lesbian couples can have the legal right to marry. One of the loudest voices in that argument is a twice-married minister legislator set on "protecting traditional marriage."
Bronx Senator Reverend Rubén Díaz Sr. is more than the last Democratic holdout against gay marriage in New York's Senate. In the three generations of his family, the past, present, and future of New York's journey to marriage equality is illustrated more starkly than in any other.
The House of Díaz features the stereotypical bigoted Big Papi grandfather, a swings-both-ways son, and the increasingly outspoken Lesbian Latina granddaughter.
The patriarch, Rubén Díaz Sr., attracts a huge amount of attention for a single-issue politician. In the past month alone, he has inspired a "Fuck Rubén Díaz" party in Williamsburg's Metropolitan Bar, an online Rubén Díaz fan fiction contest, and "Rubén's Drag Race," an opportunity at the AIDS Walk for people to dress a lifesize cutout of the senator in women's clothes. In an era when most people can't identify their state representatives, Papi could be the most famous senator in the state not convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. (That former senator, Hiram Monserrate, is a close friend of Senior's, who plans to officiate when Monserrate marries the girlfriend he tossed around.)
Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., every bit as smooth as his father is coarse, appears hopelessly stuck in the middle of a debate he wants little to do with. When it comes to gay marriage, like many Democratic politicians of his generation (including the one in the White House), Junior says what most gays want to hear. But like his father, he voted against gay marriage in the New York legislature.
And then there's Erica Díaz, the 22-year-old niece of Junior and granddaughter of Senior. A lesbian kicked out of the military under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," she, her partner, and their two kids represent a direction that a majority of just about every segment of the population (New York Hispanic legislators, Catholic and Jewish New York voters—indeed, Americans in general) are headed on this issue. When she was recently just one of a few protesting hundreds of her grandfather's anti-gay hordes (on the steps of her uncle's office, no less) she did look a little outnumbered. But 70 percent of voting-age Americans under 34 are for gay marriage; she is, unquestionably the future.
As the state finally lurches to marriage equality, the House of Díaz stands for where it's been and where it's going.
Rubén Díaz Sr. was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, in 1943. He came to the mainland United States after serving in the military, where, as his gay best friend Christopher Lynn (a former Taxi Commissioner under Rudy Giuliani) puts it, Díaz "suffered terribly under anti-black discrimination in the Army." Díaz received an honorable discharge, arrived in New York in 1965, and studied at Lehman College.
Today, he signs his name "Senator Reverend Rubén Díaz" on official correspondence.
"Why doesn't he understand that he should exercise some separation between church and state in his role as a senator and as a reverend?" Marriage Equality New York Board President Cathy Marino-Thomas asks. (The Voice wanted to ask him this as well, but he hung up during his interview before it came up.)
Díaz has never seemed concerned with any apparent conflict in mashing up his interpretation of the Bible and his oath to the New York State Constitution. His official biography for the New York State Senate identifies him as "Reverend" nine times and as Senator only six times.
When Juan Manuel Benitez interviewed Díaz on NY1 Notivias in July of 2009, blogger Andrés "Blabbeando" Duque translated their interaction. When Benitez said, "So, following your argument, there is no separation between church and state in the United States," Papi reportedly replied, "There cannot be! Because I am the State and I am the Church."
In 1978, Díaz was ordained by the evangelical Church of God based in Cleveland, Tennessee, which claims to be the oldest continuous Pentecostal denomination in the world. The denomination is known for having a brief fling with snake handling, when one minister, George Went Hensley, tried to convince the faithful that those with the spirit could control venomous serpents. (Hensley and his followers would eventually break off to form the Church of God With Signs Following, and he himself would die from a snake bite after being bitten during a church service in 1955.)
There is little naturally charming about Díaz. He speaks in gruff, heavily accented English, and his nouns and verbs often do not agree. He is not especially handsome, and wears cowboy hats so garish even LBJ would be put to shame wearing one of them. He speaks about himself in the third person with neither charisma or irony.
Yet Díaz would make a name for himself as an evangelical preacher in the poorest sections of the Bronx, selling hope to the masses during that borough's roughest years. And if there is one person responsible for bringing this Democrat into the political fold, it was Rudy Giuliani, who appointed Díaz to the Civilian Complaint Review Board in 1993.