Though the rain caused the cancellation of the Bronx Puerto Rican Day Parade, it would not deter Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz Sr. from holding his “March for Morality” against gay marriage yesterday.
Over the next several hours, the Bronx County Courthouse would provide the set for a very strange hybrid of seemingly religious and state sanctioned activities. The building is home to Diaz’s son, the Bronx Borough President, and as recently as last week members of the press had been told by staff in the Beep’s office that Junior’s Bronx Week activities were going to be kept separate from Papi’s march.
That turned out not to be true, and the two merged seamlessly yesterday.
The march wound up taking over the steps of the Courthouse, under the Bronx Week Banner, with a sound system so powerful we could hear it two subway stations away. The effect of hearing the words “WE ARE HERE TO PRESERVE TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE” from a government platform, broadcast so loudly that even hundreds of feet away you couldn’t hear someone standing right next to you, was very powerful, indeed.
We asked a member of the NYPD if the noise was unusually loud and they said it was. We also asked them if the hysterical screaming could lead to inciting violence against gay people. “I’m concerned about that, too,” the officer said. (Neither the volume nor the screaming changed.)
The NYPD, for their part, kept a pretty low-profile and didn’t get too close to the action, reportedly sending half of their officers home based on low turnout. Access and security on the steps of the courthouse itself was overseen by members of the Hispanic Clergy Organization and by a group called Clamor Por New York, which wore quasi military looking insignia, badges and uniforms to give the impression that they were NYPD or FDNY chaplains. (They are not.)
As we waited for the march to arrive, Erica Diaz, the Senator’s lesbian granddaughter and Beep’s niece, made a statement disagreeing with her grandfather. The 22-year-old was discharged from the military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and cannot legally marry her girlfriend of two and a half years. Her words against her grandfather were exceedingly polite, saying she “respects” but disagrees with him. She still told us “it hurts” that he doesn’t support her on gay rights, but she predicts he’d still come to her (same-sex) wedding someday.
And then, the elder Diaz arrived.
The Senator marched arm-an-arm, somewhat homoerotically, on the arm of Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage. They came in behind the Holy Choirs of Angels Corps marching band, whose members, along with Brown, were just about the only white people present. Within minutes, the plaza was filled with a thousand to 1,500 Hispanic and black Christian Evangelicals ( as well as an increasingly uncomfortable contingent of Orthodox Jews).
Clad in his trademark all-white outfit, Diaz gleefully took in the scene, speaking of himself in the third person like a deity. As Diaz climbed the courthouse steps, he was cheered like a rock star, and his flocks roared at his ascension as if he was the Messiah himself. Meanwhile, a DJ artfully spun music to whip the crowd into even more of a frenzy at key moments. (The event was co-sponsored by an Evangelical Spanish radio station that had heavily promoted it.)
The proceedings began with a discussion of Genesis, followed by speeches by an overlapping combination of politicians and religious leaders. The crowd held up signs exhorting the speakers to “Protect Our City — Remember Sodom and Gomorrah!”
Brian Brown framed gay marriage to the crowd as “a matter of civil rights” — their civil rights.
“Don’t let them tell you it won’t affect you,” he told them, his English being translated, warning that same sex marriage would lead to gay sex education in kindergarten, Catholic charities being shut down, and an erosion of religious freedom.
Diaz was as calculating in his remarks as he was in choosing the time and location of the event. He directed the crowd to focus their anti-gay energy on the five Hispanic state senators, telling them they are the swing votes. He also got them frothing over a boycott against El Diario, which he wrote off as doing nothing but promoting gay rights and abortion. (His line about babies in garbage cans seemed to be a cue for the DJ, who brought up the music and got the crowd in an even more swinging, clapping, mob like state of ecstasy.)
When the sound system first cranked up, the speakers were careful to be more secular in English and save the true evangelizing for Spanish. But as the event wore on, calls for “the Glory of God!” grew more fervent. At first, the half dozen orthodox Jews on stage tried to hang tough, but their presence as plants grew more obvious over time, even to them. When a minister who had traveled from Puerto Rico called out that “We are here for the Glory of Jesus Christ!” only one of the poor Hasidic sign holders was left.
But an even more awkward moment came when Erica Diaz, escorted by NYPD Community Affairs officers, traveled from the protest area to stand by her grandfather. The Senator was saying how he didn’t hate gay people, including the protestors, when his granddaughter stood by him. Intentionally or not, Erica’s presence gave cover to Diaz, and to the crowd it appeared like she was having a conversion and had come back into the fold of her wise elder.
After she took her place back with the opposition, waving an American flag, she told us the decision to stand by him briefly was hers, just to tell him he was “still my grandfather,” and shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning anything more or less.
Sadly, there were only about two-dozen counter-demonstrators with her, paltry indeed compared to the hundreds against gay marriage. But veterans of Diaz events took comfort in the fact that, just two years ago, the same event with less publicity had over 20,000 people. Journalists who had been at both told us yesterday’s crowd was 5-10 percent the size.