Just How LGBT-Friendly Is Bill de Blasio?
The Mayor marching in the "inclusive" St. Patrick's Day parade in Queens.
Mark Lennihan/AP Photo
Going into 2013, then-New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was the odds-on favorite to become the first woman and out gay mayor of New York. But in an election in which "change" became a mantra, support from LGBT leaders couldn't overcome her close identification with outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Actress Cynthia Nixon's enthusiastic early support for then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio began a groundswell of LGBT celebrity endorsements, from Broadway's Cherry Jones and Alan Cumming to Lady Bunny. De Blasio ended up swamping Quinn in the primary, garnering 47 percent of the LGBT vote to her 34 percent.
Six months into his administration, out gay City Councilmember Daniel Dromm calls de Blasio "the most progressive mayor we've had." But after two decades of Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, many gay-rights and AIDS activists want a "progressive" mayor to expend at least as much political capital on advancing LGBT rights as he has on the welfare of carriage horses.
There are 160 churches across the city using public schools as their houses of worship every Sunday, most of them part of a fundamentalist "church planting" movement. Even Bloomberg, who initially appealed a court order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, fought hard to keep the churches out of public schools.
In the face of federal appeals court rulings after an expensive 16-year battle, de Blasio still refuses to enforce a city ban on rent-free Sunday services (save for a small custodial fee). For Gay City News editor Paul Schindler, it points to a wider problem. "The city has always made certain accommodations with groups like Agudath Israel and the Catholic Church's service arms that ought to be required to observe anti-discrimination laws but are not challenged," he says.
New York City Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña's stance seems to depend on who's signing her paychecks. Under Bloomberg in 2005, she stated in a sworn affidavit that holding religious services in the schools was damaging to schoolchildren, a violation of church and state separation, and unfair to other churches. Now she tells the Voice she "agrees with what the mayor has said."
Fariña's about-face is all the more surprising considering how quickly she reacted to the testimony of students at a hearing of the City Council Education Committee in February: She sent out a directive for student lessons to "gain insight on and sensitivity toward the experience of their LGBT peers." Dromm says the move represented a sharp turn from his experience as a youth advocate in the early 1990s, when, he recalls, he "couldn't even get the chancellor to write a letter saying it was OK to teach tolerance for LGBT students."
If the school-worship controversy has flown under the radar of most New Yorkers, it has been impossible to ignore the 23-year-old battle over the annual St. Patrick's Day parade.
LGBT activist and ACT UP veteran Ann Northrop considers it "an outrage" for uniformed city employees and New York City Police commissioner William J. Bratton to participate in the Manhattan St. Pat's parade. "We're trying to get the city to treat offenses against LGBT rights and dignity with the same revulsion that it brings to discrimination against other groups," she says.
In March, de Blasio became the first mayor since David Dinkins to boycott the Fifth Avenue parade, opting to march in the much smaller "inclusive" event in Sunnyside, Queens. That doesn't satisfy Emmaia Gelman, a leader of the group Irish Queers. De Blasio's "knee-jerk defense of the police's invented right to their bigotry on the St. Patrick's Day parade issue opens the door for them to participate in any kind of bigoted event," Gelman tells the Voice.
"It would have taken courage and a willingness to lead and educate to explain why cops should not march in uniform," Schindler says. "I think he didn't want to get diverted — or endure the backlash."
"You can't please both Irish Queers and the Catholic League," says Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy. "He wants to have it both ways. He has to decide which side he's on."
Although he "went in supporting him through a gay filter," Cabaret star Alan Cumming praises de Blasio's broader achievements — universal pre-kindergarten classes, affordable housing, and incentives to lure film and TV work.
"The issues that matter in this town matter not just to LGBT people, but to a whole lot of New Yorkers," agrees Bill Dobbs, long active in ACT UP and, more recently, Occupy Wall Street. As examples Dobbs cites "taxes, jobs, crime, and the state of our schools," as well as the need "for economic justice."
It's true that LGBT New Yorkers share a concern for bread-and-butter issues like violent crime. The 2013 murders of Mark Carson in Greenwich Village and Islan Nettles, a trans woman, in Harlem, were only the most graphic examples of the ongoing problem of LGBT-related hate crimes in the city.
Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, fears the police response is counterproductive. "The experience was that LGBT people found themselves being profiled and stopped and frisked," she says of increased numbers of cops on the beat in West Side gayborhoods around this time of year, which normally sees a spike in gay bashings. Stapel would prefer that law enforcement officials "talk with community leaders and look at how we can address the problems without increased police presence, sharing information in a way that people don't feel threatened."
Stapel does congratulate the mayor for a quick end to stop-and-frisk and sees improvement in relations between the police and the LGBT community. Civil libertarians cheered when de Blasio settled a long-simmering lawsuit resulting from a sting operation aimed at closing down adult bookstores. (Back in 2008, Robert Pinter was charged with prostitution after a young cop offered to pay for sex with the much older man and arrested him before he could laugh off his ardent suitor.)
While police under Bratton no longer automatically cite carrying condoms as evidence of prostitution, they can still decide how many condoms constitute enough evidence to warrant an arrest. Many of those targeted are trans women, who, Stapel says, "are often profiled for not looking the 'right way.'"
Stapel is grateful for the willingness shown by the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence to listen to suggestions that city shelters open to survivors of same-sex partner abuse. "These are early days," she says, "but we're having good conversations."
Carl Siciliano, founder of the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBT youth, likewise praises Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the deputy mayor for human services, for consulting with the commissioners of the city departments of homeless services and youth. "She spoke at length, knowledgeably, about the needs of homeless gay and transgender youth," he says. The upshot of the dialogue: De Blasio earmarked a 40 percent increase in youth shelter beds (24 specifically for homeless LGBT kids) — covering half of the city's homeless youth by most estimates.
"Talking with Bloomberg's people was like talking to a brick wall," Siciliano says. "They would say, 'Who should we take money away from to house your kids?'"
Sean Barry, executive director of VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group for low-income people with HIV, calls Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steve Banks "a dream appointee, a complete 180 from Bloomberg." Barry sees a long-delayed 30 percent rent cap for HIV-positive people on fixed incomes as a great first step. High-level Bloomberg appointees, he adds, "had a very condescending attitude toward people with HIV and AIDS service providers. There was no access."
ACT UP member Andrew Velez is more cautious as his group pushes for a citywide campaign to tackle the rising rate of new HIV infections. Says Velez: "It's way too early to say anything remotely definitive about de Blasio and AIDS."
De Blasio's press office refused repeated requests by the Voice to comment on this or any other issue. Instead, they sent a transcript of de Blasio's remarks at the Queens LGBT Pride Parade on June 1, in which he expressed the city's commitment "to stamp out bias and intolerance in all its forms." His restatement of his position, "I won't be in a parade that doesn't include all New Yorkers," once again failed to acknowledge his allowing uniformed city workers to do so.
Messaging appears to be a larger problem for this administration. In sharp contrast to mayors going back to Abe Beame in the '70s, de Blasio's press office has underplayed high-level LGBT appointments like Intergovernmental Affairs director Emma Wolfe and deputy press secretary Wiley Norvell.
"I honestly haven't heard about what he's doing" regarding issues of concern to LGBT New Yorkers, says Kenneth Sherrill, the city's first out gay elected official (1977) and current chair of Hunter College's political science department. "They are not effective at controlling the agenda or the nature of political discourse."
A community liaison would help, says Allen Roskoff, president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, a gay political group whose board of governors includes de Blasio. "The last two Democratic mayors had an office of LGBT affairs," Roskoff notes. "That needs to be revived."
It's understandable that the mayor of a city as large and diverse as New York faces warring constituencies, but the lack of outreach only increases the divide between de Blasio and his LGBT constituents. Way back when de Blasio was a city councilmember, he represented a district that included many ultra-Orthodox Jews. "De Blasio realized the pitfalls of pissing off particular communities with religious concerns," Gay City News editor Paul Schindler notes.
"These are broader, tougher issues that require politicians to take a stand that is going to be unpopular with wide swatches of people," Schindler adds. "De Blasio knows better and understands the civil-rights and -liberties issues."
"We expected a self-proclaimed progressive mayor to take the city's commitment to LGBT rights to a higher level," says LGBT activist Ann Northrop. "So far, de Blasio hasn't wanted to go there."
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