Monday, April 30, 2007

Presidential Candidates Court California Democrats

Buzz surrounded many of the Democratic presidential candidates who appeared at the annual California Democratic Party's annual convention this past weekend in San Diego. Sen. Barack Obama, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards were among those who predictably criticized the White House's war strategy with rhetoric that surely energized anti-war party activists. The war will certainly continue to dominate discussion in the campaign. But Sen. Hillary Clinton's strategic comments towards gay and lesbian voters during her speech at the convention also raised some eyebrows.

The Associated Press reported Clinton promised to treat all Americans with dignity and equality no matter who you are and who you love. The Empire State Pride Agenda and other LGBT advocacy organizations have criticized the former first lady for her opposition to full marriage for same-sex couples. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer introduced a bill last Friday which would extend full marriage to gay and lesbian couples while California lawmakers continue to debate a similar bill in their state. Clinton's reference was clearly aimed to court gay and lesbian voters in the influential state. Yet her own record on marriage remains troubling to a number of LGBT activists and potential voters.

Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors told this blogger earlier this month his organization would not endorse any candidate who do not support its mission. California remains an important fundraising source for presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle. LGBT voters, however, should expect more from candidates than good sound bites and anti-Bush rhetoric. They should expect candidates to answer their questions directly. The candidates themselves, in turn, also have a responsibility to explain their positions on marriage and other issues to LGBT voters.

Friday, April 27, 2007

LA Times Sports Writer Announces Transition

The LGBT rights movement contains an untold number of unsung heroes who continue to push its collective agenda forward in their own way. They are not the 'paid gays' who regularly appear on CNN or in the New York Times as talking heads, the porn stars who make token appearances at organizational fundraisers and benefits, or those who live in Chelsea, West Hollywood or in the Castro who continue to insulate themselves from the realities with which the vast majority of LGBT Americans continue to live. These unsung heroes are those who advance the movement at great personal or professional risk.

Los Angeles Times sports reporter Christine Daniels is one of these unsung heroes. The veteran reporter and columnist, known to readers as Mike Penner, announced in a column yesterday she will transition into a woman.

"Today I leave for a few weeks' vacation, and when I return, I will come back in yet another incarnation... as Christine," Daniels wrote.

Daniels' disclosure is not newsworthy in an ideal world but sports remains an entity plagued by homophobia and transphobia. Daniels' reporting, however, provided her a unique opportunity to discuss her own transition -- and challenge these pervasive attitudes head-on that have compelled countless other LGBT people to remain in the closet. Daniels shows true courage many may claim the broader LGBT movement lacks in its current incarnation.

New Hampshire Civil Union Bill Clears Last Hurdle

The New Hampshire Senate yesterday passed a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to enter into civil unions less than a month after the House overwhelmingly endorsed the same legislation.

Governor John Lynch said last week he would sign the bill into law as "a matter of conscience, fairness and preventing discrimination." Presidential candidates who have already inundated the state in advance of the first primary early next year have also taken note. Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards was among the candidates who issued statements in support of the bill.

"Gov. Lynch and the state of New Hampshire showed us that the idea of America -- fairness, justice and equal opportunity -- can become a reality when we have the courage to stand up for what is right," Edwards said. "New Hampshire's decision tor recognize civil unions and grant gay and lesbian couples the same rights granted to heterosexual married couples is an important step in the fight for justice. This is an issue of fundamental fairness, and by passing this law, New Hampshire's leaders chose fairness over discrimination."

Civil unions are not the same as marriage for same-sex couples but the bill certainly represents a significant step forward. The conservative Union Leader and the handful of other vocal groups, institutions and politicians who oppose the bill will certainly continue to express their opposition at the expense of many others in the state who support it. New Hampshire has a strong libertarian tradition based on limited government involvement in the private lives of its residents. This bill only continues that proud tradition in the Granite State.

New York Governor Introduces Marriage Bill

Governor Eliot Spitzer kept his promise to LGBT advocacy organizations today and introduced a marriage equality bill in Albany. Spitzer, who took office in January, became the first governor in the country to introduce such legislation.

"Today is a watershed moment in our community's struggle to win the freedom to marry in New York and have our relationships treated the same as any other relationship under the law," Empire State Pride Agenda Executive Director Alan Van Capelle said in a statement. "We are extremely proud to have a Governor who understands that all New York families need access to the protections and responsibilities that the state provides through marriage."

This bill is a monumental move many activists and same-sex couples in New York State will continue to praise over the coming days and weeks. ESPA will certainly have a lot to celebrate next week as it brings hundreds of LGBT New Yorkers to Albany for its annual lobbying day but it, and other groups, have a responsibility to manage expectations based on current political realities.

Spitzer has certainly proven himself a strong ally for LGBT New Yorkers in their quest for equality. But the New York State Senate, controlled by Republican Joseph Bruno, poses a very significant challenge to the success of this bill as an April 24 editorial in the New York Times correctly pointed out. The senate Majority Leader has repeatedly expressed his opposition to marriage for same-sex couples. His counterpart in the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver [D-Manhattan], has yet to publicly take a position on the bill. This political reality underscores the uphill battle activists face as they work with the governor to advance the bill. They will continue to polish their messages, talking points and sound bites to convince New Yorkers across the state that marriage equality is an important issue. But these groups also need to clearly articulate to their constituencies the significant hurdles that lay ahead.

Outing in 2007: Media Coverage of Glass Closets

My article, see below, appears in today's New York Blade. This issue remains quite contentious among activists and journalists alike.

Out Magazine’s May issue reignited and redirected the debate on outing celebrities and public figures. “The Glass Closet: Why the stars won’t come out and play” reads the cover line. The provocative image portrays two models holding masks of actress Jodie Foster and CNN personality Anderson Cooper.

In the feature story, Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto examines the reasons celebrities choose not to openly discuss their sexual orientation—specifically, those celebrities who seemingly live an openly gay life on many counts but who refuse to divulge the details in the press. Hence, the term “glass closet.”

The issue of Out also includes a story called “The Power 50,” which lists the most powerful gay men and women in America. (The top five: David Geffen, Anderson Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Gill and Barney Frank.)

Before the issue hit the stands, it was a hot topic among bloggers and activists. Many praised the magazine; others went on the attack.

Musto himself was quick to defend the article, saying he has a right to report on celebrities’ personal lives. “As an entertainment reporter, I cover celebs’ lives,” Musto said. “When these people are acting out same-sex love affairs, often in public, it’s not even outing. It’s simply reporting.”

The openly gay columnist has written extensively about Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres and other lesbian and gay celebrities, at times reporting on them before they came out in the media.

Musto labeled potential critics of his reporting as hypocrites. “No one ever complains when the reports are about Paris Hilton’s boyfriends or Lindsay Lohan’s partying,” Musto said. “Most of the people who are so outraged at the [Out] piece gobble up all kinds of personal gossip all day long, but suddenly become pious when gay sex comes up.”

In a New York Daily News article, Chris Ciompi, editorial director of Genre magazine, which is affiliated with the Blade, criticized Out Magazine editor Aaron Hickin for putting likenesses of Foster and Cooper on the cover. Ciompi described the stunt as a ploy to sell magazines. “Your right to privacy is a constitutional right,” Ciompi said. “Maybe Jodie and Anderson would prefer to be known for their work, not their sexuality. The climate of the United States today still would not allow that to occur. With Anderson, many people would perceive his credibility to be undermined.”

Hicklin defended the article. He, like Musto, suggested celebrities remain in the closet to protect and advance their careers. Hicklin challenged them to come out as a way to decrease media speculation.

“It takes people like Jodie Foster and Anderson Cooper to acknowledge their sexuality to stop [this story from] being intrinsically interesting to the media,” he said. “None of these are new arguments. There’s enough information out there, and we were just stating the obvious.”

Sirius Satellite Radio host Michelangelo Signorile has outed late publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes and other public figures throughout his journalism career. He agreed with Hicklin’s defense of Musto’s article.

“Journalists are not in the business of helping people’s careers with lies—or at least, they’re not supposed to be—or being worried about the well-being of public figures to the point of keeping facts out of stories,” he said. “They’re supposed to be in the business of telling the truth.”

The abrupt resignation of former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley [R-Fla.] last September after ABC News broadcast sexually explicit e-mails he sent to a former Congressional page and other recent scandals, such as claims former pastor Ted Haggard had sex with a former male prostitute, highlight the difficulty national LGBT organizations face in addressing outing. The Human Rights Campaign and other organizations quickly issued statements that condemned the former Congressman’s alleged conduct.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, on the other hand, remained silent for several weeks despite several conservative commentators who attempted to link homosexuality and pedophilia after Foley came out.

GLAAD President Neil Giuliano told the Washington Blade in an interview last November his organization worked behind the scenes with journalists to focus their coverage of the scandal away from the former Congressman’s sexual orientation. He told the Blade his organization does not support outing. Signorile quickly dismissed this position.

“They articulate a very simplistic and often offensive response to the issue,” he said. “They know why this is relevant, why it should often be reported on and why it’s not wrong.”

Giuliano conceded the public remains interested in celebrities’ private lives. He further added that public figures whom come out increase understanding of LGBT people.

“When more people from all walks of life choose to live openly, the more accepting and understanding society will become toward LGBT Americans,” Giuliano said.

National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association President Eric Hegedus agreed. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughan and other high-profile couples and romances have dominated gossip columns. But Hegedus concluded the media, as a whole, fails to report on gay and lesbian celebrities in the same way it continues to report on the private lives of their heterosexual counterparts.

“The public certainly has an interest in who is LGBT,” he said. “But the news media still treats LGBT individuals differently by not attempting to approach the subject of their personal lives.”This question continues to pose difficult ethical questions for journalists. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute said they should weigh whether a person’s sexual orientation is relevant to their story before they write about their personal life. But she noted Musto’s article for Out Magazine contains potentially damaging speculation that readers could conclude is true.

“In this case, you’re not dealing with fact—you’re dealing with innuendo and rumor,” McBride said. “That’s very dangerous because innuendo can become fact in public perception if we don’t give it the proper treatment.”

Musto said he will continue to report these issues. “The debate will always rage on,” he said. “I will always find a way to simply state to the public that many of our idols are gay and leading gay lives. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Rosie Leaves "The View"

Rosie O'Donnell's short but contentious tenure on "The View" came to an abrupt but perhaps expected end yesterday with her announcement she will leave the daytime talk show in June after she failed to secure a contract extension with ABC executives. Groups, such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, lauded the outspoken co-host who made LGBT issues "front and center in America's living rooms."

O'Donnell certainly brought much needed visibility to same-sex families, marriage equality and other important issues with which many LGBT Americans are concerned into the living rooms of millions of viewers each morning. But the controversy she so often sparked alongside the visibility she created continues to distract viewers' attention away from these issues. The Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund and other advocacy organizations blasted O'Donnell after she repeatedly used a slur to mock so-called Asian speech during an interview with a drunk Danny Devito last December. The public feud between the Long Island native and Donald Trump dominated gossip columns earlier this year while open speculation about whether the network had grown tired of O'Donnell's public antics, such as comments Rupert Murdoch reportedly made after the Matrix Awards earlier this week in New York, will certainly continue.

These issues raise an important question that activists and organizations will obviously debate as O'Donnell's departure from "The View" draws near. O'Donnell has certainly used her celebrity to advance the causes in which she believes. But her bombastic approach, combined with her public antics, threaten to alienate the very audience with which she connected on "The View." O'Donnell gave Barbara Walters the renewed ratings she wanted for her one-time struggling talk show. But her on-air and off-camera conduct threaten to significantly tarnish the visibility she brought to mainstream America.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Presidential Candidates Seek Gay Endorsements

Even though the first caucuses and primaries are nearly a year away, the 2008 presidential campaign is in full swing and LGBT voters and organizations have already begun to weigh in.

Candidates from both sides of the aisle have raised a record $157 million in the first quarter. Many have created elaborate operations in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early contest states in this election cycle.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign announced April 18 that openly lesbian New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former Democratic National Committee LGBT caucus chair Jeff Soref and more than two dozen other elected officials, activists and celebrities had endorsed her bid for the White House. Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards issued a similar statement earlier this month to announce Democratic fundraiser David Mixner and other LGBT activists had endorsed his campaign.

Both Clinton and Edwards, along with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and other leading Democratic candidates, remain opposed to marriage for same-sex couples.

National Stonewall Democrats Communications Director John Marble conceded most candidates are not "perfect on this issue at all" but added his organization remains confident their positions will evolve over time. "We now expect them to be open to evolving their positions on marriage," he said.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan and other gay commentators have already criticized the Human Rights Campaign and other national LGBT advocacy organizations for their perceived support of candidates who do not support marriage for same-sex couples. National Black Justice Coalition Executive Director H. Alexander Robinson, on the other hand, said the candidates themselves need to better explain their position on this issue and others, such as hate crimes, which concern voters.

He further added he believes the candidates generally fail to understand the complexity of the issues LGBT people routinely face."The political analysis that gay and lesbian issues present a liability has meant that in many cases the candidates have failed to have a sort of fundamental view of what the challenges of discrimination are," he said. "Leadership is not just about casting the right vote or taking the right position. It is about going to a place where people may not share their opinion and really making the case for the positions [they] support."

HRC Executive Director Joe Solmonese dismissed Sullivan’s criticisms and was quick to point out his organization has yet to endorse any candidate. He said marriage remains one of several issues voters will examine during the campaign. And Solmonese added the HRC will carefully examine each candidate’s positions before it makes any decisions.

"Our job is to evaluate each race and make a decision based on the best interest of the community and understanding the whole host of issues the community expects us to advance," he said as he dismissed Sullivan’s criticisms. "It’s the whole package and a variety of different factors."

Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors was more pragmatic. His organization refused to endorse U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s re-election campaign last year after she failed to support marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Lawmakers in Sacramento continue to debate a bill which would allow same-sex couples to marry but Kors remained confident his organization will not support any presidential hopeful who did not fully support their LGBT constituents. "Equality California does not endorse any candidate who opposes our mission," he said.

Marriage remains an important issue for voters in other states as well. Alabamans overwhelmingly passed a state constitutional amendment to define marriage last June while voters in South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and three other states supported similar initiatives in November.

Equality Alabama Board Chair Howard Bayless said LGBT voters in his state will continue to examine each candidate’s position on marriage. But he also believes voters will expect them to outline their positions in support of hate-crimes legislation and non-discrimination statutes before they head to the polls.

"This election is not about one or two issues," Bayless told EDGE in a recent interview from Birmingham. "It is about a myriad of issues. People will look at the candidate who is going to reach out to them the most."

This analysis remains consistent with the position many national LGBT organizations took following the mid-term elections. They saw the election results, in particular the Democratic take-over of the House and the Senate, as an opportunity to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Local Law Enforcement and Enhancement Act and the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military that had stalled during the previously Republican controlled Congress.

Solmonese added that the results, including the defeat of anti-LGBT incumbent U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and other social conservatives, were an indication voters had begun to reject the rhetoric that had determined the outcome of previous elections. He expects this trend will continue into 2008. "We continue to have fewer and fewer people buying into their rhetoric," Solmonese said.

Log Cabin Republican Executive Director Patrick Sammon agreed. He insisted his party will maintain the White House only if the GOP returns to what he described as its "core principles" and appeals to a much broader base."

Republicans need to nominate a candidate who can appeal to voters in the middle," Sammon said. "They [gay and lesbian Republicans] are looking for a candidate who will focus on uniting Republicans and not dividing Republicans."

It remains to be seen whether marriage and other issues will play a prominent role in the 2008 election as they did in previous campaigns. But most activists and political pundits agree the war could ultimately determine its outcome. "The war in Iraq will be a huge issue," Sammon said.

Robinson of the National Black Justice Coalition echoed these sentiments. He asserted many NBJC members and supporters remain concerned the Bush administration continues to fund the war at the expense of efforts to combat HIV and AIDS, public health and other social and educational initiatives. "Issues of national concern--the war in Iraq and the sense many people have that the country is headed in the wrong direction--are themes I’ve heard time and time again," Robinson said.

Marble added that Americans will continue to scrutinize events in the civil-war-torn nation as the election draws closer."The current situation has LGBT voters largely focused on issues that aren’t LGBT specific," he said. "This cuts across the electorate regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

Solmonese hesitated to say whether he feels the war would overshadow LGBT issues during the presidential campaign. He added, however, voters will almost certainly continue to demand the White House change its policy in Iraq.

"The war in Iraq and the administration’s role in the war defined the [2006] election," Solmonese said. "If there are no significant changes in the Middle East, the war will continue to dominate the agenda."

The Bush administration announced earlier this year it would increase the number of troops in Iraq. This deployment remains highly unpopular among members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and among the American people. Observers remain doubtful the GOP will maintain the White House in 2008 if this policy remains in place."

LGBT voters, like the majority of voters in the country, are ready to see an end to the hostile positions and the incompetent Bush administration," Kors predicted.

Bayless of Equality Alabama agreed. "The electorate will be revved up for a change," he said. "Republicans will have a difficult time overcoming the last eight years."

Monday, April 16, 2007

Post-Imus Termination Debate Continues

Media pundits, social commentators, politicians and average Americans continue to weigh in on the fallout from former radio talk show host Don Imus' comments against the Rutgers University women's basketball team. The decision to terminate Imus came as a welcome development among the groups that had urged MSNBC and CBS to remove him from the air. It has sparked a long-overdue national conversation about hate speech but several questions remain unanswered.

"Washington Week" host and former New York Times reporter Gwen Ifill posed one of the most obvious questions yesterday during a rountable on NBC's "Meet the Press." She correctly asked host Tim Russert and Times columnist David Brooks to explain their repeated appearances on Imus' program despite his long history of racist, sexist and homopobic comments. Russert, rather uncomfortably, deplored Imus' comments but also expressed sadness for the former talk show host and his family. He also candidly admitted Imus' program generated "political discussions you don't hear anywhere else." Imus clearly provided an attractive forum for many politicians -- former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry have all appeared on his show -- celebrities and others. But the question remains as to why these public figures seemed to overlook Imus' history of irresponsible comments for their own personal or political gain.

Imus once categorized Ifill as a 'cleaning lady' during an on-air commentary. Yet she rightfully challenged her colleagues to explain their passive support of his comments each time they appeared on his show. These questions are certainly uncomfortable to answer. Yet, answers to these queries are an essential part of the national conversation on the continued tolerance of racism, sexism and homophobia that must continue to take place in light of Imus' comments and his termination.

Friday, April 13, 2007

CBS Fires Don Imus

The inevitable second shoe finally dropped late yesterday afternoon with CBS Radio's decision to fire Don Imus. CBS President and Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves said in his statement that announced the shock jock's termination that 'there has been much discussion of the effect language like [that used by Imus to describe the Rutgers University women's basketball team] has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society' among CBS employees, fellow media professionals and others across the country.

This controversy was never really about the former radio personality. Coach C. Vivian Stringer herself told the New York Times his comments 'are indicative of greater ills in our culture.' Imus should be held accountable for his appauling comments. But the fact remains that his listeners and, to a broader extent, society as a whole should be held equally accountable for their support of such blatant hate speech. Imus is only indicative of the broader society which supports him and his termination will remain that -- his termination -- if the broader issues raised during this past week are not addressed.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Don Imus Sparks More Outrage

Don Imus is at it again! The outspoken radio talk show host sparked his latest outrage last week with his racially insensitive categorization of the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos." Imus has repeatedly apologized for his comments but both NBC News and CBS Radio yesterday suspended his show for two-weeks.

This man has a long and documented history of charged comments against underrepresented groups. He famously joked the New York Times had let 'the cleaning lady cover the White House' in a pointed reference to now "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" Senior Correspondent Gwen Ifill. Imus also sparked outrage among lesbian and gay advocacy organizations last year with his description of "Brokeback Mountain" as "Fudgepack Mountain" during an on-air exchange with MSNBC personality Chris Matthews. These sophomoric attempts at humor, and others like them, only serve to generate attention for themselves along the same vein upon which conservative commentator Ann Coulter and others have built their careers. NBC News and CBS Radio are correct to suspend Imus but his latest insult plays into a much broader phenomenon.

Imus is only the latest of a laundry list of commentators, politicians and celebrities -- former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Grey's Anatomy co-star Isaiah Washington and others -- whose comments have sparked controversy. These public figures apologized almost immediately afterwards in a self-serving attempt to quell outrage and condemnation in an exercise of personal repentance. The real issue this phenomenon raises, however, is the fact these comments are a reflection upon the society that continues incubates these racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes in the first place. Imus' comments are certainly not a surprise to those who have been in his comedic cross hairs throughout his career. He should certainly be held to account. But the real challenge is how society can use this incident as an opportunity to remedy its long-held prejudices. This work will certainly take much more effort than a self-serving statement of repentance.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

New Hampshire's Exercise in True Conservatism

The New Hampshire House yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. Governor John Lynch has yet to take a position on the bill but its passage indicates the significant transition the state has undergone over the last two decades.

Native Granite Staters, such as myself, take immense pride in their self-determination and resentment of governmental interference in their personal lives. This 'Live Free or Die' philosophy trascends itself into the state's body politic with debates over taxes, education funding -- and now the possible expansion of legal rights to same-sex couples. This legislative mindset certainly has some drawbacks but remains the norm among the majority of New Hampshire lawmakers.

This philosophy often stokes New Hampshire's conservative reputation among outsiders who remain ignorant to the current reality within the state. Fiscal responsibility, the lack of broad-based sales and income taxes and limited state government remain the cornerstones of the "New Hampshire advantage" to which elected officials proudly point. Yet so-called conservative Christian values [i.e. traditional marriage] rarely take root in the broader New Hampshire consciousness. The Union Leader certainly adds folder to this illusion but the majority of lawmakers in Concord remain committed to their laissez-faire approach to governance.

The passage of this legislation certainly reflects a common sense approach to this issue. People vote for lawmakers whom they feel will legislate on their behalf. This bill, while it does not extend full equality to same-sex couples who live in the state, is certainly a significant step forward. Elected officials too often lack the political courage to take a stand in support of equal marriage rights for all of their constituents. But those who support the bill understand the necessity to limit government's involvement in their constituents' personal lives through discriminatory statutes. These lawmakers, through this bill, are true conservatives.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Cyndi Lauper Highlights Imperial Court Gala

Kings, queens and other New York royalty donned their crowns, tiaras and other royal attire at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square on March 31 for the 21st annual Night of a Thousand Gowns.

Reigning New York Empress Gefil Tefish paid homage to the extravagant French queen Marie Antoinette with one of the several gowns she wore throughout the hours-long gala. She, alongside Emperor Fantasia, crowed Craig Hollywood and B as the city’s next monarchs during an elaborate coronation ceremony attended by Panzi, Robin Kradles, Coco LaChine, Billie Ann Miller, Tony Monteleone, other royalty and their loyal subjects.

Emperor Hollywood praised his predecessors’ reign during a post-coronation interview.

"There are large shoes we are filling from Gefil and Fantasia," he said. "They raised a lot of money. We will try to keep up their schedule and involve the entire community, as best we can, in the pageantry of the Imperial Court of New York [ICNY]."

The ICNY, part of the larger International Court, remains one of New York’s premier gay philanthropic organizations. It has raised more than $1 million for dozens of organizations across the Tri-State area since it’s founding at the height of the AIDS crisis during the mid 1980s.

This year’s gala doubled as a fundraiser for PFLAG New York City. Cyndi Lauper, who is featured in the organization’s ’Stay Close’ campaign with her lesbian sister Elen, attended the gala alongside Broadway star Charles Busch, Darlene Love, DJ Lady Bunny, former porn star Will Clark and others.

The Queens-born diva indulged the assembled monarchs with a rendition of ’True Colors.’ She even invited them to attend her upcoming summer tour. "Bring your crowns," Lauper quipped.

New York City Councilmember Eric Gioia [D-Sunnyside, Queens] honored the ICNY with an official proclamation from the Council. He quickly apologized to the formerly reigning monarchs for not honoring the gala’s strict black tie [or gown] dress code. But Empress Tefish quickly forgave Gioia for his fashion faux pas.

"You’re good-looking enough," she joked.

PFLAG New York City President Phyllis Steinberg donned a white boa and she, along with PFLAG Executive Director Drew Tagliabue, faired much better. Tagliabue, whose father is former National Football League [NFL] Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, added the coronation rivaled any Broadway show in the adjacent Theatre District.

"It came across as one of the most fun, most genuine type of dinners that we had ever been to," he said. "You’re hard pressed to get a show like that in New York City."

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Uptown Manhattan Gay Life Swings to Latin Beat

My first article as a contributor for EDGE New York

It’s 1:30 on a recent Wednesday morning at Umbrella on West 202nd Street in the Inwood section on the extreme northern tip of Upper Manhattan. That means another night of drag queens, papi chulos, go-go dancing hombres and packs of gay men, lesbians, and their straight friends packed into a club enjoying one of New York’s most unique scenes: the gay Hispanic clubs that dot this neighborhood.

Hundreds of people are packed on the dance floor as DJ Eddie Cruz spins merengue, salsa, bachata and Spanish pop tracks. A dozen male and female go-go dancers are gyrating on the massive central bar and on pedestals around the club. The crowd eagerly awaits Latin diva Lorena St. Cartier’s flamenco-inspired performance with her dancers. Welcome to a typical night at Uptown’s most popular gay party!

Promoters Alberto Fermín and Fernando Romero launched "Escandalo Nights" in 2004 as a way to provide locals with an alternative to the gay scene in Chelsea, the East and West Villages and Hell’s Kitchen. It takes place on the last Tuesday of each month and quickly became the "in" destination for gay Latino clubgoers from nearby Washington Heights, Harlem, the Bronx, Westchester County and even farther afield: New Jersey, Queens and Brooklyn.

March 28 marked the party’s third anniversary. Over 500 people packed Umbrella to celebrate. Clubgoers are known to wait an hour or more just to enter the club. Fermín and Romero proudly point to these lines as evidence of their party’s growing popularity. "When we started the party three years ago, there was nothing happening in Washington Heights," Romero said. "People needed a place in their own neighborhood."

Fermín and Romero say their party’s unique blend of music and entertainment as its main draw. DJ John Rizzo and Cruz’ mix of revival, House and Latino tracks is rare among the city’s nightlife. And there are those dancers! Scantily clad performers are also an integral part of Escandalo Nights’ entertainment.

Hispanic gay men and lesbians from Upper Manhattan and the Bronx comprise the majority of the partygoers. But Fermín also noted the increasing number of straight people who come to Escandalo Nights each month. "It’s a party for everybody - gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight," he said. "That’s what makes the party so unique. Everybody can come in and have a good time."

Margie Martinez of Washington Heights said this mix of people is one of the main draws. She has attended several parties with her gay cousin and said she feels more comfortable at Umbrella than she would at other neighborhood establishments. "It’s a cool environment," Martinez said as she and her cousin stood near the bar. "I don’t feel pressured. We can just let loose."

Sahadi Beltre drove from neighboring Hudson County in New Jersey, to attend the party. She eagerly pointed out Escandalo Nights is better than the parties on the other side of the George Washington Bridge as she bought a drink at the bar. "It’s a hot place," the West New York, N.J., resident said. "Some places don’t accept gay people. Here they do."

Uptown gay parties are certainly not a new phenomenon. ARKA Lounge and the Monkey Room in Washington Heights have both hosted a variety of parties over the last two decades.

The gay bar No Parking on Broadway and West 177th Street opened last April. Sibe Bistro on Broadway and West 171st Street hosts a Gay and Lesbian Bohemian Night on the last Wednesday of each month in conjunction with the Gay & Lesbian Dominican Empowerment Organization [GALDE].

The opening of No Parking, the growing popularity of the Gay and Lesbian Bohemian Night and Escandalo Nights are indicative of Washington Heights’ growing reputation as a popular destination for gay New Yorkers. The neighborhood, like others throughout Upper Manhattan, has undergone significant gentrification in recent years as people from other parts of Manhattan find Washington Heights an increasingly attractive place to live, not to mention affordable.

Andrés Duque, coordinator of the Mano a Mano coalition within the Latino Commission on AIDS in New York, said this influx has sparked a renewed interest in these parties. He questioned the impact these parties have on these neighborhoods but conceded they provide important gathering places for gay Latinos. "They offer, to some degree, a hometown bar feeling," Duque said. "You go in and you know your friends."

GALDE Executive Director Francisco Lazala noted these parties have had a very positive impact within these neighborhoods. GALDE organizes a picnic and health fair each summer each July under the George Washington Bridge that draws gay Latinos from across the city. Lazala added these parties provide local gays yet another place to come out and to feel comfortable.

"They have really turned Uptown into a place where people feel comfortable and connected to the community," he said. "To have a place in Uptown that you can call your own is definitely a good thing."

No Parking owner Brian Washington Parker agreed. He said his bar, along with Escandalo Nights and other local venues, continue to play an integral role in the elimination of homophobia in Upper Manhattan. Gay men who live in these neighborhoods will continue to come out as more bars and clubs welcome them, he added."

In their own way, these parties have built a bridge," Parker said. "They allow--at least for gay people --to feel part of the community and for other people they open a dialogue. It’s a huge change."

Back at Umbrella, partygoers heaped up the praise for their neighborhood’s newfound status as a destination. Martinez said she remains hopeful these parties will continue to change local attitudes towards homosexuality.

"A lot of Hispanics are not accepting of being gay," she said. "These parties are a very big step."