By Steven Thrasher - Wednesday, June 22, 2011
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.
It was there that Díaz met Lynn, an openly gay man who is now raising a nine-year-old daughter with his partner. The two seemed like an unlikely pair to strike up a friendship, but they bonded during their years on the CCRB, especially, Lynn says, when they "traveled to the Bronx together to attend a vigil after a police officer had choked a kid to death."
(Years later, when the HIV-positive Lynn took umbrage that Díaz would hold an anti-gay marriage rally at the same time as the AIDS Walk, he'd say, "I think of him at that rally, and I try to reconcile it in my mind with the memory of that man who was there at that silent vigil. It's difficult to do.")
Not that Lynn isn't still loyal to Díaz. He worked as his chief counsel in the Senate, and the two men became so close that Lynn took Díaz to see Liza's at the Palace the last time Minnelli was on Broadway.
Lynn was not the first gay person Díaz had ever encountered, of course. "He has two gay brothers, for God's sake," Lynn says, "and then there's Erica." But he is the one to defend Díaz most publicly, though he does so in terms that are alternately wholehearted and measured.
It was while he was on the CCRB that Díaz first started to publicly feud with the gay community. In 1994, he opposed the Gay Games coming to New York. According to the New York Times, Díaz wrote in Spanish-language newspapers "that the Gay Games, to be held in New York in June, would lead to an increase in AIDS cases and to wider acceptance of homosexuality by young people." The CCRB voted unanimously to reject his comments. Still, gay activists were enraged when he did not resign, many believing homosexuals could not get a fair hearing from the board when issues of homophobic police conduct came before it.
Díaz was elected to the City Council in 2001. By 2003, he was openly tussling with gays again, this time when he sued to keep Harvey Milk High School from expanding. Harvey Milk was the nation's first gay-focused high school, designed to be a safe place for queer kids to learn who were tired of being bullied on a daily basis (some at school as well as at home). This was years before the world knew anything of Tyler Clementi, Glee, or the "It Gets Better" campaign.
Díaz was having none of this safe-sanctuary nonsense. By 2006, the Department of Education (who was operating the school alongside in-house social services provided by the nonprofit Hetrick-Martin Institute) agreed to admit heterosexual students as well.
Díaz has been obsessed with making marriage be between "one man and one woman" at least since Governors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson took on the issue in earnest. But for all of his talk of matrimonial fidelity, Díaz himself is not married to the mother of his three children. Didionilda Díaz (Vega) is the mother of Díaz's three children, all of whom work in city government: former Assemblyman and current Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr.; NYPD Sergeant Damaris Díaz Kiely; and New York City Housing Authority employee Samuel Díaz.
Divorce records are not public, but the New York State Unified Court System shows that Didionilda appeared in court in the Bronx on July 17, 1992, as the plaintiff against defendant Rubén Díaz. The senator is currently on his second marriage, to Leslie Yvette Díaz.
Multiple investigations into the alleged misconduct at two nonprofit businesses, meanwhile, provide some insight into Díaz's overlapping relationship with both his current and his ex-wife, both of whom were on his payroll simultaneously.
Soundview Community in Action is at the center of this strange family intersection: It's a nonprofit whose aim was to bring small-business and computer resources to the Soundview neighborhood, one of the poorest sections of the Bronx.
In reality, multiple Soundview employees alleged, it was the personal patronage piggy bank of the Díaz family. At its height, according to press reports, its $1.3 million annual budget was reportedly funded in large part by state grants obtained by then-Assemblyman Rubén Díaz Jr., while Senior was the CEO (at $65,000 a year), and Didionilda was a consultant ($16,000 a year). Díaz's current wife, Leslie, became the CEO when Senior stepped down to become a state senator.
Soundview was the subject of a two-year investigation by then–Attorney General Spitzer's Office of Public Integrity. The Daily News wrote in 2006 that "Spitzer was given eight sworn affidavits containing specific, detailed allegations of wrongdoing against Díaz by former and current Soundview employees."
The News also reportedly obtained a September 2003 staff memo, in which Soundview Executive Director Edward Padilla wrote: "Please be advised that you are not obligated or expected to perform personal, political or religious duties during your scheduled work hours for any elected official, director or staff associated with Soundview Community in Action.... It is my understanding that Assemblyman Rubén Díaz Jr. and state Sen. Rubén Díaz have given some of you individual assignments that are not related, in any way, with what our contracts with funding sources require.... Their actions, requests, and/or demands are inappropriate and unlawful."
After two years, in 2006, Spitzer quietly ended his investigation. The only wrongdoing he found was that Senior needed to repay $4,221 of Soundview funds that had been used to buy furniture and speakers for the Senator's office. The Albany Times Union reported that Díaz also "wrote checks from his campaign fund to pay Children and Family Services and the U.S. Small Business Administration for grant money provided Soundview that was misused."
Critics at the time, including Albany watchdog Citizens United, were furious with Spitzer for not appointing a special investigator while he was preparing for a gubernatorial run. His need for the Díaz family's support in the Latino community during his upcoming run, they argued, amounted to a conflict of interest. (The Attorney General's office would not supply the original report to the Voice.)
Not surprisingly, Díaz Senior doesn't like to be asked about this. In a brief phone interview, he said, "That was investigated by the FBI, and everything was cleared. Nothing was wrong" he yelled, adding, "Ask the FBI!"
But when Díaz brings up the feds, he's bringing up another investigation of yet another corruption allegation altogether. The News reported in 2008 that Christian Community in Action, a far larger agency receiving more than $26 million in city contracts for home health care to seniors, was under investigation.
According to the News, the nonprofit received $1.5 million in public funding that had been steered to it by the Díazes. At the same time, according to the group's 2008 federal tax filings reviewed by the Voice, Díaz's current wife, Leslie, was listed as "director of field" for an annual salary of $68,521.
The News reported that also in 2007, "the nonprofit received a grand jury subpoena from the public corruption unit of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia," and, a month later, "the FBI served a subpoena on the Bronx office of the city Board of Elections and seized documents about the Díazes."
The U.S. attorney's office will neither confirm nor deny that any such case is closed or still under investigation, or even acknowledge whether those subpoenas were or were not ever served.
As for the senator who says "Divorce is wrong" employing both his current and former wives at the same time, the two women may never have run into each other on the job. As Soundview CEO, Padilla reportedly told the Albany Times Union, "Leslie Díaz was a no-show during her second tour of duty, as was the senator's ex-wife, Assemblyman Díaz's mother, Didionilda Vega, who was on the payroll for a short time but was shifted to a consultant."
Rubén Díaz Jr. was born in the Bronx in 1973. Like his father, he went to Lehman College. When he was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1997 at age 23, he became the youngest member elected to that body since Teddy Roosevelt. Junior was elected to the Assembly years before his father was even elected to the City Council.
But Junior's fast rise, and his attempts to reach beyond the Bronx, may be limited by his father's toxic politics. The "GayTM," so crucial to fundraising in Democratic circles, couldn't have a more obvious villain than Díaz Senior. That's a serious roadblock for Junior, who may run for mayor as early as 2013.
And yet his actual record is not so different from his father's. Junior keeps finding himself on both sides of a divisive issue, winning him both friends and enemies.
"We couldn't stay open without him," says Dirk McCall, director of the Bronx Community Pride Center, a small gay community center primarily offering youth and HIV services in Mott Haven. He notes that as Bronx Borough President, Junior is very supportive of the center, and he thinks the son shouldn't be judged for the acts of his father.
Junior doesn't shy away from "gay" causes: His face is all over the "Bronx Knows" anti-HIV campaign.
And yet not everyone buys it. "He voted against marriage," points out longtime activist Allen Roskoff, referring to Junior's vote against same-sex marriage equality in the State Assembly in 2007. The measure passed that house without his vote. (Junior's office denied all interview requests for this article, but noted that he supports civil unions.)
In an infamous exchange at a City Hall breakfast last year, Roskoff heatedly challenged Junior's manhood for not standing up to Senior. It got so intense that "I thought his handlers were going to remove me from the room," Roskoff says.
"He asked him, 'Why don't you stand up to your father? Why don't you be a man about this?' " says Cathy Marino-Thomas, who witnessed it. "It was pretty great."
Multiple sources say that Junior gets annoyed with his father's antics, which often leave him blindsided. But if Junior is upset that people associate his father's noise about gay marriage with him, he has no one to blame but himself. This was demonstrated clearly when his father decided to rain on his parade in May.
Bronx Week is a series of events promoting the borough, the sort of event that can be the highlight of the year for a borough president, an otherwise impotent post. When Senior chose to hold his anti-gay-marriage rally at the same time as the AIDS Walk, it was a calculated move against gay rights.
But it was also scheduled for the Sunday of Bronx Week, during the Bronx Puerto Rican Day parade, outside his son's office. Junior's office first discovered Senior was doing this when the Voice called and asked them how they felt about it.
Junior's office tried to contain the fallout by distancing itself from Senior, saying Junior would not be attending the anti-gay marriage march because of a scheduling conflict. It also stressed that the march was not part of Bronx Week.
Yet as the date approached, a very different picture emerged. Blogger Joe "Joe. My. God." Jervis called Junior's office the Friday before the big march: "The young woman answering the phone at Borough Hall got a bit flustered with me and claimed that her office had nothing to do with the rally and that she had no information about police protection or counter-protesting areas. (This, despite the fact that tens of thousands of evangelical Christians are expected to descend on the area in just four days.)" The office had told the Voice similar things days earlier.
Yet on the Sunday of the event, it appeared inconceivable that Junior's office could not have known anything or made any preparations. There were banks of speakers 10 feet high, belting out "We are here to preserve traditional marriage," from the steps of Junior's office, the Bronx County Courthouse. Scores of cops swarmed below. The area on the steps was being run by an outfit called the Hispanic Clergy Organization, which had been allowed to decorate Junior's front porch in advance of Senior's messianic arrival.
When he arrived, he brought more than a thousand people hailing him. Their revulsion at gay people was on full display in their signs, which ranged from the trite ("Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve!") to the absurd ("Don't Let New York City Become Sodom and Gomorrah!").
And hanging over the festivities from the Courthouse itself was a sign proclaiming that it was Bronx Week.
By not stopping his father from parading under that sign, Junior admitted who was boss. The Borough President's stamp of approval appeared over the event, whether he liked it or not, and wedded him to that hate march. The sign provided a government stamp of approval to the religious hatred being spewed by speakers and collapsed any difference between Díaz the father and Díaz the son. Junior never issued a statement denouncing the anti-gay rhetoric shouted outside his office that day.
Erica Díaz said that she believed on that day that her uncle supported her. But though the Puerto Rican Parade was cancelled because of rain—the event that ostensibly had been keeping Junior away from the march—he still did not show up to back either his niece or his father.
Junior had, once again, tried to have it both ways.
Across the street from the blaring speakers was a small band of counter-demonstrators, about two dozen at most. With 45,000 people in Central Park at the AIDS Walk at the same time, it had been hard to peel off much gay political activist support up in the Bronx.
Yet small as their numbers are, there was a person among them who represented the inevitable future of gay marriage rights in America: 22-year-old Erica Díaz.
Erica has already lived through many of the battles of the gay rights struggle in her young life. Like her grandfather, she'd joined the armed services, enlisting in the Navy. But when rumors began circulating that she was a lesbian, rather than living in fear she outed herself to her commanding officer.
Within 30 days, she was discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Erica says.
She has been with her girlfriend, Naomi Torres, for two and a half years, and they already have two children together. But they are unable to wed, largely because of the efforts of her paternal grandfather.
On this day, Erica came out to protest Senior's march. Her body language belied her nervousness, and she later wrote that she'd vomited beforehand. Christopher Lynn stopped defending Senior long enough to say that when he heard the march was occurring at the same time as the AIDS Walk, he "called him up and said, 'What are you doing? This looks really shitty! I'm HIV-positive, and this looks really shitty!' And he said he didn't mean to do it at the same time, and I said, 'Why don't you move it?!' "
As much as Lynn might have wanted to believe his friend, whose record on HIV/AIDS he defends, this is the second time Senior has held an anti-gay rally the same time as the AIDS Walk. Even Lynn admits that he worried about how the senator can whip people up into hysterics.
"When you hold an event, and there are seen and unforeseen circumstances, you have to be prepared to take responsibility for those circumstances," he says. "You can't just shrug your shoulders."
But if the date annoyed Lynn, the whole event must have been devastating to Erica. "It hurts," she admitted, while maintaining that "I respect my grandfather."
She said she was just there to bear witness and stand up. But some of it was too much. At one point, Reverend Ariel Torres Ortega of Radio Visión Cristiana addressed the crowd and, according to Think Progress's Igor Volsky, said of gays in Spanish that "those who practice such things are worthy of death."
Erica summoned an NYPD community affairs officer, braved the hordes of anti-gay bigots, and approached her grandfather.
From the other side, it looked like a capitulation. She stood awkwardly next to Senior, who told the crowd, basically, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." And he said he loved her. She looked like the misguided prodigal child come home to the flock.
It was a very uncomfortable moment to witness, and it only lasted for a minute.
But to Erica, she wasn't giving in. "I just wanted him to know I still loved him," she said, and hoped he'd say something to denounce the awful things being said.
He did not. She later wrote in an op-ed in the New York Post how disappointed she was by his silence when similar remarks were made on the radio. But Senior tells the Voice that he has not read her piece, and denies that anyone advocated violence against gay people at his rally.
"That day, in front of all of the people, whoever wants to listen to that speech, that speech is recorded," Díaz tells the Voice. "I addressed both groups: the protesters in the park and my people. And I told that group in the park that I love them. And I told anyone to check my record, my voting record. I told them that you cannot hate anyone. If you hate anybody, you would not go to heaven. I said, so if any one of us hates anyone, you will go to hell! That is what my religion teaches, so I said that publicly. So what more do people want?"
After appearing with her grandfather at the rally, Erica walked back across the street, where she waved a flag quietly.
Her grandfather may have the political reins now, but she is the future. As she and her generation grow into their power as a voting bloc, and as they start electing each other, there is no doubt what will happen with same-sex marriage. It's not just significant that polls show that 70 percent of her age group approves of gay marriage—it's that the number is up 16 points in just the past year.
Erica, her partner, and their kids will probably all live to see same-sex marriage legal not just in New York, but throughout the United States.
Soon, Erica and Torres could wed in New York. Any month now, Erica will be able to re-enlist in the military if she wants.
With the Ericas of the world coming online, it's just a matter of time.