Prominent local LGBTQ leaders are putting a positive spin on a Bronx councilman’s homophobic statements.
It’s no secret that Bronx Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr., who in the past has compared homosexuality to beastiality, harbors controversial views, but the former state senator and pentecostal reverend’s homophobic comments on a Spanish radio station on Feb. 8, have received special attention in the press. Local LGBTQ leaders are hopeful that the angry public response will bring about a shift in Bronx politics.
A borough that has continually elected homophobic officials into office is making strides to amplify gay and queer voices, said Sean Coleman, executive director of Destination Tomorrow, the LGBTQ support group in Mott Haven, adding that the most recent incident is a last gasp of the old Bronx, resisting progress.
“(Diaz Sr.) sees it necessary to speak out because he sees a shift happening,” Coleman said. “He’s threatened by the progress we’ve made.”
On Feb. 8, Diaz Sr. said on “El Desahogo” that the city government is “controlled by the homosexual community,” referring to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is openly gay, and other council members including Ritchie Torres from the Bronx and James Van Bramer who represents Queens.
The comment was quickly greeted with calls for his Diaz Sr.’s resignation. Even his prominent son has called on him to apologize. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in a tweet that the comment was “antagonistic, quarrelsome and wholly unnecessary.”
There have also been political consequences for Diaz Sr.’s words. Bronx Council members Vanessa Gibson, Rafael Salamanca, Diana Ayala and Ritchie Torres joined others in voting to dissolve his committee on For-Hire Vehicles.
But Diaz Sr. has doubled down on his statements. In a tweet on Feb. 9, he said, “What’s homophobic about saying that the gay community controls the nyc city council? I’m giving them credit for the power and influence they have.”
Despite citywide pushback, hundreds of Diaz Sr.’s constituents rallied outside his Lafayette Avenue office in Unionport a few days after his remarks, expressing support for the councilman and asking him not to resign.
Although LGBTQ leaders in the city have called for Diaz Sr.’s resignation, Destination Tomorrow’s leaders say they aren’t very concerned whether the Bronx politician leaves office either.
“Part of me feels like he doesn’t have any power,” said Coleman. “I don’t want to fight with him. Politically, we just have to make sure the Bronx LGBTQ folks have a voice.”
The council member’s comments are simply emblematic of growing pains in the borough, said Coleman, and Diaz Sr. is just one of several elected officials who have opposed pro-LGBTQ legislation and viewpoints in the Bronx in recent years. Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who represents Fordham and University Heights, once applauded the Ugandan government for criminalizing gay marriage. Cabrera abstained from the vote on absolving Diaz Sr.’s committee.
Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who represents Hunts Point and chairs the Bronx Democratic Party, voted against the legalization of gay marriage in New York in 2007 and again in 2011. Diaz’ Jr. also voted against bill when he was in the Assembly in 2007, but changed his vote in 2011 and became a supporter of LGBTQ rights.
Diaz Jr., who spent his Valentines Day last week at an LGBTQ seniors celebration at the Sage Center, represents the transition towards a more tolerant Bronx, Coleman said.
“His father’s viewpoints are not his,” Coleman said. “He gives us a platform.”
In 2018, Diaz Jr. was the first Bronx borough president to raise an LGBTQ flag above the Bronx County Courthouse during the summer Pride festival, and has invested in the LGBTQ community, spending $600,000 on the SAGE Center Bronx, and $100,000 on the Melrose-based Callen-Lorde clinic. Diaz Jr. declined to comment for this story, pointing to his previous comments on Twitter.
Destination Tomorrow reopened its LGBTQ community center in Mott Haven last fall, six years after the previous center closed due to financial problems.
Last June, the Third Avenue Improvement District launched its “Hate has no Business Here” campaign, calling on other Business Improvement Districts citywide to denounce homophobia, racism and xenophobia among the small business community.
As the Bronx becomes more LGBTQ friendly, Destination Tomorrow’s Director of Programs Sage Rivera said it’s a good sign for the gay community that elected officials now feel pressured to condemn Diaz Sr., instead of just ignoring him, which until recently was considered acceptable.
“It reopened a wound,” Rivera said. “But if we weren’t going in the right direction, the lens on this wouldn’t exist.”