Put John Street in a room with a chunk of the city’s gay leadership, start talking Boy Scouts and a good story is bound to emerge. Last week’s meeting of the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club apparently devolved into a hate party aimed at Mayor Nutter over the city’s dealings with the Boy Scouts, with Street taking the lead in the festivities.
“If I were gay, I would not endorse Mayor Nutter,” Street told the crowd, according to James Duggan, founder of the weekly newsletter Queertimes. “You as a community owe it to yourselves to stand firm and not endorse Nutter for mayor either.”
The spectacle of Street hypothesizing on his sexuality makes for good theater, but it’s a bit of a red herring—he isn’t supporting Nutter as a straight man, either, having openly attacked his successor a number of times over the last few months. More telling than Street’s jabs is the move by several prominent gay leaders to pull their support from Nutter, who until now has carefully cultivated a reputation for being an LGBT-friendly, progressive mayor.
“He has talked the talk but hasn’t walked the walk,” says Malcolm Lazin, executive director of gay-rights group Equality Forum. “The walk that he’s walked has been extremely disappointing.”
How could this be? As councilman, Nutter was instrumental in creating the law to extend benefits to domestic partners of city employees. Once mayor, he hired the respected Gloria Casarez as the city’s director of LGBT affairs, and even raised a rainbow flag outside City Hall for Gay History Month last October.
But that’s not enough, say Lazin and Duggan. They claim the mayor’s resolve has been absent on important issues, particularly on Boy Scout discrimination and bullying of gay kids in school.
“Michael Nutter ran making various promises to us—among them that he would fully support us, in terms of not subsidizing discrimination by the Boy Scouts,” Lazin says. “He said that he would not tolerate bullying in schools...but there has not been one disciplinary action taken against either a student teacher or principal for the use of epithets against gay students.”
“We love Gloria [Casarez], but her hands are tied,” Duggan adds. “She should be more of an advocate for our community and not a PR person for the mayor.”
Casarez is quick to point out that while speaking at events is part of her job, she spends most of her time engaged in the nuts and bolts of advocacy work. “I work with a wide range of service providers on any number of different issues,” she says. “Public safety, schools, behavioral health, real issues I work on every day. Those are not PR issues.”
The contention that Nutter is making no strides to combat school bullying is particularly stinging since the city has been holding hearings over the past year on bullying and discrimination within the schools, including LGBT cases. The School District has had an LGBTQ Advisory Commission in place for years, which is now actively training principals, teachers and students on creating queer-safe environments in schools. What’s more, the School District recently revamped its bullying policy, which more clearly lays out escalating consequences for offenders.
“The Mayor’s Office is at the table for every one of those efforts,” says Casarez, who has drafted a letter to Lazin to clarify the city’s efforts and attempt to address his concerns. As for the Boy Scouts, who don’t allow openly gay members or leaders, “this mayor has made it quite clear that he does not support that kind of discrimination in any way and we want it ended,” says Nutter Spokesman Mark McDonald. “What the city wants is to not be subsidizing what we see as anathema to our values in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.”
Since the Scouts’ exclusion of gays violates Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination laws, the city in 2003 told the local Cradle of Liberty Council to shape up or lose the free rent it enjoys at its Logan Square headquarters. The Council agreed, only to be ordered by national headquarters to discriminate or else. In response, the city told the Scouts to pay rent or get out, but a lawsuit last year determined the Scouts’ constitutionally protected right to be homophobes is not a valid reason for eviction.
Rather than pay nearly a million dollars in legal fees owed to the Scouts because of the ruling, the city opted to strike a still-pending deal to sell them the headquarters for $500,000, far less than market value (the city says the sales price is actually market value of $1.1 million, but with “other monies“ exchanged to compensate for legal fees). Activists are infuriated, feeling that Philly is essentially giving the Scouts a sweetheart land deal as a reward for bigotry. Duggan, Lazin and others contend that the city could still find a much more favorable arrangement. They might have a point.
For one thing, even though the Nutter administration can’t evict the Scouts based on discrimination, they technically could find another reason, perhaps even one as simple as “we feel like it.” What’s more, the legal team defending the Scouts supposedly worked pro-bono, so there’s a question if the city really owes that $1 million in fees. Finally, the judgment in favor of the Scouts may have been rendered moot by a similar suit just five days later, when the Supreme Court decided that the University of California did not have to recognize a Christian group that excluded gays from membership.
“We do believe it changes the legal landscape considerably,” says Stephen Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, on the Supreme Court decision. “If it had come down from highest court before [District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter] rendered his decision, we believe he would not have ruled in favor of the Scouts.”
Most of the contended issues, McDonald says, are up to the courts to decide. The city still has the option to appeal if negotiations with the Scouts break down, at which point the question of legal fees, the California precedent and other eviction possibilities would all be back in play. However, the administration is trying to stay out of court by finding an agreement acceptable to all. “We’re trying to act as expeditiously as possible in light of the fact that the lawsuit went the way it did,” McDonald says. “I wouldn’t characterize this as a sweetheart deal in any way, shape or form.” The spokesman promises that the mayor is willing to meet with community leaders to explain and clarify his approach.
At stake in all this, as Street pointed out, is the gay endorsement. Nutter won it in 2007—Queertimes was actually founded to support him during his mayoral run. “Our first issue was an endorsement of Mayor Nutter,” Duggan says. “We felt he would make an excellent mayor for us. We stuck our necks out and started a newsletter.” But now, Duggan says, his group will not endorse the mayor and would consider throwing its weight behind any other candidate who supports LGBT issues.
Though it’s hard to pigeonhole how an entire “community” feels, especially one that encompasses such a diverse range of groups and experiences, Lazin says that the gay vote is likely to fall in line. “The LGBT community will vote as a block,” he says. “That’s understandable, given the fact that we’re at the epicenter of the civil-rights movement.” Using Census and polling data from neighborhoods with high concentrations of gay populations, Equality Forum estimates that about 70 percent of the queer vote went to Nutter in ’07—a bloc that could potentially be persuaded to take its ballots elsewhere.
“There’s a large number of us who are spreading the word as quickly as possible that Mayor Nutter is not the candidate he once was,” Duggan says.
As we begin to poke our heads out of two and a half years of recessionary rubble, the city’s outlook is starting to look brighter. Threats still remain, but Nutter, odds-on favorite to win election to a second term this year, implores you to have faith.