First, something surprising happened. Then, something familiar.
Last week, conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz and his wife stopped by the Central Park penthouse of two wealthy gay businessmen to have dinner and a friendly “fireside chat” about their mutually fervent support for the state of Israel. Not only was it a civil conversation, it harked to a kind of old-school politics of coalition building and discussions between political opponents on areas of agreement.
By Sunday, however, one of the gay businessmen, Ian Reisner, was apologizing profusely to the gay community. The New York City Gay Men’s Chorus had cancelled a fundraiser at The Out NYC, a hotel partly owned by Mr. Reisner that caters to a gay clientele and hosts same-sex wedding receptions. A theater nonprofit, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, did the same for its event in May. A Facebook page calling for a boycott of the venues owned by Reisner and Mati Weiderpass had drawn nearly 9,500 “likes” by Monday afternoon.
While Senator Cruz, who opposes same-sex marriage, has come under some criticism for his appearance at the Manhattan penthouse, Reisner and Mr. Weiderpass have been virtually under siege.
To the gay community, their actions approach betrayal, says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan, who has studied gay politics for decades. The idea that someone like Reisner, who makes a living serving gays and lesbians, would “give aid and comfort to people who would happily deprive us of our rights, just pushes every button one can imagine.”
But the reaction also speaks to an evolution in American political discourse, with the New York gay community in many ways mimicking the tactics of tea partyers like Cruz in Congress. “It’s a very different sort of politics,” says Professor Sherrill. “It’s the kind of politics where people measure their strength by what they stop, what they block, as opposed to what they accomplish – and where punishing one’s enemies becomes more important than rewarding one’s friends.”
The meeting at the 4,000 square-foot luxury apartment in Manhattan last week – which was not a fundraising event – was a mini-truce of sorts in the culture wars over gay marriage. By all accounts, the conversation among guests, moderated by Reisner and one of Cruz’s advisers, remained largely focused on Israel and cordial.
“It was all things Israel,” Cruz’s campaign spokesman Rick Tyler told the Washington Examiner last week. “They were in a discussion about something they all agreed about.”
“Ted Cruz was on point on every issue that has to do with national security,” said Reisner, who supports former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to The New York Times.
But Cruz's politics on gay rights proved inescapable.
The Republican senator from Texas last week filed the Restoration of Marriage Amendment and the Protect Marriage from the Courts Act – a proposed constitutional amendment and a bill meant “to guarantee the American people’s right to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
He has also issued a letter urging pastors preach about biblical marriage and to hold prayer services on Tuesday, when the Supreme Court begins to hear the arguments for and against same sex marriage.
“Prayer moves our God to intervene in history,” Cruz wrote. “Prayer softens our hearts and brings us into alignment with the heart of God. The church has not shared the truth about marriage well: it is time to repent and commit ourselves to courage on this front.”
It’s the sort of statement that most gay and lesbian advocates say they find offensive – a position intended to keep them from enjoying full equality in society.
The backlash began after The Times reported the unlikely meeting last week.
“It is a rare instance where the actions of a donor negatively impacts us as an organization and potentially jeopardizes our relationship with others whose support is integral to our success,” said Tom Viola, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, in a statement. “But when it does occur, in a way that’s blatantly against all we stand and work for, we can’t pretend it doesn’t come with consequences. Silence is not a neutral position. It is complicit.”
Reisner wrote on his own Facebook page: “I am shaken to my bones by the e-mails, texts, postings and phone calls of the past few days. I made a terrible mistake. I was ignorant, naive and much too quick in accepting a request to co-host a dinner with Cruz at my home without taking the time to completely understand all of his positions on gay rights... I sincerely apologize for hurting the gay community and so many of our friends, family, allies, customers and employees. I will try my best to make up for my poor judgement. Again, I am deeply sorry.”
During the chat, the issue of gay marriage did come up, with one guest asking the senator and his wife Heidi how they would react if one of their young daughters came out as gay. In a statement, Cruz said: “My reply: 'We would love her with all our hearts. We love our daughters unconditionally.' A conservative Republican who is willing to meet with individuals who do not agree on marriage and who loves his daughters unconditionally may not reflect the caricature of conservatives promoted by the left, but it's hardly newsworthy.”
Indeed, the episode has allowed Cruz to claim the mantle of inclusiveness.
“I know it's been a long time since we've seen it, but this is what it means to truly be a 'big tent Republican' instead of a panderer,” Cruz said in his statement. “I'm happy to go anywhere to anyone to champion conservative values.”
“We're not always going to agree on everything,” he continued, “and I'm not going to change my fundamental values. But at the same time, I'm hoping to offer enough bold leadership on a broad slate of issues that many voters will decide we agree on far more than we disagree.”