A dispute over the failure of a local gay and lesbian political group to endorse City Council President Gene Ricciardi in the May primary has resulted in the group being banned from local gay businesses.
The Gertrude Stein Political Club of Greater Pittsburgh learned of the decision in a letter from the Pittsburgh Tavern Guild dated April 30. Copies of the letter, which was signed by Tavern Guild secretary Chuck Honse, were forwarded to Out, Councilman Ricciardi and 11 local gay bars and restaurants.
The letter criticized the club for having “failed in your mission to educate the voter on candidates and their positions in regards to our civil rights.” The letter further stated: “For years, many of us in the bar community have worked for, contributed to and generally lobbied candidates. Your actions are in direct conflict with ours. As such, we can no longer welcome you into our businesses.”
The Tavern Guild seeks to prohibit the Stein Club from distributing literature or conducting future pre-election “bar tours” in which members escort political candidates to local bars and restaurants to meet with and solicit support from gay and lesbian voters.
In an interview with Out, Honse said candidates still would be welcome, but “they are not going to come with Gertrude Stein members.”
At issue is the Stein Club’s endorsement criteria, Honse said, which automatically disqualifies candidates who do not support a woman’s right to choose.
“Their failure to endorse [a candidate like Ricciardi] because of a single issue is absolutely sending the wrong message to our community,” Honse told Out. “Gene Ricciardi has voted for our community more times than any other current council person,” added Honse. He cited Ricciardi’s past voting record in ifavor of the city’s 1990 gay rights bill, its domestic partnership act and the redefined language of the gay rights ordinance to expand protections to transgender individuals.
By not endorsing Ricciardi because of his pro-life position, Honse said the Stein Club gave gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender voters the impression that the councilman is not a friend of the community.
Bar owners have worked hard over the years to build strong relationships with city government leaders like Ricciardi, Honse added, and the Stein Club’s failure to endorse him was a “kick in the face” that jeopardizes those relationships.
But in a letter responding to the Tavern Guild, Stein Club chair Barb Albinini, wrote, “We are not contesting or diminishing the efforts or record of Gene Ricciardi by not endorsing him but expressing the will of our membership on the issues that are important to us.
“We have always been up front about our mission and our endorsement criteria,” Albinini told Out. “We didn’t mean to slight Gene Ricciardi in the good things he’s done.”
Abortion rights: A gay issue?
In her reply to the Tavern Guild, Albinini also stated the Stein Club’s position on reproductive rights: “Many of our members believe that autonomy over our own bodies is an LGBT issue. People in our community do care about birth control, artificial insemination and abortion.
“Lesbians who have used anonymous donors have been forced by the courts to raise their child with the donor—a complete stranger to them,” the letter continued. “A key hate crime committed against lesbians, bisexual women and transgendered people is rape, which may result in pregnancy and abortion. Obviously, bisexual women may care about birth control. And women who don’t have children are at higher risk for breast cancer—and when anti-choice leaders keep out drugs that treat breast cancer (like RU486) because it is also used to end/prevent pregnancies, it is a lesbian issue.”
Albinini said she believes there are “a lot of issues tied up in this,” including the rights of an individual to choose a sexual partner or a particular medical treatment. She added that Ricciardi’s response to the club’s candidate questionnaire on the issue of abortion rights did more than indicate a personal preference. His response, she said, blatantly expressed intent to change the current abortion law.
Out was unable to secure comment from Ricciardi by the June issue deadline.
“[The Stein Club is] entrenched in a woman’s right to an abortion,” countered Honse, who said he believes the club’s right-to-choose criteria undermines the group’s ability to fulfill its mission. “They’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing to educate the community.”
Honse and other Tavern Guild members ignored an invitation from Albinini to discuss the issues at the Stein Club’s May 8 meeting at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Honse said he did not attend the meeting because “I think there was a snowball’s chance in hell that they would change their policy.”
Impact on the community
Chris Young, chair of the League of Gay and Lesbian Voters, said he was not surprised by the Stein Club’s failure to endorse Ricciardi, who was unopposed for re-election to his District 3 City Council seat. “Inclusion of choice is common in politics,” Young said. “But it’s a very personal thing. The league excluded choice from the beginning because we knew it would divide the community.” The LGLV evaluates a candidate based on his or her position on relevant gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, Young explained, but does not issue endorsements.
“Ricciardi doesn’t fit Gertrude Stein’s profile,” Young added, and he called the Tavern Guild’s decision to ban the Stein Club from area bars “an interesting development.”
“I’ve never seen the guild do this before,” Young commented. He expressed concern that the rift between the two groups might further fragment the community. “We can’t allow these divisions to hurt our ability to advocate,” Young said. He also questioned the Tavern Guild’s decision to endorse its own slate of candidates, which they advertised in the May issue of Out. “The Tavern Guild is a business organization,” Young said, “and I wonder if it’s appropriate to take on the role of political advocacy.”
Honse defended the Tavern Guild’s decision to publish candidate endorsements by claiming that the Stein Club “forced us into doing this” by not doing its job.
Neither Honse nor Albinini expected either group to soften its stance in the months leading up to the November general election. But both said they believe the controversy will bring much-needed attention not only to issues important to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender voters but also to the criteria used to endorse political candidates and the endorsement process itself. “I hope it will educate the community to the criteria for their endorsement of candidates,” Honse said.
The Stein Club’s endorsement process and candidate questionnaire are posted on its Web site at www.gertrudesteinclub.org.
“I’m not pleased with the debate,” Albinini responded, “but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can have multiple points of view.” Between now and November, Albinini said Gertrude Stein Club members will continue to discuss its endorsement process and will look for alternate places to take candidates to meet voters. “We’re going to continue to be out there, to evaluate candidates,” she stressed. “But I don’t think we’ll change our feminist leanings. We will not change our questions.”
Honse said the Tavern Guild also would meet periodically over the next few months to solidify its own criteria for endorsing candidates before announcing another slate in November.
Ultimately, Young believes, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender voters will have the final say. “We should cast a critical eye on anybody who wants to represent the community,” Young said, referring to the potential of organizations such as the Tavern Guild, the Stein Club and the LGLV to influence voter opinion about individual candidates. “I hope our community will hold us to that.”