By David Villano
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What does Jorge Diaz look like? "I'm just your average Cuban," he jokes over the phone before a lunch meeting with Kulchur. Well, not exactly.
True, Diaz arrives at Coconut Grove's Monty's restaurant dressed in a crisp white guayabera and slacks. And despite apologizing for what he calls a sweaty countenance -- there's no air conditioning in his truck, he sighs -- not a dashing hair looks out of place on his 34-year-old head. La moda cubana indeed.
But Jorge Diaz is hardly an anonymous member of el exilio, as the stream of well-wishers passing his table make clear: There are several of Monty's waiters; an attorney playfully asking about a job with the developer, Centres, Inc., who employs Diaz; and Robin, who drops by to firm up some yard-sale details and dinner plans. Robin?
"The First Lady," Diaz offers cheerfully when Kulchur fails to recognize the wife of Miami mayor Manny Diaz -- Jorge's older brother (and Monty's co-owner).
"During the last four months of Manny's campaign, I was working for him full time," he explains. "But I was behind the scenes, which is why you probably never saw me before, or why most people don't even know Manny has a brother."
That's about to change. With a referendum on Miami-Dade's gay-rights amendment set for the September 10 ballot, Jorge Diaz intends to take a highly visible role in making sure any repeal effort fails. If his surname brings added attention to this looming electoral fight, all the better. "During the [mayoral] campaign I wish Manny had been a bit more vocal about the fact that he does have a gay brother," he muses. "But that goes to the heart of the issue -- it's not personal. Manny doesn't agree with anykind of discrimination.... Today it's the gays, tomorrow it could be the Jews or the Haitians. Once you open the door to intolerance, where do you draw the line?"
After several months of tending to his own career, helping to care for his ailing partner (now recovered), and "recharging my batteries," Diaz says he felt ready to approach his friends at SAVE Dade, the chief group defending the gay-rights amendment. "I said, 'I'm back, let's get the ball rolling. What can I do?'"
Diaz takes it as a given that the personal is political, especially when it comes to his brother. "I always knew he'd be a public official," he says warmly, recalling when a teenaged Manny drafted him for street canvassing. "My first campaign working alongside my brother was when I was six years old!" he laughs. "I've been doing this for awhile."
None of that camaraderie changed when Jorge turned seventeen and broke off an engagement to his high school girlfriend. "I realized I had to go one way or another," he recalls of the period before he left Miami to attend Florida State University, "and my preference was men. Manny was the first person I told."
Initially there were the stereotypical machistaissues. "I had some tough times. My father was a military man, very strict and disciplinarian, but a good man. I felt that I was disappointing him, the typical things that people who are coming out of the closet feel." Now, however, "They all know and they all accept it, I think because I never pretended to be someone else."
Still, don't look for Diaz at the White Party with his shirt off. An unabashed traditionalist, he and his boyfriend, a computer specialist, exchanged vows two years ago on the back lawn of their suburban home before 130 gathered friends and family. Although gay marriage is barred in Florida, Diaz notes, "it was a union ceremony, what I call a wedding."
The couple was even preparing to adopt a pair of twins from a Tennessee mother who had developed a substance-abuse problem. To that end, Diaz's partner was about to move to Tennessee for six months and establish residency. "It was quite a lot of work, but the state of Florida makes it impossible for me to do it here," he says, referring to Florida's ban on gay adoptions.
With a hint of anger edging into his voice for the first time, he continues: "With the news of the missing foster children who aren't being taken care of properly, it just really brings it home for me. To watch and know there are other gay couples who want to adopt, it just hurts. To exclude anyone from trying to give children a loving home and a better future -- how can that be wrong?
"I'm in a stable relationship, and I've got family and friends who love and support us. We both do fairly well economically. We're in a position to give back and help a child realize their goals, like I've had the opportunity to do, thanks to my parents. To be dismissed..." Diaz pauses, and then with uncharacteristic bluntness, exhales: "It sucks."
The opening salvo of the gay-rights fight came on May 30 with the debut press conference from the No to Discrimination Committee, a new SAVE Dade-run group. Before a bevy of microphones and cameras, Miami mayor Manny Diaz, Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas, and Miami Beach mayor David Dermer were joined by local activists, all pledging their support of the gay-rights amendment come September 10, and announcing similar commitments from high-profilers such as the Cuban American National Foundation's Joe Garcia and University of Miami president Donna Shalala. Adding some starpower was the Latina answer to Oprah, talk-show host Cristina Saralegui, who has since said she hopes to attract fellow celebs such as singer Celia Cruz to the cause.
It may have been an impressive show of strength, but the preceding weeks were anything but tension-free. According to sources at Miami Beach's city hall, as well as figures at local gay organizations, Beach mayor Dermer remained incensed at SAVE Dade for its refusal to endorse his run this past November in favor of former state Rep. Elaine Bloom. Although he had publicly pledged his support of the gay-rights amendment, he reportedly refused to attend any SAVE Dade function -- a point driven home by his conspicuous absence from a March 24 "Town Hall Meeting" at Lincoln Road's Colony Theater. As SAVE Dade's leadership addressed a crowd of nearly 400 (including a flock of Beach and county commissioners) in the heart of Miami's largest gay community, the whispered question was: "Where's Dermer?"Was the mayor, still bitter, dishing some political payback?
Dermer had previously blamed personal enmity from SAVE Dade executive director Jorge Mursuli (who resigned to head up People for the American Way less than two weeks after Dermer's election) and SAVE Dade spokesman Jerome Baker -- whose PR firm worked on Bloom's campaign -- for his candidacy being passed over.
Mursuli insisted Baker had recused himself from any endorsement discussions, and, in a public statement, charged Dermer with being "inconsistent in the sincerity of some of his political actions," resenting his attempt to hog credit for the Beach's passing of domestic-partner health benefits for city employees. Privately SAVE Dade board members were less tactful, preferring to back even as nascent a convert to gay rights as Elaine Bloom over someone they viewed as a rank opportunist.
By late April, however, with September 10 fast approaching, several SAVE Dade figures were frantically trying to mend fences. Perhaps coincidentally, Jerome Baker's firm, Rosen Baker Cardenas, was replaced as SAVE Dade's flacks by Lisa Palley, the veteran rep for the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. And a new organization suddenly emerged: the No to Discrimination Committee, wholly staffed and funded by SAVE Dade, but lacking that parent group's overt imprimatur.
So was there a quid pro quo here? Ditch Mursuli, Baker, and even the SAVE Dade name itself, and Dermer would agree to finally get on board?
Absolutely not, insists SAVE Dade chairwoman Heddy Peña in an interview with Kulchur. Mursuli's decision to leave was his own, she says, while Lisa Palley is simply a better fit for the group. (Palley confirms she's considerably more affordable than the $5000 a month Rosen Baker Cardenas was receiving.)
"When people support us, I don't ask why," Peña says. "I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth; everyone is welcome. [Dermer] called me several weeks ago and told me he was pleased with the new direction SAVE Dade was going in."
What new direction?
"We're not doing any endorsements this year," she replies with a knowing laugh. "There have been some changes. And with change, you lose people." But most important, she stresses, "Mayor Dermer came forward when it counts. I couldn't be more pleased."
This doesn't explain the reasoning behind SAVE Dade creating the No to Discrimination Committee. After all, the outfit's own acronym stands for Safeguarding American Values for Everyone; Peña herself is a self-described "straight woman." How much more inclusive can you get?
"If you were to go to Kendall, most of the voters might think SAVE Dade is an environmental group," Peña explains. "No to Discrimination as a public campaign tells you what the issue is, and it tells you how to vote."
Still while Dermer and Peña may both be all smiles these days, some in the Hispanic community appear to remain skittish when it comes to the dreaded g-word. In the six days following No to Discrimination's initial press conference, the Heraldran no fewer than four stories on the group. Yet El Nuevo Herald deigned not to publish a single word about the event.
Back at Monty's, Jorge Diaz remains undaunted: "Would I have liked to have seenEl Nuevo Herald do something on it? Of course." Cocking an eyebrow at Kulchur, he continues, "I would've liked to have seen youdo something too.... You've gotta take it a step at a time and keep plugging away."
Diaz points to SAVE Dade's mayoral campaign endorsement of his brother, "one of the proudest days of my life," and by comparison, the actions of incumbent Joe Carollo and frontrunner opponent Maurice Ferré. Carollo declined to meet with SAVE Dade at all. In a previous interview with Kulchur, Ferré admitted that -- fully aware it would disqualify him -- he had refused to fill out SAVE Dade's endorsement questionnaire. This evasion came despite his attending SAVE Dade functions and telling the group's leaders in a private interview that he supported the gay-rights amendment.
"I was trying to be pragmatic," Ferré explained of his slippery move, arguing that ethnic blocs still unfortunately ruled the city's politics. "In the dirty campaigning of Miami, my [questionnaire] answers would have been used somewhere. It doesn't matter what Manny Diaz says about gay adoption -- he's Cuban!" But being Puerto Rican left Ferré in a vulnerable spot. "Me? My answer becomes important."
Don't tell that to Jorge. "We're all more afraid of the Hispanic community than we should be," he laments. "This attitude of 'Oh my God! They're Hispanic!' so there can't be any gays, there can't be anything out of the norm -- for lack of a better word. That's underestimating Hispanic culture, and that's underestimating Hispanic people." He cites previous experiences going door-to-door for SAVE Dade with elderly Latino voters.
"At first you may get some resentment or some uncomfortableness when you talk about the gay issue," he says. "But when you steer them back to the issue at hand -- I can be fired simply because someone in my office finds out I'm gay, or I can be denied housing because the mortgage broker finds out I'm gay -- the support has been great. It all depends on how you present it."
Moreover Diaz believes Miami is changing into an entirely new city. And he's going to ensure his brother keeps in touch with that pulse: "It seems like there's a different attitude here -- all kinds of people are feeling much more confident about this administration."
Well, the new mayor isn't throwing things at people.
"That's a start," Diaz deadpans.