A Man in Full Fight
Anyone who wants to try to understand the looming battle over this county's law prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians must first become familiar with two definitions. They come from the mind of 45-year-old Eladio José Armesto, communications director of Take Back Miami-Dade, the organization that is waging an assault on the law.
Homosexual. "A person who suffers from same-sex attraction."
Homosexualist. "Anyone -- be they heterosexual, bisexual, multisexual, or homosexual -- that seeks to impose homosexuality on society as a normal and acceptable sexual conduct. Not all homosexuals are homosexualist. In my experience the vast majority of homosexuals are not homosexualists, meaning they are not exhibitionists, they do not seek to impose their sexual conduct on the rest of society, they are nonviolent, they are discreet, they are respectful, they keep to themselves, they prize privacy. On the other hand not all homosexualists are homosexual. A lot of people don't understand the difference between a homosexual and a homosexualist."
Armesto is Take Back's leading legal theoretician. He attended Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles in the late Seventies (but did not graduate, according to the school's alumni office). His anti-homosexualist doctrine is based on these claims:
Homosexuals are sick.
Homosexualists are corrupt.
The sexual-orientation amendment is actually being used to discriminate against homosexuals.
The amendment is being used to quash the constitutional rights of people who oppose it.
If the measure is not abolished, sexual deviants such as masochists and incest perpetrators will soon seek civil-rights protections based on their sexual practices.
Above all, he maintains, the sexual-orientation amendment is a formula for fraud: People will claim they've been discriminated against because they are homosexuals even if they are not. "If a pregnant woman comes in through the door I know she's pregnant," he posits. "But if a homosexual walks through the door, I do not know that they're homosexual. And in fact and indeed if someone claims that they're homosexual, the next logical question is how he or she proves it. Oh, because they're going to put down their pants and they're going to butt-fuck in front of me? And that's how they prove it? Well, I can do that, too! And say I'm a homosexual. You know, I have all the physical organs necessary to be homosexual. But I choose not to behave in that manner."
Armesto's obsession with the sexual-orientation amendment has had a tangled past and is likely to have a twisted future as the September 10 referendum approaches. Miami-Dade commissioners passed the legislation in 1998 by a one-vote margin. The ordinance added two words to various sections of the county code. Thus it became the law of the swampland to prevent discrimination because of "race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, marital status, familial status, or sexual orientation." SAVE Dade, a nonprofit political action committee whose members include gay and straight people, was largely responsible for persuading the slim majority of commissioners to enact the amendment.
In December 2000, however, Armesto and several other Take Back organizers delivered about 51,000 signed petitions to the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections David Leahy, calling for a referendum to repeal the sexual-orientation protections. Among the presentation posse were Armesto; his father Eladio Armesto-Garcia, a former state representative and Miami Code Enforcement Board member who is now Take Back's chairman; and Antonio Verdugo, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Christian Coalition. Armesto describes Take Back as "a citizens' coalition of 400 civic, religious, and political groups" that wants to give people an opportunity to voice their opinion on "the highly controversial and highly divisive sexual-orientation amendment."
But the petition drive ran into trouble. Acting on complaints by SAVE Dade, Leahy determined that at least a fourth of the signatures belonged to unregistered voters or were fake. Take Back struck back by accusing SAVE Dade of sabotaging the petition drive by planting bogus signatures. In February 2001 Miami-Dade County filed a lawsuit against Take Back, Armesto-Garcia, Verdugo, and SAVE Dade, asking a judge to disqualify the petitions. Last August a Miami-Dade judge dismissed the complaint, however, after deciding the supervisor of elections lacked authority to determine the veracity of signatures. The ruling was upheld on appeal. This past January county commissioners set the date for the referendum. A criminal investigation into the petition drive is ongoing.
Of all the purposes a civic-minded soul could dedicate himself to in this poorest city in North America, why has Armesto singled out a law aimed at protecting homosexuals from discrimination? "I've chosen this one because I want to improve the quality of life in my community and I want to weed out corruption," he declares. "And this issue has become an issue because of the public corruption that exists in County Hall and at high levels of government."
Armesto warns that roving bands of homosexualists are sowing seeds of paranoia all over the place. "The SAVE Dade crowd has been in everybody's face since they wanted to get this tacky amendment passed," Armesto maintains. "Because they're basically tacky people. They're tacky, tacky, tacky. And many homosexuals in this community feel that SAVE Dade is a group of tacky people who are promoting a tacky ordinance in order to exploit homosexual persons by promoting fear of discrimination where there is none and trying to shake them down for money."
That is the kind of Armesto-ite verbiage that doesn't surprise but still exasperates proponents of the sexual-orientation amendment. "We're tired of having to respond to these ridiculous, nonsensical accusations that only serve to divide us and only serve to underscore the negative components of our community," laments Jorge Mursuli, who is openly gay and was executive director of SAVE Dade when the ordinance was passed. (He is now Florida state director of the People for the American Way Foundation.) "Are they that interested about somebody else's personal life that they have to rally around it? It's one thing to rally around the defense of your life. It's another totally different thing to rally around an attack on somebody else's. What's the point? Get a grip."
Mursuli laughs at the shakedown accusation. "I don't know what he's talking about," he says. "If he means we've gone out and secured support from people who believe this ordinance is a good thing whether they're gay, straight, black, or white, the answer is yes, and people have willingly come forward and said this is important about the quality of life for everyone. The fact that he's resorting to these ludicrous verbal attacks is indicative of the fact that they have no argument. Where are the intelligent, educational points of view that would warrant some sort of authentic, credible attention to what he is saying? There are none. So they have to come up with these colorful, attention-getting, bizarre statements that frankly make everybody smirk rather than pay any serious attention to them. I guess to them it doesn't really matter as long as they get attention."
Ludicrous or not, there is a precedent for Take Back's drive to succeed. A 1977 referendum led by singer Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children organization overturned a similar Dade County ordinance protecting homosexuals against discrimination. That is one reason SAVE Dade is taking the matter very seriously, plotting media strategies and canvassing efforts. In recent weeks its volunteers have been knocking on doors in high-turnout precincts in West Miami, Hialeah, Coral Gables, and Kendall. According to SAVE Dade executive director Timothy Higdon, the organization's core belief is that "no one should be a victim of discrimination."
As the campaign heats up, political leaders across the county, especially Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, will be faced with the vexing problem of just how to react to more volleys from Armesto. Vexing because those volleys could hit hard in their own back yard, the powerful voting bloc composed of elderly, religious Cuban Americans.
"When you establish sexual conduct as the basis of a right," Armesto fires off, "you are basically going against United States legal tradition and jurisprudence. And you're promoting bad public policy because in essence it opens the door for anybody -- sadomasochists, people who are pedophiliacs, people who practice incest, all these people -- to later come in through the door and say, 'I want my sexual conduct or orientation protected as well.'"
In Eladio José Armesto and his 65-year-old father Eladio Armesto-Garcia, Take Back does have some vulnerabilities, though. For example they know firsthand how easily the personal becomes political when one's platforms are based on moral supremacy.
Armesto-Garcia was part of the Cuban-American Republican tide that swept from Miami-Dade into the state legislature in the early Nineties. In 1992 the wooden-pallet vendor and former City of Miami Planning Advisory Board member decided to run for the Florida House District 117 seat. In the primary he defeated State Rep. Bruce Hoffman, then the only non-Hispanic Republican in the Miami-Dade delegation. With no Democratic challenger, Armesto-Garcia took the seat directly. He voted against keeping anti-abortion protesters away from clinics and for a restaurant tax to fund homeless programs in Miami-Dade. He sponsored the Free Cuba Act, which prohibited the state from conducting business with any foreign companies trading with Cuba.
Owing in part to revelations he had fathered a child out of wedlock, the Christian Coalition member lost his seat after one two-year term to another Republican, Carlos Lacasa. During the campaign information had surfaced that a woman named Dulce Espinosa had successfully filed a paternity suit against Armesto-Garcia in 1985 and that he had failed to make child-support payments. A Miami-Dade family court judge had ordered him to pay the mother $25 per week for child support, but in November 1989 he was $1251 in arrears, prompting a judge to find him in contempt. (Armesto-Garcia finally paid up three months later, according to court records.) After he was elected, Armesto-Garcia put Espinosa on the state payroll as his executive secretary, until the day he was no longer obligated to pay child support, the day their daughter Maytee turned eighteen. (Maytee Armesto, now age 25, currently serves on Miami-Dade Community Council 12, which is responsible for building and zoning matters in Kendall.)
Unlike his dad, Eladio José Armesto has been unelectable. In 1992 he also ran for a state house seat as a conservative Democrat but lost in the primary. At the time he was publisher of the monthly newspaper El Nuevo Patria and a member of the Miami Planning Advisory Board. In 1996, after the death of Miami Mayor Steve Clark, Armesto ran for mayor of Miami but lost to Joe Carollo. During that campaign, Carollo did not hesitate to mention that Eladio José, like his dad, has also had moral challenges close to home.
Armesto was 22 years old and residing in Los Angeles when he married his first wife Sara, who was age 17. According to Los Angeles County court records, he filed several domestic violence charges against her. (Details of the incidents were not available owing to California's restrictions on public access to court records.) The couple were raising three children in Los Angeles when he divorced her in 1987. Subsequently both moved to Miami-Dade, began cohabitating again, and had two more children together, this time out of wedlock.
A Miami-Dade judge issued a restraining order against Armesto on October 22, 1992, after Sara filed a domestic violence suit against him. One police affidavit described him beating Sara -- who was seven months pregnant at the time -- with a wooden hanger. The case was eventually dismissed but unfortunately the nickname El Percherito, or Little Hanger, stuck. When the incident resurfaced in the 1996 mayor's race, Armesto told the Miami Herald he acted in self-defense.
In 1995 Armesto filed a custody suit against his former bride. But a Miami-Dade family court general master upheld the Los Angeles court ruling that had given custody of their three eldest children to Armesto; the two youngest stayed with his ex-wife. In April 1998 three of his children filed domestic violence charges against him, but a judge dismissed them about three months later. Armesto married another woman in 1997, but they divorced less than a year later.
Armesto steers away from questions about him and his family. "Ultimately this fight is not about one single person in this county," he insists. "It's not about me. I could resign tomorrow and work on something else. The fact is that as an issue the people of Dade County deserve better than to have to be put through all this rigamarole."
Which was exactly Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas's point last December when he invited Armesto, his dad, and several other Take Back leaders to his 29th-floor County Hall office and asked them to drop their referendum drive, because it would cause a lot of pain. Instead the anti-homosexualists practically mauled him. "What do you consider human rights?" Armesto-Garcia railed, according to a Miami Herald account. "If a human being wants to sell marijuana, is that a human right? If a human being wants to snort cocaine, is that a human right? If a human being wants to be nude in front of my young child, is that a human right?"
Armesto chimed in by saying he had hoped Penelas was going to announce he was defecting to the Take Back side. Penelas said never. (The mayor did not respond to several requests for comment.)
Personal conduct issues aside, Armesto and his dad are able to amplify Take Back's anti-homosexualist message with articles in El Nuevo Patria, a monthly Spanish-language newspaper they publish. One front-page article printed last October about then-Miami mayoral candidate Manny Diaz at the peak of the race, with the headline "Diaz Allied With Homosexualists," denounced Diaz for having an "arrogant disdain of traditional moral values."
Armesto explains why he and his editors decided to run the article. "Mr. Manny Diaz very corruptly hid his homosexualist position from the Cuban-American voters in Little Havana very dishonestly," he submits. "You know, when you have a position you should have the courage to stand by it.
Armesto maintains that Diaz's SAVE Dade endorsement was a secret, despite the best efforts of El Nuevo Patria. "In the Cuban-American community it was [a secret]," he insists. "Yesireee. It certainly was. Absolutely. Absolutely."
Diaz says Armesto's claim is bogus. "My position on the issue has always been clear. It's clear now," the mayor states. "I'm against repeal. And those specific statements that he makes, I'm not even going to respond to them."
And Armesto's notion that nonhomosexuals will claim to be homosexuals so they can file discrimination complaints? Diaz almost snickers. "I think it's absurd," he scoffs. "I think we ought to be concentrating on bringing this community together and working to make this a better place for all of us to live in." Diaz recently met with SAVE Dade organizers and expects to do so again to help plan strategies for saving the ordinance.
Just how will Take Back be framing its issues in this campaign? One bold stroke will involve Armesto casting himself as a spokesman for homosexuals. "I've gone into stores and I've seen people saying, 'Oh, these fags, they want to do this and they want to do that,' and I've had to tell people, 'You know, the majority of homosexual persons do not agree with these extremists that are running SAVE Dade. The majority of homosexual persons are respectful people. They keep to themselves, they do their job, they're our neighbors, they're our friends, they're our co-workers, some of them are our family members.'" How many friends of his are gay? "At least nine," he replies. "Plus two employees."
Another Take Back plank is one the group used to persuade county commissioners to vote against the ordinance in 1998, namely, that there was no "demonstrated need" for it. "It wasn't a response to discrimination," Armesto insists. "That was one of the other arguments that we made. We said, 'Listen. All laws are enacted on the basis of a demonstrated need.' That's just common sense. Why don't we have a law against flying saucers parking on city streets? Well, because nobody's been able to show there's a need for such a law because there aren't flying saucers parking on city streets."
"He's like a broken record," Mursuli says. "He just chooses to ignore the facts. Tell him to go to the Miami-Dade Equal Employment Opportunity Board and pull up all the complaints. There's like 51 of them now. You don't have to take it from me or SAVE Dade. You just call. He knows that. But he just keeps repeating the same thing. 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling.' Come on. There's not havoc in the streets. Gay people aren't walking around naked. It's silly."
Another of Armesto's concepts is that the gay-rights amendment has caused some kind of reverse discrimination against people and organizations who oppose it. When asked to cite examples, the only concrete one he offers relates to the Boy Scouts. Armesto is a leader of Pack 575 at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, where he practices a form of scouting fused with Catholicism. "You are in my prayers," he posted in a note to the contributors to a "Catholic Scouting" Website last year. "Happy Scouting, Pray the Holy Rosary, Defend the Faith, and Be Prepared. Saint George, Patron Saint of Scouting, Pray for Us!"
It was the Boy Scouts, however, that adopted a policy that discriminates against homosexuals by prohibiting openly gay members from its ranks. Yet Armesto submits that the Scouts are the victim. "It [the ordinance] is being used to discriminate against institutions such as the Boy Scouts of America, who have decided that they're not going to allow avowed homosexuals to work as scoutmasters and leaders," Armesto charges. "We need to get rid of it because it establishes special privileges on the basis of sexual conduct, because it is used against institutions such as the Scouts that do not accept avowed homosexualists in their ranks, and because the promoters of this highly divisive amendment which is tearing our community apart are using the amendment to quash any criticism of any type of sexual conduct as a result of this amendment and then claiming that it's discrimination."
Armesto's understanding of constitutional law is flawed, according to SAVE Dade executive director and campaign manager Timothy Higdon. "The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that laws like this do not apply to the Boy Scouts," he notes. "As a private club the Boy Scouts are allowed to discriminate against whomever they want."
Mursuli adds: "It goes back to credible arguments. What are we talking about here? If everybody were to pull up the ordinance and read what the ordinance says there's no mention in there whatsoever about how it affects funding of any organization or anything of the sort. It's ludicrous."
Finally, Armesto rests his case on the fact that the founding fathers did not write about homosexuals per se, nor did the Congressional representatives who drafted civil-rights legislation. "Sexual conduct, sexual orientation, and sexual preferences are not a constitutional right under the United States Constitution, nor are they a civil right under the laws of the United States," Armesto declares. Therefore the Miami-Dade ordinance gives homosexuals "special privileges" that other folks don't have. What kind of privileges? "The privilege," he replies, "of being protected from being fired from your job because you go in and you say that you are of a specific or a certain sexual conduct, because you practice a certain type of sex."
Wrong again, Higdon says. "What our campaign wants is that the same protection that is afforded to other citizens remain for gays and lesbians. Why would we as a community target one group of citizens and exclude them from protection before the law?"
It's not just SAVE Dade that has a problem with Armesto's reasoning. On April 13 the Miami-Dade Democratic Party's executive committee censured Armesto for promoting anti-gay views. Committee member Paula Xanthopoulou issued a statement describing his Take Back activities as "out-of-sync efforts to promote discrimination and divide our community."
Then there was the April 16 cocktail reception at Monty's, the Coconut Grove restaurant co-owned by Mayor Diaz. The soiree was the final act of a one-day conference hosted by People for the American Way to celebrate free speech in Miami-Dade County. Jorge Mursuli had invited Armesto to symbolize that the First Amendment was more important than political disagreements. The occasionally foul-mouthed scout leader sat at the front table with three other people as Mursuli marveled that "just about every corner of the community is here." Diaz was also in the crowd, as was Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the Miami-Dade State Attorney.
A few weeks earlier, Armesto had refused to provide her office with handwriting samples in connection with the criminal investigation of Take Back's petition drive. He charged that Fernandez Rundle was biased because she had received SAVE Dade's endorsement and a $500 check from the group in her race against Al Milian in 2000. (In late April Gov. Jeb Bush saw merit in Armesto's claim and moved the case to the Polk County state attorney.)
But everyone was on good behavior at Monty's. None of the speakers mentioned the referendum issue, although with Armesto's presence one couldn't help but think about it when pollster Sergio Bendixen announced his latest findings that tolerance was on the rise in Miami-Dade. "People are no longer afraid to speak their minds about controversial issues," Bendixen announced. "All of the arrows are pointed in the right direction." He noted that the Elian affair, in which many exiles who favored the boy's return to his father could not speak openly to those who opposed it, marked a turning point.
By then Armesto, an ardent supporter of the boy's stay in Miami, had apparently reached his tolerance level and strolled out the banquet room doors, where he conversed intensely with Seth Gordon, managing partner of the GDB + Partners public relations firm along with State Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Gordon told Armesto the referendum was a bad idea, regardless of one's views on homosexuality. "Referenda are like nitroglycerin," he warned Armesto. "You shake it up and you don't know what it's going to do." Gordon, who supports the ordinance, told him it would be less divisive to try to pass a bill in Tallahassee instead. "What's going to happen is it's going to end up being about Alex," he warned, referring to Mayor Penelas.
"In a way it is about Alex," Armesto replied.
Armesto's presence at the gathering had the mysterious effect of making everyone else seem united. Even the bitterest of rivals, Milian and Fernandez Rundle, Republican and Democrat, respectively, were joined against him. Both oppose repeal of the sexual-orientation amendment. "I think it's a terrible idea," said Milian of the referendum. "I just told him so. I'll do it again if you want to watch."
The event ended without a shouting match.
Many of the county's savviest political minds still can't explain why Armesto would dedicate himself to this particular battle. Mayor Diaz draws a blank. "I really haven't sat down and given that any serious thought," he chortles. "But if I think of something I'll let you know."
"I have no clue what their motivation is," groans Mursuli. "The only thing I can think of is that they'd rather that gay people went away or didn't exist or would live in the closet and feel badly about who we are and what our families look like. And you know what? That's not happening. So, wake up and smell the coffee. We're here to stay."
Not so fast, says Armesto. "We got so many problems in this community," he complains. "Why did SAVE Dade pick this problem to heap upon us? Why have homosexualists turned this into an issue if not to shake down their community, gain political power, and get their picture in the paper? If nobody is bothering them, if nobody is discriminating against them, if nobody is chasing them around, why make this tacky and idiotic amendment an issue, other than because they want to exhibit themselves, parade down the street."
But wasn't it Armesto's group that has turned the amendment into an issue by pushing to repeal the ordinance? Aren't the leaders of Take Back trying to establish themselves as a political force as well? "The fact of the matter is that we did not impose this on the people of Dade County," Armesto insists. "So whoever asks that question is either stupid or acting in bad faith. They are either very very stupid or ignorant."