Battle for the Bronx: Queer Latinx Millennial Faces Rubén “Gay Sex Is Bestiality” Díaz Sr.

If Council Member Ritchie Torres wins, he'd become New York's first openly LGBTQ Congressman.

Pictured above: Ritchie Torres (L) and Rubén Díaz Sr. (R).

Ritchie Torres has been taking on Donald Trump his whole life.

As a young boy, Torres and his family lived across the street from the Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in the East Bronx, which cost New York City an estimated $125 million to build. Throggs Neck Houses, the public housing project he lived in with his mother, sister, and twin brother, couldn’t have been more different. Much of the city’s public housing, he says, is overrun with “mold, lead, and vermin,” and many residents lack “reliable heat and hot water in the winter.”

Torres says his advocacy grew out of the realization that his borough was a “tale of two cities.” There was the Bronx he knew, where single mothers are raising three kids on minimum wage, and that of Trump, in which robber barons of inherited wealth profit off a system designed for them to plunder.

“I remember at the time thinking to myself: ‘Why would the government invest more public resources in constructing a gilded, gated golf course for Donald Trump than in the homes of struggling New Yorkers?” he tells NewNowNext.

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Council Member Ritchie Torres is arrested at a Trump protest in 2017.

Torres decided to dedicate his life by working to improve the lives of fellow residents of the Bronx who had been left behind by those in power. He became a housing organizer and then a candidate for the New York City Council at 24, the youngest NYC council member in history. Despite having never held public office, Torres bested a crowded field which included the community council president for the 46th Precinct and the chief of staff for the outgoing council member.

His experience growing up in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods will again propel the 31-year-old into the heated race for the 15th U.S. Congressional District, where the specter of the commander-in-chief looms large once more.

Because the 15th District is among the most solidly Democratic in the country, the outcome is likely to be decided in next year’s primaries. Although the seven-person race already includes a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a former New York state assemblyman, many say the early front-runner is fellow council member Rubén Díaz Sr. A 76-year-old Pentecostal minister, Díaz is a member of one of the most powerful families in Bronx politics. His son is the borough president.

If Torres’ childhood was a study in contrasts, the race for New York’s 15th is shaping up to repeat history. While Torres describes himself as a “millennial progressive,” he calls his opponent a “Trump Republican masquerading as a Democrat.” Díaz campaigned with Sen. Ted Cruz in the Bronx during his 2016 presidential run.
 
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What’s more, Díaz has a brazenly anti-LGBTQ record. He served for 15 years in the New York Senate, where he was the only member of his party to vote against marriage equality. He has also compared homosexuality to “having sex with animals,” opposed the 1994 Gay Games in New York because athletes “would likely be infected with AIDS,” and claimed the New York City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community.”

Those comments personally impacted Torres not just because he is also a member of the New York City Council but because he is a gay man. Although there are several openly LGBTQ members of the council, he is the first to represent the Bronx. Torres remains the only out elected official in New York’s second-largest borough.

Torres believes the race is a “struggle for the soul” of his district. If elected, he would be the first LGBTQ Latinx person elected to Congress and the first LGBTQ candidate—of any ethnicity—to be elected from New York. While he’s grateful to have the blaze another trail for representation, Torres believes it’s “ironic and tragic that the birthplace of the LGBTQ movement has never had LGBTQ representation in Congress.”

“The race for Congress is a choice between making history and turning the clock back,” he says. “It’s a choice between a progressive new guard and a reactionary old guard. It has the feel of a general election.”

Although Torres says “name recognition can take you far” in New York politics, the self-described “underdog” is quickly emerging as a major threat in the race. He has outraised Díaz by a 6-to-1 margin and earned the endorsement of the Equality PAC. The influential group, which represents the fundraising arm of the LGBTQ Congressional Caucus, is limited to donating $5,000 to candidates; however, the PAC is permitted to funnel additional funds through associated PACs.

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City Councilman Rubén Díaz Sr.

But Torres plans to fight decades of entrenched politics the old fashioned way. He says one of the key reasons he won in November 2012 is that he “knocked on thousands of doors” in the Bronx. Many of the people he spoke to said that in all their years of living in the borough, they’d never been visited by a candidate for public office.

Although he had been out since his sophomore year of high school when he came out during a schoolwide forum on marriage equality, Torres had to make a decision during that door-knocking effort: If the subject of his sexual orientation came up, would he address it? Campaigning as a gay man in the Bronx was a major risk. Although the borough voted 97% for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, it’s among the more socially conservative districts in the city.

Ultimately, Torres chose to be honest. He believes that meeting voters face-to-face gave them the opportunity to see him not just as an LGBTQ candidate, but instead as “Ritchie, the fighter for the Bronx.”

“What is beautiful about a local campaign is you can go into people’s homes and give them a window into who you are,” he says. “Prejudice thrives on lack of knowledge, and people who had prejudices were able to overcome them and support a candidacy like mine. When the voters came to know who I was, they were compelled to vote for me.”

Torres is confident voters will make the same choice next June, when Bronx residents cast their primary ballots. In his two terms on the New York City Council, he says he’s been able to “leverage the power of the bully pulpit to fight for the people who are struggling the most.” In 2013, Torres held the first city council hearing in a public housing development to discuss the lack of FEMA funding disbursed to residents whose residences were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.

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During those hearings, Torres learned how much hadn’t changed since the days when he looked on at Trump’s gilded gates from his bedroom window. An elderly woman testified that her apartment was so cold during the winter that she left her oven on throughout the day, risking death from carbon monoxide exposure.

The testimonies of New Yorkers on the margins proved effective. The hearing led to a $3 billion investment in public housing from FEMA, which Torres claims is “the largest in the history of New York City.”

Over the next year, Torres hopes to convey to constituents that he will keep fighting for them in Congress, which is where he believes he can make the greatest impact. As an advocate for affordable housing on the city council for six years, he knows that council members are limited in how much they can do. Nearly every single dollar distributed to public housing comes from federal funding, whether it’s FEMA relief, low-income tax credits, or the Section 8 program.

Torres says his pitch to voters is the same one he’s been proving to them for six years: “I’m one of you, and I will fight for you.”

“I can tell them, ‘I will fight for you from a place of lived experience,’” he says. “My story is the story of the Bronx. It’s a story of struggle, but it’s also a story of overcoming. The Bronx is where I was born. It’s where I will die. It’s my home. It always has been, and it will always will be.”

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
@Nico_Lang