In the era of discriminatory “religious liberty” legislation and the so-called “wedding cake wars,” news of protests against LGBT-excluding businesses like pizza parlors and auto-repair shops is not unexpected. But on Monday night in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, protestors demonstrated against an unlikely target: The Out NYC, a gay-oriented hotel residing in the heart of one of Manhattan’s gayest enclaves. How did this happen? It starts with one of the worst dinner party guest lists of all time.
Ian Reisner and Mati Weiderpass, former life partners who’ve maintained a business relationship, are the duo behind The Out NYC and the connected XL Nightclub. Their hotel and party space has been the setting for all manner of benefits and performances catering to a gay audience and supporting various LGBTQ causes. Reisner expanded his portfolio in January by acquiring, as part of a larger investment partnership, every restaurant and bar in Fire Island Pines, a popular gay beach resort 50 miles east of Manhattan. With their shared Central Park South duplex and lavish lifestyle, Reisner and Weiderpass are A-list gays who are making the most of the freedoms and cachet recently afforded to upwardly mobile homosexuals living in the right zip codes. The pair is as hard-living as they are hard-charging: Last May, Reisner crashed his car and was arrested in the Hamptons for “driving while impaired.” And in October, a 23-year-old bartender died of a drug overdose in their apartment. These events have raised eyebrows; but their most recent crash—this one of a political nature—has raised fists.
On Apr. 20, the pair hosted a dinner and “fireside chat” with Senator Ted Cruz and his wife at their duplex. That’s right—GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz who actively opposes LGBT civil rights and is currently on an anti-gay demagoguing tour to shore up his conservative bona fides. While the guest list was limited to about a dozen people, two of them tipped off the New York Times to the event (as did photos that Weiderpass posted to his Facebook page), and that’s when the trouble started. As anger began to grow over the dissonance of an anti-gay politician hobnobbing with two men who owe much of their wealth to the gay community, Reisner attempted to downplay the event: It was mostly about Cruz’s commitment to Israel and national security, he said, and anyway, federal marriage equality “is done—it’s just going to happen.” Reisner also asserted that the event was not a fundraiser, though reporting in Politico and elsewhere suggests that Cruz may have viewed it as one.
In any case, it’s the period of prevarication following the event that really grates. Over the weekend, Reisner apologized for being unaware of Cruz’ anti-gay views—“I am shaken to my bones by the e-mails, texts, postings and phone calls of the past few days,” he wrote on Facebook—even though his earlier comments in the Times imply such an awareness. Weiderpass wrote his own crisis-management Facebook post explaining that the event was a spontaneous, surprise affair, since Cruz just happened to be in the neighborhood. (Happily, the hosts managed to secure food, fire, and ten guests by the time Cruz dropped in.) Reisner’s earlier claim that he was merely a “guest” at his own apartment (he had previously suggested he was just an “attendee” of Weiderpass’ gathering) is no longer operative, in the parlance of the Nixon administration, since he has now admitted co-hosting the event. Lastly, Reisner sought to balance the books by claiming that he had also “hosted” a “Ready for Hillary” event at his hotel, though his actual involvement in that event has been widely questioned.
The reaction from the patrons who discovered that their drink tabs might end up lining the pockets of a vociferously anti-gay candidate came as swift as a snap in a ‘Z’ formation. Broadway Bares/Equity Fights AIDS quickly cancelled a planned event at The Out NYC, as did the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus and Urban Bear NYC. A Facebook page called “Boycott Fire Island Pines Establishments & Out NYC Hotel” boasts more than 10,000 likes as of this writing, and the calls for action continue apace.
Predictably, the conservative press responded to all this in a paroxysm of rage against “gay intolerance” and “political correctness.” But that misses the point. Gays obviously come in a range of political stripes, and Reisner and Weiderpass have every right to consort with an anti-gay bigot like Cruz in pursuit of their niche politics. We are all granted freedom of association. Reisner and Weiderpass have exercised theirs, and their former customers are responding in kind.
The “season” in which many gays make weekly pilgrimages out to Fire Island is fast approaching; only time will tell if the boycott can maintain energy out of Manhattan and into the sand. But Reisner and Weiderpass’ error—one brought on by a noxious combination of privilege-blindness and cravenness—has clearly struck a nerve. As Bette Davis said in All About Eve, a portrait of betrayal beloved by gay men of a certain age, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”