Gay activists had mixed views this week over a decision by Mayor Vincent Gray to appoint a controversial civic leader who in past years referred to gays as “faggots” to a mayoral advisory committee that looks at city programs to curtail juvenile delinquency.
Gray last week named Leroy Thorpe, a licensed social worker and counselor with the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and a longtime civic activist in the city’s Shaw neighborhood, to the mayor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group. The unpaid advisory panel assists the mayor and DYRS, among other things, on how to use federal funds to strengthen the city’s juvenile justice system.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, sent Gray a letter strongly recommending Thorpe for the appointment.
Evans could not be immediately reached for comment.
And Ron Collins, Gray’s gay director of the Mayor’s Office of Boards and Commissions, said he vetted Thorpe for the appointment and recommended that the mayor name him to the advisory panel. Collins said Thorpe’s background and experience on juvenile justice issues showed him to be qualified for the post.
“I’ve known Leroy Thorpe for a number of years and I really don’t feel that he is a bigot toward any community,” Collins told the Blade.
Thorpe told the Blade in a phone message on Monday that he prefers not to discuss things he said in the past but said he’s changed his views and treats all people with respect.
“These days, you know, I got older, got wiser,” he said. “And I don’t act like I did before, back in the time when…I spoke without thinking. Everybody deserves respect and I don’t care who or what you are.”
Martin Moulton, president of the Convention Center Community Association, a Shaw-based group that has long been at odds with Thorpe, says Thorpe’s “history of bigotry” makes him unsuitable for a mayoral appointment.
In a series of e-mails sent to public officials and gay activists, Moulton points to statements Thorpe has made about gays on at least two occasions over the past 20 years. One took place in 1991, when Thorpe shouted through a bullhorn at a polling station on Election Day that gay City Council candidate Jim Zais was a “faggot” and Shaw voters should not support him.
Zais, who died of AIDS in 1994, lost the election to Evans by a close margin. At the time, Evans and his supporters disavowed Thorpe’s characterization of Zais, saying he wasn’t representing Evans or the Evans campaign.
Moulton noted that Thorpe several years ago called gay D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) an anti-gay name during a City Council hearing.
According to Moulton, Gray violated a promise he made to the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance on a GLAA questionnaire during last year’s mayoral election campaign, when Gray said he would “decline to honor individuals or organizations that promote any sort of bigotry.”
William Waybourn, former publisher of the Washington Blade and a Shaw resident, said Thorpe called him a faggot during a Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting in 2007 after Waybourn spoke at the meeting on an issue unrelated to LGBT rights.
“I don’t know why he did it,” said Waybourn.
Waybourn said Thorpe was less hostile toward him a short time later when the two attended a hearing by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Thorpe testified at the hearing against an application for a liquor license by owners of BeBar, a gay bar seeking to open on 9th Street in the Shaw neighborhood. Thorpe joined members of Shiloh Baptist Church, located across the street from the bar, who opposed the bar on grounds that it was not appropriate for it to be that close to a church.
The ABC Board later approved the license.
Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alex Padro, who has had dealings with Thorpe when Thorpe served on the ANC, called Thorpe’s appointment to a city board an “outrage.”
“The suggestion that someone with his record has changed doesn’t ring true,” he said.
Veteran D.C. gay activist and Ward 8 community leader Phil Pannell and Christopher Dyer, director of the city’s Office of GLBT Affairs under former Mayor Adrian Fenty, each said they have cordial relations with Thorpe and don’t consider him to be anti-gay.
“He might have been a homophobe in the past but I have observed a change,” Dyer said. “I don’t think deep down inside his soul he is homophobic.”
Pannell said Thorpe on several occasions has attended Pannell’s birthday celebration at a Ward 8 restaurant, which Pannell often uses as a fundraiser for community organizations or charitable causes.
“He has always been very respectful to me,” said Pannell. “He came to one of my functions with his wife. I would be hard pressed to call someone a homophobe who comes to my birthday,” said Pannell, who notes that his sexual orientation is widely known in political circles throughout the city.
Pannell said that while Thorpe clearly has used poor judgment in some of his references to gays in the past, he said he was moved when Thorpe showed up at Jim Zais’ memorial service in 1994 and apologized for the Election Day incident in which he called Zais an anti-gay name.
GLAA Vice President Rick Rosendall said he is troubled over Thorpe’s past remarks using the word “faggot” and believes Thorpe’s appointment could represent a contradiction to Gray’s response to the GLAA candidate questionnaire. But Rosendall said he also believes in “redemption” by people who change their views and attitudes on LGBT people.
“If he truly has changed, that’s something we would welcome,” he said.