Wilton Manors LGBT community caught in midst of free speech debate

A decision by the President of the Wilton Manors Business Association, Celeste Ellich, to invite Congressman Allen West to address the non-partisan group ignited a local storm of controversy.

At press time, the group had withdrawn the invitation to West. While a new association of LGBT activists, the Coalition for Equality and Fairness, was planning a public rally and demonstration outside City Hall in Wilton Manors on Monday, August 8.

Here’s what happened.

Celeste Ellich sent an email on July 27 to members of the WMBA notifying them that Congressman West had agreed to address the group at Hagen Community Park on August 8. When the legislative director of the GLBT Democratic caucus, Michael Rajner, found out about West’s upcoming appearance he authored a controversial letter demanding the invitation be rescinded.

“Bullies and opportunists like West have actively worked against the advancement of social justice for GLBT-people and others,” the letter read.

West has outraged gay rights activists in the past by his divisive statements regarding his opposition to gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Just days before this latest controversy West said at a town hall meeting: “When you take the military and you tell it they must conform to the individual's behavior, then it's just a matter of time until you break down the military.”

Rajner indicated that if Ellich refused to cancel the invite, the caucus was going to demand her resignation, insist that LGBT businesses within the association pull out, and orchestrate a boycott against those businesses, which did not resign from the group including “GLBT-owned businesses willing to put profits ahead of human rights.”

Rajner’s actions generated an immediate response by business and community leaders.

Outraged by discovering that the WMBA would invite West to speak, Antonio Dumas of ‘To the Moon,’ John Castelli of Castelli Homes, and a few other businesses announced they would indeed leave the organization.

“Why would they bring someone so offensive to so many of us to speak in our midst?” Castelli said. Another business, Rosie’s was equally shocked, and owner Cliff Mulcahy, who just joined the group, opined, “this is not what I signed up for.”

But other LGBT members of the WMBA stood by the invitation, indicating that the Congressman should have a right to address the group. Mayor of Wilton Manors Gary Resnick, himself a member, organized a city council resolution condemning the proposed boycott as “irresponsible and counter-productive.” LGBT leaders and the media started taking positions. The Sun Sentinel editorialized that the caucus was inhibiting free speech.

Meanwhile, word of the as yet unorganized and proposed boycott reached West’s office. He then sent a letter to Ellich saying that he would still speak to the association, but only if the gathering was limited to members of the association and he could speak solely on the issues important to small businesses, taking ‘social issues’ off the agenda.

In response to the limiting directives outlined by West, and the proposed boycott being organized by the GLBT Democratic caucus the WMBA rescinded its invitation to West on Monday. It was revealed at that time that the organization’s board of directors had never actually met and sent out a formal invitation. Instead Ellich had acted on her own months ago, thinking it a ‘coup’ to land the Congressman, who represents parts of Wilton Manors and Oakland Park, to speak to the group.

“I never thought I would wind up getting death threats and vicious emails over this invitation,” Ellich said.

After the event was called off West responded to the boycott and cancellation in a letter.

“This boycott would have harmed hard-working small business owners simply because members of the Wilton Manors Business Association wanted to be better informed on business related issue taking place in Washington D.C.,” the statement reads. “In these very tough economic times, I find it intolerable that the Florida Gay, Lesbian, Transgender Democratic Caucus would call upon a boycott to hurt small business owners trying to earn a living and only wanting to better be informed about business related issues from their Member of Congress. Clearly, we have learned who really are the intolerable individuals in South Florida.”

Dean Trantalis, an attorney and member of WMBA, hosted the first meeting of the Coalition for Equality and Fairness and stated that their goal is to create an organization designed to protect citizenship diversity and stand up to public officials who are bullying the LGBT community.

The new group announced that it will release its mission statement Thursday, after planning an agenda and venue for its first event -- a rally entitled “Allen West: In His Own Words.” The forum, open to the public, will be held 6 p.m. Monday, August 8, in a location to be announced.