Ten days ago, the real-estate investor Ian Reisner and his business and former romantic partner Mati Weiderpass — who, among other things, own the Out Hotel on West 42nd Street — had a dinner party at the duplex they still own together on Central Park South. Their guest that night was the vehemently conservative Texas senator and Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, and his wife. Their old friend Kalman Sporn, an advisor to Cruz’s team on the Middle East, was the man who brought them all together, and after the food, they settled into the Art Deco chairs and had a “fireside chat”— yes, their fireplace works — discussing Israel and ISIS, as well as gay marriage (Cruz is very much against it, but danced around the subject that night by stressing the idea that he considered it a states’ rights issue).
But after Weiderpass posted about it on his Facebook page — he was proud of how he’d pressed Cruz to admit he’d love his daughter, even if she were gay — and the Times followed up with a story, it was their reputation that went up in flames. As the LGBT Caucus of the New York City Council (and others) have pointed out, “owning businesses that cater to the LGBT community comes with a heightened level of responsibility,” and Cruz’s ideological record on gay issues is hardly a secret, and shouldn’t have been in any way the surprise to Reisner and Weiderpass that they claimed it was, after the fact.
Reisner and Weiderpass became the prominent gay businessmen running prominent gay businesses who then, inexplicably, cozied up to the right wing. There were calls on social media for a boycott of the Out, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS quickly canceled its annual fund-raiser there; in Fire Island Pines, the gay beach community where Reisner recently invested in the money-losing harbor entertainment district, there was talk of staying away this summer. Reisner apologized on Facebook — “I am shaken to my bones by the emails, texts, postings and phone calls of the past few days. I made a terrible mistake,” he wrote, adding, “I was ignorant, naïve and much too quick in accepting a request to co-host a dinner with Cruz at my home without taking the time to completely understand all of his positions on gay rights.” (For the record, Cruz has come into a great deal of criticism for meeting with them, especially, as the Times pointed out, when the apartment was where a 23-year old friend of Reisner’s died of an apparent drug overdose last year.*) In the aftermath of picketers gathering outside the hotel this week, Reisner and Weiderpass invited Daily Intelligencer over to the gleaming apartment for another fireside chat.
So this is where Cruz sat?
Reisner: This is the crime scene. Yellow ribbon.
Weiderpass: A friend of mine, when he saw the article, said, “Wait a minute, don’t you remember when I came over, it was several years ago, and we had a game of Twister in the same exact spot?” And it was actually a game of naked Twister.
Reisner: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s not go there.
This certainly does seems like a nice place to do either. So how did this dinner happen?
Reisner: A friend of mine for 20 years, Kalman Sporn, he’s a political strategist. He actually is doing some advisory — was doing some advisory work for the state of Israel for the Cruz campaign. And I think they’ve since put him on hold. He called just a couple days before and said, “I’m going to be at this event with Senator Cruz at the New York Athletic Club, a fund-raiser, and he’s going to be with his wife. Would you like to invite your [business] partner Sam Domb?” Sam is almost 80 years old, an Orthodox Jew, a New Yorker at heart, been here 50 years, owns a lot of hotels — welfare hotels, regular hotels — very strong supporter of the state of Israel, worked for Giuliani, was his campaign manager, I think, unofficially way back when he first started … He’s our godfather; he taught us the business. He’s even the landlord on the Out.
In some ways, the whole night was supposed to be about Cruz meeting Domb?
Reisner: In many ways, yes. Sam watched his mom get killed, was in the death camps … Every Israeli president who comes through New York always has dinner with him. We’ve had Netanyahu … We had Sharon here … So Kalman says, “I know this is not your cup of tea in terms of his view on social rights, but you can get a chance to question him on that, and I know Sam would love to meet him because Sam has all his views on Israel, would you like to have a meet and greet?”
Who’d you have over?
Reisner: My brother, Weiderpass, me, Sam, and a friend of Sam’s who happens to be an investor in the Out, a guy named Jeff. That’s the whole team on my end — other than my maid and my chef. And they came with Heidi; I think his campaign manager; his security guard, bodyguard, right-hand man, who takes notes; and one other guy. And that’s the dinner. I mean, that’s the dinner.
Domb aside, what interested you in it personally?
Weiderpass: I was on the board of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund for six years, and we were up against one of the most conservative organizations in the world: the U.S. military.
What attracted you to SLDN?
Weiderpass: I was a captain in the army… I went to Worchester Polytech on a ROTC scholarship, and was in for four years.
Were you gay then?
Weiderpass: I didn’t know what I was back then. In the military, you couldn’t be gay. I saw other soldiers being thrown out while I was there, and I had a girlfriend. I broke up with my girlfriend because she wanted to get married, and she went around telling people that I was gay. And she was actually following me and watching at night to see where I was and what bars I was going to and what kind of people I was hanging out with. So I was terrified because I’d heard the stories of what happens: They put you in a room and they keep you there for days and they tell you you’re a disgrace to your country, to your parents, the whole thing. So when the opportunity came to do something good for gay rights, and I saw the legal defense network, I said hey, I was almost subject to the horrors of this … So we had to go and meet people in the military, Pentagon, and members of Congress. And we were up against everybody that was like, what are you talking about, gays in the military? Why do gays need to be in the military? Like, don’t you just go around and go on parades? No — gays come in all shapes and sizes and all kinds of stripes. I’m wearing a tie, I’m a businessman, but I’m gay. I deserve the same rights as someone that’s also in a business suit or maybe in a swimsuit that is gay or straight. So this was natural for me to go up against people that were against me. Then the opportunity came along to meet somebody who is in the Senate, running for president, is against gay rights … he came to my home for a private dinner, not a fund-raiser. That was absolute — it was not a fund-raiser.
Reisner: There were no checks given. It was nothing like that.
Weiderpass: He was supposed to come at eight and he got here I think at about 8:30, so it was like wow, he actually came. And so after dinner was over, then I invited the senator’s wife to come sit over here, we had the fireplace going, and then I just sort of eased into it as, I said, you realize that you’re having dinner at a gay household. It was sort of the elephant in the room. And it just came out. And then he says, yes. And then I said to him, I noticed that you only took one phone call the entire night. You know, when you have politicians they’re always on their BlackBerries or sending text messages and stuff. No one took a phone call. He took one; it was for his 7-year-old daughter. So I said that to him and I said, so what would happen if your daughter turned out to be a lesbian? And he said, I would love her just the same.
Reisner: There was a lot more around that, but basically …
Weiderpass: Love is the same. And this is exactly what we did with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. We wanted to make the gay and lesbian issues so personal that you can’t run away from it. So now if you have a daughter who’s a lesbian, now the next thing is, now she’s grown up. Where’s she going to get married? Does she have to go shopping around for a state that allows gay marriage? Are you going to go to your own daughter’s wedding? Or are you going to boycott it? Are you going to invite your friends? Are your friends going to be embarrassed to come? How do you reconcile all that? It doesn’t. And that’s what I tried to do in a very polite, respectful way — to create this situation which in your mind is hard to reconcile. And then I asked about, do you have any gay friends? They were so proud to tell us about all their gay friends. So then it’s like, how can you be so anti-gay out there with a platform when you’re bragging about your gay friends? Again, it doesn’t make sense.
Reisner: He said Peter Thiel [the prominent openly gay and openly libertarian Silicon Valley investor] was his friend of 20 years before Peter was rich and before he was famous, and Peter gave a million dollars to his campaign and then another million — this must be three or four years ago.
And then you posted about it on Facebook, and there were protests at the Out.
Weiderpass: Monday night.
Reisner: We really were going to invite everybody in and do a town hall meeting to really have a dialogue, but the security people and the police said don’t do it.
Weiderpass: Don’t do it.
Reisner: You know, it’s so ironic — I wanted to build kind of a community center in the gateway to Hell’s Kitchen, which in 2008–2009 was already a gay place and now it’s even gayer. Very close to Broadway. We decided there’d be so many different ways to give back to the community. We show gay artists there. For gay performers, we have let this cabaret club go on for three and a half years. And you don’t make money when you let drag queens in on Tuesday night and 30 people drink at $10 a drink and you have to pay five people to watch over the place. You don’t make money … My only point is, this has not been a profitable venture. Gays are cheap. They’re frugal; gays are frugal. Let me retract that … gays are entitled … Do you know how challenging it is to make a penny off a gay person? I’m gay, I don’t pay cover. I’m gay, where’s my comp drink? [Everyone laughs.] No, I’m being serious! The Out NYC has not shown a profit yet …
You grew up here, right?
Reisner: I grew up in New York and it was very hard. I went to a little small prep school. Everybody called me a faggot, and wedgies in the bathroom. Very nasty stuff. When I started at Salomon Brothers, you’re an investment banker, they’d leave notes: “your doctor called. The test is positive” would be in my computer. And all kinds of nasty, nasty comments. I found the process of coming out was so hard.
Have there been repercussions with all this besides emails and protests?
Reisner: Besides the business aspect, for me the horrible part is the abundance of communications in all forms. Letters, calls, texts, emails, Facebook notifications, and postings. Like, hate. The hate against us is so strong, for me, it literally makes me weep. That there’s a vast group of gay folks in America that don’t know what I have done for the gay cause, consistently for decades, and now think I’m anti-gay. There’s such a massive divide between the reality of what we do, did and do, and their limited thinking of what we do because of a few facts and a few headlines.
Weiderpass: I try to filter it out. I don’t even look at it because I believe in the goodness of everybody. For me, the biggest disappointment has been not only the cancellation of the Broadway Bares, but the way that it was canceled. The person that’s behind that Facebook page [advocating the boycott] is staying anonymous. I reached out to the person. I said, can we meet and talk? I would want to hear what you have to say and what I’d really like to do is join forces and work together because I believe in the cause, and he responded a few hours later, “Thank you for reaching out,” from the anonymous email. “Let me sleep on it, I think we can work something out tomorrow.” He never contacted me.
Reisner: We do have to work on, at one point, bridging this. There has to be a peace talk because this is so divisive for the community. Look at the energy that’s being wasted and all the press that’s being wasted.
What was in it for Cruz? Why do you think he did it?
Weiderpass: I don’t know.
Reisner: He regrets it now, I’m sure.
*The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the 23-year old who died in their apartment was a friend of Weiderpass, who says they never met; he was reportedly in fact a friend of Reisner’s.