Amid accusations it is giving a San Francisco seal of approval to what some contend is a "homophobic cult," the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution this week in support of ending persecution of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned since 1999 in China, where members of the group are routinely imprisoned.
Both the city's gay supervisors, Bevan Dufty and Tom Ammiano, joined in the 9-2 vote to pass the resolution, despite calls for them not to give any support to Falun Gong, whose founder has called gays "demonic" and has said that "the priority of the gods will be to eliminate homosexual people."
The resolution makes no mention of China or Chinese officials, nor does it specifically address the group's beliefs regarding gay people. It does state that the city does not officially sanction "the views expressed by Falun Gong practitioners" and that the police and Human Rights Commission in San Francisco "should protect the rights and safety of Falun Gong practitioners."
Huy Lu, a Daly City resident and spokesman for the local Falun Gong group, said LGBT people are welcome in the movement. He contended that the accusations of antigay teachings are meant to confuse people.
"We don't have anything against gays, blacks, or any other group," he said. "I practice in the Civic Center and a lot of people go in and out of the Civic Center, some of whom are gay. They are welcome to have us teach them our practice."
The resolution is a watered down version of one introduced by Supervisor Chris Daly that specifically called on Chinese authorities to end their persecution of the movement's followers. Daly, who brought up a similar measure in 2001, did not return calls seeking comment. Passage of the "innocuous" version - as Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi called it - met with criticism from the gay community.
"What a disappointing vote. I have compassion for the practitioners but I think the supervisors have been duped by the master's party line," said a visibly upset Thomas Brown after the vote.
Brown, a gay man whose roommate's parents are Falun Gong members, petitioned Dufty to either not vote for the resolution or add specific language to it condemning the movement's stance toward homosexuals.
"I challenge any gay person in this city to get any Falun Gong practitioner to state they do not agree with their master's belief. I have never heard them refute what he has said. There is deception here," said Brown. "I think it is a vote that will come back to haunt some of the supervisors."
Brown's roommate, Samuel Luo, called the supervisor's vote "a huge disappointment" and warned that the group will use the resolution "to recruit members. It makes it hard for people like me to get family members out of the cult."
Robert Bernardo, president of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, called the vote "shocking" and said it will have reverberations in the gay Asian community.
"There will be gay Asians out there who will be upset, definitely," said Bernardo, though he said he could see why the supervisors waded into the issue.
"I don't know if it was an endorsement of Falun Gong. It is more about freedom of speech and freedom of expression, which I am all for. That doesn't mean this group is not homophobic nor a quasi-religious cult, which they are," said Bernardo.
Thom Lynch, executive director of the LGBT Community Center, expressed concern about the city adopting the resolution and questioned why the board took up the issue in the first place.
"I certainly think the city should not do anything that supports their views on LGBT issues. I don't think anything in this did do that. If it is just stating people should not be persecuted in China for their beliefs, it is hard to find fault with that," said Lynch.
Though he wondered "how do we get into Chinese cults when we have some many cults here we are not addressing. It is an awfully complicated issue to take on on a local basis. One good thing that came out of it is people are having a debate about it. It just should not be decided at the Board of Supervisors."
Several of the supervisors who voted for the measure went to great pains to explain why they felt it was right for San Francisco to pass it. Supervisor Fiona Ma, the lone Asian American on the board who sought to strike the initial resolution's references to China, painted her vote as one upholding American ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution.
"I took an oath to defend the constitution of the U.S. and the constitution of the state of California and I am fulfilling it with this vote today," said Ma. "America is built on the fundamental values of inclusion and freedom. And sometimes at the local level, we have to defend these values and rights."
Ma, who faced intense pressure from the city's Chinese community not to vote for the resolution, also came under attack because of Falun Gong's antigay teachings. She stressed before voting to approve it Tuesday that, "I do not support the Falun Gong or their teachings. I do not believe government should endorse or promote any particular belief system. This vote is simply about the values of this city, this state, and this country to protect the freedoms we cherish that are increasingly under attack."
In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter after the vote, Ma said she could not say with certainty if the Falun Gong was homophobic or not.
"I am not completely sure of all the teachings of this movement," she said.
Instead of examining the movement's specific teachings, Ma framed the issue as one about "human rights, individual rights, and ending persecution based on one's beliefs" and said the resolution simply "protects people's right to live in San Francisco and not be harassed for their beliefs."
Prior to the board meeting, Dufty had indicated to the B.A.R. in a phone interview Tuesday morning that he would not vote for the resolution.
"At this point I am really uncomfortable putting the board on record in any way that can be construed as supporting Falun Gong," Dufty said. "I don't feel like it is my role to weigh in on this and I don't feel like I can sort out all of the issues. I am not condemning the Catholic Church and its leadership certainly is very homophobic."
Later in the day, Dufty said he changed his mind after speaking with Ammiano because they both felt that no matter what the group believes, it does not deserve to be persecuted for it.
"In talking with him I became comfortable with the strict interpretation of this resolution," said Dufty, who looked conflicted about his decision in a brief conversation after the vote.
Ammiano, speaking before he cast his aye vote, said though he was "still concerned" about the issues raised regarding Falun Gong's beliefs, he nonetheless saw the resolution "as being very clear it is only about ending persecution."
Falun Gong's views on homosexuality became an issue when the Chinese Chamber of Commerce placed an advertisement in Monday's San Francisco Chronicle that questioned why Ma "is asking the Chinese Community to Support a Homophobic Cult?" The ad described the antigay writings of Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi, who teaches, "the disgusting homosexuality shows the dirty abnormal psychology of the gay who has lost his ability of reasoning at the present time."
Ma said she was "personally insulted" by the ad and defended her record on supporting both gay rights and the gay community.
"I have been very supportive and active on LGBT issues both with my votes at the board and my participation at community events. It is a baseless attack," said Ma, who is running for the Assembly seat now held by Leland Yee.
Ma said she did see a positive aspect to the ad.
"I am concerned about these homophobic teachings. It is a good thing these were called out. I don't think people understand the Falun Gong. So to the extent it is educating the community, it is a good thing," said Ma.
Dufty, a friend of Ma's, added, "I am upset on the attacks on Fiona. They are based on electoral politics."
The chamber's attack ad came one week after a heated supervisors' committee hearing Monday, January 23 when Ma and Dufty voted to send the revised resolution to the full board. Supervisor Jake McGoldrick voted against doing so, and he and Board President Aaron Peskin both voted against the resolution this week.
At the committee hearing, Falun Gong members criticized the Chinese chamber for not allowing them to march in its annual Chinese New Year's Parade and questioned why the city gives $77,000 to a parade that discriminates against certain groups.
Wayne Hu, the chamber's president, said his organization placed the ad in order to defend itself and drum up community support.
"People need to be aware of what their leader or founder has written. It is not just the homosexual community, but all the other things he said in the book about who gets to go to what level. It is very anti-Semitic also," said Hu. "I am hoping for support from the entire city, whether the gay community or the entire city."
Lu, the Falun Gong spokesman, said he was shocked to see the chamber's ad. He called it more than just a political tactic to pressure Ma into not supporting Falun Gong.
"They want to incite hatred among the San Francisco population because they know San Francisco is very liberal. They use that against Falun Gong participants," he said. "If you can see us we are just a very, very peaceful group."
Falun Gong has filed a complaint with the HRC over not being allowed in the parade. The group has also threatened to file an injunction against the city for its support of the Chinese parade, but as of press time no such action had been filed. The HRC is investigating the case and attempting to get both sides to mediate.
"We responded and said we have not violated the human rights ordinance," said Hu.
Hu said his group denied Falun Gong's application to join the parade because when they were in the parade in 2004 they handed out fliers the parade deemed to be political and in violation of the parade's restrictions on groups making political statements. Last year Falun Gong tried to crash the parade, and in the end, marched along the route behind the official end of the parade.
The parade committee has support among gay leaders for its efforts not to allow Falun Gong to march.
"I think it is great that the leadership in the Chinese community recognizes the homophobia of this group and I would support their efforts not to let them march," said Lynch.
Bernardo said GAPA also supports the parade committee's stance.
"While GAPA supports the right for all groups, no matter how ridiculous their teachings, to have freedom of speech and expression, ultimately it is up to the Chinatown chamber to make the decision of who marches in their parade," said Bernardo, whose group sponsored a progay marriage float in last year's parade and will have a gay "family tree" themed float this year. "We shouldn't rain on their parade. They have a right to create the parameters of their parade."
Asked how allowing the gay Asian group to march is not a political statement, both Hu and Bernardo said they see a distinction between GAPA's floats and how Falun Gong behaved during the parade.
Hu said, "I think it is political but they were not trying to make a political statement. Falun Gong is. They are lobbying politicians and community leaders to support their cause."
"We are celebrating families. We are not campaigning for candidates. We are not supporting ballot measures or propositions," said Bernardo. "We believe the parade is not about extremism or anything like that. It is really a family celebration so our focus this year is family. It sounds like [antigay group] Focus on the Family but we are focusing on the family this year. We will have gay-friendly and gay clergy marching with us and lots of kids. They will be children of gay and lesbian Asian parents."
The parade begins at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, February 11 and winds its way from Chinatown to Union Square.