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Gay Civil Rights Activists Expand Vigil Outside Sen. Gillibrand's Chelsea Office to 24 Hours

By DNAinfo Staff on October 12, 2010 5:27pm

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — Just blocks from the spot where three men were allegedly beaten up by attackers screaming homophobic slurs, gay activists petitioning Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to amend the Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation have expanded their vigil to a 24-hour affair.

While most Manhattanites hid from Monday night's thunderstorms inside their homes, members of the small Queer SOS! campaign huddled under the scaffolding outside of Gillibrand's office on West 26th Street. The activists have been camped there during regular business hours since Sept. 27, but now they plan to spend all night on the sidewalk as well.

"Now we're just sitting and waiting, sitting and waiting," said activist Alan Bounville, a 33-year-old graduate student, who said he slept for a few fitful hours Monday night. "There's no going home now."

The group wants Gillibrand to file a bill that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Last year, Gillibrand, said in an interview with the website Towelroad.com that adding gay men and women to the act was an idea "certainly worth fighting for."

While the activists said Gillibrand's staffers have been kind of them — even asking them to come rest inside the office during the worst of the storm Monday night, an offer the activists declined — her office has refused to comment on moving forward on the bill.

The idea of rushing the amendment through is a controversial one even in the gay community, where most LGBT advocacy groups are championing more specific battles like marriage equality and the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell."

Richard Socarides, a Chelsea-based gay and lesbian civil rights attorney and former White House advisor under Bill Clinton, previously said that Gillibrand should be afforded more time to gather additional congressional support for such an amendment.

"You can count on one hand the number of members of the Senate that support this idea," Socarides said last month, calling Sen. Gillibrand "probably our strongest advocate for gay and lesbian civil rights in the entire federal government."

On West 26th Street, just a handful of the demonstrators will camp out full time, with guest attendees spending a few hours there every other day, said activist Iana DiBona, 30. They get some extra support from neighbors, including one who bought DiBona a cup of coffee at 1 a.m. Tuesday morning, she said.

Nonetheless, the activists plan to stand their ground, as well as engage in a water-only fast on Election Day, Nov. 2.

Because of safety concerns over a rash of recent hate crimes — including the alleged attack last week of a gay man at the landmark Stonewall Inn in the West Village — one activist remains awake throughout the night to watch over the others.

"We're not going to move from a place of fear," Bounville said, adding that he still worries in the wake of the attacks.

"It's more reason for people to be hitting the streets."

DiBona agrees.

"It's given me more resolve, more tenacity," she said. "Our civil rights are needed now."

Sen. Gillibrand's campaign office did not return multiple requests for comment.