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The Dupont Circle house tour becomes a gay rights battleground.

As any Washingtonian knows, Dupont Circle is the cultural capital of gay D.C. On 17th Street, it’s got the city’s densest strip of gay bars. On Connecticut Avenue, it’s got cute T-shirt stores with rainbow flags out front. Each fall, it’s got an annual tour of the neighborhood’s antique-filled Victorian homes.

And Michael Romanello has one word for that tour: homophobic.

It’s not that Romanello, the executive director of an Arlington-based group called the National Gay Lobby (NGL), has overheard any secret anti-gay code words sprinkled into house-tour conversations about exposed brick walls, original wood paneling, or light and color schemes. As far as he’s concerned, discussions about a home’s queen-sized bed and abundant closet space are only discussions about furniture and storage capacity. Rather, Romanello’s main problem is with the event’s sponsor.

Earlier this summer, Romanello announced plans for a boycott of the annual home tour, with the aim of striking a financial blow against the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), the event’s chief sponsor. “There’s been a widely held belief among the gay and lesbian community of Dupont Circle for years that many of the DCCA’s actions have had some root in anti-gay sentiments,” Romanello says. “With this boycott, we are hoping to drain the slush fund they’ve been using to badger gay-owned and gay-dominated businesses.”

Specifically, Romanello believes that the DCCA wants to force gay bars out of the neighborhood. He alleges that the group is behind everything from complaints about noise and trash to the recording of license plate numbers of people entering the bars. “They are out to harass, coerce, do whatever it takes to get their way,” Romanello says. “And the gay community isn’t going to take it anymore.”

The charge comes as news to the DCCA and its president, Frank Hornstein, who also happens to be gay. “This guy is a lunatic,” Hornstein says, noting that many DCCA members are also gay. “If we’re so homophobic, then why do we have a gay president? If we’re anti-gay, why do we have gay members? It just makes no sense.”

Even Romanello concedes that his case isn’t quite black-and-white. But he does think there’s damning proof in the DCCA’s tumultuous relationship with JR’s, a 17th Street bar known for its heavily gay clientele. The bar in recent years battled neighbors over its plans to open a sidewalk cafe similar to others currently operating on the strip. The DCCA and the local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) fought the scheme, arguing that they allow sidewalk cafes run by restaurants, but not taverns.

Most recently, critics have fought another of JR’s plans, to expand into a vacant retail spot next to its current location. If approved, the plan would more than double the bar’s current capacity. Hornstein insists there’s no sinister motive behind the opposition. “We don’t want 17th Street to become the next Adams Morgan,” Hornstein says. “This is all about maintaining the diversity of the neighborhood, not about some war against gays.”

But Romanello’s having none of it—and he figures the best way to fight the neighborhood group is to cut off the flow of money from events like the house tour. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that JR’s is the only restaurant/bar on 17th Street that doesn’t have an outdoor cafe,” Romanello says.

This isn’t the first time Romanello has picked a fight with a heavily gay organization. Two months ago, he reported on the NGL Web site that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s most prominent gay political group, had reserved a room at the Mayflower Hotel that had been used as a drug-distribution point during last spring’s Millennium March. The story soon popped up in the archconservative Washington Times.

“The guy’s a lunatic,” says the HRC’s communications director, David Smith. “He just came out of nowhere with this ludicrous story, and as far as we can tell, he just made it up.”

That seems to be a common reaction to Romanello on the part of adversaries. Hornstein alleges that Romanello’s lobby is more like a one-man show. The DCCA president says that he’s tried to contact members of the board of directors and had little success finding phone numbers to match the names listed on the organization’s Web site. “I don’t think they exist,” Hornstein says.

Contacted via e-mail through the NGL’s Web site, board member Woody Goulart, a Fairfax Web programmer, denied that the group is simply Romanello’s operation. But Goulart does acknowledge that Romanello, the group’s founder and executive director, is the one calling the shots. “The NGL is an entirely new type of organization,” Goulart wrote in an e-mail to the Washington City Paper. “All of our communications are held either online or via email.” Goulart declined to speak to a reporter by telephone.

According to Goulart, Romanello alerts the board daily about the NGL’s operations, including details of the DCCA boycott—which Goulart says was initiated with the board’s blessing. “Anyone who says the NGL board is not involved doesn’t know what he or she is talking about,” Goulart wrote.

Romanello founded the NGL last year, and he says it’s now his only job. He’d earlier helped found the Gay Activists Alliance of Philadelphia, in 1970, and the Virginia Gay Alliance, in 1982. After a few years of splitting his time between the District and Pittsburgh, Romanello returned to the Keystone State in 1991 to become one of the founders of TRI-PAC, a Pennsylvania gay and lesbian political action committee.

Romanello says his new group is the first national gay activist body operated entirely via the Internet. “It’s cyberdemocracy,” says Romanello. “We view the Internet for gays and lesbians—to unite in working for equality.”

Last fall, Romanello says, the group proposed a boycott of America Online. With the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, Romanello alleged that the Web-access giant wasn’t enforcing anti-hate-speech policies, even as it routinely cracked down on postings by gay and lesbian subscribers. “We wanted them to be evenhanded,” Romanello says. After negotiations, that boycott was dropped.

According to Romanello, the group over the last year has signed on about “18,000 members nationally and growing,” with about 110 members in the District.

However, Smith scoffs at the notion that Romanello’s recruitment efforts have been that successful. “Romanello and the National Gay Lobby have no standing in the community at all,” Smith says. “They’ve got a Web site, but that’s about it.”

Dupont Circle may have a large, diverse gay population, but Romanello’s crusade still shows how any issue—even with gay men on both sides of the debate—can quickly become a fight about homophobia.

JR’s expansion application is currently pending before the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which has set a hearing date for early September. In the meantime, the DCCA, with the backing of the ANC and Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, continues to oppose JR’s plans. The group has attempted to reach a compromise with bar owner Eric Little, with little progress.

Romanello is hardly the only person to get worked up about the fight and its implications. The controversy has provided plenty of fodder for gossip in Dupont area bars, and the local newspaper the InTowner, where Romanello once served as a columnist, runs an average of two to three letters a month about the issue. The missives are split about evenly over how to resolve the problem.

The debate apparently also has had an effect on the DCCA itself. When he quit last January, former President Jeffrey Singer sent members a resignation letter urging them to turn away from alcohol and zoning issues and back to charitable activities. “[The DCCA] was imperative for saving our wonderful neighborhood from reckless development, but now that role has passed to city-established legal bodies,” Singer wrote. “I have come to disagree with the policies and spirit that have become associated with [the DCCA].”

Romanello and the NGL quickly seized on Singer’s resignation, running ads in local newspapers congratulating Singer. “Jeffrey Singer built the case we’ve been trying to make for years,” Romanello says.

DCCA members say Romanello is reading too much into the resignation. “I think a lot of people shared the reaction that I had when I read that letter,” says Steve Dickens, chair of the DCCA’s home-tour committee. “What the hell was he talking about? Months later, I still don’t quite know.” Singer didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

As for the tour boycott, it may be too late for a compromise. Both Hornstein and Romanello brandish stacks of e-mails exchanged between the two, when they attempted to negotiate a meeting to hash out differences. The e-mails show that Romanello first agreed to, then ultimately rejected a meeting with the DCCA after Hornstein wouldn’t allow other members of the gay community to participate.

“I keep wondering if this is just one guy spreading all this hate,” Hornstein says. “I can’t figure out what his agenda is, what he hopes to gain from all of this. And when I’ve tried to set up a meeting to find out, he weasels out of it.”

Such criticism doesn’t deter Romanello, who says he plans to picket in front of stops along this year’s house tour, scheduled for mid-October.

“Despite what everyone thinks, we don’t want to boycott the house tour. We’d like to work something out,” Romanello says. “The only thing that will change our minds is to see the DCCA take some kind of public position or issue a public statement that disavows the efforts it has been spearheading for a couple of decades.”

And what might he have in mind? Though Romanello says the boycott isn’t just about JR’s, he says that a reversal of the DCCA’s stance on the bar’s expansion might help mend a few fences.

“Yes, I think that would be a superb beginning,” Romanello says. CP