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The police continue to investigate Sunday’s violent attack on a 50-year-old gay man outside the Toasted Walnut at 13th and Walnut Streets.

The investigation by the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s office is ongoing, and officials say they will not be making any determinations until the inquiry is concluded.

The examination of the case has been complicated by the retraction of statements by an individual who claimed to have been an eyewitness to the events.

In an interview on Jan. 30, Josh Schonewolf, a bartender at the Toasted Walnut, told PGN he witnessed a gaybashing in front of the club on Jan. 27. Schonewolf had given an on-camera interview with a similar account to WPVI/6ABC the day before. At 10 p.m. on Jan. 31, Schonewolf contacted PGN to retract his account of the incident. He told PGN at that time, “I never went outside during the altercation.”

Shortly thereafter, on the nightly broadcast of Action News on WPVI/6ABC, anchor Jim Gardner issued a retraction of ABC’s story. The news program’s original report was removed from its website on Feb. 1. Reporter Trish Hartman wrote a new story headlined "Witness to Center City attack retracts his statement," datelined Feb. 1, 7:13 a.m.

PGN also removed its initial online report, after Schonewolf contacted PGN to retract his story. The original story also appeared in the print version of the newspaper.

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Schonewolf, who had originally posted his account of witnessing the assault to Facebook, put up a new post in which he said, “I jumped the gun, plain and simple ... I never saw a car, and I never saw the altercation itself happen.”

Schonewolf says in the post that he only witnessed the end of the altercation from the bar, which looks out onto the street.

“I was just trying to help catch the guys who I thought committed a gay bashing & punched one of my friends."

Sources close to the investigation affirmed to PGN on Feb. 1 that Schonewolf had not been outside the Toasted Walnut during the attack. As PGN reported originally, general manager Rocco DeFinis did go outside and attempted to break up the fight. He was struck during the melee. He declined medical attention, as reported and was not the subject of the attack, as has been rumored on social media.

The facts of the case remain murky. Security footage is being evaluated by both the PPD and the District Attorney’s office to determine what transpired and how best to address the incident.

Amber Hikes, executive director of the Mayor's Office of LGBT Affairs, has been monitoring the investigation since it was first reported to the police. On Feb. 1, she issued the following statement to PGN: "Over the past few days our office has been working with police to get more details on the assault that happened Sunday night in the Gayborhood. After reviewing the evidence of the incident and speaking with the witnesses and complainant, Sunday evening’s incident does not appear to be a hate crime.

“The complainant and witnesses have confirmed that no homophobic slurs were uttered during the altercation and the assault was not motivated by bias or homophobia.”

The statement continued, “Initial accounts indicating that the complainant was randomly targeted and assaulted because of his sexuality are false. The police investigation of Sunday’s incident is ongoing."

PGN also spoke with Toasted Walnut owner Denise Cohen on Feb. 1. Cohen, well known in the community for her various club operations, including Sisters, shared her concerns over the incident. She was upset that anyone had been injured in the Gayborhood, including her employee, DeFinis, who she clarified was not targeted, nor the subject of the attack, but was merely trying to help the victim in the incident.

Cohen declined to comment directly, saying only that "The police are investigating and we really want to leave it to them."

Another source familiar with the investigation told PGN that the attack appeared to be random, but not a gaybashing and was not related to the Toasted Walnut.

PGN contacted the PPD again and were told there is "no update at this time." The PPD still has not released the victim’s name.

The PPD Office of Media Affairs gave PGN the following statement about the assault: "On Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019 at approximately 10:52 p.m., police responded to the 1300 block of Walnut Street for a person screaming. A 50-year-old male victim was assaulted by four male defendants and one female defendant. The defendants fled in a vehicle prior to police arrival. The victim was transported to Jefferson University Hospital by medic unit for head injury and is listed in stable condition. This investigation is active and ongoing with Central Detectives Division. Offenders and vehicle make unknown at this time."

Schonewolf declined to speak further with PGN, but said in his Facebook post that, "I’m sorry to anyone this has affected," which would include PGN, to whom he gave a false account of the attack.

What remains true about Schonewolf’s initial interview with PGN is that violence against LGBTQ people has risen dramatically under the current administration, which has instituted many anti-gay and anti-trans policies. In November 2018, the FBI released new statistics showing victims targeted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity made up nearly 17 percent of all hate crime victims — an increase of more than 5 percent over the previous year.

This remains an evolving news story. Anyone with information about the incident is asked to contact the Sixth District at 215-686-3060.

 

 

Two women turned away from holding their wedding at a Cancun resort plan to file a complaint with the Mexican government for discrimination.

Giulia Umile and her fiancée, Jess, last month filled out an application to be married in November 2019 at Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun. They were planning to bring more than 30 guests to the resort, which runs about $800 per room a night in peak season.

Tony Doran

Tony Doran is the president and founder of Woodbury Community Pride in Woodbury, N.J. He also serves on the board of Woodbury Old City Restoration Committee and is the Economic Development Committee Chair of Woodbury Community Pride. Doran and the WCP team pushed for LGBT equality in the South Jersey town. These efforts resulted in Woodbury Council approving a nondiscrimination ordinance, an LGBT-inclusive regulation that bans discrimination in public contracting and the establishment of the city’s Human Relations Commission to enforce nondiscrimination and promote public education. As a result, Woodbury was named the most LGBTQ-friendly town in South Jersey, receiving a perfect Municipal Equality Index score from the Human Rights Campaign.

When Giulia Umile and her fiancée, Jess, got engaged earlier this fall, Umile knew just the place to hold the wedding.

A world traveler, the COO of Slice Communications in Old City said that one particular vacation she took in Mexico stood out “as one of the most beautiful and pleasant vacations of my life — I literally did not want for a single thing. The service was spectacular, the resort is gorgeous and I always thought that if I got married, this would be a phenomenal place to do it.”

The Le Blanc Spa Resort is one of 10 AAA Five-Diamond-awarded oceanfront properties belonging to Cancun-based Palace Resorts, regularly featured in celebrity magazines for the sheer volume of famous people who vacation at the resorts, most of which are in Cancun but also in Los Cabos and Jamaica. Ellen DeGeneres has more than once given vacations to her entire studio audience to at least two Palace Resorts.

So, Umile immediately contacted Le Blanc and filled out the form requesting a sunset wedding ceremony on the beach for Nov. 9, 2019. More than 30 guests would stay at the spa resort for one week, with a price starting at around $800 per night.

A destination wedding made sense for Umile, a Fishtown resident. “We’re older, our friends are more established and financially secure — with enough notice, they can come.”

The sales coordinator for weddings, Laura Jimenez, responded the same day Umile contacted Le Blanc, on Dec. 5 indicating she had received the request “and will be more than glad to help you.” What followed in the email exchange, a copy of which was provided to PGN, was a list of options for wedding packages.

Umile responded: “We are very excited. I do have a question — what if we have over 30 guests? Can that be accommodated at Le Blanc? Also please note there is no groom — two brides!”

Two and a half hours later, Jimenez replied: “I would like to let you know that as we still do not have our same-sex wedding program available we are not performing same sex wedding [sic] at the moment,” adding, “I will however keep your information on our file and if I receive any update I’ll keep you posted.”

At the time Umile received the email, she was sitting on the floor of the gym where she teaches cross-fit, waiting for her class to begin.

“I’m not an emotional person, but I started to cry. People noticed and came over to ask and I slipped them my phone. I took a screen shot and sent it to the group text I have with all these guys [her staff] and was like, ‘You have to help me – I don’t even know what to do with this.’”

Umile said she’s going public with her story to inform the people and hopefully spare other couples from having the same experience.

“It was so disappointing — you’re riding such a high of excitement when you get engaged and share the news with people and it was such a difficult pill to swallow. No one wants to start their wedding planning off on that note.”

PGN contacted Jimenez for comment on whether the resort — which offers weddings that vary from Mayan ceremonies to Catholic to enormous Bollywood-style Indian weddings, replete with a ceremonial horse, henna tattoos and fireworks — does in fact offer same-sex weddings.  

Jimenez told PGN she had not received the email requesting comment for this story, but then said she was “instructed not to comment on this.” She then referred PGN to the Palace Resorts public-relations department, which had an email only and no phone number. Repeated requests for comment were not answered.

Mexico is a federation of states, with each determining certain matters such as civil law. In the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, same-sex marriage was legalized in May 2017, when the civil code there was reformed.

Article 602 of the civil code recognizes marriage as a legal bond between people, without any consideration of gender. As the Mexican consulate in Philadelphia told PGN in a statement, “At no time does sex [gender] distinguish between people who marry [sic].”

On a federal level, then-President Vicente Fox signed a groundbreaking antidiscrimination law in 2003 banning all forms of discrimination, including sexual orientation, in Mexico. The law bans any act that “has the effect of preventing or nullifying the recognition of rights and real equality of opportunity for people.”

Section XIV of article 9 in the law “considers as a discriminatory behavior to prevent the free choice of spouse or partner,” according to the consulate.

“The government of Mexico will seek, in the terms that this and other laws dictate, [to] promote the conditions of freedom and equality inherent in each person and, in any case, sanction public or private organizations that hinder its guarantee,” the consulate statement read.  

Umile and her fiancée have since found another Cancun resort, Unico, that is more than happy to host their wedding. “Their paperwork had same-sex language on it,” she noted.

This incident serves as a reminder that discrimination occurs in ways you least expect it, said Umile.

“All I want is for people to have the information, so that when they’re thinking of booking a vacation, they can make an informed decision. Instead of wasting your time with people who want nothing to do with you, you can put your energy into places that you know will support you.

“There are plenty of people in this world who will make decisions that are guided by their hearts and moral compass — and sometimes those decisions come directly from our bank accounts,” Umile added. “If Palace Resorts realized there were consequences to their actions, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either.”

Mazzoni Center’s board of directors has lost two more members, with the secretary recently ousted in a majority vote and a second member resigning Tuesday, PGN has learned.

The departures from the board are the latest in an ongoing drain of institutional memory from the beleaguered agency, the largest LGBT-focused health facility in the Philadelphia area.

CEO Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino resigned last month after just seven months on the job. COO Ron Powers also announced his departure at the same time after more than 20 years in the position. Both resignations are effective Dec. 28.

The board of directors now has eight members following the most recent departures. PGN’s reporting confirmed Tuesday’s resignation but not the former board member’s name.

The former secretary, Miriam S. Edelstein, a litigation attorney with ReedSmith, was on the board for less than a year. It was not immediately clear why she was voted off. Edelstein was appointed last December along with Allison Bloom, who left the board earlier this year; David Davis; Mohamad El-Khatib; and Nu’Rodney Prad, now the acting president.

At the time of the quintet’s appointment, Mazzoni Center issued a statement saying that “among other skills and experience, Mazzoni Center’s new board members bring many talents.”

In a statement to PGN on Edelstein’s removal, Prad said, “We are grateful for Miriam’s contributions and those of others who have left the board.”

When asked about Edelstein being voted off rather than voluntarily leaving, Mazzoni Center refused to comment.

Edelstein also declined requests for comment.

In October, five Mazzoni Center board members retired after 13 years.

“Now it’s time to make space for new faces, new voices and new perspectives,” then-board president Chris Pope had told PGN. He since has resigned from the board, citing he wanted to spend more time with his family, and continues to serve in an advisory capacity.

When asked about the vision and mission of the board, Prad reiterated the mission statement on Mazzoni Center’s website, saying the board makes decisions with the goal of providing health and wellness services “while preserving the dignity and improving the quality of life of the individuals we serve.”

The board will continue to bring on new members “reflecting the diversity of staff, patients and the community we serve,” Prad said, declining to elaborate.

Pope Francis, once seen as opening the door to gay priests with a 2013 statement to the press, seems to have changed his mind.

When asked about gay priests then, Francis said in a groundbreaking statement, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

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