Though the co-owner of New Mexico's largest gay nightclub has received criticism for her work as a congressional staffer for former Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson, she charges on as an undaunted LGBT torchbearer and assures her detractors that she's working the Republican Party from the inside.
On Nov. 12, a show poster on The Albuquerque Social Club's Facebook page was marred with a haphazardly scrawled comment: "It's crazy the Albuquerque Social Club supports Effex whenthey knowingly give and are republicans. The GLBT money goes to the republican Party what a slap in the face" (sic).
The anger was directed at a performer in the show, Carri Phillis, a pioneer in the gay community who has learned to parry such misguided criticism over the years. For Phillis, who's a real-life version of Mindy Cohn's last-fag-hag-standing character in Violet Tendencies, as well as a former congressional staffer for Heather Wilson, a preacher's daughter, an avowed Christian (the kind that gave hugs to gay marchers at a recent Chicago gay pride parade), a heterosexual, a registered Republican, and co-owner of Effex Night Club, the largest gay bar in New Mexico, this was just another spin of the old rumor mill.
And spinning it was, until Phillis herself stepped in to shut down the speculation factory.
The club, she riposted, has hosted fundraising events for a slew of Democrats, with a few more scheduled this spring, and has never donated to Republicans. "I have never given a dime to anyone who doesn't support equal rights," she continued. "I would love to have this conversation with the person who feels the need to attack me personally."
No wonder, then, that she eagerly accepted my invitation to sit down for a chat about the whole affair to clear the air and confront her naysayers head on. "I would love to talk to you," she beamed.
A source had told me that though Phillis wouldn't be working on Wilson's campaign for an open seat in the U.S. Senate this year, she would be volunteering for the former congresswoman, who was also Phillis' employer from 2002 to 2007. Wilson, who received a 5-percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign in her last term of service in 2009, has earned her stripes as a first-rate villain in the gay community for her push to redefine marriage as a union between one man and one woman and her opposition to prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation. The man who will likely run against her, the current Democratic congressman Martin Heinrich, has championed gay rights since gaining office in 2010, cosponsoring the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and legislation to repeal DOMA and DADT, earning him a hefty 97-percent rating with the HRC. If such an instrumental member in Albuquerque's gay community, such as Phillis, were to help Wilson beat him, it's understandable that some would find it hard to believe she supports the forward movement and betterment of her patrons and friends as she so vocally claims she does.
The day after Phillis' 35th birthday, we sat down in the offices above her club, which she has donated in kind to Albuquerque Pride, and she outright denied any involvement in Wilson's campaign this year. "I don't have time, to be honest," she said. "I'm not saying that I wouldn't necessarily do it, but I don't have time."
She did admit that she would vote for Wilson in the primaries, and then again in the general election if given the chance. She would like to see Wilson beat Heinrich, even though she voted for Heinrich in 2010, along with mostly Democratic candidates that year, not least of which was the opponent of New Mexico's current Republican governor.
"Remember, I get to know people on a personal level," Phillis said, "and that supersedes what I believe politically sometimes ... I vote my heart. I don't vote my party."
Phillis, a co-founder of the Log Cabin Republicans of New Mexico, says she was angry with Wilson, who in many ways is Phillis' political idol, when she voted to amend the constitution to define marriage as a heterosexually monogamous affair. "Was I mad that Heather voted for that?" she asked. "Absolutely. And I wasn't her only staffer."
"I may disagree with some of Heather's votes, but that woman reads every bill she votes for. Every bill ... I think she could be a pioneer for our party when it comes to certain issues, or at least a common sense person in the party, because we have a lot of crazy right-wingers."
When Phillis joined Wilson's campaign in 2002, she was grabbing a lifeline that saved her from a numbing stint as a rape crisis social worker. "I got a case that was a baby, and I didn't cry. And I knew I was done," she said.
Though she'd never worked a campaign before and didn't know much about Wilson, Phillis said she was initially fascinated by the politician when she heard her give a speech on the House floor in 1999 in support of gays adopting children.
Later, as a constituent liaison in Wilson's congressional office, Phillis broke into the gay scene. "The way I kind of got jolted actually into the gay community ... was when I worked for Heather, ironically enough ... Every gay man that I met was a Republican at the time. Every one of them ... I spent a lot of time in gay bars towards the end of my Heather career."
So when politics numbed her again, she went to manage a gay bar herself. When that imploded despite her efforts to hold it together, leaving a large hole in the gay scene, the community begged her to open up again. "I kept hoping that somebody else was going to come in and fill that void, and nobody did it," she said. "I felt like I owed it to a lot of the community."
Motivated by a sense of loyalty and obligation rather than profits, Phillis and two partners transformed a historic building in Downtown Albuquerque, smack in the middle of iconic Route 66, into Albuquerque's mecca for gay nightlife, adding a fourth establishment to the three that have managed to hold on in this town where gay clubs blow away like tumbleweeds. Simply opening the new venue demonstrated Phillis and her partners' commitment to providing the gay community with a welcoming place to dance and fraternize. Phillis had to hawk her house for a loan just to open the doors during gay pride weekend in June 2010.
"To be honest with you, we should have never gotten open," she said. "There was another power helping us get open, and I believe that with all my heart."
Over the next year and a half, criticism of her new club came not from outside the gay community but from within, not only for Phillis' politics but also because she and her two partners are straight. "We became the straight people that owned the bar," she said, and then quoted one of her partners, who lamented, "'No matter what we do, we'll just be those straight people that own the bar.'"
During our chat, Phillis had to battle tears. "It gets really old to help and work in the community that doesn't want to be judged to judge me constantly," she said. "And I do get emotional about it, and I'm sorry. I just get frustrated, you know, because the people that say I'm not in this for the right reasons don't know me, and the people that know me know why I'm here."
Phillis doesn't feel that the Democratic Party is paving the way for gay rights as much as it claims to be, and she believes the Republican Party is changing. "I think that, as long as there's an 'R' behind my name, I have a better chance of changing my party from the inside out," she said. "If I don't become a leader in this community, and I don't step up as a Christian, as a Republican, and as a bar owner, who else is going to do it? And if I do it, maybe a few other people will follow."
Contrary to what one angry Facebooker thinks, it's not the revelers in Phillis' club who are unwittingly filling the coffers of the Republican Party -- unless they down a Coors or walk in wearing Target products or are digesting Chick-Fil-A while they boogey. Rather, it's a conscientious Republican Christian with a big heart who's poured her blood, sweat, tears, and, yes, sometimes money into the LGBT community. And whether Phillis' personal support for a politician who's blocked gay rights for years is enough of a reason for some to spend their money elsewhere, that's for them to decide. But I'm with the majority of the LGBT crew in town when I say that, indeed, we need someone like Phillis working the right from the inside.