By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York's race for governor erupted in a storm over gay rights and calls for tolerance on Monday after comments by the Republican candidate that children should not be "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option."
Tea Party-backed Carl Paladino's remarks before a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders, where he criticized his Democratic opponent Andrew Cuomo for marching in a gay rights parade as well, sparked reaction that he is anti-gay.
Paladino's remarks came as nine New York gang members were accused of holding three men captive they believed were gay and torturing and sodomizing them. Last month a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey committed suicide after his roommate showed his gay sexual encounter live on the Internet.
"It is unfathomable that Carl Paladino could espouse the homophobic position that the lives of gay New Yorkers are not as valid as his," said Ross Levi, head of the Empire State Pride Agenda and Foundation, a gay rights organization.
At the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, President Joe Solmonese said Paladino "is either homophobic or stunningly tone deaf to the needs of the community."
In his comments on Sunday, Paladino said: "I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don't want them brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option -- it isn't."
The Buffalo businessman appeared on television talk shows on Monday to say he was not anti-gay but opposes gay marriage.
"I only have one problem with homosexuality and that's the desire to be married," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America." Gay marriage is not legal in New York, where the state Senate voted it down most recently in late 2009.
On NBC's "Today" show, Paladino criticized Cuomo for taking his daughters to a gay pride parade.
"I don't think it is proper for them to go there and watch a couple of grown men grind against each other. I don't think that's proper. I think it's disgusting," he said.
The Cuomo campaign said his comments showed "a stunning homophobia and a glaring disregard for basic equality."
"He is way out of the mainstream and is unfit to represent New York," the Cuomo campaign said in a statement.
Paladino, supported by the Tea Party conservative movement, and Cuomo, the state attorney general, are vying to succeed Governor David Paterson, who is not running.
A recent poll showed Paladino lagging Cuomo by 18 points.
Paladino's fellow Republican Dan Donovan, running for attorney general, condemned his remarks as "offensive."
"We should be fostering a dialogue on tolerance," the Donovan campaign said in a statement on Monday.
Paladino's remarks are not the first time he has raised eyebrows. He nearly came to blows with a New York Post reporter in a recorded confrontation spread widely on the Internet.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Washington and Edith Honan in New York; Editing by Jerry Norton)