While the East Coast was coping with this weekend’s blizzard, another storm was raging in Chicago at the site of the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change conference.
About 200 protesters forced the cancellation of a presentation by A Wider Bridge, an organization seeking to bolster “LGBTQ connections with Israel.” It was to have featured remarks from Sarah Kala-Meir and Tom Canning, leaders of Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, an LGBT community center. Protesters held signs that read, “No pride in apartheid,” to draw attention to the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians. They also spoke out against efforts to promote Israel’s LGBT rights record, which they regard as “pinkwashing,” or distracting attention from the plight of the Palestinians.
Kala-Meir, executive director of Jerusalem Open House, told the Blade that the protesters began shouting at her and Canning. She said they left the room through a back door. “We did not feel safe in that environment,” she added.
Tony Varona, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at American University Washington College of Law, attended the event.
“The protestors stormed the doors, shut down the event, and basically blocked those of us who wanted to leave from exiting,” Varona wrote on Facebook. “I was able to squeeze past the crowd blocking the hallway and exit through a back doorway and stairwell but after only considerable effort and, frankly, what can only be described as harassment.” He also claims that Task Force staff watched helplessly from the sidelines as this sorry scene unfolded.
The ugly incident began last week when the Task Force initially cancelled the panel featuring A Wider Bridge after some LGBT critics accused Israel of engaging in “apartheid” and “pinkwashing.” Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey later reversed that decision and reinstated the presentation, after pro-Israeli critics pounced. That set the stage for what transpired Friday.
Staff from the Windy City Times posted videos to YouTube of the protest. Protesters can be heard chanting, “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.”
It’s not clear whether they understood the context of what they were chanting or if they were merely caught up in the moment. That genocidal chant is an overt call for the destruction of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Arthur Slepian, executive director of A Wider Bridge, told the Windy City Times he felt there was “a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism” at the protest.
There is so much wrong with what transpired that it’s difficult to know where to start.
The irony of one underrepresented group shouting down and harassing another is sickening to watch. If you want to promote understanding and “intersectionality” of causes, then you must listen to others and respect their views. Silencing those you dislike isn’t the answer. This sort of group-think creates a mob mentality in which dialogue is impossible.
The organizers of Creating Change had to know something like this was brewing. Yet they had no control over the protest, which easily could have devolved into a dangerous situation.
“The Task Force did very little to ensure that the program …could go on as planned, safely and without disruption,” Varona reported. “Instead, the protestors were allowed to bully the speakers off the stage, and then to bully and harass the attendees out of the room.”
When your invited speakers are forced to flee out a back door, you have failed in your responsibility to ensure the safety of attendees. Task Force staff must do a better job of providing security and of maintaining control over their own events. Ceding the stage to protesters sets an irresponsible precedent.
Perhaps the most regrettable outcome: Kala-Meir and Canning from JOH were silenced and mistreated. Two years ago, I traveled to Israel with a delegation of LGBT leaders from the United States (the trip was not sponsored by A Wider Bridge) and several of us spent an evening at JOH with Tom and others. They were kind and hospitable and even took us out to dinner and to a small gay bar after our meeting. There we saw the important work that JOH is doing, from providing HIV testing services to creating a safe space for Jews and Arabs alike to meet and socialize. Their work is changing lives, but they face grave obstacles. Just five months ago, an Orthodox Jewish man stabbed a 16-year-old girl to death and injured five others during an attack on a Jerusalem Pride march organized by JOH. Sarah, Tom and their colleagues bravely carry out their work amid threats of violence from extremists on both sides of the conflict. They are good people who deserved better from their U.S. hosts.
So why all the fuss targeting these fellow LGBT activists? The misguided protesters don’t like that A Wider Bridge partners with the Israeli government, “including its most violent, right-wing, racist elements — to promote media favorable to Israel,” according to Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network. But this assessment ignores the good work of both groups.
“Even a cursory look into the organizations’ respective missions, alliances, donors, and activities will show that they are far from puppets of the Israeli government, are expressly pro-Palestinian in their positions, and both serve and include LGBTQ Palestinians in their work,” Varona rightly observed.
And would it be better if Israel treated its LGBT citizens like its neighbors in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Syria? There’s a lot to criticize in the Israeli government these days, but its treatment of LGBT people isn’t among the problems. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s provocative policy of building new Jewish settlements has helped derail peace efforts. He has openly opposed a two-state solution. Progress will only come after he leaves office.
I have been to Ramallah and to the edge of the Gaza Strip and even met with a Palestinian negotiator. Life for hard-working Palestinians is undeniably difficult. Many can’t get to work without navigating long lines at dehumanizing checkpoints. This situation should not be allowed to persist and we are right to protest Netanyahu’s tactics that undermine peace.
But things aren’t much better on the other side. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was elected president in 2005, but his term expired seven years ago. How can Israel negotiate a peace agreement with a partner who isn’t empowered to implement terms of a deal? The leadership vacuum has emboldened Hamas, which has further destabilized the region. The Israeli towns that border the Gaza Strip endure regular — sometimes daily — rocket attacks. There are bomb shelters on every street corner and residents all suffer some form of PTSD.
These problems are entrenched and complicated and have bedeviled every American president for decades. It’s unfortunate they were reduced to such simplistic terms by LGBT protesters in Chicago who seemed to call for the destruction of Israel. If that wasn’t their intent, then they should educate themselves and clarify their demands. Regardless, the good people of JOH didn’t deserve to be demonized in this way. Protest organizers and the Task Force owe them an apology.
And it’s time for a thorough rethinking of Creating Change itself. It’s a long-running, important conference for grassroots LGBT activists, many of whom feel disconnected from the marriage-dominated movement of the Human Rights Campaign. I have attended Creating Change many times and served on panel discussions for several years. It’s refreshing to meet with younger LGBT advocates and Creating Change provides a safe space for them to share ideas and tactics.
But “safe spaces” should refer to protecting the physical safety of attendees. They should not be shielded from opinions and ideas they find offensive. The LGBT movement has much work ahead, from protecting hard-fought victories of recent years to combating stubbornly high rates of HIV infection to ending youth homelessness. Censoring speech and shouting down those we disagree with should not be on our agenda. Creating Change organizers must behave like the parent in the room and establish some basic rules of engagement and enforce them. And there’s clearly much work to be done in educating younger advocates on the history of Israel, the Holocaust and the plight of LGBT people in the Middle East.
Here’s hoping the Task Force can turn the ugly, unfortunate events of last weekend into a teachable moment that fosters understanding.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at [email protected].
Examining the ‘Prejudices’ of Jane Austen
Cancel culture run amok or an honest assessment of author’s biases?
Recently, I listened to “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen on Audible. Savoring every word, I was transported to 19th century, Regency-era England. Immersed in the world of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy and formal balls, I almost escaped from our troubled 21st century universe. As I sipped tea, racism, transphobia – past and present injustice – slipped from my mind.
Until a headline from The New York Times flashed on my screen: “A Jane Austen Museum Wants to Discuss Slavery. Will Her Fans Listen?”
This Jane Austen fan is listening. Nothing pricks up your ears more than seeing one of your favorite authors (a literary icon, no less) connected with slavery.
Last month, Jane Austen’s House, a museum on the life and work of Jane Austen, said that it would update its displays to include information on Austen’s and her family’s connection to slavery. (The museum in the English village of Chawton, has been only open virtually during the pandemic. It reopens for in-person visitors on May 19.) Austen, who lived from 1775 to 1817, resided in Chawton from 1809 until shortly before she died at age 41.
The exhibits reveal that George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, before he became a pastor, was a trustee of an Antigua sugar plantation. The displays note that Austen and her family, by drinking tea, eating foods with sugar and wearing clothing made of cotton, enjoyed products of the Atlantic slave trade.
Information is included on Austen’s views of abolitionists: Some scholars believe that Austen was against slavery. In 1807, the slave trade ended in the British Empire when King George signed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade into law.
Reaction to the new exhibits was fast and furious, The New York Times reported. “Woke madness,” thundered The Express. The Daily Mail said the museum had launched “a revisionist attack” and a “BLM-inspired interrogation” of Austen’s ritual of imbibing tea.
If you believe these rants, you’d think that Jane Austen’s House was trying to cancel Jane Austen: that we should stop appreciating her work because she drank tea and her family was connected to the slave trade.
Of course, this isn’t the intention of the museum that celebrates Austen’s work. Visitors increasingly ask about Austen and her family’s connection to the slave trade, Jane Austen’s House says in a statement. “It is therefore appropriate that we share the information and research that already exists on her connections to slavery and its mention in her novels,” the museum says.
It’s tempting to dismiss this dust-up as a tempest in a teapot. But that would be wrong.
This controversy calls our attention to one of the pressing issues of our time: How do we examine the prejudices of our icons, and should we cancel them and/or their work?
I’m thinking about two LGBTQ icons: Walt Whitman, born on May 31, 1819, and Adrienne Rich who died on March 27, 2012.
In his poetry, Whitman embraced democracy and inclusion. For his time, he wrote with remarkable openness about sexuality. If you’re queer, you feel represented in his poetry.
Yet, in his later life, Whitman believed racist pseudo scientific claims. He called Black people “baboons” and “wild brutes.”
Few poets are as beloved by the LGBTQ community as poet Adrienne Rich. Her poems have been a lifeline for queer women and gay men.
Yet, Rich advised Janice Raymond, who, in 1979 wrote the transphobic book “The Transsexual Empire.” Raymond wrote that transgender people “colonize feminist identification, culture, politics, and sexuality.”
In the face of racism and transphobia existing side by side with genius, Whitman’s dictum about the self containing multitudes and contradictions rings painfully true.
I’d be lying if I said I had a solution to this muddle.
But if we’ve learned anything since George Floyd’s death, it’s that we all have conscious and unconscious biases. If we cancelled artists who have prejudices from racism to transphobia, what art would be left?
Yet, if we don’t confront our cultural heroes’ prejudices, how will we live with ourselves or work toward justice? What type of art would be created?
I only know: we must live and struggle with these vitally important questions.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.
McAuliffe for governor of Virginia
His leadership has made a positive difference for so many
I support Terry McAuliffe for governor of Virginia. He is the best choice for Virginia Democrats in their primary and has the best chance of defeating any candidate Republicans choose to run against him.
Virginians know and respect him as a successful governor and a decent man. It was clear had Virginia law allowed him to run for a second consecutive term he would have won easily. His stellar record moving the state forward on equal justice and equal opportunity, on civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights make him the right choice.
The first executive order McAuliffe issued upon taking office in 2014 banned anti-LGBTQ discrimination against state employees. McAuliffe vetoed religious freedom bills, created Virginia’s LGBTQ tourism board and became the first Virginia governor to declare June as Pride month. He oversaw the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples in Virginia and as his campaign notes was the first governor of a southern state to officiate a same-sex wedding.
He recently released his platform on LGBTQ rights and in a statement to the Blade said: “LGBTQ+ Virginians have faced discrimination and inequities for too long because of who they are or who they love. I am proud of the progress Virginia has made in protecting the LGBTQ+ community over the past eight years, but our work is far from over. As governor, I will fight my heart out to make Virginia the most open, welcoming and inclusive state in the nation, and break down the disparities that LGBTQ+ communities, and particularly communities of color, face in education, health care, the economy and more. Together, we’ll move Virginia forward into a better, brighter future for all.”
When it comes to women’s rights, as governor, McAuliffe staved off attacks by extreme Republicans who controlled the Virginia Legislature during his tenure. He fought for women’s health care rights and fought to keep open every women’s health clinic in the state. He vetoed legislation that would have harmed women, including a bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood in Virginia.
On civil rights he said one of his proudest accomplishments was being able to reverse a racist Jim Crow law disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Virginians. McAuliffe restored the right to vote to more than 200,000 Virginians with felony convictions allowing them to fully participate in democracy.
He was good for business and during his one term as governor had a record of bringing more than 200,000 good paying jobs to the state and oversaw a lowered unemployment rate and an increase in personal income of over 13%. McAuliffe understood early investments in the state’s infrastructure would help the state to be a national leader in clean energy.
There is some discussion about whether McAuliffe should have stayed out of this race since there are two African-American women running. Some suggest he should have instead supported one of them. But like Joe Biden in his presidential race, McAuliffe has the support of a huge number of African Americans because they know him and many have personal relationships with him. A recent NBC news column quoted some African-American leaders who support McAuliffe. “I asked him to run,” said Virginia Senate President Pro Tempore L. Louise Lucas, a leader of the state’s Black political establishment and a co-chair of McAuliffe’s campaign. She described McAuliffe as a “comfort level” choice in the midst of a pandemic.
State Del. Don Scott, who has a felony in his past said “McAuliffe encouraged him to run for the legislature two years ago at a time when others were counseling him against a campaign. He hasn’t forgotten that favor. He had my back, said Scott, a staunch McAuliffe supporter. He may have thought he was running [for governor in 2021], but nobody else came down here. He put in that work and built those relationships. And if he did that with me imagine the type of relationships he’s been able to build and relationships matter.”
Politics is often about the possible and yes one needs an inflated ego to feel “I am the best person to lead.” But in the case of McAuliffe his successes match his ego. His leadership has made a positive difference for so many people. It is those people who are responding to his candidacy and giving him a huge lead in the polls. They understand why in December 2017, McAuliffe was named “Public Official of the Year” by GOVERNING magazine. Virginians should give McAuliffe a second term.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.
Homophobia wins in the Puerto Rico Senate
Bill to ban conversion therapy died in committee
It is a sad day for Puerto Rico, and it is a sad day for human rights on the Caribbean island.
Last Thursday, 11 senators decided to turn their backs on children and human rights in Puerto Rico. A new Senate majority proved to be weak and on the wrong side of history, again. Eight senators from the legislative committee reviewing Senate Bill 184 to ban conversation therapy on the island voted against the bill’s report.
Today, thanks to these senators, any mental health professional can freely charge a father for “curing” his son of homosexuality or of a gender identity/expression that does not conform to social standards of “normality.” Although there has been an executive order in Puerto Rico banning conversation therapy since 2018, this order is only applicable to health institutions that have a specific connection with the government. Executive orders state mandatory requirements for the Executive Branch and have the effect of law; however, any governor can revoke them.
Senators received scientific evidence and several testimonies from LGBTQIA people who testified during public hearings. These senators also received evidence of permanent depression and suicide attempts caused by conversion therapy. However, 11 senators decided to condone hate and the intolerance towards the LGBTQIA youth on the island. One of these senators, Wanda Soto, said during one of the public hearings that “… with love anything is possible … ” in reference to her belief that kids’ sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed or cured. This senator even compared a bad personal experience with a dentist she had when she was a kid with LGBTQIA opponents’ testimonies of their experiences of going through conversion therapy.
Suicide and depression rates among LGBTQIA youth are staggering and are the highest in the entire United States compared to other reasons. These indices are a direct consequence of the intolerance, discrimination and lack of validation that our society perpetuates. LGBTQIA youth go through difficult times in their lives, including personal and family acceptance that trigger years of depression and anxiety among LGBTQIA people.
Today again, hatred wins. Today, Puerto Rico demonstrates why it is the number one jurisdiction for hate crimes in the entire United States. Today again, these 11 senators make evident why gender-based crimes continue to dominate local headlines. Today these senators are an example of the ignorance and lack of cultural competence that persist in our island. Today, these senators will be responsible for the depression and the stigma that the LGBTQIA community will continue to suffer. Today these senators are responsible for perpetuating intolerance. We take a step back as a society, demonstrating again that we cannot tolerate those who are different and who do not meet our standards of normality.
Neither the tears of Gustavo nor Elvin or Caleb, who presented their testimonies before the Puerto Rico Senate, were enough to move the hearts of these senators. The hypocritical hugs and words of support that some senators gave to these LGBTQIA people after their testimony and personally meeting them make it much harder to understand how they turned their backs on our children. Today these 11 senators are responsible for perpetuating hate crimes on the island and make our path to be a more inclusive society even harder.
Homophobia won in the Puerto Rico Senate last Thursday. There was no difference when the pro-statehood Senate majority defeated SB 1000 (banning conversion therapy) back in 2018 and now with a new majority lead by the Popular Democratic Party. Different senators, different bills, same result, but the same homophobia. Many Puerto Rican voters believed that furthering human rights would be easier to achieve on the island with a new majority in the legislature. Unfortunately, the reality is that our legislature is just a mirror of our society, and the lack of cultural competence persists among us. But we will keep fighting; this is a single lost battle, a battle among many others yet to come.
These are the 11 senators who voted against SB 184 or didn’t vote:
- Sen. Rubén Soto – Against
- Sen. Ramón Ruiz – Against
- Sen. Albert Torres – Against
- Sen. Ada García – Against
- Sen. Wanda Soto – Against
- Sen. Marissa Jimenez – Against
- Sen. Joanne Rodríguez – Against
- Sen. Thomas Rivera – Against
- Sen. José L. Dalmau – Absent
- Sen. Marially González – Absent
- Sen. Javier Aponte – Absent
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