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Creating Shame: Anti-Israel protest misguided, offensive

Task Force should revamp its conference, apologize to attendees

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Creating Change, gay news, Washington Blade
Creating Change, gay news, Washington Blade

Protesters on Jan. 23, 2016, gather outside reception at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual Creating Change Conference in Chicago that was to have featured two LGBT rights advocates from Israel. (Photo courtesy of Andy Thayer/Gay Liberation Network)

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].

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Queer kids are not brainwashed

Trans children are real transgender people, not trend chasers

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In some conversations with progressive friends, my peers, despite their proclaimed liberal attitudes, voice concern over the fact that children can experiment with gender and sexuality. They say things like “kids are too young to question their gender…that seems dangerous” or “a lot of children are just following gender trends and are not actually trans.” Other friends state that they don’t believe that transgender children should have access to hormone blockers. 

All of these statements are bogus and harmful. Many people who question gender fluidity in children don’t realize that they themselves have been brainwashed into thinking, from a young age, that being cisgender and straight is the norm. It should not be the norm. In fact, queerness is ever more common now among Gen Z’ers, and this is because the youth of today are feeling more and more comfortable opening up about their different sexuality and gender from an early age. 

Being able to safely come out as trans or gay in high school is an extremely healthy process and greatly improves the mental health of kids who would otherwise struggle. In red states, and conservative high school districts, this kind of coming out is still difficult, and might even be banned in the future, if Republicans continue with their cruel agenda. But there is hope in progressive cities like Portland and New York, where students feel free to question cishet and straight standards. 

Much research points to the fact that trans children are who they say they are: real transgender people, and not trend chasers. Kristina Olson, a psychologist at the University of Washington, started running a long-term study on trans youth in 2013. Olson eventually amassed a group of more than 85 trans kids. Olson kept in touch with both the children and their parents over the years. Her team ultimately found that an overwhelming, vast majority of the children stayed consistent with the gender nonconforming identity they chose in childhood. In other words, these trans children were correct about their gender identity from a young age. The notion that children pick up trans identities as a “fad,” or are wrong about them, is outdated. 

We already know that Republicans are dangerous to trans children, and have already prevented them from receiving health care or playing sports in many red states. But what we need to stop is dialogue from progressive voices that discourages gender fluidity in youth. These statements from otherwise liberal leaning people are contradictory to the very values that Democrats stand for. 

Isaac Amend (he/him/his) is a trans man and young professional in the D.C. area. He was featured on National Geographic’s ‘Gender Revolution’ in 2017 as a student at Yale University. Amend is also on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Find him on Instagram @isaacamend.

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A rare misstep for the amazing Nancy Pelosi

Taiwan trip a distraction amid good news for Democrats

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leads a U.S. delegation in Taiwan. (Photo via Speaker Nancy Pelosi's official Twitter)

I have always supported House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and continue to do so. She is an amazing woman. She has championed women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the rights of all minorities, and the rights of people with disabilities. She has worked hard to make our country a better and more equal place for all.

So seeing the repercussions of her trip to Taiwan playing out, with even the South Korean president avoiding a meeting with her, she must now realize the visit may have been ill timed. Speaker Pelosi is a smart woman and politician. I assume her insistence on the trip may have been a response to some promises she made to the Chinese community in her district and around the nation. She has always been a strong supporter of human rights and has criticized the Chinese government in the past. She recently tweeted, “28 years ago, we traveled to Tiananmen Square to honor the courage & sacrifice of the students, workers & ordinary citizens who stood for the dignity & human rights that all people deserve. To this day, we remain committed to sharing their story with the world. #Tiananmen30.” 

The question some are asking is did this trip do anything for the people of Taiwan or could it potentially hurt the people there and here if China decides to restrict trade and begin new sanctions?

As the Washington Post reported, “The visit lasted barely 19 hours. But Nancy Pelosi’s contentious trip to Taiwan was a defining moment in the increasingly bitter rivalry between China and the United States. A fuller picture of the Chinese response will emerge over the coming weeks and months, and there are already signs it will encompass greater economic as well as military coercion. Whatever the final shape of Beijing’s retaliation, Pelosi’s visit heralds a new phase in China’s efforts to control Taiwan’s fate — and those measures are likely to increase the risk of conflict with U.S. forces in the western Pacific.” The New York Times said,  “Ms. Pelosi’s visit was ill timed” and called it “provocative.”

I would never question the speaker’s commitment to the human rights of the Chinese people. But at this time, as the third in line to the presidency, there may have been some unintended ramifications from what she did and what the implications could be. I think the very unusual may have occurred, and the speaker may not have considered everything. The trip was likely spurred on by her knowledge this is likely to be her last year as speaker and this was the last time she could arrange for such a trip having the clout she does. I think Speaker Pelosi may be thinking about what she did and if it was worth adding this to the international problems the White House is now facing.

We are living in interesting and difficult times. With the help of Speaker Pelosi for the first time in a while the Biden administration and Democrats are having an incredible run of successes here at home. Passing the first gun control bill in decades, the infrastructure bill, the chips bill, and now the Senate has passed the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” as a reconciliation package. The nation added 528,000 new jobs in July and unemployment is at the lowest it has been, matching pre-pandemic times, at 3.5%. Gas prices are steadily going down and inflation has likely peaked. Then there is the vote on the abortion amendment in Kansas, which the pro-choice side won by nearly 60/40 in a landslide definitely not predicted in that very red state. So, poking the Chinese at this time, generating negative headlines, doesn’t make much sense. I hope it will be only a blip in time.

This week we will see Pelosi do what she does best. She will move the House of Representatives to pass impactful legislation. She will keep her small Democratic majority together to pass the ‘Deficit Reduction Act of 2022’ and send it on to the president to sign. In 2018, she cut a deal to become Speaker for two more terms. That time is now coming to an end. If the Democrats manage to hold the House of Representative much of the credit must go to her. Should she then actually leave the speakership, the next speaker will have the unenviable task of trying to fill those four-inch stiletto heels. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Monkeypox is a gay thing — we must say it

Will there be stigma, judgments, and homophobia? Of course

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The mainstream media and public health officials are being so damn careful not to label monkeypox “a gay disease” that they’re doing a disservice to the gay men who most need important information about the outbreak – while misleading everybody else.

In a July 28 New York Times story of the excruciating symptoms and lack of care available for those with monkeypox in that city, the sexuality of the men profiled isn’t referenced until 11 paragraphs into the story, and even then it refers to them as “men who have sex with men,” which is technically correct but dodgy. Moreover, the article, which supposedly addresses barriers to care, ignores the fact that gay men routinely experience apathy and even judgment from health providers.

Other media stories, and statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have mentioned monkeypox cases in the context of “the LGBT community.” Really? Should lesbians be lining up for a monkeypox vaccine, whenever the heck they become widely available? This is happening to gay men. Say it.

Journalist Benjamin Ryan, in his excellent Washington Post opinion piece, draws a hard line between attempts not to unnecessarily stigmatize gay men and the importance of telling the truth about monkeypox, writing that “public health officials cannot be expected to police the public’s reactions to epidemiological facts.”

Ryan lays out those facts plainly:

Here is what we can discern from data collected about monkeypox so far: This viral outbreak isn’t just mostly occurring among men who have sex with men. The confirmed cases, at least to date, have consistently almost entirely occurred among this demographic, which accounts for 96 percent or more of diagnoses where data are available.

Per capita, the few monkeypox cases in women and children remain minuscule compared with the rate among gay and bisexual men. Of course, substantial transmission could always occur among such other groups. But researchers at the WHO and elsewhere have speculated that the monkeypox reproduction rate will likely remain significantly lower in such demographics — meaning the virus will more likely hit transmission dead ends among them than among gay and bisexual men.

An uncomfortable truth, one documented in peer-reviewed papers, is that sexual behaviors and networks specific to gay and bisexual men have long made them more likely to acquire various sexually transmitted infections compared with heterosexual people. This includes not only HIV, but also syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B and sexually transmitted hepatitis C.

Global public health experts agree that skin-to-skin contact in the context of sexual activity between men has been the principal driver of the monkeypox outbreak, at least thus far.

Such experts have also asserted that the risk of monkeypox to the broader population not having multiple sex partners remains low — even “very low.” This is hopeful news, and the wider public deserves to be reassured accordingly. Assuaging fears of contagion will help fight unhelpful hysteria and prevent gay and bisexual men from being subjected to even greater stigma should they be painted as culprits of the spread of virus to others.

Monkeypox didn’t begin with gay men, that much is true. As Yale infectious disease expert Gregg Gonsalves explained to the New York Times, “This is not a gay disease; it has been circulating in West and Central Africa for many years… What likely happened, in this case, is that somebody who had monkeypox had a lesion and showed up at a gay rave in Europe, and it spread to those in that social and sexual network.”

Whatever the origins, we’re now dealing with an outbreak almost entirely limited to gay men in the United States and Europe. And that is worth saying explicitly.

Why? Because identifying those at risk and getting information to them is a basic public health strategy for containing an outbreak. Gay men are getting monkeypox and suffering greatly. When gay men understand the threat, we are more likely to take precautions, get vaccinated, or be informed about treatment.

Will there be stigma and judgements and homophobia? Of course. And we’ll have to deal with that. But that doesn’t mean we bury crucial facts in vague, evasive messaging.

Monkeypox is a gay thing. That’s the truth.

Mark S. King is an award-winning blogger, author, speaker, and HIV/AIDS activist who has been involved in HIV causes since testing positive in 1985.

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