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Creating Change protests not anti-Semitic

Allegation stifles debate, gives cover to Israel

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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)

Last week, the National LGBTQ Task Force held its annual Creating Change conference in Chicago. The Task Force, established in 1973, set out to build a future where everyone is free to be themselves in every aspect of their lives,” across a variety of issues including employment, healthcare, and basic human rights.

According to the conference program, Rea Carey, executive director of the Task Force, welcomed participants with these words: “That’s why we are here this week: to tear down ALL the barriers we face between us and true liberation — and to support and lift-up one another in spirit, camaraderie and love.” (Emphasis their own).

However, one particular event on Jan. 22 put these noble words to the test. A session with A Wider Bridge, a pro-Israeli LGBT organization, was challenged by protesters and cancelled over the organization’s cooperation with the Israeli government whose policies violate the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation. The cancellation of the event raised eyebrows, prompting a barrage of angry reactions and accusations of anti-Semitism against the protesters and conference organizers. For instance, Slate Magazine’s LGBTQ blogger ran the headline “The LGBTQ Left Has an Anti-Semitism Problem,” an OUT magazine headline notes that the protests were “pure anti-Semitism,” and 90 LGBTQ activists signed a statement to Carey describing the protests as “anti-Semitic” and “dangerous,” posing the following question: “where do we as a progressive social movement go from here?” A cursory search of news surrounding the event brings up 80+ articles of similar views. For her part, Carey released a “crystal clear” statement: “the National LGBTQ Task Force wholeheartedly condemns anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic statements made at any Task Force event including our Creating Change Conference,” promising a review of the event and improvements to cope with “the challenges of a growing attendance.”

The Blade’s own Mr. Kevin Naff shared his opinion in an account of his own experience with A Wider Bridge, Israel, and Palestine. Yet, despite his coolheaded appeal to ensure that all voices should be heard, including critical ones, Mr. Naff reaches a similar conclusion: the protests were offensive and anti-Semitic.

Were they?

I do not believe so. Instead, I believe the repeated deployment of anti-Semitism against those who criticize Israel and the wide arm of organizations it works with is both unsophisticated and demeaning. In fact, the charge of anti-Semitism is merely an iteration of a larger force that has dominated the Israeli-Palestinian conversation in the U.S. It’s the kind of force that unleashes itself almost by default at any hint of strongly grounded criticism of Israel. It’s called civility. As Steven Salaita puts it in his work, Uncivil Rites, civility is a regime that always has difficulty accommodating systematic critiques, let alone expression of those critiques in unfashionable manners. Of course, the protestors were disruptive, uncomfortable perhaps, and so is every bit of the goals the Task Force seeks to accomplish, or any “progressive” civil rights movement for that matter. Change, at least the effective kind, does not come with comfort. If that were case, then the history we know about many civil rights movements in this country and around the world would be a lie.

Perhaps one particular chant at the protests drove such strong disapproval, to the tune of challenging a deeply rooted and accomplished organization: “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.” A superficial reading would invariably cause anyone who hears it to believe it means the destruction of Israel. Yet, most of the reactions fail to understand that the chant is equally applicable to an increasingly embraced idea: the one State solution, where freedom should indeed reign from the river to the see. Alternatively, as U.S. Ambassador to Israel put it, we are left with a single state with two standards of adherence to the rule of law, one favorable to Israelis and one unfavorable to Palestinians.

Not only is the charge of anti-Semitism unsophisticated and incapable of grappling with the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it also does far greater harm than good. Nearly all the opinions assumed their views with the understanding that the session with A Wider Bridge should have been permitted to take place. I do too. But, unlike those opinions, mine is a view that does not find it necessary or appropriate to say that silencing the session is anti-Semitic. Rather, permitting it to take place would only be a commitment to the principles and ideals of the Task Force and Creating Change – something that is neither Semitic nor anti-Semitic.

The irony is that opinions rallying around anti-Semitism practically commit the same mistake: silencing and discrediting the protestors. In doing so, the harm is twofold. The other side is almost instantly excluded from the conversation, marked as undesirable or uninvited, and therefore it also stifles the conversation. For instance, in an exchange on Facebook, one friend commented on Mr. Naff’s opinion, “I stopped [reading] at the description of the protest as anti-Semitic and of “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea” as a “genocidal chant [that] is an overt call for the destruction of Israel.”

Finally, one illegal Israeli settler recently shared his thoughts on the matter, “there’s still anti-Semitism in America,” speaking about country clubs and neighborhoods in Chicago that exclude Jews. Yet, one rarely hears about this sort of anti-Semitism. It seems as though nowadays anti-Semitism only dominates the headlines in the Israeli-Palestinian context, especially when Israeli policies are criticized.

As the progressive movement works to recover from this episode, it would be wise to understand that scapegoating a tremendously painful past, one where anti-Semitism wreaked havoc and unspeakable horrors, would only reinforce the idea that all voices should be heard as long as they conform to the rules of civility. The issue is not about the Task Force’s ability to handle growing attendance; rather it’s about what it, and the progressive movement at large, will do when challenged by an increasingly knowledgeable audience about Israel’s human rights violations. After all, nearly a quarter-century of peace negotiations grounded in civility has nothing to show but stagnation or regressive change at best, surely not a change genuinely committed to the human rights of all.

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Examining the ‘Prejudices’ of Jane Austen

Cancel culture run amok or an honest assessment of author’s biases?

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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.

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McAuliffe for governor of Virginia

His leadership has made a positive difference for so many

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Terry McAuliffe, gay news, Washington Blade
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (Washington Blade file photo by Lee Whitman)

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.

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Homophobia wins in the Puerto Rico Senate

Bill to ban conversion therapy died in committee

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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:

  1. Sen. Rubén Soto – Against
  2. Sen. Ramón Ruiz – Against
  3. Sen. Albert Torres – Against
  4. Sen. Ada García – Against
  5. Sen. Wanda Soto – Against
  6. Sen. Marissa Jimenez – Against
  7. Sen. Joanne Rodríguez – Against
  8. Sen. Thomas Rivera – Against
  9. Sen. José L. Dalmau – Absent
  10. Sen. Marially González – Absent
  11. Sen. Javier Aponte – Absent
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