National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey has no plans to resign in the wake of January’s protest at the annual Creating Change conference that forced the cancellation of a reception with two Israeli activists.
“There are a lot of opinions both from people who were and weren’t there,” Carey told the Washington Blade during an interview at the Task Force’s offices in Northwest D.C. on Feb. 25. “I love the work that I do and I’m not stepping down.”
Carey spoke with the Blade a month after more than 200 people opposed to “pinkwashing,” which they describe as the promotion of Israel’s LGBT rights record in an attempt to deflect attention away from its policies toward the Palestinians, protested the reception at the Creating Change conference in Chicago.
A Wider Bridge, an organization that seeks to bolster “LGBTQ connections with Israel,” organized the reception. Sarah Kala-Meir and Tom Canning from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance were scheduled to speak, but they left the room in which the gathering was taking place through a back door as protesters began shouting.
Organization does not have ‘international mission’
The National LGBTQ Task Force initially cancelled the reception amid criticism from Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and others who accused A Wider Bridge of “pinkwashing.” Carey later reversed this decision.
She stressed that the National LGBTQ Task Force “does not have a policy stance on the Israeli Palestinian conflict.” Carey also touched upon the debate around the campaign in support of a boycott, economic divestment and sanctions against Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians that took place during the protest and in the days and weeks afterwards.
“We are not an organization with an international mission,” she said.
A Wider Bridge CEO Arthur Slepian told the Blade on Monday that he welcomes Carey’s comments on the Israeli government’s policies toward the Palestinians.
“That’s a good thing,” said Slepian. “It should not be the role of the National LGBTQ Task Force to have a policy position on the conflict.”
Dana Beyer, a member of A Wider Bridge’s board of directors, agreed.
“Our goal as LGBT organizations is to do the best we can for our citizens and for those elsewhere in the world who need our help and want their help,” she told the Blade on Monday during an interview. “We need to be concerned about their well-being, not the geo-political situations in which they live.”
Safety of conference participants top priority
Carey throughout the interview said the decisions she made around the A Wider Bridge reception were about safety.
“It is in fact at the core of every decision I made about that reception, including to cancel it,” she said.
She told the Blade that A Wider Bridge promoted the reception “more publicly for people to come in from the outside.”
“That happens sometimes with our receptions … so it was a public thing,” said Carey. “We can’t always check badges as we do with the plenaries and workshops to make sure that people have registered for the conference.”
Carey said standard protocol for Creating Change is to make sure that those who attend a workshop or plenary are registered and have a nametag.
“[If they] don’t have one we simply ask them to go register, please go get a nametag and go on back,” she said. “It’s so hard to do that on reception night … you’ve got 4,000 people going from hallway to hallway, room to room, plus some receptions have made them open to the public.”
Carey told the Blade that most of those who organized the protest did not register for the conference. Slepian dismissed suggestions that his organization’s decision to promote the reception contributed to the protest.
“In the weeks leading up to the conference, there was just some agitation from a small number of folks who were complaining that we were on the itinerary,” he said.
Staff helped ‘deescalate’ situation with police
Carey said that Task Force staff spoke with security personnel at the Chicago Hilton about the protests that they expected to take place. She told the Blade that they did not want them to call the police “unless things got really violent or something,” in part, because of the controversy surrounding the shootings of Laquan McDonald and other people of color in Chicago.
“My worst fears were that this gets out of hand somehow, the police are on site and it gets worse and worse,” said Carey.
Carey told the Blade that Task Force staff were inside and outside the reception “to try to deescalate things, which they tried to do actually outside the reception at one point.”
Hotel personnel nevertheless called the police.
“We then, our staff, were talking to the police trying to get them to help deescalate the situation, knowing the experiences that many of our attendees have had with the police,” she said. “Unfortunately that itself was going to be a challenge for a number of people. It was a very intense situation where I think a lot of people were trying to deescalate it.”
‘Peacekeepers’ possible at future conferences
Carey in the weeks after the protest has reached out to organizers.
Slepian told the Blade that he and Carey had a “very cordial conversation” for nearly an hour. Carey has also exchanged emails with Jerusalem Open House Executive Director Sarah Kala-Meir.
“On site we started assessing what we did, what we could have done,” said Carey. “We started to talk with people.”
Carey told the Blade it “would have been helpful if we could have had conversations” with A Wider Bridge and other organizations holding the reception about “what they felt they needed in the room.” She said they did not consider the need for security during the event.
Slepian disputes this account.
He told the Blade that there was a person inside the room in which the reception took place for security.
“That person basically used his body to barricade the door to keep the protesters outside,” said Slepian.
Carey said she and Task Force staff could have also spoken with the protest organizers.
Bashar Makhay, one of the protest organizers with whom the Blade has previously spoken, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment this week.
“We have protests at Creating Change,” said Carey. “Often times when we talk to the protest organizers, we’re actually able to create a situation where they get to have a protest, have their voice heard, say what they want to say and make sure that it’s a protest that doesn’t turn into something that they don’t want and we don’t want, whether it’s physical violence or insulting other people.”
Carey told the Blade that the layout of the reception rooms in the hotel “exacerbated the situation.” She added another solution at which the organization is looking for future Creating Change conferences is to use so-called “peacekeepers” who are trained to de-escalate protests and other situations.
“I wish it hadn’t gotten to the point where the police had been called by the hotel,” she said.
Carey told the Blade that the National LGBTQ Task Force is undertaking a larger assessment of Creating Change and how it can continue to be “the conference that moves our movement forward.” She stressed that the safety of those who attend the annual gathering remains her highest priority.
“Anything that happens under my watch is my responsibility, and I take it seriously,” said Carey. “I and we are learning and I think we’re going to come up with some creative and concrete recommendations with how we can move forward for the conference, for the organization and for the movement.”
Panel with ICE officials also cancelled
The first Creating Change Conference took place in D.C. in 1988.
Carey told the Blade that roughly 200 people attended the first conference that Task Force Director of Creating Change Sue Hyde and Urvashi Vaid organized.
This year’s Creating Change had 234 workshops, 70 caucus sessions, 31 events, two-dozen institutes and four plenary sessions. Several people delivered Carey’s annual State of the Movement speech that she traditionally gives during the gathering.
Carey told the Blade that nearly 4,000 people attended this year’s Creating Change.
“It’s a lot of people,” she said.
Another controversy that emerged ahead of this year’s Creating Change was Carey’s decision to cancel a workshop that was to have featured three officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Carey noted to the Blade that government officials, including former White House LGBT liaison Gautam Raghavan, have attended Creating Change. She nevertheless decided to cancel the ICE workshop because a number of undocumented immigrants who had planned to attend said they would not feel safe.
“Personally I am an activist,” said Carey, noting she has been arrested twice during immigration reform protests. “I am happy to tell a government official what I think they should do any time, but this wasn’t the safest situation for a lot of people to do so, and we heard that.”
Immigration reform a ‘significant priority’
The Task Force, which was founded in 1973 as the National Gay Task Force, is the country’s oldest national LGBT advocacy group. It is among the dozens of LGBT advocacy groups that urged the Obama administration last month to stop conducting raids that have targeted undocumented immigrants from Central America. Carey’s organization has also advocated for comprehensive immigration reform, which includes the release of LGBT detainees in ICE custody.
“It is a very significant priority for the Task Force,” said Carey. “It is something that I personally care deeply about.”
Carey during the interview described her organization as “a racial, economic and social justice organization that works for the LGBTQ community.”
“For 43 years, we have always been an organization that has pushed this country to understand our full lives,” she told the Blade. “Part of that is looking at issues that, unfortunately, some don’t consider to be LGBTQ issues.”
Carey said her organization continues to advocate in support of expanded economic and employment opportunity for LGBT Americans, which includes opposing so-called religious freedom bills. She also sharply criticized congressional Republicans for their opposition to President Obama nominating someone to succeed the late-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who died last month.
“I am extremely disappointed and I would say as a voting citizen of this country angry that members of Congress would derail democracy,” Carey told the Blade.
Carey stressed her organization is not going to expand its mission into international issues.
“That is not our area of expertise,” she said. “We are a U.S.-based domestically focused and missioned organization and that’s our best work.”
“Having said that, we absolutely understand…there’s a global experience that we all have now,” added Carey. “So we absolutely understand that issues that happen in other countries around the world, conflicts that happen in other countries affect people here in the United States.”