Chicago's Creating Change Conference Was a Mess
The accordion walls were shaking as I feared for my safety, while trying to keep others calm. Were that hotel conference room not so stressful in the moment, it would have felt surreal.
I was among the hundred people who attended the Friday night reception hosted by A Wider Bridge at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference held in Chicago last month. An intentionally safe forum for dialogue was repeatedly breached by intolerance and fear-mongering — the same realities the queer and transgender movements once arose to overcome.
There are plenty of accounts around the cancellation and restoration of A Wider Bridge’s reception featuring leaders from the LGBTQ center, Jerusalem Open House, amid accusations that the National LGBTQ Task Force was endorsing “pinkwashing,” a term which suggests the purposeful deflection of attention from alleged human rights abuses by Israel with positive stories of its vibrant LGBTQ life and inclusion. While numerous attempts were made to expand spaces for peaceful discussion, anti-Israel activists chose not to respect these boundaries.
More than two hundred protesters, many of whom were trans or nonbinary, crowded hallways, banging drums and waving banners, to actively impede other conference participants from entering A Wider Bridge’s reception, or even reaching unrelated programs elsewhere on that hotel floor. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” they chanted, calling for the destruction of Israel, rather than addressing liberation of the occupied territories.
The invited guests from Jerusalem Open House had already been evacuated through a rear exit when multiple protesters stormed the stage. We were concerned the main protest would sweep around to block this door and fully trap us. These particular demonstrators were ineffective at anything beyond taking up space — they were more fixated by documenting themselves with selfies and complaining about police being called, than by offering any actual message.
When the protesters who stormed the stage finally decided to chant, they chose, “Black lives matter!” It felt oddly misplaced in a room where their captive audience overwhelmingly agreed. At least 130,000 black Jews are Israeli citizens, mostly rescued from Ethiopia in the 1980’s to 90’s, and A Wider Bridge works with the LGBTQ Ethiopian Jews. Another 55,000 Africans are seeking asylum from genocide in Eritrea and Sudan, among other nations. Israel has issues with immigration, yet does more to affirm that black lives matter — LGBTQ lives too — than its neighbors, or neither population would seek refuge there.
Transgender men and women such as myself are used to lives as underdogs and watching our backs for early warnings of prejudice and aggression. Narratives of intersecting oppressions resonate among us. Suggesting our LGBTQ brethren are being exploited by a state painted as as a racist and religious-extremist regime with a robust military, is a deliberately constructed fantasy playing at our collective heartstrings. Ironically, under the logic of pinkwashing, we would have no right to celebrate marriage equality here in the U.S., while Guantanamo Bay still holds detainees without due process. Only Israel, plus any organization that originates from — or even does business — there gets held to an unreasonable standard.
It is impossible to deny both sides suffering in a decades-old conflict, but we must not fear exposing the fallacies of that weekend’s actions and the threatening tactics used to convey them. Most appalling was highlighting our own oppression as a shield for misbehavior.
I heard repeatedly prior to, during, and even after the demonstration, “Police have no business being called here,” to a conference whose participants identify as trans, queer, people of color, undocumented, or combinations therein. While there are historically heightened risks that our popoulations face in any interaction with officers themselves or the justice system, this must not be twisted into impunity. A more menacing demonstration could be held because protesters were confident that the Task Force would hesitate to invoke authorities upon its own constituents.
The protest could have snowballed into a riot at any moment. One video shows a man within the protest, appearing to wear a yarmulke, having his head and neck covered by a Palestinian flag. Inside the reception, I posed for a selfie with the two protesters who had refused to yield the stage, forcing the reception’s host to stand on a chair. They were quiet and aimlessly tuned toward their phone screens, but noticed and came quickly toward me, calling me out for proudly expressing my Jewish and queer identities together by wearing a rainbow Star of David flag as a cape. They yelled that I was a pinkwasher, a supporter of apartheid, and other things I couldn’t make out amid the ambient noise from the shaking walls. They intentionally bumped me, and physically prevented me from walking away, which constituted assault. Thankfully, others noticed this altercation and larger-built male friend came over to provide physical and emotional back-up in keeping them from me.
Chicago Police were summoned by the hotel itself, a decision I fully support. If anything, they should have been there sooner. The 20 or so officers I personally observed in the hotel lobby were courteous and professional, and I believe their presence prevented a potentially violent escalation within this private establishment, trumping protesters’ concerns about police abuse, detainment, or even deportation. Not bringing in the police would only have reinforced the same stereotypes and prejudices that our movements stand against, rather than hold them accountable to work diligently as seemed to in this case.
The tone remained militant throughout the remainder of the conference. On Saturday morning, I and other representatives from the Task Force’s Jewish Working Group peacefully attended the #CancelPinkwashing session to hear “background” on the issue. Both facilitators wore fatigue prints. We heard an absurd yet charismatic story of the world’s racial injustice (mostly perpetrated by white males) leading up to the occupation of Palestine, which started with Columbus and even highlighted Chinese laborers building the Central Pacific railroads. It was baffling that California in 1867 felt more relevant to their perception of Israel’s realities than the Six Day War in 1967.
Friday evening’s protesters gleefully claimed a victory, as Chicago Hilton managers were forced to shut both the reception and demonstration alike over legitimate alarm they caused for the physical safety of all parties and property involved. A Wider Bridge and Jerusalem Open House have likewise claimed victory, simply by existing and keeping all of their attendees safe. Which of these sound more like the underdog queer and transgender movements we remember?
I fear that my transgender, nonbinary, and queer siblings — many personal friends — have just helped create the torch-and-pitchfork angry mob mentality we fear most. Other protesters once told us that as LGBT people, we were deviant individuals who had no right to exist, and we often still hear this message. Our opposition rejected every effort we made to share our authentic selves, instead amplifying fallacies that we are freaks, pedophiles, or worse. There was no space to express our humanity, let alone address challenges we face on a daily basis. We are winning our respect only by dispelling these myths one-on-one, with anyone willing to open their minds for even a minute.
With Israel, as any other issue, we must offer the same civility we demand.
Creating Change is not about seeing eye-to-eye, but rather seeing things as you only can through another’s eyes. 4,000 people attended nearly 350 unique sessions on a range of social and economic topics, yet despite deep divisions on every issue area, only Israel was denied dignified discourse. Rather than perpetuate cycles of mistrust and misinformation, I cordially challenge all involved to visit Israel and the West Bank for yourselves, if only to hone and inform your criticisms. Numerous organizations — A Wider Bridge is just one — routinely invite and even subsidize delegations of LGBTQ leaders from all backgrounds to visit Israel.
Everybody lost on Friday night, regardless of claiming otherwise. But it is where we go from here that defines the kind of people we are. We know the value of being listened to, so we must not forget to listen ourselves. We must work together, to create not just change, but peace.
Hannah Simpson is a medical student, engineer, marathoner, and unabashed nerd who recently returned from leading an LGBTQ young adult trip to Israel. Her writing on transgender advocacy has been featured on Refinery29, MarieClaire.com, the Jewish Times of Baltimore, and elsewhere. She has appeared as a television guest commentator on trans issues with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, and Fox 5 (WNYW) Good Day New York. Follow her on Twitter at @hannsimp.