When I was a boy of 13, my grandmother took me to my first civil rights demonstration to teach me about racism and social justice. She knew those issues well: Our family fled from the pogroms in Russia, others in our family perished in the Holocaust, and Grandmom even fought for women’s rights.
On that day I marched with Cecil B. Moore and Robert N.C. Nix. Five years later, in 1969, I’d be a member of New York’s Gay Liberation Front, and in the name of justice, we’d march with the Black Panthers to free queer activist Angela Davis from her arrest and detention, chanting about New York’s Women’s House of Detention, “Ho ho, hey hey, House of D has to go.”
But last week, when I heard LGBT activists at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Chicago using part of that slogan against our own community, it was a sad day. And it sickened me to the pit of my stomach.
The Creating Change conference is the largest gathering of LGBT activists from across the nation. Almost anyone who works in LGBT activism was present — and usually it’s magic. Typically, all issues affecting our communities are discussed, with people being able to agree to disagree with respect. But a major controversy happened this year. And the place that usually is — and should always be — a place for dialogue within our community suddenly felt closed and unsafe for Jewish attendees.
An organization called A Wider Bridge, which promotes ties between LGBT Americans and Israel, was scheduled to have a reception at Creating Change. Some of the conference participants complained about a reception featuring an organization representing ties with Israel. According to Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network, which was involved in the protest, “Israel's racist rule features widespread imprisonment of Palestinians without charges or trials; systemic torture documented by numerous human-rights organizations; and the intentional, extreme impoverishment of Palestinians thru the purposeful destruction of their economic activity in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Presto, the Task Force canceled the event. This led to a debate about anti-Semitism, apartheid, and political correctness. Eventually, conference organizers did the right thing and reinstated the session. After all, this conference is about “creating change,” and change occurs with communication. However, the event’s reinstatement led those who are opposed to Israel and/or its treatment of Palestinians to protest.
As a writer, I’ve visited and written about the region on many occasions. In fact, I spent time with the first out LGBT organization in Beirut, writing about lesbians in Jordan and the oppression in Egypt, among other topics. So I know the people on both sides well. I was embraced in Beirut and spit on in Jerusalem.
I was at Creating Change to speak about my just-published memoir, which speaks of my numerous arrests and nickel rides fighting for social justice. In many of the cities I’ve visited on my book tour, there’s a question from a young LGBT person that goes like this: “What can we do today to create activism or equality?”
So I appreciate many in that crowd at the Wider Bridge protest who were there wanting to do something. Unfortunately, what transpired looked to many Jewish people like an ugly anti-Semitic rally.
I guess the first question we should ask of the protest organizers is: If you’re suggesting a boycott of Israel because of issues outside of LGBT concerns, why not include a statement about the antigay laws in Palestine? It would demonstrate an attempt for fairness and common ground. And why not explain that many LGBT people have had to literally escape antigay violence in Palestine? It is so unsafe for out Palestinians that the organization fighting for Palestinian queer rights has to be located in Israel. Why? The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has declared homosexuality punishable by death.
Then there’s that matter of racism, or apartheid, that the anti-Israel group opposed. We all know why Israel was created, as a safe haven for Jews. We also know how Palestinians have fought Israel, at times suggesting it be wiped off the face of the earth, along with its people, the Jews. Yasser Arafat turned that into a slogan: “From the [Jordan] River to the Sea.” To Jews in Israel, that slogan represents extermination. Now, imagine being a Jew in a room in a hotel with 200 people outside who are banging on the doors yelling that slogan or who are wrapping a Palestinian flag over the head of a Jew who is trying to make his way into the room. That is what happened in Chicago.
Many of us would gladly protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians in Israel, but that is different than supporting the Palestinian government that wants you to be put to death if you’re LGBT and you live on the Gaza Strip. But trapping Jews in a room yelling what is some in Israel consider a death slogan? Does that conjure something to your mind? Look up the word “Kristallnacht.” Insensitive at the very least.
Windy City Times, the local newspaper for Chicago’s LGBT community, did a great job of capturing most of the demonstration on video. You can view it for yourself on YouTube. As unbelievable at it might sound, this all really happened.
As an activist for the Gay Liberation Front, founded in 1969, I think it’s great to see this generation wanting to protest injustice, but it seems the lessons of our fight for equality have been forgotten. Always fight for our community's rights, since if we do not do so, nobody else will. Then protest with an understanding of the issues and empathy for all human beings involved.
The Task Force acknowledged its mishandling of the situation and will work to ensure that incidents like this don’t occur in the future. While the group may have been unprepared for what happened, the insensitivity came from the protest organizers. Those organizers need to apologize — at the very least to those people in that room who were forced to leave through a back door for safety.
We members of Gay Liberation Front who are still alive have varied views on Israel and Palestine, but one thing we’d never do is act with such insensitivity and accidentally imply support for leaders who wish to put LGBT people to death.
MARK SEGAL is the nation’s most award-winning commentator in LGBT media. His memoir, And Then I Danced: Traveling The Road to LGBT Equality, is available online or at your favorite bookseller.