LGBT Center’s Ban on Israeli Critics Debated at Forum

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | While the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center can legally ban a group that opposes Israeli government policies toward Palestinians, it was clear at a town hall meeting held at the Center was that some in the community expect more from the 28-year-old institution than merely complying with the law.

“I think the Center cannot, in any way, make decisions based on the content or controversial nature of the event,” said Urvaishi Vaid, the longtime queer community leader, at the March 13 event. “I want the Center to be a place where people like Michael [Lucas] can come and organize and people like Siegebusters can come and organize.”

The Siegebusters Working Group, which had been meeting regularly at the Center since August of 2010, planned a March 5 party at the West 13th Street building to mark Israeli Apartheid Week. Some of the funds raised at that event would have gone to pay for boats to confront the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Complaints about the party prompted the Center to quickly cancel it and bar Siegebusters from meeting there again.

March 13 town hall draws crowd of 100, deeply divided, with some faulting content standard for access

Glennda Testone, the Center’s executive director, told Gay City News following the town hall that the board’s executive committee, which is comprised of five members of the 19-member board, decided in less than 24 hours to halt the party. While making that decision, they consulted with an attorney on legal issues related to the ban and heard from 50 to 60 people who either opposed or supported Siegebusters. “Hundreds” have expressed their views to the Center since then, Testone said.

“The decision was absolutely made in good faith and it was not made in response to any one individual,” Testone said during the town hall. The Center banned that the Siegebusters’ party because it was “an incredibly controversial and contentious event” and “it was not LGBT-focused,” Testone said.

The loudest voice opposing Siegebusters was Lucas, the owner of Lucas Entertainment, a gay porn studio. He threatened to organize a boycott by Center donors if the party took place. Lucas was not alone.

Stuart Appelbaum, the openly gay president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Steven Goldstein, who chairs Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s gay lobbying group, also opposed the Siegebusters’ event. Both were speaking as individuals and not for their organizations.

In May of 2010, the Mavi Marmara, a ship owned by a Turkish charity, tried to run the blockade and was intercepted by Israeli Defense Force commandos. Nine passengers on the ship were killed and dozens were injured during the fight on board. Seven commandos were also injured.

Speaking at the town hall, Appelbaum appeared to be referring to that when he said, “My second request would be that the Center not be used in a way to incite violence.”

Earlier Appelbaum said, “The Center should not be used for racist, Islamophobic, or anti-Semitic events.”

By March 13, over 1,600 people had signed an online petition condemning the ban and calling on the Center to “return to its mission as a space for the oppressed and marginalized and reverse its decision on the March 5 event and reinstate the right of Siegebusters activists to meet there.”

While there was some debate over the Siegebusters’ message among the roughly 100 people who attended the town hall, most of the discussion focused on the Center, its decision, and the actions it should take to address the controversy.

William Dobbs, a longtime gay activist and an unflinching champion of the First Amendment, called on the Center to make its board meetings public, while others asked for largely unspecified changes to the policy on renting space.

“When are you actually going to do something to have a process that is open?” Dobbs said.

Mario J. Palumbo, Jr., the Center’s board president and one of two board members who spoke at the town hall, said “I can promise you that this is something we’ll talk about.” The second board member, Tom Kirdahy, said, “The fact of the matter is this exposed a failing in the Center’s policy.”

The Center’s space rental policy, which effectively holds that it may refuse to rent to any group for any reason, has rarely been controversial. Only barring the North American Man Boy Love Association, the New Alliance Party, and parties for men organized according to their HIV status have caused any community debate in 28 years.

Following the town hall, it appeared the Center had already determined its next step.

“I think that what people want are clear guidelines,” Testone said. The Center might add an appeals process for groups that are denied space, but it will not be rewriting its policy.

“It’s not a question of do we throw this out and start over,” Testone said.