LGBT Community Center: A Bad Policy Ended Badly

Turning a corner on an unhappy episode in the history of New York’s LGBT Community Center that lasted nearly two years, the Center announced on February 15 that it was ending its “indefinite moratorium” on renting space to organizations that “organize around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The difficulties began in the spring of 2011 when several well-known supporters of Israel, springing into action at the urging of gay porn entrepreneur Michael Lucas, complained the Center was renting space to Siege Busters, a group challenging the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, for a commemoration of Israeli Apartheid Week, a worldwide protest aimed at the Jewish state over its policies toward its Palestinian residents.

In response to the complaints, the Center canceled that gathering, explaining that Siege Busters was not an LGBT group and was bringing undue controversy into the West 13th Street facility’s operations. When others then criticized the Center for betraying a tradition of open access, it held a town hall meeting to vent the issue and also hired a consulting firm to advise it on establishing a new policy.

In the meanwhile, the Center accepted space reservations from a second group, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, which had an overlapping membership with Siege Busters. When complaints quickly resurfaced, the Center canceled the final two of QAIA’s three dates and announced the “indefinite moratorium.”

Given that the Center had engaged outside consultants to advise them, it was not unreasonable to hope that the “indefinite moratorium” would yield in some reasonable period of time to a coherent access policy honoring the traditions of a community center serving diverse populations. No new policy, however, was forthcoming.

Until, that is, the Center faced an uproar over its denial of space to QAIA for a reading by noted author, novelist, playwright, and activist Sarah Schulman from her book “Israel/ Palestine and the Queer International.” Schulman is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at punishing Israel economically for its Palestinian policies. She is also a New York lesbian leader of 30 years, and her exclusion from the Center proved a bigger challenge than the untenable policy — which was really an abdication of responsibility for making policy — could absorb.

In the day or so after the story broke on February 13, Center staff adamantly denied there was any contemplation of a change in policy — and then suddenly late on a Friday afternoon, new guidelines were announced. The nearly instantaneous release of a statement from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and three other out gay and lesbian elected officials made it clear they were working hand in glove with Center officials to tamp down the latest crisis.

The new guidelines can be made to work. The Center has for some time had a policy requiring groups renting space to sign a pledge that they are non-discriminatory and do not engage in bigotry or hate speech. Disavowing any intention to “pre-vet” groups asking for space or the content they will present, the Center has put the onus on those charging any group with bigotry or hate speech to come forward with a formal written complaint.

Personally, I am not thrilled at the prospect of signing a statement attesting that “I am not now nor ever have been” engaged in hate speech. On the other hand, the Center has an obligation to create a space where people are free from discrimination and bigotry, so an overall policy and pledge addressing discrimination, bigotry, and hate speech — if required universally with appropriate due process and evidentiary standards — can be an acceptable approach.

I am not encouraged, however, by the way the Center framed its February 15 announcement, nor am I happy about the manner in which the public officials chimed in.

The Center’s announcement would have us believe that the change of heart resulted from the salutary effects of a moratorium that “allowed things to cool down and gave us time to rethink the Center’s space use policies.” Baloney. It came in response to an angry community reaction to the snub of Schulman.

This is no academic question, because in the next paragraph, when discussing the pledge required of space renters, the announcement states, “we deplore the rhetoric of hate and bigotry.” If the policy change had come in its own time, that statement might be seen as a umpire’s neutral observation. Articulated as part of a reversal of another recent denial of space to QAIA, it is clear finger-pointing at the critics of Israel. Not only is the statement unnecessary but it flies in the face of the Center’s avowed intention to stay out of the Israeli/ Palestinian controversy. The Center was clearly covering its butt against charges it had caved to Israel-haters.

I wouldn’t use the word apartheid in describing Israel’s policies toward its Palestinian residents and neighbors, much as I have problems with the way in which Israeli politics has retreated from any sincere commitment to working toward humanitarian solutions to the tragedy faced by the Palestinian people. I don’t like use of the word for the same reason I reject glib comparisons to the Nazi regime, to slavery, or to Jim Crow racism. Just as with the challenges facing LGBT people, I think we should talk about the difficulties confronting the Palestinians — and the culpability Israel might have in that regard — in language specific to the situation. I don’t see any purpose served by saying, “You don’t have to bother educating yourself about Israel and Palestine, it’s just like the former white regime in South Africa and its black majority.”

I am dismayed, however, at how much more difficult it is to have a thoughtful debate about Israel’s shortcomings in the US than it is in Israel. There, the opposition is freewheeling in its criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Here, nuanced thinking seems to pretty quickly hit a brick wall of “My Israel, Right or Wrong.”

That is surely the attitude at the heart of the disconcerting release from Quinn, City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick. After praising the Center for finding an approach that will maximize access, the four gratuitously added, “That said, we want to make abundantly clear that we categorically reject attempts by any organization to use the Center to delegitimize Israel and promote an anti-Israel agenda.” Then, in a perfect inversion of what actually happened over the past two years on West 13th Street, they continued, “We adamantly oppose any and all efforts to inappropriately inject the Center into politics that are not the core of their important mission.”

If only they could have left it at a paraphrase of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s rebuke of those who threatened to punish Brooklyn College for hosting a BDS forum — and said simply, “If you want to go to a community center where the government or a board of directors meeting in private decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you look for a community center in North Korea.”