New York — Nearly two years after the New York City Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Community Center first barred the groups Siegebusters and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from meeting there, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community erupted in outrage in mid-February, when the Center again denied a space request from QAIA, as it had continually done for the last two years.
This time, the event the Center banned was to feature writer Sarah Schulman reading from her new book, “Israel/Palestine and the Queer International.” The book describes “her dawning consciousness of the Palestine liberation struggle” and how she came to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
QAIA issued a statement that it was “appalled at the hijacking of our NYC LGBT Community Center.” The group said the Center was explicitly banning any discussion of “pinkwashing” and any support for “the civil and human rights of Palestinian queers.”
“Pinkwashing” is a term coined by LGBTQ Palestine solidarity activists to describe Israel’s public relations campaign to depict itself as a haven for LGBTQ rights and deflect attention from its crimes against Palestine. In a Nov. 22, 2011, opinion piece in the New York Times, Schulman called it “a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”
Schulman, a Jewish lesbian, is the author of 17 books of fiction and nonfiction, a distinguished professor of the Humanities at the City University of New York, winner of many awards, as well as a longtime activist. She is a well-known and respected figure in the community.
From Feb. 13 to 15, as word spread that the Center had banned Schulman, shockwaves spread throughout the LGBTQ community. The fact that the Center’s ban on Schulman’s talk came so soon after a gang of Zionists and politicians tried — and failed — to force Brooklyn College to cancel a similar event fed the fury.
Scores of people, including several of the original founders of the Center, issued letters and statements deploring the ban and demanding it be lifted. An online petition calling on the Center to “end censorship of Sarah Schulman and open your doors to all queer people” quickly garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
Individuals who make monthly donations to the Center announced that they would no longer do so. Others who had arranged bequests said they would rewrite their wills.
Racist politicos weigh in
Under intensifying pressure in the face of this outcry, Executive Director Glennda Testone and the Center’s board of directors issued a statement late in the afternoon of Feb. 15. Claiming to have simply concluded two years’ study of the issue, they announced that the ban on meetings by “groups that organize on all sides of this conflict” — maintaining the absurd illusion that the ban was neutral, not aimed specifically at Palestine solidarity — would now be lifted. Sort of.
Testone et al. said the Center would allow all groups to meet there — but only if they satisfy a range of requirements that appear to be devised to re-ban Palestine activists. All groups applying for space will now be required to sign a pledge that they do not discriminate on any basis, and that they will not engage in hate speech. Given that the original ban on QAIA was pushed by a thuggish coterie of reactionaries with friends in high places, and that its enforcement was rationalized based on a tortuously worded ruling claiming that the group’s presence was somehow threatening and might lead to violence, it can be expected that these same forces will now mobilize to claim that any pro-Palestine sentiments expressed at the Schulman or other meetings constitute hate speech.
This is basically the old slander that solidarity with Palestine equates to anti-Semitism. The facts that Schulman and many other organizers are Jewish, and that more and more Jewish people reject the Israeli state’s claim to represent all Jews, are ignored.
QAIA responded to the Center’s statement: “While we are pleased to see the Center’s announcement, we in QAIA believe that the true test of the Center’s new space usage policy will come when we request space at the Center. … In spite of lifting the moratorium, the Center appears to be positioning itself to police and shut down queer organizing in support of Palestinian queers, and Palestinian civil and human rights. … We are pleased that our two years of organizing is beginning to have positive results, but the LGBT Center is not in the clear yet and our work is not yet complete.”
Schulman wrote on her Facebook page on Feb. 17: “I am amazed, moved and grateful that so many of us are working to make our Center a free speech space. BUT, I still do not have a date for my reading and QAIA still does not have a date for their meeting. What disturbs me is the ‘pledge’ that the Center wants all speakers to sign. I think it is censorious.”
At precisely the same moment that the Center’s statement appeared on its website on Feb. 15, another statement was issued, this one a belligerent attack on the BDS and anti-pinkwashing movement. It came from New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, state Assembly Member Deborah Glick, state Sen. Brad Hoylman and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. All are LGBT elected officials — although, notably, not every New York City LGBT elected official signed the statement.
Quinn is running for mayor, hoping to succeed her longtime ally, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in next fall’s election. The statement from her and the other politicians briefly salutes the Center for its move. Then comes the crux: a paragraphs-long screed excoriating Palestine supporters as enemies of “the global cause of LGBT equality” and lauding Israel.
On its website, QAIA called the statement “racist [and] repressive” and noted that it had been posted “about four nanoseconds later” than the Center’s.
While this upheaval centers on the issue of Palestine, it is only the latest in a series of offenses by the Center, especially against the most oppressed of the LGBTQ communities, including Arabs, Muslims, trans people of color and poor and working-class people. Many individuals and organizations have long since stopped using the Center, seeing it as an unfriendly, elitist, exclusionary space.
The conflict centering on Palestine solidarity should be seen in this broader context. What once, decades ago at its founding, was to be a radical organizing center that provided a welcoming space to all in the diverse LGBTQ community has now devolved to a non-struggle-oriented entity allied with moneyed corporate and establishment political interests.