The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This show of anti-Semitism at an LGBT conference should bring change

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The annual Creating Change conference convened by the National LGBTQ Task Force is a premier gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) activists and leaders from around the country and the world. As Mark Joseph Stern of Slate notes, it “brings together dozens of LGBTQ groups, from fringe to mainstream, at one bustling summit to compare notes and debate strategy.”

But this year’s bustling summit blew up when some 200 protesters rallied against a San Francisco-based Jewish group holding a reception during the conference. The demonstrators accused A Wider Bridge, which seeks to foster ties between Israel and LGBT communities in North America, of engaging in “pinkwashing.” That is, portraying a positive view of Israel while distracting from that nation’s treatment of Palestinians.

Reporting on the demonstrations paints a chaotic scene of provocation, invective and reaction, as do the videos. One video in particular was especially disturbing because of what was being chanted:

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”

Those words are alarming because Palestine can’t get “from the river to the sea” without wiping the Jewish state off the map.

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What happened in Chicago was so disturbing that an extraordinary group of 41 national and grass-roots LGBT leaders have signed a letter to Task Force executive director Rea Carey expressing their deep concern. The idea for the two-page missive came from Roberta Kaplan, the attorney who successfully argued the marriage-equality case before the Supreme Court, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, leader of the nation’s largest LGBT synagogue, who was at the conference and witnessed the demonstrations. They were joined by a host of Jewish and non-Jewish LGBT signatories, including Dana Beyer, Barney Frank, Vincent Jones, Andrea Shorter, Christine Quinn, the Rev. Neil G. Cazares-Thomas, Edie Windsor and Evan Wolfson.

Keep something in mind: Both Carey and the organization she leads are held in high esteem in the LGBT community. The letter goes to great lengths to praise the organization for its response to the incidents and the actions taken since. But the signatories say that what happened in Chicago was “unacceptable and not in accord with the Task Force’s values of pluralism, inclusivity and thoughtful debate.” They also said the review being undertaken by the Task Force “should be conducted by an outside, independent party charged with determining what happened, how it happened, and what will be done to ensure that it will not happen again.”

“Like many others who, over the past few days, have put forth statements and input for moving forward, we thank the signers for their perspectives and in fact share their interest in improving the Creating Change Conference as well as addressing larger issues in the movement and society,” Carey said in response to a query from me about the events of Chicago and their aftermath. “Many of the signers are long-time colleagues and Task Force friends and we appreciate the time and thoughtfulness they have put into this letter. We share their commitment in standing against anti-Semitism. We also share their interest in engaging in an extensive review process that includes working with external experts, leaders in different communities — including a number of the leaders who signed the letter — supporters and stakeholders.”

With the legalization of marriage equality comes more bandwidth to deal with other issues that simmered beneath the surface. That’s why what happened in Chicago marks an inflection point in the LGBT rights movement. A point of pride for Creating Change is that attendees are encouraged to be their whole selves. And to have that identity recognized and respected. What happened in Chicago was a gross violation of that. As Carey noted in her statement, “Those whole selves come into conflict.” That’s why what happened there demands a deeper conversation for the LGBT movement. One that should use the thoughtful piece by Cindy Rizzo on Medium as a guide.

Carey is one of my heroes. Through her leadership, the Task Force has lent a gay voice to a range of seemingly non-LGBT issues, such as racial profiling, immigration reform, voting rights and criminal-justice reform. And in the process, Carey and her organization are not only addressing issues that affect LGBT people of color but are also building stronger alliances with people of color long engaged on those issues.

The empathy and understanding is already there among the leadership. The hard part will be engaging in the uncomfortable dialogue necessary for a full embrace by the wider LGBT community.

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