By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In the battle over gay rights, dissent during wartime isn't always tolerated
When Siege Busters Working Group planned its "Party to End Israeli Apartheid" in March of 2011 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center, it probably knew it would raise some eyebrows and hoped it would raise some dough.
But it probably didn't predict that its event would lead to ending all discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Center.
The "dance party," a fundraiser for an aid flotilla to Gaza, happened during Israeli Apartheid Week. The Center hosted an Israeli Apartheid Week event in 2008, and Siege Busters had been renting meeting space in the Center—as nearly any community group can—for numerous weeks last year.
But when gay-porn king Michael Lucas got wind of the group's plans, he vowed to keep them (or anyone else) from criticizing Israel within the Center's walls. Lucas is primarily known for his puffy lips, his nine-inch custom dildo in the shape of his manhood, and his shameless self-promotion. Increasingly, he's also known for his Zionism and open hatred of Muslims. And so, Lucas went about getting the Center to eject Siege Busters.
Questions about the situation in Israel aside, the incident forced the Center to consider censoring a group it had previously neither endorsed nor barred. Initially, the Center balked at taking a stand. Sources told me that Executive Director Glennda Testone (formerly of GLAAD) told Lucas—at least initially—not to mess with the Center's "open-door policy." But Lucas, well connected to the Center's board through his marriage to its president emeritus, Richard Winger, went over her head. He sent out a press release threatening "to organize a boycott that would certainly involve some of the Center's most generous donors."
"If someone fucks with Israel, I fuck them back," Lucas later told Gay City News. "And I usually win."
He did. It only took hours, and the Center decided "this event is not appropriate to be held at our LGBT Community Center . . . and the host group will no longer meet at the Center."
A community meeting followed, during which Testone said the problem was that Siege Busters wasn't "LGBT focused" and therefore was distracting the Center from its "core mission." According to multiple speakers, this contradicted decades of the Center's history of hosting meetings on "non-gay" topics like South African apartheid, health care, and the Iraq war. (Also, many people in Siege Busters were LGBT, though that hadn't been a prerequisite for renting space at the Center.)
One of the stranger moments during the Center's only public meeting on the matter: Board member Tom Kirdahy said he didn't want a Siege Busters event because it would make vulnerable people using the center, like those in recovery programs, feel "unsafe." This was odd because Kirdahy is the partner of playwright Terrence McNally.
McNally wrote Corpus Christi, a retelling of the Gospel with Jesus and the disciples as homosexuals. Many involved with its first production received death threats, including the board members of the Manhattan Theatre Club, which also faced losing its government funding. The New York Times wrote in 1998 that when "the theater received bomb threats . . . it decided to cancel the production. The theater's administrators came under intense criticism and finally put the production back on its calendar. . . . But the episode sent a chill through the artistic world because of a feeling that the theater's reversals emboldened the opponents of free expression, contributing to a climate of fear."
If not for outspoken queers like Tony Kushner (who threatened to withdraw his plays from MTC if McNally's was not produced), Corpus Christi might never have been produced.
Fifteen years later, McNally's partner was voting to keep a discussion of Israel and Palestine out of the Center in a time when free debate is under assault not just from the right but also the institutional left. By the time the Center fracas was over, all discussion of Israel and Palestine was formally banned from its walls.
As Sherry Wolf (a Jewish lesbian critic of Israel) put it, the Center became "yet another occupied, homogenized space that only powerful and, frankly, white people dominate." Transgender activist Pauline Park thought it had "basically given the community the finger" and said to other LGBT people—in her words—"Fuck you. Drop dead. We only care about the bottom line."
Why should gay Americans feel any guiltier about selling speech to the highest bidder than anyone else?
Well, were it not for a poor, chaotic band who bravely defended the First Amendment at the Stonewall Inn 43 years ago next week (and did so without a publicist, Facebook campaign, or committee-approved talking points), there would have been no gay rights movement as we know it. The whole premise of being out has been predicated on free expression of once-taboo matters.
Today's movement is quite unlike ACT UP, the Gay Liberation Front, or the Mattachine Society. In their use of confrontation, those groups looked far more like Occupy Wall Street than the Human Rights Campaign. Today's gay organizations tend to present queer voices that are well polished and well financed.
And sometimes what they endorse isn't liberating for queers or supportive of free speech at all.