Pauline Park Q&A: LGBT Center 'Gave the Community the Finger' in 'Israeli Apartheid Week' Dispute
Veteran transgender activist Pauline Park — responsible for adding the "T" to Manhattan's LGBT Center — blasts the center's controversial decision in March to cave to pressure from pro-Zionist gay-porn impresario Michael Lucas and ban an "Israeli Apartheid Week" event sponsored by Siege Busters. The Queens Pride House, of which she is board president, hosted Siege Busters' screening of Arna's Children (a documentary sympathetic to Palestinians) last weekend in Jackson Heights. We spoke with Park about why she thinks the Manhattan LGBT Center has "basically given the community the finger" and has said to other gays — in her words — "Fuck you, drop dead, we only care about the bottom line."
Officials at the Manhattan LGBT Center, the city's major gay community center, will no longer talk about the controversy, telling the Voice, "At this time, we are not doing any further interviews on the topic."
Others are more than willing to speak about the Center. Here's our (edited) conversation with Pauline Park:
How did the screening go last weekend with Siege Busters?
It went quite well. There were 20 or 25 people. It was a very good discussion afterwards. The film, Arna's Children, is by director Juliano Mer-Khamis. His mother founded the Jenin Children's Theater, which is in the West Bank. Quite tragically, he was shot and killed in April. He was only in his forties.
The Manhattan LGBT Center conducted a "forum" about its cancellation of the Siege Busters event. At the Center's forum, you said you had "no dog in the fight." How did Siege Busters come about having an event at Queens Pride House?
I ran into Bob Lederer and Naomi Brussel and Brad Taylor from Siege Busters, and they were going out for a drink [after the forum] and asked me if I'd like to join them. And we talked about the forum and compared notes, and talked about our reactions, and they filled me in on the background.
I decided to raise this issue with my colleagues at Queens Pride House. Out of that conversation came the idea to invite the Siege Busters to hold an event at the Queens Pride House. And I extended the invitation, and they were very appreciative of it. They suggested that they show this film, which was very powerful and gave insight into what's going on in the Occupied Territories.
Did the film have an LGBT focus?
No, no. But most of the members of the Siege Busters were LGBT or queer. And I might add, by the way, at least half of the members are Jewish, as well, which I think is an interesting and important fact.
I felt the Center's expulsion of Siege Busters — not just the March event, but the banning of Siege Busters outright — was completely unjustified, and a completely unjustified act of the Center's own rules and policies. I blogged about this, and I've said in public and in private with my colleagues that I was quite outraged. And the fact is that [the Center seems] quite intent on dismissing the whole affair and regarding it as some past incident. It would be one thing if they lifted the ban. It was clearly an endorsement of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory. They [Center officials] claim neutrality, but that is simply not true.
What did you make of the flap with Tony Kushner at CUNY?
This is another example frankly of right-wing ultra-Zionism. Just by way of background, I consider myself very pro-Israel. I support the right of Israel to exist within its own boundaries. I should make clear that Queens Pride House takes no stand on the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, we do take a position on what community centers ought to be, And we would never engage in censorship based on political content, or exclude or expel or ban an organization on of its position on the Israel-Palestine issue. We believe that community centers, and LGBT community centers above all, should be places for those excluded by society. They should be open for people who've been left by families and should be open to everyone. Controversy, far from being the reason for banning groups, should be viewed as an opportunity to engage the LGBT community around debate. Centers should be open to discussion and debate of the important issues of the day.
You hear [the Manhattan LGBT Center's] Tom Kirdahy, Mario Palumbo and [executive director] Glennda Testone say it's the controversy — that's why they're canceling it. Our lives are controversial! My existence as a transgender person is controversial!
What do you make of the Center's claim that the reason Siege Busters was evicted was because its event was not "LGBT-focused"?
That's preposterous. If [the Center's officials] were sincere in that — and clearly, they were not — they would have put out an invitation to [the newly formed] Queers for an Open LGBT Center or to Siege Busters to host an event that was LGBT-focused. If they'd done that, then maybe I would believe them. That's just an excuse. That's just bullshit. That's baloney. They caved and they capitulated to blackmail.
As the President of Queens Pride House, I would never capitulate to blackmail. And if Michael Lucas or anyone of his ilk had come after us that way, not only would we go public, we'd make a very clear statement of what was going on. And we'd engage in a transparent process. I might add, I'm a member of whole bunch of [queer] organizations. Glennda reached out to none of them. And so the very idea that there was wide consultation with various groups, well, Glennda told a very big fib there. She didn't even "consult" with Siege Busters, she told them the decision.
And if we'd had a community forum at Queens Pride House, we'd have required everyone to be there. The fact that only two of the Center's board members were at that forum [out of 19] shows that it was all for show. They had no intention of engaging the community. They haven't had a single meeting with everyone — not with Siege Busters, not with Queers for an Open LGBT Center, or with queer Asian Pacific Island groups, not with queer groups of color — not that I've been aware of. The idea that they engaged with a wide-ranging group of people before making a decision is not credible. It's false. I have lost confidence in Glennda's leadership. I've known her for years and I like her personally. And I think she's nice and, whatever.
But when you look at the board, this is not a board of activists. It's a board of mostly money people. That's why they're on the board. And frankly, it's dishonest that they did not make clear that Michael Lucas is the boyfriend or lover of Richard Winger, the past president of the board. Technically, it may not be a conflict of interest. But if I were the president of the Board or the executive director, I would put that out there. They need to be upfront about these relationships. When the partner of the immediate past president of the board is threatening blackmail against the Center, it's relevant. There was a lack of candor there, and there's no question in my mind that Michael Lucas has access to the board in a way most of us do not.
When Tom Kirdahy of the Manhattan LGBT Center's board said, in essence, that Siege Busters shouldn't meet in the center because it could harm LGBT people in recovery programs, what did you make of that?
Yes, he was saying that people would be threatened if they knew such people would use the Center too, which was bizarre. There was a gay Arab society which used to meet there for years. Also, Siege Busters had been meeting there for months. Dance parties happen there all the time. So either members of Siege Busters are dangerous, which is absurd, or dance parties are dangerous, which is patently ridiculous. None of it makes sense.
I went out to dinner with someone who found that offensive on two accounts. First [this person] said it gives the implicit idea that Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims are dangerous people. Also, in this person's view, it was a very manipulative way for Tom to paint himself in a sympathetic light, by divulging his addiction and struggle with recovery.
What Mario [Palumbo] focused on was the apartheid word. I understand the significance of that word. I lived through the South African divestment movement under Reagan. I understand why it may be off-putting to some people. But since when has the center's mission been to exclude anything controversial? Same-sex marriage is controversial, even within the community. Are we going to exclude any controversy at the Center? It's bizarre and absurd. None of this is real. It's all BS. It has nothing to do with the word apartheid. It had nothing to do with anyone's sense of safety and security. It had to do with the Center's board and executive director caving to the blackmail of a really despicable character.
Michael Lucas, of all people, should not be dictating policy to the center. He's just a right-wing guy. He's just a god-awful person who has no scruples or ethics. He's a bully.
Were you concerned about losing any big donors when you hosted Siege Busters at Queen Pride House?
No. We don't have any to lose! (Laughing) But we'd do it anyway. Our goal is openness and inclusion.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.