The Parlous 'State of the (LGBTQ) Movement'

Events over the past two weeks have brought the challenges facing the LGBT community post-marriage equality to the forefront. Unfortunately, those events played out as a week's worth of bullying culminating in an assault, exactly the methods abhorred by the community for decades.

The largest annual queer conference, Creating Change, occurred last week in Chicago. The centerpiece of the conference is the "State of the Movement" address, given by the Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force until this year when the task was shared by a number of activists. This "chorus of voices" was described by Executive Director, Rea Carey thusly:

No one person -- in this case one white lesbian -- can ever speak authentically or fully for an entire movement in one speech. This is not where we are, nor is it where we are going. Our vision for the future of the movement is one that is broad, inclusive and dynamic. When we made this decision late last year to change the annual speech, I was very much inspired to do so after listening to the many voices on staff and across our movement for change. That's why this year's state of the movement will include a diversity of voices -- featuring some of the people, as Task Force staff, who are driving our movement forward to real freedom, justice and equality for all LGBTQ people and for a changed country. We hope you will enjoy what I believe will be a very powerful speech.

This was a very interesting change, having individuals personally committed to particular tasks (federal law, reproductive rights, substance abuse, re-entry, trans, immigration, religion and elders) speak, and arguably much more powerful than having one person read off a list of those tasks. In some ways it was reminiscent of the Occupy movement, which had no leader nor any hierarchy. The power of the emotive moment is evident in the video, but promoting the balkanization reflected in such a symbolic act is problematic. This is where I see the underlying problem which erupted over the past week and threatens to fracture the movement, ironically at a time of great success.

Coalitions and communities are built on empathy. While no one knows your experience better than you, they can know it sufficiently to empathize and ally. It is those alliances that create real change. Listening is critical, but being bullied is not part of the definition of listening.

The events of the past two weeks were two-fold. The first, which got little press, was the invitation of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to speak at a session where the authorities could engage in dialogue with those most at risk. The leadership at Creating Change felt forced to disinvite the feds when a group of immigration activists declared that it would no longer be a safe space for them. I don't see how having a few federal officials engaging in dialogue in a 4000-attendee conference could be seen as anything but an opportunity, but even if you accept that the fears of some should control the list of invitees, you should recognize that others lost a wonderful opportunity to directly challenge those whose behavior they most want to influence. When I spoke out about it online, I was told I really couldn't understand since I'm not an undocumented Latina. True, I don't understand how it feels right now, but my grandparents shared a similar experience which has become part of my family history (my mother was conceived in Havana during an earlier period of hostility towards immigrants) and allows me to empathize and be a good ally. I speak out and encourage people to overcome their fear. It's not an easy call, but I believe the initial one made by the Task Force was the correct one.

The more egregious violation of community spirit occurred with reference to the LGBT Jewish group, A Wider Bridge, on whose board I sit. I wrote about the crisis last week, after which the reception came under assault by 200+ protestors creating a great deal of fallout. I will leave it to others to recapitulate those events - there's Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, Kevin Naff at the Washington Blade, Professor Tony Varona of American University Washington College of Law, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and capped by comments from Arthur Slepian of A Wider Bridge and Rea Carey of the National LGBTQ Task Force.

I was very touched by Rea Carey's statement at the closing plenary of the conference, where she stated, with obvious emotion:

I have struggled how to lead at this moment.

I was sadly struck, however, by these words:

If not us, who? And if not at Creating Change, where?

She appropriated the words of Rabbi Hillel, and could easily have credited him with those world-renowned comments, symbolically speaking to both the Jewish queers who were assaulted and those who were insulted by the way the entire situation went down, as well as the conference attendees who needed to hear from the Executive Director that such anti-Jewish bigotry would no longer be accepted at the conference.

My sense, based on how quickly the conference organizers were impelled to disinvite both ICE and A Wider Bridge in the first place, was that she feared speaking so explicitly on stage on behalf of her Jewish friends and allies. I was following the conference on Twitter, and noticed a number of tweets which gave me pause, and might have given her pause as well:

Over the past few years there has been a great deal of talk about giving the more marginalized voices in the community a chance to speak. White people shouldn't be speaking for black people, and gay people for trans people, for instance. Each group has more than its share of people who can speak. And everyone else should listen. That has been happening, increasingly so every day. I personally have learned a great deal.

But those who are listening needn't shut up. They should not be bullied into silence, or intimidated out of the room.

Speaking is not leading. Expressing rage is not developing a plan to channel that rage into real change. Unless we're entering a revolutionary moment in American history, which I doubt, particularly when I watch the Republican presidential debates, then the younger voices need to toughen their skins to micro-insults, understand that there are macroaggressions occurring every day, and get out and organize people to engage with the authorities and vote.

The Creating Change conference is, like it or not, a business. Their customer base is now college students subsidized by their LGBTQ centers who are immersed in intersectionality, microaggressions and trigger warnings, and other forms of queer theory chic. One friend described it as students suffering from micro-aggressions getting macro-angry. Another, Jerame Davis, called it "special snowflake syndrome," which exaggerates identity and feelings above all else. "I feel, therefore I am." There is very little practical experience in that group other than expressing their feelings, and that was manifest at the protest of the A Wider Bridge shabbat reception on Friday night. In some respects it's perfectly acceptable for the younger activists to behave this way (we acted out when we were kids, accomplished a good deal and then destroyed our progressive movement); what's not acceptable is for their elders to enable and encourage it.

I will end this with a quote from my friend and colleague, Professor Tony Varona, from his open letter to Rea Carey:

All told, I found the experience, and the not-so-lightly-veiled anti-Semitism in the run-up to Creating Change this week and especially on very vivid display last night throughout the protest, to be profoundly disturbing. I suspect - in fact, I am certain - that you do as well.
I've also found that the messages from the plenaries and sessions so far have been much more akin to the amorphous, sometimes incoherent "radical chic" anarchy-light demands of the Occupy movement than the much more substantive, productive, tangible resource-building messages of past Creating Changes, and as you might know, I've been to a bunch of Creating Changes since I was on staff at HRC (between '97 and '02).

I've heard much more about the abolition of prisons, police, borders and the state itself -- really, the abolition of authority of any kind -- at this Creating Change, than I have about grassroots lobbying and GOTV work. In fact I've heard nothing of the latter. I've heard much more about who does not belong at Creating Change, who should be silenced, and who should be excluded from or pushed out of the tent, than I've heard about the importance of diversity and inclusion. Yet isn't diversity, unity, inclusion, and conversation what Creating Change has long been about?
Suffice it to say, I've heard from other longtime Creating Change attendees that they no longer feel welcome, or even physically safe, at this conference.

Last night's appalling incident has cast a shadow of anti-Semitism, insularity, and reckless extremism over what have long been jewels in the LGBTQ movement's crown - the Task Force and its marquee annual conference. Creating Change has become overwhelmingly negative, fractured, even at times dangerous and toxic. . .

I wish you only the very best. I have no doubt that you too are hurting over this mess and I feel very badly about that too. I also am certain that you will do what is necessary to ameliorate the wrongs, and fix Creating Change while retaining and building upon what makes it so powerful and precious to all of us. I have faith in you.