For much of its 31-year history, the National LGBT Task Force’s Creating Change conference has been a mecca for intellects, movement leaders, grassroots activists and allies eager to engage in coalition building. The gathering created a cauldron of ideas, sparking analysis and sometimes messy debate over strategies for fighting institutionalized oppression and ugly anti-LGBT discrimination developing its own organized Religious Right movement in states around the country. And the conferences almost always made news. This year, Creating Change made news again—but not particularly favorably.
In years past, LGBT reporters eagerly pursued thought leaders expressing powerful, political assessments of surviving under siege and their passionate strategies for confronting the struggles ahead.
During the 1993 conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, for instance, radical, Marxist-leaning former director Urvashi Vaid surprised herself by calling for traditional 50-state get-out-the-vote organizing to combat the Christian Coalition. “We must develop a more pro-active and clear political strategy” to “knit together” different efforts, she said, and build a powerful movement to secure a federal equality act and beat back Newt Gingrich’s revolution.
NGLTF executive director Matt Foreman stunned the Creating Change audience in 2008 by calling HIV a “gay disease” and chastising the LGBT community for allowing HIV/AIDS to slip as a priority and spread among people of color through institutionalized racism and lack of access to healthcare. He received only a smattering of applause but the issue was hotly debated by activists once home.
NGLTF executive director Kerry Lobel, who with Lynn Cothren brought Coretta Scott King and Dorothy Height to NGLTF, called Creating Change “the political hothouse of our movement,” the “incubator of countless projects, campaigns, strategies and initiatives that help to bring our movement into the 21st century.”
Lobel later served on the Coastside Jewish Community’s Board of Directors. One wonders how she or Foreman or Vaid would have handled Creating Change 2019, which made LGBT news for a disruption by the Cancel Pinkwashing Coalition and the Task Force’s muted response amid charges by national LGBT Jewish leaders and online commenters that the protest and reaction were anti-Semitic.
On Jan. 24, as the opening plenary was getting underway in Detroit, a handful of activists started chanting “Free, free Palestine!” As they made their way onstage, Creating Change organizer Andy Garcia stepped aside and the lights dimmed. Undeterred, the leader, who identified herself as a Jewish, lesbian, transgender woman, proceeded to slam the Task Force for what she said was a continued “ban on Palestinian content and that has stretched into Jewish and Muslim content at this conference and we won’t stand for that.”
She noted that the Cancel Pinkwashing Coalition submitted seven workshop proposals about Palestine and pinkwashing to Creating Change, all of which were rejected. “Pinkwashing” is a term derived from “whitewashing” applied to LGBT rights. Generally it suggests a marketing or political ploy that makes a product, person, or country appear pro-LGBT while diverting attention or covering up an opposite intent. The term was original coined by Breast Cancer Action in 1992 to expose companies that claimed to support the cause through pink ribbons while actually profiting from the illness, according to Self Magazine.
The Cancel Pinkwashing Coalition wants “robust programing that reflects the Task Force’s so-called commitment to change, dignity and equality,” the Jewish trans lesbian leader said. “We want a conference and a space where radical queer and trans people, radical Jews, radical Muslims, radical Palestinians, radical people from across the globe and around the country can come together and discuss all parts of our liberation. And right now our content is being censored. Our liberation is being silenced and our voices are being shut down because the Task Force is too cowardly to have a conversation on one of the leading social justice issues of our time—Palestinian freedom.”
The leader blamed the ADL—the Anti-Defamation League—for encouraging the Palestine ban “as part of a reaction to protests that took place in 2016.”
That protest in Chicago left an indelible mark on the consciousness of anyone who heard about it. A Wider Bridge, an organization that promotes LGBT equality in Israel, was hosting a reception for Sarah Kala-Meir and Tom Canning from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance when more than 200 yelling people crammed the hallways outside the third floor reception room, terrifying the guests and causing them to flee for fear of violence. The group opposed what they claimed is Israeli pinkwashing to deflect from its policies toward occupied Palestinians—but their message was lost in the storm of fear they created. The Chicago police were called, which lead to a slew of other issues.
After the 2016 controversy, National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Rea Carey told the Washington Blade that the Task Force “does not have a policy stance on the Israeli Palestinian conflict….We are not an organization with an international mission.”
But that did not satisfy the Coalition, which protested at Creating Change last year, as well.
“I’m Jewish,” said the Cancel Pinkwashing Coalition leader at the Jan. 24 opening plenary. “I’m here to say that the ADL does not speak for me and the ADL does not speak for queers. In fact, if you look into their history, they have committed acts of severe violence against the queer and trans liberation movement. The ADL spied on – the reason that many of us are here – Queer Nation. And they spied on ACT UP in the ‘80s. Is that an organization that the Task force should have a partnership with – one that pied on ACT UP? No. No. No.”
This attack infuriated LGBT Jewish leaders. In 2012, the ADL, which monitors and educates about hate groups, submitted substantial testimony to support the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and has been actively involved with educating about hate crimes.
But the accusation about ACT UP is true. As reported by the New York Times and others, the San Francisco offices, homes and storage facilities of key ADL members were raided in 1993 as police investigated an illegal spy ring. They uncovered thousands of index cards with names of 12,000 Americans and 950 groups—including the NAACP, ACLU, and ACT UP. That scandal has been lost with time.
But it was the chant at the end of the 15 minutes of seized protest time that unnerved many Jews and non-Jews alike. “Hopefully, one day – from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The group left the stage to a standing ovation.
The phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is generally perceived as a call to eliminate the state of Israel. That alone was enough to set off howls of protest claiming the group called for the murder of Jews—three days before Holocaust Remembrance Day. They also charge the Task Force with anti-Semitism for not stepping in and stopping it.
“We are deeply troubled that an uninvited group of disruptors breached the opening plenary of Creating Change to voice hate speech and slander against the Jewish community and our institutions, without action or consequence from the leadership of the National LGBTQ Task Force,” Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Tyler Gregory of A Wider Bridge wrote in an open letter to Executive Director Rea Carey demanding an apology.
“The fifteen-minute disruption ended with calls of “from the river to the sea,” an anti-Semitic dog whistle from those wishing to see the Jewish State and its inhabitants disappear.”
“Bruce Voeller, who founded the National Gay Task Force, and the Jews he invited to serve on its early board, such as pioneering activist Frank Kameny, would have been horrified at the present anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism that has been allowed to take over the Task Force,” historian Lillian Faderman told the Los Angeles Blade. “They would not have felt welcome in this organization that they built. How tragic that this has been allowed to happen. The present leadership has a responsibility to put an end to anti-Semitism in the ranks of the organization and to disassociate from it by apologizing in the name of the Task Force.”
“The National ‘Task Force’ not only needs to apologize, but Non- self loathing Jews need to be put in leadership positions on the board and in Executive positions. Until then, all donations to the task force must stop, and they need to be put on the National anti-Semitic organization list. Right now,” longtime activist Robin Tyler told the Los Angeles Blade.
Carey made a statement from the stage on Jan. 27, which is apparently the only comment she is giving.
“We are aware that some have expressed concerns about protests at Creating Change, including the protest on Thursday regarding Israel and Palestine,” she said. “As we have before, the National LGBTQ Task Force firmly condemns anti-Semitism. We firmly condemn Islamophobia. We firmly condemn attacks on each other’s humanity. The perpetuation of white supremacy is harmful to all. There are a number of misunderstandings and misinformation being thrown around. As Kierra said Thursday night, we want and appreciate all feedback, and part of being in community together means holding each other as we evolve. We are committed to staying in respectful conversation as we move forward towards Creating Change 2020. For your feedback, please send an email to [email protected].”
Few were happy with Carey’s response, fewer still were happy with what the late activist Morris Kight used to call “oppression sickness” that seemed to dominate discussions on the Internet.
Meanwhile, on the ground at Creating Change, [email protected] Coalition founder Bamby Salcedo told the Los Angeles Blade, the protest made no waves among the roughly 4,000 attendees. “No one was talking about it,” she said, unlike the huge #TransLivesMatter protest she staged at Creating Change, which not only yielded results but Salcedo was a plenary speaker this year.
Nonetheless, many are questioning Carey’s leadership: why she didn’t see the protest coming and tackle the issue head-on as a matter of importance to the LGBT community—once a trait of NGLTF.
“Anything that happens under my watch is my responsibility, and I take it seriously. I and we are learning and I think we’re going to come up with some creative and concrete recommendations with how we can move forward for the conference, for the organization and for the movement,” Carey told the Washington Blade in Feb. 2016.
What happened to that commitment?