An Open Note to Task Force Friends

This open article reposted from Facebook with permission from LGBTQ Legal Community Leader Tony Varona, a Professor of Law and Academic Dean, American University Washington College of Law; first HRC general counsel/legal director; former board member, HRC and GLAAD; current board member, Stonewall National Museum and Archives.


Dear Rea, Russell, and Sue — 

You may have noticed that I was one of many movement activists, lawyers and/or scholars who publicly expressed concern following your abrupt cancellation earlier this week of the A Wider Bridge reception at this year’s Creating Change conference. I also was one of the many commentators who publicly thanked Rea for reversing the decision and apologizing for the cancellation just before the start of #CC16.

Rea did the right thing by reversing the cancellation. The accusations of anti-Palestinian and pro-Apartheid “pinkwashing” against San Francisco-based A Wider Bridge and its guest speakers from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, were misinformed at best and defamatory at worst. Even a cursory look into the organizations’ respective missions, alliances, donors, and activities will show that they are far from puppets of the Israeli government, are expressly pro-Palestinian in their positions, and both serve and include LGBTQ Palestinians in their work. The Jerusalem Open House, in fact, was invited to speak partly about its work countering religious conservative extremists in Israel, like those responsible for the stabbing of six marchers (and the murder of one) at the 2015 Jerusalem Pride Parade it organized. An eminently worthy topic of discussion at any national LGBTQ conference.

The logic of the so-called “#CancelPinkwashing” protestors was so faulty, in fact, that if applied to the US would have required the cancellation of Creating Change itself in light of the US Government’s abuses in Guantanamo and in immigration detention centers. An absurd demand, but no more absurd than the demand not only to silence but to ban AWB and Jerusalem Open House from Creating Change.

I was glad, then, to attend the start of the reception last night and catch up with old movement colleagues and then, once the program started, to hear the initial presentation from the A Wider Bridge leaders. But as you know, just as the organizers started to introduce the guest speakers from Jersualem Open House, protestors stormed the stage, took control of the microphone, forced the scheduled speakers to flee, and proceeded to scream at the organizations’ representatives and the reception attendees about not caring about People of Color, supporting the killing of People of Color, celebrating over the blood of innocent lives, etc., etc., apparently not realizing that quite a few of us in the crowd identified not only as POCs but also as strong supporters of the Palestinian cause.

Then, again as you know, the rest of the protestors stormed the doors, shut down the event, and basically blocked those of us who wanted to leave from exiting. I was able to squeeze past the crowd blocking the hallway and exit through a back doorway and stairwell but after only considerable effort and, frankly, what can only be described as harassment.

And all of this while Task Force staffers, for the most part, looked on. I did see Sue in the back of the room initially try to quell the tension, but ultimately she, and the event, were overrun and overwhelmed. Once the protestors took control of the stage, they were allowed to keep it.

In fact, what was most concerning to me was that although the event was put back on the schedule, the Task Force did very little to ensure that the program, and especially the important presentation from Jerusalem Open House, could go on as planned, safely and without disruption. Instead, the protestors were allowed to bully the speakers off the stage, and then to bully and harass the attendees out of the room. 

It was a de facto cancellation by heckler’s veto, in other words, with apparently the Task Force’s full consent, assent, and even endorsement. The Hilton Chicago, and the CC16 as the conference tenant, after all, are private spaces under principally your control for the span of the conference. 

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 (1997 to 2002). 

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 organizing, 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, community, inclusion, and dialogue 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. 

Until and unless the Task Force addresses the harm(s) done, course-corrects, and distances itself from the anti-Semitism, bullying, and censorship soaking this conference, I am afraid I can no longer support the Task Force in any manner nor attend another Creating Change. I also will no longer recommend that my LGBTQ and allied students attend the conference, and will strongly encourage other academics and administrators across the country to do the same.

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.

If I could help in any way at all, please do not hesitate to contact me. I would be happy to help you brainstorm a way forward.

Tony Varona