Following a furious outcry over its refusal to rent space for a reading by Sarah Schulman from her latest book, “Israel/Palestine and the Queer International,” New York City’s gay community center has lifted a moratorium on renting to groups that “organize around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“Our resulting Space Use Guidelines, Terms and Conditions will govern the use of our space going forward, and, accordingly, the moratorium is no longer in effect,” the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center said in a February 15 statement. “The Center does not endorse the views of any groups to which it rents space. We adamantly believe in and defend free speech and the open exchange of ideas, but we deplore the rhetoric of hate and bigotry.”
On January 23, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA), a group that opposes Israeli government policy on Palestine, applied to rent space for a March event featuring Schulman reading from her book.
The reading was to coincide with Israeli Apartheid Week, a series of events that organizers say will discuss Israel’s “apartheid policies” toward Palestinians and promote the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.
In a January 25 email, a Center staffer refused the request via email and did not respond to two requests from QAIA for an explanation. News of the refusal spawned angry denunciations on the Center’s Facebook page and elsewhere on Facebook, on the Gay City News website, and on other websites. Some commenters supported the Center’s denial of space for the reading and denounced QAIA.
Schulman has published 17 books and is a leading progressive voice in the queer community. She is a professor in the City University of New York (CUNY) system and has received multiple awards and fellowships.
“It is such a joyful experience to see our community unite in its commitment to free expression and social justice,” Schulman wrote in an email in response to the moratorium ending. “I am overwhelmed with respect for our people.”
The “indefinite moratorium” was imposed in 2011 after a controversy erupted over the Center renting space to the Siege Busters Working Group, an organization that was challenging the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, and later over renting space to QAIA.
Among the voices opposing renting to Siege Busters and QAIA were Michael Lucas, the owner of Lucas Entertainment, a gay porn studio, Stuart Appelbaum, the openly gay president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Steven Goldstein, who then chaired Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s gay lobbying group.
Lucas threatened to organize a boycott by Center donors if Siege Busters and QAIA were allowed to use the West 13th Street facility. While the Center can legally refuse to rent to groups, those who opposed the moratorium saw it as a violation of the Center’s mission and now 30-year history.
In an email, Lucas wrote that he had known since February 14 that the Center was going to lift the moratorium, or surrender “to the pressure from The BDS Movement (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Against Israel)” as he wrote, and that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an out lesbian who represents the West Village and Chelsea, had brokered a deal to end the moratorium.
“I have absolutely no time to be fighting with the spineless LGBT Center of New York who have no backbone or principles,” Lucas wrote. “I would advise people to stop donating to the center and believe the city should stop funding an organization whose original mission of helping gay people has changed to providing a platform to anti-Israeli hate groups.”
Roughly 20 minutes after the Center issued its statement on the moratorium's end, Quinn, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer issued a statement commending the Center for ending the moratorium.
The four gay and lesbian elected officials also said that they “categorically reject attempts by any organization to use the Center to delegitimize Israel and promote an anti-Israel agenda.”
In a statement, QAIA expressed some distrust of the new policy.
“We are also concerned that the Center's guidelines for using space there says ‘no group utilizing space at the Center shall engage in hate speech or bigotry of any kind,’” the group wrote. “We completely deplore bigotry of any kind, but we cannot help but wonder who will define ‘hate speech’ and/or ‘bigotry of any kind.’ There needs to be more clarification on this issue.”
The group also took the elected officials to task for the statement they issued.
“The elected officials make clear, both to the Center and to the queer community, that the Center’s ban on mentioning Palestinians, queer or otherwise, has its source in powerful political circles,” the group wrote. “The bigotry institutionalized in New York City's politics, which has chained our community center for the past two years, must still be challenged.”