UPDATE (Fri. Mar. 22, 11:56 a.m. PST): The Center announced they cancelled the March 28 #WalkAway event in a statement issued Friday afternoon. In the statement, the Center says that it "strongly" opposes censorship, but that it does have the right to cancel any event that "promotes discriminatory speech or bigotry."
The Center said the decision to cancel the event came after they were made aware of comments the panelists have made in the past that "violate" the Center's mission.
"Permitting this event to proceed would make many of our community members feel unsafe and, among other things, interfere with their ability to participate in other Center programming," the organization said. "We understand that the work to heal and rebuild trust begins today."
The Center's decision comes one day after activists and organizers sent a petition to the Center's executive director demanding the event be canceled, as well as transparency about how the event was approved in the first place. The statement did not specifically refer to the petition's subsequent demands after asking for cancellation of the event.
The petition also included detailed documentation of each of the panelists' past comments, including Brandon Straka saying that nonbinary identities aren't real, and transphobic comments from Rob Smith, Blaire White, and Mike Harlow's social media accounts.
ORIGINAL: The Center, New York City's LGBTQ+ community center, has raised the ire of New York's queer community for scheduling an #LGBTTownHall hosted by #WalkAway, a movement founded by gay man and former liberal Brandon Straka. The aim of the movement is to get LGBTQ+ people to abandon the Democratic party in favor of Republicans. The event is scheduled to take place on Thursday, March 28.
Jason Rosenberg tweeted a screenshot of an ad for the event, which ran in the LGBTQ+ publication Get Out Magazine, on Monday. Rosenberg is a member of ACT UP, the AIDS activist group that has met weekly at the LGBT Center since its inception in 1987.
The ad says that Democrats use "lies, fear mongering, fake news, hate and division" to keep people in the party's ranks.
"This is incredibly egregious that you'd host an event where panelists have used queer slurs and stood behind policies that put the community at great risk," Rosenberg wrote in a subsequent tweet. "Stand for something."
In a phone interview with Out, Rosenberg said his deepest concern is the "betrayal and testing of trust" for those who, like him, use the center for organizing and movement building.
"I think the fear mongering and hate speech that will fill that room encroaches on our ability to do our work properly," he says.
The event's advertisement says that the town hall includes #WalkAway founder Brandon Straka, as well as conservative transgender YouTuber Blaire White, political commentator Rob Smith and writer Mike Harlow.
White has made a name for herself as a conservative transgender commentator who echoes the same demeaning points that you can hear from people like Piers Morgan or find elsewhere in the recesses of YouTube's thriving alt-right culture. She's published videos to her YouTube with titles like "There Are Only 2 Genders," "Fat Acceptance is Stupid," and videos against so-called "social justice warriors" like "Special Snowflake Syndrome." In one video, she mocked people who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer, calling the identities "largely bullshit."
"I think they're super meaningless," White says. "I think the people who take them on are usually extremely boring and have nothing else to their personality other than: 'I'm demi-queer nonbinary gender-fuck special snowflake kin.'"
Smith is a Black gay conservative and veteran who has previously said that coming out as a conservative has been harder than coming out as gay.
CNN called the Walk Away campaign "pure propaganda" and a "psychological operation" in July, ahead of the 2018 midterms. The outlet cited evidence that bots linked to Russia were using the #WalkAway hashtag to influence the election's outcome. Think Progress knocked the movement, and its October 2018 march in Washington, D.C., as having all the hallmark signs of a "grifting operation," including $85 brunch tickets, $250 dinner tickets, $300 VIP cocktail hour tickets, and a $10,000 package that included a photo-op. The movement has also come under scrutiny for ads that purported to feature people who had walked away from the Democratic party, but who were actually just stock photo models. Snopes verified that the images were stock photo models, though could not confirm whether #WalkAway had indeed created the images themselves.
The LGBT Center responded to the controversy with a statement, which it tweeted out Wednesday afternoon. In the statement, the Center said that as a non-partisan organization, it does not "support or endorse activities held by groups renting our space."
"We acknowledge the diversity of our community's perspectives, and while we may be disgusted by or reject the ideas some groups espouse, we will not stand in the way of their right to say them," it added. "Our responsibility is to provide space for connecting and organizing across our diverse viewpoints, not to censor."
Rosenberg called the Center's response "politician-like" and "stilted."
"It sounded like they were speaking from the government when they're the LGBT community center of New York City and they have full time staff that work on progressive issues and work on community building," he says.
Get Out Magazine also responded to Rosenberg's initial tweet.
"Everyone gets a voice in my America. Sorry guys," the response read. "I live in a country of freedom of speech. How I grew up is to listen and speak. I listen to everyone and make my own choice. But I do live in this country with many other people #living in a world together with free speech."
Journalist Lauren Duca recently wrote an op-ed for Out unpacking "the mind-numbing paradigm of 'both sidesism,'" and the way it hinders the progressivism of a national conversation. "Engaging with different political viewpoints is not the same thing as sponsoring hate speech," Duca writes.
Other LGBTQ+ resource centers responded to the statement, as well. In a series of tweets, South Carolina's Harriet Hancock LGBT Center mentioned the "tolerance paradox," or the philosophical notion that, when society tolerates intolerance, it leads to the extinction of tolerance.
Rosenberg says that his hope, and the hope of other community members who use the space, is not just that the event be cancelled, but that this sort of event not happen again.
"We want to confront this in a meaningful way," he says. "Because this happened, it tested our trust at the Center and so, we need to build a better system where this will never happen again."
He called the event a "stain" on the Center's legacy.
"This place is the start of SAGE and ACT UP," he adds. "It's such a historic space and to think that this is what we're dealing with, I found it really hurtful."
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