Sometimes, safe is more important than free

 

 

 

Two weekends ago, over Martin Luther King weekend, I attended a science fiction convention called Arisia. Going to Arisia meant choosing not to go to the National Eshel Retreat, which I was sad to be missing. At the Eshel retreat, I would have had a chance to enjoy being in a space where I could be both a Queer person and a religious Jew. There’s something empowering and affirming about a space where I can be my full authentic self in that way, among other people who share a similar intersectionality.

Part of the reason I was willing to miss Eshel is that, when I attend Arisia, I find myself in a space where I can be a Queer person, a religious Jew… and also a proud geek.

At Arisia, all of my identities are not only accepted, but welcomed. This is a convention that doesn’t just talk about diversity, or make a token effort at diversity, but lives and breathes it on multiple levels. The staff marks off wheelchair parking areas in every meeting room. There’s a pair of multi-stall gender free restrooms on one of the meeting room floors. The schedule of events this year included panels with titles such as, “Genderfluid and Queer Characters in SF/F,” and, “The Bible as Fantasy Literature”. On Friday night, Shabbat services were on the official convention schedule (for the first time!). The convention staff even put up a few signs to let people know services were happening. We had 45 people in that room, all enjoying being geeky Jews together, by the time services ended.

I always find myself appreciating the true diversity that is such an inherent part of Arisia.  I find myself appreciating the intentionally inclusive atmosphere of Arisia even more in light of recent events at the Creating Change Conference this past weekend.

It’s possible that you haven’t heard about the incident that occurred there this past Friday night. Major news venues such as the New York Times didn’t report on it. There are varying accounts of the story, and I’m having trouble figuring out the details of what really happened, but the gist of it is that A Wider Bridge, an organization whose focus is, to quote their website, “building LGBTQ connections with Israel,” hosted a program at the conference, featuring speakers from Jerusalem Open House, an LGBT organization in Jerusalem. During the event, a group of protestors formed outside the meeting room, and some of them entered the room and prevented the speakers from speaking. As I said, there are varying accounts of what happened, and you can read two somewhat different versions of what transpired here and here.

This Slate article has some interesting commentary about what happened as well, and why this incident is a sign of a much larger problem in the LGBT world. Specifically, the article explains how the protest moved beyond just being anti-Israel and into being anti-Semitic. (What I find particularly interesting about this article is that it’s written from the perspective of someone who does not have very favorable views of Israel.)

Before I say anything further, I feel that I should clarify my own stance on Israel. I fully believe not only that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish democracy in the Middle East, but that there is a need for Israel to exist in this capacity. I also believe that the Palestinians deserve to have their own state, on some portion of land in the West Bank and in Gaza. I don’t see Israel as the Evil Opressor, but I also don’t see Israel as blameless. Being in a position of power means being in a position of greater responsibility.

But that’s just background information, and not the point I’m trying to make. (And please don’t try to engage in a discussion or debate about it here.) What bothers me most about this story is not that people have negative views of Israel, and it’s not that they didn’t bother to do their research (because, had they looked a little deeper, they would have discovered that the organizations represented in this program work with both Israeli and Palestinian LGBT people). It’s not even the idea that the actions of these protesters can easily be seen not only as anti-Israel, but as anti-Semitic.

No, what bothers me is the broader context in which this incident happened, at a conference run by the National LGBTQ Task Force, whose mission can be found on their website, where the opening line reads, “The National LGBTQ Task Force advances full freedom, justice and equality for LGBTQ people.”

I suppose this statement could be broadly defined as, “we fight for *all* rights for *all* people, especially LGBTQ people.” but their strategic plan makes clear that their focus is very much on securing rights for LGBTQ people that are equal to the rights of those around them.

Why does this matter? Because this isn’t an organization that’s focused more broadly on human rights; it has a much narrower lens. It’s focused on one specific group that is at a disadvantage in the overall power structure of the world we live in. And if that’s the focus of the organization, shouldn’t that also be the focus of the annual conference they host?

If I were attending a conference like this one, I would walk in the door with certain expectations:

First, I would expect speakers, panels, events, etc. focused around issues that Queer folks face, and what we can do about it, or what we are already doing about it.

Second, I would expect the conference to be a safe space.

No, wait. I would expect that *first*.

So many Queer folks find themselves in so many environments where they can’t be their authentic selves without risk. That risk might be as big as a fear for their lives, or it might be as small as the frustration of dealing with a colleague – even a well-meaning one, who is still wrapping her head around the idea of “they” as a singular pronoun, and of someone identifying as Genderqueer or Genderfluid. (Yes. Just had a conversation about that at work today. Why do you ask?)

One of the reasons the National Eshel Retreat draws so many participants every year is that, within the Orthodox Jewish world, it can often be extremely hard if not impossible to find that safe space. One of the reasons I enjoy Eshel events is that I can be religious and Queer at the same time, and know that I am in a space where neither of these identities is risky for me. Neither of these identities will single me out.

One of the reasons people attend a conference like Creating Change is to bask in the sense of freedom that comes from knowing you are in a safe space. You can be who you truly are without risk, without stress, without wondering when things will inevitably go wrong.

This past weekend, things went *very* wrong. A room full of people had their safe space violated in multiple, sometimes terrifying ways. Based on one account I read via facebook (which is why I can’t reference it here), some protesters got physical with program participants, and it sounds like other participants had reason to fear for their physical safety even if they were not, themselves, physically attacked.

No matter what, that is not okay.

But I would argue that things went wrong well before that, when the conference organizers decided that yes, they would allow the protesters to gather outside. I know that people will say that freedom of speech is an important right that we have in this country – and I agree with them on that point. However, private organizations at private events have no obligation to provide space for such speech. In my opinion, the conference organizers should have put in place a blanket policy that no one be allowed to gather in protest, about this event or any other, and that anyone who attempted to interrupt a speaker or program would be immediately ejected from the room, if not the entire conference.

It’s not truly a safe space if you can’t feel safe in all of your intersecting identities.

This is why Eshel is so important, because it’s a Queer space and a Jewish one. This is why I value Arisia so much, because *all* of my identities are welcome there, and because I can feel safe as a Queer person, safe as a woman, safe as a practicing Jew.

It’s not truly a safe space if I can’t walk down the halls without worrying that someone will stop me and tell me that I am evil and racist and kill babies just for laughs.

It’s not a truly safe space if I can’t discuss the struggles and success stories specific to LGBT people living in Israel without worrying that someone will physically attack me.

It’s not truly a safe space unless I know that, in the event a mob does form, in the event that I feel threatened, there are policies in place and plans of action, and that the situation will be defused as quickly as possible.

It’s not truly a safe space unless I know that, when the situation is handled, it will be those who broke the rules that suffer the consequences of their actions, not those of us who were following them, that our event won’t be cancelled; instead, new strategies will be employed to ensure that our panel, our lecture, our event, can proceed as originally planned.

Arisia has a code of conduct. This year, for the first time, they made all of the convention participants physically sign it. Anyone who violates it, can be asked to leave the convention. It sounds like the Creating Change conference desperately needs a code of conduct too, and the consequences to back it up.

I get that people feel Israel is doing some seriously nasty stuff. I might even agree with some of what they’re saying. But there’s a time and a place, and a conference for LGBT people, focused around struggles that LGBT people face, is not the place you’re looking for.

Free speech is important. Even if it’s speech we disagree with. But creating a free space and creating a safe space involve two different approaches, and two different sets of rules. No matter how much I might disagree with many of the things these protestors were saying, they have the right to their opinions, and the right to share them with the world. But there’s a time and a place for such protests, and there are contexts where it’s reasonable, even necessary to say, “That time isn’t now. That place isn’t here. This space is safe. Respect that, or find the door.”

I challenge the National LGBT Task Force to rethink their policies and attitudes toward protests, heckling and harassment, whether related to Israel, or to any other issue, and to find a way to make the safe space that all conference participants deserve and need, inclusive of all other identities they bring with them.

 

 

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