New York City, February 24—It began fairly innocently enough: a group called Siege Busters, composed of a few people (I gather) ardently against the Israeli blockade of Hamas-led Gaza, wanted to have a party (or program) at the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street and they wanted to call it “Anti-Israeli Apartheid Week.” Siege Busters had actually met at the Center before, and the person in the Center office responsible for booking rooms, in the Center’s long-standing tradition of inclusiveness (which it actually has, despite some posturing by Center critics to the contrary) booked the room.
News of the meeting/party was put up on the Center’s website, and from there all heck broke loose. Several well-placed and well-heeled supporters of the Center, which it needs, because, after all, the Center is in New York and not Nebraska, went into a screaming fit. They organized a phone blitz on the Center’s staff, threatening the new ED of the Center, Glenda Testone, and other staff members, that if this offense to Israel were allowed to take place, they would “reconsider” all of their past support for the Center and cut off every penny to it in the future.
Primary among them was porn-star entrepeneur Michael Lucas, who ran an email blast to his several thousand nearest-and-dearest asking them to “Boycott the LGBT Center,” stating of course that Israel is America’s only democratic ally in the Middle East (no lie) and that only in Israel are gays and lesbians given any real chance for personal freedom and freedom from injury and possible death, as they are in the rest of the Arab-Moslem world. (Again, no lie: you can slice this and dice it as many ways as you wish, but it is the unfortunate truth.)
At this point, all this rose to a truly high-pitched, full-blast alarm Code Blue level, and the amount of support, in pure dollars, that the Center was threatened with losing was too considerable to wiggle around. Since it cost the New York LGBT Center somewhere in the vicinity of $75,000 a day just to keep its doors open (we are talking about a large facility, open every day of the year, in the most expensive real estate in North America, with a staff of 70) and we are in an extremely tough economic environment when state support for social service organizations is iffy to say the least (and the Center is very much a social services organization, doing vitally necessary social services to everyone in our community from the very young to the very old), this threat could not be taken casually.
The Center caved, canceling the event, and Michael Lucas immediately sent out another email crowing and glowing about it, even though Lucas was simply one of the more front mouthpieces for the group that threatened the Center. Lucas by the way has had a very contentious history with the Center, even though his level of celebrity is something that the Center in the past has courted. This has given Lucas even more narcissistic fuel (and as a matter of disclosure, several years ago I did invite Michael to be on a panel with me at the Center, discussing pornography as an art form, an invitation which he initially accepted and then very much publicly rejected because he was having a very well publicized feud with Out Professionals, another Center constituent), abetted by the fact that his partner, Richard Wenger, was president of the Center board for several years and during his tenure was responsible, with the ex E.D. of the Center, Richard Burns, for bringing in another generation of Center supporters, who could be described as younger, wealthier, and much more directed toward their own agenda and generation. In other words, if you found yourself outside of their scope, don’t apply.
When I got Michael Lucas’ email about boycotting the Center, my first thought was to send out another email (that would definitely not reach Lucas’s thousands) asking everyone to support the Center. The Center, despite its limitations on resources, is the only open organization of its sort in New York. No other organization even comes close to its openness: dealing with its staff has been a phenomenon of openness compared to any other cultural/ethnic/religious/political organization in the city. Not only is it incredibly financially reasonable to deal with—in other words, try going to the 92nd Street Y and tell their staff what you want to do and wait for them to explain money to you; but planning a meeting or event there is simplicity itself. Again, try going to a Catholic church, or any synagogue or church for that matter, or a local YMCA, or even a New York City school or library, with your needs and see what the reaction is.
Sure, I know the Archdiocese is very open to queer meetings, but the point is basically all you have to do is just walk in to the Center office, state what your purpose is, find a free date on their calendar, put down a deposit that could barely get three people into Starbucks, and you’re in.
Also, and extremely important, the Center is the only place of its sort in New York that you can simply walk into: no membership cards, no one at the door asking you what your mission or problem is, no ID is requested, nothing. So you have this motley crew of street people and Upper East Siders, the extremely hip and the extremely ragged, all brushing elbows with each other, with no regard to any previous element of categorization except for the fact that you agree to treat other users of the Center with respect and moderately human sensitivity.
(Both of these qualifications have never been easy to find in New York, but they are found most of the time at the Center.)
So the Center has found itself in the worst bind it has been in since the great NAMBLA controversy in the 1980s, when Allen Ginsberg wanted to perform there as a NAMBLA supporter, and was banned from doing so by the Center—and later NAMBLA became the first gay group ever to be totally banned from its facility.
This has given NAMBLA supporters a lot of fuel for their own feelings of being aggrieved, and it always brings up that old ghost in the closet of being the only group, historically, that has been categorically excluded from the Center. However, since the Center now has a large parents constituent and parents of all stripes (gay and straight) trust their kids to go to Center events, the specter of a bunch of “dirty old men” lurking around in raincoats stalking young innocents always comes up with a lot of big red neon around it.
This same specter is true for Siege Busters waving the flag of Israeli apartheidism: what Israel has done to its Palestinian neighbors and even citizens is not humane, but the Palestinians have been adamant in their refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. So, in both instances, you can go round and round with these ideas and still end up with nothing.
My own feeling was that Siege Buster should have been given a forum to talk about their side of the issue (or problem), without fanning big fires using a term like “Israeli Apartheid.” Some of my friends, who are totally pro-Palestinian, ardently believe that the UJA should be forced to register in the U.S. as a “terrorist organization” because it supports Israel. This to me seems like insanity, but I’m sure they will scream loud enough about it, just as Israel’s supporters will.
All of this only makes me want to support the Center as the one place that should and could allow a backdrop for this discussion. I frankly hate the “I’m going to take my bat and ball and leave the playground” attitude of people attacking the Center, even though there have been times when I’ve felt exactly the same way. But, after a little reconsideration I have come back to it, and realized what a stake we all have in it, or should have if we gave it any thought.
(One last request: I hope I have got all the names right here of the constituent organizations I have mentioned; it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight without a program. Second disclosure: Michael Lucas also contributed a blurb to my previous novel “Carnal Sacraments,” which I was tickled pink to get: being a writer and publicity whore myself, I’ll do anything to get my egregiously worthy books into the hands of readers, an attitude that I’m sure Mr. Lucas and I completely share. Thank you, Michael.)
Perry Brass can be reached through his website, www.perrybrass.com, He is the author of “The Manly Art of Seduction,” which has long been on Amazon's gay and lesbian bestseller list.