New York City’s prominent LGBTQ event space The Center, which bills itself as “the heart and home of NYC’s LGBT community,” sparked a major controversy this week for holding an upcoming event by a right-wing organization, the #WalkAway campaign, geared toward convincing LGBTQ people to leave the Democratic Party.
Twitter users started to call attention to the March 28 town hall, which was being advertised in Get Out! magazine on Tuesday. And by Wednesday, The Center released a statement defending the choice, reminding people that their West Village hub is a non-partisan non-profit, 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.” The response enraged many in the LGBTQ community and raised larger questions about what it means to create safe spaces for LGBTQ people.
The #WalkAway campaign has been gaining traction since it was founded last year, getting a personal shoutout from President Trump for their D.C. march in October. Campaign founder, Brandon Straka, is an emerging gay conservative leader with over 100,000 Twitter followers who calls himself “the guy that took the red pill.” Other long standing organizations for LGBTQ Republicans, like the Log Cabin Republicans, are more buttoned up and less focused on convincing people to change parties, but Straka’s been advertising his upcoming New York event by making YouTube videos confronting LGBTQ-looking pedestrians in Times Square about their politics.
When members of the LGBTQ community saw The Center’s statement in response to the uproar, many were quick to denounce Republicans as being harmful to the community. One person tweeted “the right wing does not support the *existence* of LGBTQ people,” while another called their statement a “weak argument in scary times” saying “folks in the community look to you as a safe space, and you betray their trust.” Others highlighted that they think people like Vice President Mike Pence, who was against gay marriage as Governor of Indiana and may have supported gay conversion therapy, are prime examples of why they’re not eager to take a red pill any time soon.
But beyond the question of whether right wing organizations are inherently unfit for LGBTQ safe spaces, The Center’s stance is also drastically different from the growing number of venues and collectives that do openly exclude various demographics from their events. In New York’s queer nightlife scene, for example, depending on who the target audience is for a given event, it’s common to see ticket prices broken down by the most to least desirable attendees. (Like when a prominent transgender DJ Maya Mones of the Papi Juice collective had a fundraiser party for her transition surgery, white cis men paid the most.)
And there are also new queer-friendly venues popping up that are exclusively for certain groups or event-types, like the LGBTQ sober cafes sprouting around the country, or the new Brooklyn lounge space Metaden that’s exclusively for people of color. And in the background, there’s a rising movement in metropolitan areas around creating social spaces exclusively for people of color, with the first POC-only membership club/working space, Ethel’s Club, coming to Brooklyn this year.
The Center’s controversy touches on a key issue facing the LGBTQ community, which is that subgroups within it are able to organize and find each other more easily in today’s social media landscape. But if some subgroups are in direct conflict with each other, that leaves all-encompassing spaces at a crossroads for creating “safe space.” The Center had to hold off on hosting any Israel-Palestine related events back in 2011 because they caused too much division among those communities. The increasing number of exclusive spaces is one response to that, but it remains to be seen how umbrella organizations like The Center can truly satisfy their various communities in this landscape.
Update 3/22: The Center decided to cancel the #WalkAway event on Friday afternoon, the day after this story was published. In a public statement emailed to VICE, The Center wrote: “We strongly oppose censorship and fully stand by our commitment to free speech, but as our space use policy states, we reserve the right to cancel any event that promotes discriminatory speech or bigotry; negatively impacts other groups or individuals that use The Center; or conflicts with, or interferes with, Center-sponsored or produced programming. It has become clear that this event would violate all of these important policies.”
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