Is New York City's LGBTQ Center the Newest Safe Space for Queer Conservatives?

The city's beloved LGBTQ community center is embroiled in controversy.

Update: Shortly after this story's publication, the Center released a statement officially canceling the #WalkAway event and extending "[deep] regret" for "the hurt and harm this booking has caused." Read the full statement here.

New York City’s LGBTQ center has come under fire for hosting an event urging the community to #WalkAway from the Democratic Party.

The #WalkAway Movement is throwing what it has called its first “town hall event” at The Center in the West Village on March 28. Brandon Straka, a former gay hairdresser turned conservative provocateur, will join other LGBTQ people who say they have forsaken liberalism: YouTuber Blaire White, political commentator Rob Smith, and writer Mike Harlow.

In a flier advertising the panel discussion, event organizers accused Democrats of using “lies, fear mongering, fake news, hate, and division to keep us coming back.”

“We’re gonna change all that,” the leaflet concludes.

News of the event ignited a firestorm among LGBTQ users on Twitter, who claimed the Center is giving a megaphone to a “hateful group” that “willfully spreads lies and misinformation.”

Gabe Gonzalez, a NYC-based comedian and writer, claimed in a Twitter thread that allowing the gathering to be held at a historic space which birthed activist groups like ACT UP “legitimizes their message.” It also signals “to the community that has long supported the Center that their safety is up for debate.”

The Center responded in a statement that 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,” the nonprofit organization claimed in a series of tweets. “Our responsibility is to provide space for connecting and organizing across our diverse viewpoints, not to censor.”

Gonzalez claims the Center missed the point. Calling #WalkAway a “propaganda campaign,” he tells NewNowNext that speakers are “not showing up just to present an alternative opinion that should exist in a political debate.”

“One of the speakers is a YouTuber who went to an anti-Trump protest in L.A. with the active intention of trying to get into a fight so she could then post it online and talk about how liberals are violent,” he says, referencing a November 2017 incident featuring White. “If you are entering a space with the intention of creating not just an antagonistic but a violent setting, that—to me—is not presenting an argument in good faith.”

According to Gonzalez, #WalkAway is also known for “raising money for events that are then canceled last minute or were never happening to begin with.”

“It’s essentially a grift,” he says.

This isn’t the first time that the movement’s methods have been met with scrutiny. Straka created the campaign in 2018 to promote a YouTube video in which he shares his conservative “coming out” story. In the video, he calls liberals “ignorant, narrow-minded and, at times, blatantly fascistic,” among other things.

The hashtag appeared to catch on overnight after securing endorsements by Donald Trump, Jr., and Sarah Palin. The former vice presidential candidate called Strata’s video, which has been viewed more than 500,000 times, a “must-watch.”

However, the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund claimed numerous Twitter users that had been fueling the campaign’s sudden surge in popularity were actually Russians posing as disgruntled liberals. At one time, its Hamilton 68 project—which tracks Kremlin-influenced hashtags—claimed #WalkAway was the seventh-most popular campaign among bot accounts.

The movement also came under fire when #WalkAway memes featuring testimonials from alleged former liberals appeared to be fake. The photos accompanying their statements were reportedly stock photos of anonymous people pulled from Shutterstock.

Greg Doherty/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 31: Brandon Straka with the Walkaway Campaign attends the "Death Of A Nation" Premiere at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on July 31, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

Straka (pictured above) has denied that the campaign was responsible for the memes. When NewNowNext asked him about the alleged Russian bot influence behind his hashtag’s rise to prominence, he did not offer comment.

However, Straka claims the criticism of the town hall illustrates “exactly the reason why the event needs to take place.”

“The political left has become an intolerant mob of fascists—suppressing freedom of thought and speech, and keeping the gay community stuck in a bubble of ignorance and fear,” he tells NewNowNext. “The tidal wave of hatred and fear mongering being perpetrated by liberals has become one of the greatest threats to our nation’s future, and perhaps most concerning, they have gripped the LGBTQ community and taken them hostage on this crusade.”

Smith, a co-panelist at the event, adds that critics on the left have “bullying and silencing of conservative voices.”

“People may not like our perspectives and opinions, but they don’t get to decide that we’re not allowed to share them,” he tells NewNowNext. “Just because the loudest voices are liberal doesn’t mean that they’re the only voices that get to be heard. That’s not protesting; that’s fascism.”

Opponents of the event counter that free speech doesn’t mean the right to a platform, given that the Center has denied use of its facilities to progressives in the past.

In 2013, the Center caused controversy when it refused to allow Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) to rent space for a reading of Israel/Palestine and the Queer Internatio­nal. Authored by lesbian playwright and author Sarah Schulman, the 2012 book takes aim at “pinkwashing,” a term used to refer to Israel’s use of LGBTQ rights to deflect criticism of reported human rights abuses against Palestinians.

A representative for the Center told event organizers the space was “unable to accommodate” the request. When pressed for an explanation, QAIA was referred to its room rental policy on two separate occasions.

Natalie James, an organizer with New York City's Reclaim Pride Coalition, claims that very policy indicates the “double standard” under which the Center operates.

“Within its own policy manual, the Center states that groups may be asked to leave the center if there is discrimination,” she tells NewNowNext. “Clearly this panel that's up being put on by #WalkAway, violates the nondiscrimination clause within the center, and more broadly, it violates basic standards of human decency. We must not give white supremacy or far-right ideologies a platform.”

Organizations like Reclaim Pride Coalition, United Against Racism and Fascism, and Rise and Resist have called upon the Center to adhere what they say are its guidelines and cancel the event. In a Thursday open letter, they claim the town hall “poses a clear and present danger to the safety of our queer communities in New York City.”

ACT UP organizer Jason Rosenberg, who facilitates events at the Center every week, says the incident is an affront to the communities that have made the space their home for decades.

“We've been meeting there for over 32 years,” he tells NewNowNext. “We can't have this happen again. It puts such a stain on the legacy of what we hold in the center and our trust in allowing a space to protect ourselves and the organizing of really meaningful work. It puts that at risk.”

The Center did not respond to request for comment on this story.

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