by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
It's been said that hindsight is 20/20, and nobody knows that better this week than the members of the City of Seattle LGBT Commission.
'It's been a difficult week,' Mac McGregor, co-chair of the commission, told Seattle Gay News. 'But we've [LGBT commissioners] learned a lot from this.'
Last week the local LGBT community came down hard on the commissioners when it was learned that at a March 15 vote, the City of Seattle LGBT Commission decided to cancel hosting a March 16 reception for a delegation of Gay Israeli leaders. The group, The Israeli Jews, is part of the Alliance of Israeli LGBT Educational Organizations, a network of groups that support LGBT youth and families. The negative response to their vote was felt throughout the commission as leaders of LGBT organizations (most notably the GSBA), City Council officials, and others, made public statements condemning their actions.
In a March 20 apology letter, LGBT Commission members apologized for the pain, offense, and embarrassment they may have caused by canceling the event, adding, 'We also have heard from many who celebrate the cancellation of this event. We flatly reject the suggestion that there could be any joy or celebration in this outcome.'
For the most part, the storm has passed. Life goes on, and so will the LGBT Commission as they switch their focus back to advising city officials about LGBT issues. Still, there remains a call for accountability and some are asking for the commissioners who voted to disinvite the Israeli group to resign.
McGregor is one of two commissioners who chair the Seattle LGBT Commission, whose role is to address and present the concerns of LGBT citizens of Seattle to the mayor, City Council, and all city departments. The commission recommends legislation, policy, programs, and budget items to the mayor as well. McGregor was the only commissioner to vote against canceling the meeting. He met with SGN along with LGBT Commission member Tiffany Nelson to discuss how all of this came about and the lessons learned from the debacle.
Within minutes of the meeting, the elephant in the room was addressed. No, said McGregor and Nelson in solidarity, no commissioner would resign over the vote.
Nelson told SGN the issue is being looked at as 'educational' for the commission. 'We shouldn't have taken a vote on this issue. The LGBT Commission shouldn't have taken a side. We know that now,' she said. 'We truly feel bad about how this all went down. This was a hard lesson to learn - but the commission is stronger for it.'
McGregor added, 'A great deal of growth has come out of this.'
So why did they vote? According to commission officials, they were simply unprepared to deal with the crowd of activists who showed up at the March 15 meeting accusing them and the LGBT Israeli group of 'pinkwashing' - meaning using the cause of LGBT rights in the region to divert attention from what some see as the unfair treatment of the Palestinian people.
According to McGregor and Nelson, the group of activists was steadfast in their belief that the city of Seattle - including the commission - should have nothing to do with the Israeli group and that meeting with them was unconscionable.
The commission maintains they looked to the council of Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. Nelson acted as moderator at the meeting, trying to hold the balance between activist testimony and commission response. The problem is, Nelson - who is not a volunteer (the LGBT Commission is made up of an all-volunteer board) - could only act as an advisor and did not possess the authority to make a decision for them.
McGregor maintains that his wish was for the meeting to be adjourned, in the hope that cooler heads would prevail, allowing the commissioners to make a more informed decision on the matter. McGregor is convinced that had that happened, the commission would've never taken a vote.
'The group advocating for the Palestinian plight was well prepared,' said Nelson, who put their number at more than 20 people. 'We just never thought things would get so aggressive.'
Caving to pressure when the activists asked, 'Why don't you take a vote?' a commissioner decided to do just that. A vote was called for and, according to McGregor and Nelson, Julie Nelson advised them that once a vote is called, it must be public.
And we know the rest. The outcome is something each commissioner has had to live with for over a week. From angry Facebook posts to emails, they've felt the weight of the world on their shoulders.
However, McGregor says, 'You've got to look at the positive at a time like this. And the positive is that there's been some good to come out of this. We are now working with city officials to include training for the commission to help us to be better prepared for situations like this.'
The two commissioners told SGN that - with a great deal of certainty - their decision was misunderstood in a way.
'We voted to cancel the meeting because we thought that the group opposing the Israeli group's visit would disrupt the meeting,' she said. 'How could we possibly have open dialogue with a situation like that? So, we didn't take it as we were agreeing with either side. We just didn't think the meeting would produce any of the results we had originally hoped for.'
There is evidence to back up Nelson's claim. The Seattle LGBT Commission released a statement on March 16, which read, in part, ' At this time, the members of the LGBT Commission feel we are not thoroughly prepared to facilitate an event surrounding such complex topics.'
'In canceling the event, the commission did not feel we were saying 'No' to either group,' explained McGregor. 'Some commission members thought a 'No' vote would show neutrality.'
It was not their intent to invite the Israeli group to Seattle for a debate about their government and the Palestinian people, McGregor pointed out. He says, instead, the group was supposed to meet with the commission to talk about issues such as LGBT youth homelessness. When it became clear to some of the commissioners that that was not going to happen, they voted to just cancel it altogether.
McGregor did not feel the same way. He voted to meet with the officials. McGregor is quoted as saying, 'I want you to know that I am heartbroken and outraged at the decision as well. I was the only commissioner present who voted to keep the meeting. I have spent time with the group of Israeli fellow LGBTQ activists and found them inspirational, informative, and warm. I am doing all that I can to try somehow to rectify this & but it is public record how I voted.'
Still, he stands in solidarity with the commission and doesn't wish for any of them to leave over the matter. McGregor told SGN, 'Every one of us on the commission has a heart. We really do work hard to promote positive change. Without the proper training to handle this we needed help to navigate this issue. We should've been able to look to the Office of Civil Rights and members of the City Council for broader support.'
Days later, at a Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee meeting of the Seattle City Council, after hearing testimony from LGBT Commissioners and the activists who were against the Israeli visit, McGregor and Nelson said Councilmember Bruce Harrell admitted the Office of Civil Rights should have supported them better, and that talks of future training for commission members have begun.
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