Missed opportunity for dialogue on LGBT issues

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By now the word has spread: Last week, the City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Commission abruptly cancelled a reception with a delegation of six LGBT citizens from Israel. The commission cancelled the meeting because certain activists who are vocal opponents of the Israeli government’s policies lobbied them into submission. This was wrong. The visitors were not here to argue about Israeli-Palestinian foreign policy. They were here to talk to us about their lives.

Councilmember Godden, City Attorney Pete Holmes, and I were glad to welcome our visitors.

Rather than standing up to those whose opinions were loud and angry and, I think, off topic, the LGBT Commission withdrew their invitation to the LGBT visitors. What a shame. The visitors from Israel were not an official delegation representing their government. They were individual gays, lesbians, and a mother from PFLAG who was actively supporting her lesbian daughter. They were here to meet with us, and share heartfelt stories with our community about their struggle for acceptance.

I was alerted Thursday night by two good friends, Louise Chernin from the Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA) and Anne Levinson—our former Deputy Mayor, and judge—about the impending vote of the LGBT Commission to withdraw the invitation. By Friday morning the deed was done and the visitors shunned by the very group who should have welcomed them with open arms.

Six people, including Ohad Salmon, Iris Sass-Kochavie, Irit Zviely-Efrat, and Adir Steiner, had traveled from Israel representing Non-Governmental Organizations, and had already visited other cities in the U.S. including Los Angeles and San Francisco. They had been welcomed by other communities. Then they came to Washington—a state that just passed the marriage equality law. The visitors had every right to expect to be greeted warmly.

Their reception could not have been colder. The group had meetings scheduled in Olympia and Tacoma; one meeting was interrupted and one was cancelled. By Thursday night the visitors learned that Seattle’s LGBT Commission had likewise cancelled their invitation.

I was asked to to meet with the visitors Friday morning. City Attorney Pete Holmes, Jean Godden, and I readily changed our schedules to talk with our visitors for nearly an hour. (Other Councilmembers would have joined us but were offsite at other commitments). For my part, I wanted our LGBT visitors to know they were welcome in City Hall. I expressed my grief at how the visitors had been treated. And after our meeting, I invited them to join me for a brief lunch so we could continue the conversation.

We heard the stories of individual lives.

Our LGBT visitors could not have been more gracious. They were open and very willing to share more about themselves, their families, and the challenges they face in their country. We discussed individual struggles, not international politics.

I heard stories that were heartbreaking, yet provided a basis for hope. The visitors’ stories brought tears to my eyes. We left with genuine hugs and multiple handshakes. This was an opportunity to meet wonderful people for which I am grateful.

We in our great City missed an opportunity to exchange insights. These visitors were here for one reason: to engage with our LGBT community and its supporters. It’s unfortunate that the bitter politics of nationhood stood in the way of personal outreach.

To Ohad Salmon, Iris Sass-Kochavie, Irit Zviely-Efrat, and Adir Steiner, and those who were here but who I did not get to meet—I extend my hand of friendship to you. I hope you will come back and that next time you will be appropriately received.

This incident was a reminder that to make progress, we must talk with one another. I look forward to more conversations with you and others in our global community.