After several days of pressure from LGBT advocates, the Wilton Manors Business Association in Florida has canceled a scheduled speaking appearance from Allen West, a Republican representative from Plantation. West had been asked to speak at the group's August 8 meeting, but since Wednesday, LGBT rights groups have been protesting the decision, demanding that the fiercely anti-gay politician be uninvited. The primary group leading the charge was the Florida GLBT Democratic Party Caucus, for which Bilerico contributor Michael Rajner volunteers as the legislative director.
On Wednesday, Rajner sent a letter to Celeste Ellich, the president of the business association, to explain that West's appearance in the exceedingly gay-friendly Wilton Manors would reinforce the politician's anti-gay ideals and attitudes. West, who represents much of Wilton Manors has famously spoken out against gay rights and against repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the WMBA membership features many LGBT-friendly or LGBT-owned businesses.
At the end of the letter, Rajner demanded action from the business association:
I'm demanding that you take a courageous stand of leadership for the rights of GLBT-Americans as President of the Wilton Manors Business Association and disinvite West to your August 8th meeting. If not, GLBT-community leaders and other social justice advocates will:
- Call for your resignation;
- Call on businesses to disavow the Wilton Manors Business Association for placing profits ahead of human rights; and
- Call on the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-community to boycott any and all businesses who are a member of the Wilton Manors Business Association, including GLBT-owned businesses willing to put profits ahead of human rights.
The controversy heated up quickly, and the discussion coming out of it is one steeped in questions about the effectiveness of boycotting, the prioritization of opposition to West over the livelihood of LGBT business owners, and whether West should have been restricted from speaking at all.
His appearance was meant to focus on finance, business, and economics, so many people argued - including some members of the WMBA board - that he should be allowed to share his insight on those topics without voicing any opinion about social issues.
The Florida GLBT Democratic Caucus said that wasn't enough.
On Facebook, Rajner wrote:
When we don't have a seat at the table when decisions are being made that significantly impact our lives, that's intolerable. A tolerable society is one when all people share the same rights, responsibilities and are not marginalized.
Local newspaper The Sun-Sentinel reported Ellich's decision to cancel the appearance. She explained that she anticipated many protesters and counter-protesters demonstrating at the meeting. She said:
"It was getting to the point that it was dangerous. It wouldn't be safe. I would be worried... For the safety of the [business association] members and the safety of the community, it's just not worth putting the community in this mess. ... In this economy you don't want to hurt the small businesses in the city of Wilton Manors."
The win for LGBT advocates working on this issue speaks volumes about the power of grassroots organizing and putting the pressure on groups that contribute to anti-gay attitudes by choosing not to reject them.
Update 8/2: Sally Phillips, the president of the Florida GLBT Democratic Caucus, responded with this statement from her organization:
The Florida Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Caucus applaud the Wilton Manors Business Association for canceling the appearance by U.S. Rep. Allen West at its next meeting. Many qualified and respectful speakers exist on both sides of the aisle, and we congratulate the Wilton Manors Business Association for recognizing this.
The positions and statements of Rep. Allen West regarding everything from women's health issues to GLBT equality evoke strong reactions from our members. The Caucus supports the efforts of our local chapter, the Dolphin Democrats, to raise awareness of Rep. West's extremism on issues, offensive language and counter-productive behavior, all of which are an affront to the GLBT community and to fair minded Floridians who believe in equality for all Americans.
Boycotts have historically played a significant role in shaping public policy, and We do support a boycott of Allen West -- at the ballot box. To that end, we call on everyone who embraces fairness, accountability and, yes, freedom of speech, to distance themselves from Mr. West now and in November 2012. We encourage all citizens who love and embrace equality and justice to boycott Allen West's appearances, facebook page, financial and volunteer support for his re-election campaign, and providing him with an audience with whom he can foment fear and hate.
The Florida GLBT Democratic Caucus supports equality, justice, and respectful dialogue. We work to instill awareness of the freedoms of a democratic society, educate leaders, improve the community, and work constructively with political entities. Everyone is invited to join with us in accomplishing these goals.