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DeSantis Event at Chelsea Piers Faces Backlash Over L.G.B.T.Q. Rights

DeSantis Event at Chelsea Piers Faces Backlash Over L.G.B.T.Q. Rights

For the second time this spring, a New York City institution is facing a backlash over a conservative Jewish conference, long in the planning, because of one of its featured speakers: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

In May, the Museum of Jewish Heritage backed out of a tentative rental agreement to host the event. Now, Chelsea Piers, a recreation complex with a large event space at its Manhattan location and which agreed to host the conference this weekend, is being widely criticized by elected officials and activist groups who say that Mr. DeSantis should not speak at a site that has played an important role in New York’s L.G.B.T.Q. history.

Earlier this year, Mr. DeSantis signed legislation that prohibited classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation for some age groups in Florida schools, known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

The event, the Jewish Leadership Conference, was organized by the Tikvah Fund, a conservative Jewish organization, which said it invited Mr. DeSantis to deliver a speech about the vibrancy of Jewish life in Florida.

But when the Museum of Jewish Heritage learned of Mr. DeSantis’s participation, its leadership pulled out of the event, telling Tikvah that the legislation was not in line with its values of inclusivity.

Tikvah then arranged to hold the conference at Chelsea Piers, and publicly accused the museum of engaging in cancel culture in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. Officials at the sports complex were not aware of the dispute with the museum before that essay was published on May 5, a spokesman said.

Now, facing the threat of protests and boycotts, the recreation complex finds itself at the center of a pitched dispute that touches on issues of identity, inclusivity, religion and free speech. And it has left Chelsea Piers in a quandary that is in many ways emblematic of the tense — and intensely political — national conversation around whether people with views that some consider abhorrent or dangerous should be given a platform.

“The bottom line is Chelsea Piers is providing a venue to propagate hate toward the L.G.B.T.Q. community and that is unacceptable on many levels, including that it is Pride and that it is in Chelsea, the heart of the community,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman, the Manhattan Democrat who represents the area. He has helped lead calls for Chelsea Piers to cancel the event, which will also feature speeches by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ron Dermer, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

On Friday, Chelsea Piers responded to the uproar by saying that it will not cancel the event and that it does not police the views expressed by those who rent its event spaces. Instead, it said it would donate the money it received from the event to “groups that protect L.G.B.T.Q.+ communities, and foster and amplify productive debates about L.G.B.T.Q.+ issues.”

“We could not disagree more strongly with many of Ron DeSantis’ actions in office,” it said in an unsigned email to staff members. “One response to abhorrent behavior is to counter it with positive action.”

A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis declined to address the controversy and instead described the governor as a champion of religious liberty and a friend of Israel.

“He has defended religious Floridians and their right to assemble and practice their religion in spite of attempts from the left to lockdown places of worship,” the campaign said. “The governor will always stand up for what is right and will not be deterred by the radical left.”

Eric Cohen, the chief executive of the Tikvah Fund, declined to comment on the latest round of controversy on Friday, writing in an email that he was choosing to focus “on the event itself” and that the group was looking forward to “an important conference, with roughly 20 speakers, on the great questions facing the Jewish people, America, Israel and the West.”

In an interview last month, after the conference was left without a venue, Mr. Cohen rejected the idea that Tikvah was holding a partisan program.

“Our event endorses no candidates and serves no political party,” Mr. Cohen said. “It is all about ideas.”

The decision by Chelsea Piers to donate money to L.G.B.T.Q. groups has not mollified critics, who are organizing a protest in front of Pier 60 on Sunday to coincide with the conference.

The New York City Gay Hockey Association, which has been based at Chelsea Piers for more than two decades, wrote a letter to the complex’s management, saying its members felt “disappointment, sadness and even repulsion.” It demanded the event’s cancellation.

“The Museum of Jewish Heritage declined to host this event,” the group’s board wrote. “We wish Pier 60 had approached this with the same scrutiny and reverence for the community it serves, as well as the larger Chelsea Piers community.”

Other groups are canceling upcoming events at Chelsea Piers. Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for GLAAD, the L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group, said his organization would “refrain from future events” at the complex, “given the platform that Chelsea Piers is giving to one of the most anti-L.G.B.T.Q. and dangerous politicians today.”

The Ali Forney Center, a group that works with homeless L.G.B.T.Q. youth in New York, said on Friday that it would no longer be holding a program there next month.

“People are saying this issue is about freedom of speech, but it is not. It is in response to DeSantis silencing freedom of speech in schools,” the group’s president, Alex Roque, wrote in a statement.

Mr. Roque said the event was “a triple insult” because it was happening during Pride Month; in a gay neighborhood at a recreation complex used by many gay people and their families; and in a complex built on a site that holds unique significance in New York’s gay history.

Chelsea Piers was built in the mid-1990s, but the site’s original piers had been constructed for the docking of ocean liners and other large ships in the early 1900s.

By the 1960s, the piers had fallen into disrepair, but they were soon reborn as a ramshackle refuge for homeless L.G.B.T.Q. young people and as a well-known waterside hangout for gay men and others.

The area became synonymous with a clandestine sort of gay freedom in the years after the Stonewall uprising, in 1969, which occurred at the nearby Stonewall Inn and is widely seen as the birth of the modern gay rights movement.

The area also drew artists and photographers, who depicted the scene at the piers in works that have been shown in recent, well-received exhibitions at venues like the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in Manhattan.

“This could not be happening in a worse location,” Mr. Roque said. “And it sends really conflicting messages about what Chelsea Piers cares about. Their Instagram right now is full of posts about Pride Month, but doing this is totally the opposite of that.”