I never thought I would agree with Kim Kardashian on anything.
But it seems that she and I have found common cause in calling for a boycott of the boycotts of the Beverly Hills Hotel and other properties “owned” by the Sultan of Brunei.
On Friday longtime and heroic LGBT activist Cleve Jones led the call for an international day of boycotts against the Beverly Hills Hotel and other properties managed by the Dorchester Collection, which is owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, an arm of the Ministry of Finance of Brunei.
What Mr. Jones and other unwitting activists don’t understand is that their well-intentioned advocacy is undermining the very human rights campaign they support and instead leaving hotel workers worldwide and Brunei’s underground LGBT community in the Sultan’s crosshairs.
When I was the only openly gay candidate in my race to succeed Henry Waxman in representing California’s 33rd Congressional district, which includes the Beverly Hills Hotel, I appeared before city council after city council begging my fellow LGBT advocates to halt calls for a boycott of a Los Angeles landmark. The employees there contribute productively to the local economy in my district – the hotel collects $11 million in taxes for the City of Beverly Hills alone – and represent the wonderful diversity that makes our nation a beacon of hope for those who activists in Brunei who rightly hide from the Sultan’s wrath.
As I began to explain to the West Hollywood City Council on May 19 before Mayor John D’Amico cut me off mid-speech, the resolution Abbe Land introduced and the rest of the Council adopted calling for a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel without a minute of discussion will do more harm than good for the very LGBT people in Brunei these well-intentioned efforts are meant to protect.
As I explained to the Beverly Hills City Council the next day, as an openly gay man, I share the outrage of other LGBT advocates who oppose any violation of anyone’s human rights. As former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton historically stated before the United Nations Human Rights Council in December 2011 – in full view of representatives of Uganda, Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation, all of whom were members of the Council at the time – “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
The loud calls for boycotts of the Beverly Hills Hotel reverberating across the globe are actively undermining the quiet diplomacy that was being undertaken by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) to persuade the Sultan to end his anti-LGBT policies.
Instead, Cleve Jones decided to turn a decade-long local Los Angeles labor dispute into an international spectacle under the guise of advancing gay rights abroad.
Having worked for two years as a research assistant to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and finding myself now pursuing a doctorate in international relations at Columbia University in New York, I know a thing or two about diplomacy. And loud calls of well-intentioned activists can undo years of the delicate balancing act undertaken to resolve human rights crises in ways that do not victimize either the targets of heinous policies or the perpetrators themselves.
As Grace Poore, IGLHRC’s Regional Program Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific Islands, explained to Buzzfeed’s J. Lester Feder and Jacob Fischler in their brilliantly reported expose on the controversy, the Commission had been working with local LGBT activists in Southeast Asia – which is where Brunei is located, not the Middle East – and had been quietly appealing to Brunei’s membership alongside Thailand and the Philippines in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations trade organization to persuade the Sultan to change his policies.
It appears that, after the Sultan of Brunei announced his plans to impose Sharia law in his tiny island nation, he began to have second thoughts and delayed implementation of the most despicable policies as a possible way of opening a window through which he could climb as part of a face-saving exit strategy.
Cleve Jones’ calls for a boycott blew that window off its hinges. As a consultant for UNITE HERE! Local 11, a labor union that has for decades apparently held a grudge against the Beverly Hills Hotel for refusing to allow the association to represent its workers in the 1990s, Jones has decided to put Brunei’s LGBT community at risk in the service of a local labor union’s longstanding feud half a world away.
If there is one thing that dictators do not appreciate, it is being told what to do. That is why they rule their totalitarian regimes with an iron fist. And if these boycotts continue, I worry that that iron fist could come down hard on the underground LGBT community in Brunei.
By boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel, LGBT activists actually lose any leverage they have to persuade the Sultan of Brunei to change its policies. Ever since Jones first informed his Facebook followers on April 16 that he would be boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel, conferences and hotel guests have diminished.
No change in the Sultan’s policies, however, have been forthcoming. In fact, if I were the Sultan of Brunei, I would probably dig in my heels and impose harshly the very policies igniting so much controversy, since digging in their heels seems to be the only action Cleve Jones and his associates are similarly willing to do.
I know my call to “Boycott the Boycotts” will be met with excoriating criticism. When I invited Los Angeles LGBT Center CEO Lorri Jean to join me in opposing these boycotts, her director of policy and community building asked me over the phone whether I was accepting campaign contributions from the Sultan of Brunei a few days before he penned an op-ed on the Advocate’s website supporting Cleve Jones’ efforts.
I have long admired Mr. Jones for the historic role he played in advancing gay rights in my state and across this country, and I am no stranger to activism of the most confrontational sort, as this video of my counter-protest to a group of self-proclaimed “confrontational evangelists” on UCLA’s campus earlier this month demonstrates.
But I cannot in good conscience sit by and allow Mr. Jones to misrepresent his ultimate motives in seeking a boycott of a landmark institution in the district I have sought to represent in Congress, particularly when it seems to me Mr. Jones’ mentor, Harvey Milk, would have taken a different approach given that he himself was a business owner.
Instead of a boycott, what we as LGBT advocates should be doing is showing the Sultan of Brunei exactly what happens in the United States on his own property by hosting a big, fat LGBT fundraiser at the Beverly Hills Hotel to benefit those organizations that are working diligently to overturn his policies.
Actress Rose McGowan did just that when she hosted a “gay-in” cocktail party at hotel last month. Rather than promoting division between LGBT activists and the Beverly Hills Hotel’s employees – who themselves have said they are adamantly opposed to the Sultan’s policies – I invite Mr. Jones to join me in co-hosting such a fundraiser and in asking the Dorchester Collection to subsidize the event space and refreshments.
So far, representatives of the Beverly Hills Hotel have denied my requests for “preferential pricing,” as they put it, for my fundraiser. Maybe they will reconsider if Ms. Kardashian, Ms. McGowen and Russell Crowe – all of whom, like me, oppose these boycotts – ask them nicely.
One employee of the Beverly Hills Hotel, who identified as a member of the LGBT community, put it best when he begged the Beverly Hills City Council not to support boycotts of his workplace and instead “knock on the doors of our capital and take your concerns where it counts.”
When I am eventually elected to Congress, I plan to do just that. In the meantime, let’s boycott the boycotts of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Theo Milonopoulos was a write-in candidate in the June 3 statewide primary election to succeed Henry Waxman in representing California’s 33rd Congressional district.