By Sue Kerr
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
On the day of the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, which resulted in 11 deaths from three congregations, a rumor was floating around social media. Granted, this was an active crime scene involving dozens of people sharing bits and pieces of their stories. It was inevitable that some of those details would be wrong.
But there’s a clear difference between making an error and a deliberate attempt to seed disinformation. For example, there was a detail about either a circumcision or a naming ceremony taking place at Tree of Life. That proved to be untrue, but it was explained later that a similar ceremony had taken place at a nearby but separate synagogue.
The rumor was fueled by additional – untrue – details that the naming ceremony was for two gay men who had adopted twins. Some versions said girls, some said boys. But there was absolutely no confirmation that this was true.
I saw this floating around Facebook and reached out to the posters, asking if they knew the family and offering my help if it could be useful. I had horrible visions in my head of the shooter targeting Tree of Life because of a gay family and rightwing extremists blaming the LGBTQ community for the shooting and, worst of all, this poor family having to live with a horrific legacy tied to what should be a beautiful moment.
I reached out to people who should be in the know; I contacted every media source that I could. There was simply no confirmation, not a hint, that these rumors were true. When media outlets started calling me for more details on the story, I was fairly confident it was untrue or simply unconfirmable.
So I was appalled when the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh posted a status update on their Facebook page sharing this rumor as fact.
“We were just informed that this morning’s tragedy was happening during a Briss (sic) for a set of twins adopted by a gay couple. Our hearts and prayers go out to all that were involved including the members of the Synagogue, law-enforcement and first responders. We have witnessed the worst of America this morning in our town Pittsburgh. More than ever we must come together as people and change the temperament of our country,”
I was even further appalled when national LGBTQ site, LGBTQ Nation ran the story without confirming the details. Then The Advocate ran it. And then Gay Star News. Instinct Magazine picked it up. The story also ran at at Towleroad. And on it went. All of these reputable LGBTQ media sites looking for a queer angle chose this one, the one that was juicy but unsubstantiated.
And they were burned. A few hours after the links to the Delta Facebook page were out there on national sites, Delta changed the content of that status update – essentially deleting the original claim without the words “UPDATE” or “EDITED” to explain the change. So they had all of the benefits of incoming links from big national websites and took no responsibility for changing the content. That’s pretty low. That’s pretty crafty. That’s pretty much Delta’s MO, in my experience.
This is what that exact link now says
“Our hearts and prayers go out to all that were involved including the members of the Synagogue, law-enforcement and first responders.
We have witnessed the worst of America this morning in our town Pittsburgh. More than ever we must come together as people and change the temperament of our country.”
As I feared, right-wing, extremely conservative Jewish voices blamed the LGBTQ community and the alleged gay parents for the shooting.
Later, the Post-Gazette confirmed that there was no bris or brit at Tree of Life. A naming ceremony for a five month old girl did take place a bit earlier in the morning at nearby Temple Sinai. She had no twin and was not a boy. Her parents are a cisgender heterosexual couple. Thankfully, no one in their synagogue was harmed.
None of it was true. It isn’t even accurate that a Synagogue was targeted – in fact, it was one building and three different congregations, all of whom lost members in this incident.
But who among Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community would expect anything else from the Delta Foundation? For the past ten-plus years, they have committed a host of sins. Perhaps most egregious was their blatant racist decision to invite Iggy Azalea to perform at Pridefest and the disingenuous follow-up to the response from Queer and Trans People of Color, all of which revealed the multitude of ways that white cisgender privilege in the gay and lesbian community of Pittsburgh had wrought harm on QTPOC.
I think the Delta Foundation owes Pittsburgh’s Jewish community a formal apology for spreading an unsubstantiated rumor that added trauma to the worst anti-Semitic mass shooting in US History. But this is in addition to the longstanding need for the Delta Foundation to apologize to QTPOC and the larger communities of color in Pittsburgh. These things are are not disconnected. They are a pattern of egregious grabs for power, money and glory by people who do not respect many of the vulnerable communities they claim to represent.
I also think the LGBTQ media oulets that ran this rumor as fact owe Pittsburgh’s Jewish and LGBTQ communities an apology. Some of them will update their existing content, but that is not the same thing. Perhaps they will consider the source the next time a Pittsburgh story breaks. Or perhaps not.
When people pushed back on the story and the LGBTQ media in turn pushed back on Delta, they released this statement through Communications Director, Christine Bryan.
Thank you for contacting the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh regarding the tragic events that occurred on Saturday at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
We appreciate your further inquiry regarding our Facebook post to our LGBT community members regarding the bris.
The Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh is a non-profit advocacy organization and not a media organization. We had multiple community members reach out to us to let us know that an LGBT couple were holding a bris at the time of the shooting and we chose to share that with our community on our Facebook page.
When we started to receive media inquiries we decided that we wanted to contact our Jewish partner organizations for further clarification. As you can imagine, this is sensitive topic at a difficult time and it has taken a bit longer than usual to hear back from folks as they themselves are in mourning and now preparing for the arrival of President Trump.
Right now, the only thing that we can confirm is that a bris was scheduled for that morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
As we receive further clarification and info, we will be back in touch. In the meantime, thank you for your interest and understanding during this very difficult time in our city.
Christine L. Bryan
Director of Marketing & Development
Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh
Note that they did NOT post this statement in the Facebook status that was linked by all of those big media outlets. That would make sense and be the responsible thing to do, especially as they changed it once. Also note that they were wrong about the bris or brit milah. Literally, every fact that they shared was wrong. And there has been no further comment from their unspecified Jewish partner organizations.
My phone blew up with reporters and journalists around the country seeking to confirm this allegation. I exchanged heated words with more than a few folks for perpetuating this falsehood and hurting our local queer and Jewish communities simply for clicks. It wasn’t for lack of actual LGBTQ angles to the shooting.
It is shocking that reputable LGBTQ media would publish unsourced information about alleged gay parents caught up in a massacre, but even worse that they haven’t updated to admit their mistake since the original poster changes their own FB content. I am hopeful that The Advocate, Instinct, Towleroad and LGBTQ Nation will do better very soon.
It is clear that a family in this situation, whatever their identity, should get to tell their own story – not offer it up as fodder to find a LGBTQ angle. Why on earth would they trust these sites or print publications after this? If this sort of behavior had happened after the mass shooting of LGBTQ nightclub Pulse in Orlando, I am sure we were outraged and set the record straight. Can you imagine the Jewish media outlets printing unsubstantiated rumors about Pulse and just getting away with it?
How dare the LGBTQ media treat our neighbors – my neighbors – like this. What a deep stain on the credibility of LGBTQ media and to be tied to such an atrocity. You have added shame to a situation that I thought Donald Trump had already done a good jump decimating.
The Delta Foundation owes the local Jewish community an apology, along with their long-standing obligation to apologize to local communities of color for previous damage. No one in their right mind expects either to be forthcoming. Anyone who continues to tie their credibility as an individual or organization to Delta is a fool. Those battles will rage on internally among LGBTQ folks in Pittsburgh until the day the foundation crumbles.
The LGBTQ national media outlets needs to fix their stories and reconsider their sources in Pittsburgh. You need a quote or background information, next time contact a reputable source like the Association for LGBTQ Journalists Pittsburgh chapter or journalists like two time GLAAD nominee Michael Fuoco or well-respected openly gay journalists like David Highfield. Take this opportunity to cultivate your own sources.
The people who spread the rumor aren’t off the hook. I hope they’ve learned a few lessons and that they never experience the other side of an unsubstantiated rumor traveling around the globe and causing harm to already traumatized neighbors. How gracious it would be if any of these folks publicly apologized for their part in feeding this frenzy. Again, I don’t expect that will happen.
Perhaps most importantly, we can see new opportunities for our regional QTPOC and regional Jewish communities to recognize this traumatic intersection and work directly with one another to offer mutual aid and support, with the foundation free of rumors and self-aggrandizement.