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Amid controversy, Pride Center faces calls for reforms

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Amid controversy, Pride Center faces calls for reforms

Members of the LGBTQ community met on Saturday, Sept. 3 at the offices of the Pride Center of the Capital Region, seeking substantial changes to the leadership of the organization so that it better reflects the community it serves. Their demands are a #CenterIntervention, in the words of the advocates looking for change at the Pride Center. The advocates have set up a website: pridecenterintervention.org.

The Pride Center is an organization that serves the LGBTQ population of the Capital Region and its surrounding areas. It provides health and human services, support groups, education and advocacy across a ten-county region. According to its website, the Pride Center is the oldest continuously operating center of its kind in the country, its doors having opened in 1970.

The Center has been embroiled in controversy since July, when executive director Martha Harvey shared an article from the Canadian website Feminist Current on the Center’s Facebook page.

The article, titled “Lesbianism is under attack, although not from the usual suspects,” argues that asking lesbians to regard penises as female genitalia is akin to the practice of corrective rape — when a homosexual woman is raped by a man in order to “cure” her of her lesbianism, a term popularized in South Africa, where the practice is widespread. The argument is considered abhorrent by members of the transgender community, who believe it is particularly discriminatory against trans women. The underlying claim of the argument is that trans women aren’t women — are actually men in disguise — and that asking cis lesbians to date trans women is actually asking cis lesbians to embrace heterosexuality.

(“Cis” refers to a person whose gender identity corresponds with the one that they were assigned at birth.)

The article inspired outrage from trans members of the community and their allies, leading to spirited arguments online, in which Harvey and a board member, Vice President Cynthia Bott, were active participants. Harvey initially claimed that posting the article was not an endorsement of its contents, but eventually apologized, saying, “I made a grave error in judgment when I posted the article on this page, and for that, I am truly sorry,” in a subsequent Facebook post.

The fallout from the Facebook controversy was swift and severe. One transgender staff member, Jonah Moberg, the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Advocate, was let go. They describe a “hostile and dangerous work environment” which made it “literally impossible to do [their] job.” (Moberg uses they/them pronouns.) Moberg was let go shortly after they made the decision to remove Harvey’s apology from the Facebook page, which had generated a conversation that they deemed unhelpful and unsafe. Moberg believes their termination was related to that decision. Another transgender staff member resigned in protest, shortly after Moberg’s termination.

Harvey told The Alt that she would not comment on Moberg’s termination, saying she could not publicly comment on the Center’s employment decisions.

After members of the community left supportive notes and drawings on the Pride Center’s front steps for transgender staff members, the Center made the controversial decision to install security cameras aimed at the steps. According to the #CenterIntervention letter, in the past, the Center has considered installing security cameras, but always decided against it, out of a desire to preserve the anonymity of the Centers’ visitors.

Harvey told The Alt that the decision to install cameras was unfortunate timing, but was done out of genuine security concerns, not as a response to community actions. “There have been violent and destructive things happening to LGBTQ centers all around the country,” she said. The decision was made in order to prevent a “hateful backlash.” Because of community outrage, the cameras have been taken down.

“We are here in support of the Pride Center,” said Sadie DelaCruz, a member of the #CenterIntervention team, at the press conference held at Dana Park before the letter was delivered. “The Executive Director is not the Pride Center. The Board is not the Pride Center. The Pride Center is the community,” she said, to cheers from the crowd that had assembled there. “[The Pride Center] has let us down in some very big ways, but this place still has a special place in our hearts.”

The letter, signed by 110 members of the Capital Region community, requests the resignation of executive director Martha Harvey, deep changes to the bylaws of the organization to ensure “long-lasting structural change,” and a “new, representative Board membership.”

Morgan Hoag, a community member who spoke at the press conference, said that for the most part, her experience at the Pride Center had been “amazing,” but that “the recent events that have been going on at the Pride Center have destroyed that, and have made the Pride Center unsafe for trans people, especially trans women.”

“I want that safe space I found when I first went there back,” said Hoag, to applause.

Sean Desiree, another community member, said they want to see “the whole organization shut down and revamped from the ground up.”

“I would like to see it restarted with people of color in leadership roles,” they said. The Pride Center currently has no paid staff members or Board members who identify as people of color.

While the Facebook controversy inspired the action on Saturday, this confrontation has been brewing for a long time. Eoghann Renfroe, advocate for the #CenterIntervention, told The Alt that the article was only a “symptom of the problem” that existed at the Center. The Center has been struggling with inclusion issues for a long time, according to these advocates.

Sarah Bielawski, who formed a trans advocacy support group at the Pride Center many years ago, told The Alt that her experience was “a constant state of fighting against the staff and the Board to carve out a space for trans people.” She blames the “leadership” for “not respecting the validity of trans women.”

Jahnay Carr, a student at The College of Saint Rose and a former member of the Pride Center’s Center Youth Action Team, spoke at the press conference about her experiences at the Center. “Working at the Pride Center … helped me realize who I am and my own sexual orientation issues. I also got to help others realize who they are,” she said. But, she added, “the Pride Center isn’t that inclusive when it comes to people of color, to class, to trans people, specifically trans people of color. I have many friends who are trans people of color, and they don’t go to the Pride Center. They don’t really go to anybody. They’re the homeless ones. They’re the ones who need help.”

Carr told The Alt that her experience was that the Pride Center was “dominated by Caucasian people,” and that as a result, she, as an African-American person, “didn’t have the chance to feel completely comfortable.” They had “one trans person of color and one cis person of color, but now the whole staff is Caucasian,” according to Carr.

The Center has also been struggling with more general staffing issues. The #CenterIntervention letter describes rapid staff turnover and downsizing, with “greater reliance on unpaid volunteer labor,” noting that the slack was often picked up by unpaid “transgender and gender nonconforming community members.”

A signatory to the letter was Curran Streett, a predecessor to Harvey, who left the executive directorship to relocate to California. Renfroe told The Alt that Streett was responsible for a “massive” expansion in programming and diversity at the Pride Center. (Streett could not be reached for comment.)

Harvey, for her part, is willing to listen. When asked if there have been issues with inclusivity at the Pride Center in the past, Harvey admitted that there have been. “That’s what I’m hearing,” she told The Alt. “It’s very important to be aware of the history, but it’s more important to look to the future,” said Harvey. “Let’s look to coming together and working together and supporting each other and not fighting each other. Given the political climate, it’s so important now more than ever to work together to find common ground. There’s plenty of outside forces that would love to see us self-destruct,” said Harvey.

Harvey was encouraged by the public forum held on Saturday after the letter was delivered at the Pride Center. Many of the #CenterIntervention opposition stayed afterwards to talk to Harvey, the Board, and the general Pride Center community about their concerns, in a mediated environment.

The forum was “very well attended and positive,” says Harvey. “I can tell you that myself as the executive director and the Board of Directors are encouraged and open to everything that was talked about on Saturday. Specifically, we’re looking towards … continuing to offer all programs and services that were offered in the past and adding new programming, expanding the board.” Harvey spoke about steps being taken to “reach out to everyone in the community to let them know how to be on the board.” The goal is to develop a board that will increase representation of marginalized communities.

However, Alexander Hauptman, a member of the community who came with the #CenterIntervention opposition, did not seem so convinced that the Board and Harvey received the concerns of the community as well as Harvey says they did. “We got a lot of defensiveness in response,” says Hauptman. “There was a lot of argumentation. We got a lot of explanation, but not a lot of ownership of mistakes.” By the time he left, Hauptman says that “there was still no firm commitment or timeline for how quickly [the leadership] wanted to work to better their knowledge of the community. Not once did anyone mention any firm action steps they were planning on taking.”

Harvey told The Alt that she had no intentions of stepping down as executive director, a role she has occupied since January of this year.

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