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News: Fissures in Stonewall

Gay-rights lobby might undo its revolution

By Clayton C. Knight · July 4th, 2002 · News
  Mike McCleese (left) and Heidi Bruins led Stonewall Cincinnati into a larger human-rights struggle. Now they might be booted from the organization's board.
Mike McCleese (left) and Heidi Bruins led Stonewall Cincinnati into a larger human-rights struggle. Now they might be booted from the organization's board.

A vote next week by members of Stonewall Cincinnati could reverse what some called a revolution in the organization's role in the community.

Both of Stonewall's co-chairs and another member of the group's board of directors could be unseated in an election Tuesday. The vote comes 10 months after Heidi Bruins and Roy Ford took over as co-chairs. Seven other new members, including Michael McCleese, joined the 12-seat board with them. Now a dissident group within Stonewall is leading an effort to dump Ford, Bruins and McCleese.

'No room for the status quo'
What is it about Stonewall Cincinnati's timing?

The new board won election Sept. 11, 2001 -- a date now best remembered for terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The recall election takes place as an estimated 1,400 members of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) perform in "Sing Cincinnati!" -- the association's Eastern regional festival. Hosted by MUSE and the Cincinnati Men's Chorus, the five-day event has become an annual highlight of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community's calendar.

The new board treated Stonewall's pledge "to work on behalf of all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to end discrimination and violence" more literally -- and perhaps more liberally -- than had been done in the past.

"We're activists," McCleese says. "Stonewall is a human rights organization, working through the lens of GLBT issues.

The bottom line is an ideological one. It is that people aren't open to the idea that racism, sexism and classism are problems in our society. We've said there is no room on the board for people who are content with the status quo."

The changes became public Feb. 11, when Stonewall joined the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati in supporting a boycott of convention, tourist and travel businesses to protest unequal civil, social and economic conditions in the city (See Boycotting the Closet issue of Feb. 28-March 6).

Stonewall stopped short of embracing the entire list of demands associated with the boycott, but a statement approved by the board of directors March 4 made clear the group was making a full-fledged commitment to human rights -- both inside and outside the GLBT community. The new board harnessed Stonewall's own efforts to discourage convention business to a broader cause.

Stonewall had already asked conventions and tourists to stay out of Cincinnati because of Article 12 of the city charter. Adopted in 1993, the charter amendment prohibits laws that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But for some Stonewall members, linking that effort to the boycott waged by the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati was too much. Ford was a featured speaker April 7 at the March for Justice, bringing Stonewall further into the activist spotlight.

Relations within the board were becoming frayed even as Stonewall forged partnerships that brought public attention to GLBT issues, according to Doreen Cudnik, a board member who also spoke at the March for Justice.

"For 20 years we've operated on a consensus model," she says. "Sometimes we need to compromise. If we agree on something in a meeting, then we can't go out and do something else. That has happened -- and the response was, 'I don't care.' When it becomes, 'I'm going to do it again,' that becomes a bigger problem."

Tensions have been growing almost since the new board was elected, according to another Stonewall board member, Chris Seelbach.

"There has been almost 10 months of trying to work together," he says. "Each board meeting gets increasingly hostile. We've accomplished none of the goals we set out to achieve 10 months ago."

Members' most persistent complaint is that Stonewall's name has been used for purposes not expressly approved by the board. Examples include a flyer handed out at Taste of Cincinnati, bearing the group's name, suggesting attendance at the GALA concert would violate the boycott; and an allegedly unauthorized e-mail to Mayor Charlie Luken, inviting him to participate in Gay Pride Day festivities.

"It's difficult to be an LGBT organization in Cincinnati, Ohio," Cudnik says. "We've been doing a lot of damage control, a lot of cleaning up. It takes a lot of energy that could be much better used."

'Don't silence any voices'
Stonewall's bylaws provide a means for removing board members without cause. The general membership may initiate a vote to remove a board member by presenting a petition containing the signatures of at least 10 percent of the current membership. The board member is removed upon a two-thirds vote by the members participating in the election.

The petition to unseat Bruins, Ford and McCleese presents a list of allegations. The petition charges the board joined the boycott without seeking the opinions of members. The petition also accuses the three of attaching Stonewall's name to "potentially controversial actions without bringing the matter to the board for discussion."

The petition further claims Stonewall has been isolated from other GLBT organizations, "injuring years of effort to build those collaborations." The petition blames the problems on "the co-chairs and one other member."

McCleese says the originators of the petition would like to root out the activist voices in Stonewall.

"People have painted us as radical street fairies," he says. "It's easy to miss the coalition-building we've been doing."

The recall petition is inconsistent with a human rights focus, according to Bruins.

"We don't want to silence any voices," she says. "What bothers me about the petition is that it is about silencing people. There are so many different perspectives and layers. We want to help the community express all of its separate voices. My vision is that we can bring the divisive elements together, damn it, and work through one organization. Or maybe we can't." ©



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