Two weeks ago, just as San Diego's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community was gearing up to celebrate its annual Pride festival, a bombshell landed in the laps of event organizers.
The volatile surprise-that the ranks of Pride volunteers and staffers included four registered sex offenders-and the subsequent handling, or mishandling, of that revelation continues to fuel controversy throughout the LGBT community.
In an editorial published last week, editors of the Gay and Lesbian Times accused the festival's board of directors of lying after one of the sex offenders was spotted working at the event after the Pride board had announced his resignation, and prominent LGBT leaders have joined the publication's editors in calling for the entire board to resign. Two board members already have done so, but their colleagues have dug in their heels.
How did so much rain fall on Pride's parade? It seems the rainmaker was someone who's become all too familiar to the gay community.
The trouble started on June 29, when James Hartline, a Christian conservative and "ex-gay" who publishes a self-titled on-line newsletter, issued a report blasting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for endorsing Pride. That's where Hartline revealed that two of the volunteers listed in the Pride program were sex offenders required to register with authorities under Megan's Law.
Suanne Pauley, Pride's executive director, told CityBeat she became aware of that information "a couple of days after Hartline's first thing went out," and immediately informed Joe Mayer, the board's co-chair. But nearly two weeks passed before the entire Pride board met to discuss the matter, something critics say was a big mistake. Debra Self, the board's other co-chair, said the July 13 meeting was when she first learned of the sex offenders.
"Look at the time frame," said Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a leader in the gay community who helped establish the first San Diego Pride parade 31 years ago. "They had a month starting on July 2 with their staff," he said. If they would have acted then, "this would have been dead and no one would have found out."
Instead, Murray-Ramirez said the board voted to "stand behind these guys" and attempted to frame the situation as a civil-rights issue involving the unwarranted persecution of men who had already repaid their debts to society.
"Pride, in thinking that they were protecting or helping... their friends, staff and volunteers, actually mis-served them and did them harm," said Murray-Ramirez. "Why did they not sit them down and tell them about the other side of the coin.... "You're a scarlet letter. Your neighbors could find out. They'll picket. They'll put your picture on TV. '"
Shortly after the board found out, Capt. Michael Cash of the San Diego Police Department, alerted to the volunteers' history by Hartline, scheduled a meeting with Pauley to ensure that registered sex offenders would not supervise or mix with children. Although the Pride events were open to people of all ages and featured special teen and children's areas, the volunteers in question were assigned to various set-up duties.
"They were not violating the law," Cash said. "They were not in violation of their [sex-offender] registrant conditions."
On July 24, the Sunday before Pride weekend, Hartline, in a statement to the press, called for like-minded individuals to join him at Monday's City Council meeting, where the City Council was scheduled to officially recognize the Pride festival, just as it has done for the past 11 years. Hartline showed up with about 40 supporters prepared to speak on the topic, but their stand was preempted when Deputy Mayor Toni Atkins, who had sponsored the proclamation, suddenly announced that it had been removed from the docket.
An Atkins spokesperson later said the proclamation was pulled from the agenda at the Pride board's request, and Pride spokesperson Frank Sabatini Jr. told CityBeat that board members were "too busy" to attend the meeting. But Murray-Ramirez said the proclamation-set to be signed by the first openly lesbian acting mayor-would have been historic and was too important to ignore. Pride board member Jeri Dilno later told CityBeat that the proclamation was scrapped in hopes of "taking some of the steam out of Hartline's vicious attack on the community" by preventing his followers from getting the opportunity to speak.
After the City Council meeting, Sabatini said Pride would continue to stand by those volunteers "who are committed to rehabilitation and pose no danger," and that the board also discussed implementing new screening procedures for future volunteers.
But in the days following, community outrage reached a crescendo as several prominent community leaders including Atkins, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and state Sen. Christine Kehoe-all openly lesbian elected officials-as well as various law enforcement agencies and parent and victim's rights groups threatened to boycott the parade.
Hartline declared the lack of a proclamation a "historic victory," and the Pride board later issued a statement announcing that it "has decided to accept the resignations today of the two individuals who have become the focus of this issue." The Union-Tribune and local television news stations didn't report those resignations until the Thursday before Pride.
Information also surfaced that the festival's safety manager, who had quietly resigned shortly after the story first broke, had a similar criminal history and, amid the rancor, a part-time pride staffer, responsible for overseeing festival logistics, shocked fellow organizers when he admitted to being a registered sex offender.
With the controversy at a full boil, Pride organizers attempted to clear the air at the event kick-off, a Friday night rally in Balboa Park. That's where co-chair Self said she told the audience that all of the sex offenders had resigned effective that evening.
With the public outcry seemingly satisfied, the parade and festival proceeded without incident. But when the Gay and Lesbian Times hit the streets last Thursday, it reported that the logistics coordinator had been spotted working at the festival grounds on Saturday. A related editorial accused the board of lying to the community and called for its members to resign.
Self told CityBeat that the logistics coordinator hadn't completed his set-up duties on Friday night and returned, without permission, the next morning to finish the job.
"It really does pain me that I'm being painted to be someone who lied or misled the community," said Self. "That was what was told to me so... that was the truth as I knew it. The fact that things got delayed and he remained on-site past that, while unfortunate, doesn't mean that I misled anyone.... As soon as I received word that this gentleman was still on-site, I had him removed."
While some have turned their ire toward the Pride board, others are turning their attention toward Hartline, who board member Dilno and the Lavender Lens, a local lesbian publication, have both accused of violating the law by using information gleaned from a Megan's Law website to harass sex offenders.
"I'm kind of amazed that news organizations have not actually researched the [law] and looked at what you can and cannot use Megan's Law for," Dilno said. "The only names that can be released are people that are defined... as high-risk offenders and neither of those men were in that category and even in that category only law enforcement can release those names."
But David Steinberg, a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, said he doesn't buy it.
"This is a public event that attracts a lot of people, certainly partners with children... and the whole point of Megan's Law is to alert the public so that they are able to keep their children away from people who have been convicted of sex offenses," he said, adding that he thinks Pride organizers should have been searching the Megan's Law site as part of a practical reality.
"This is the one very visible event where the San Diego population as a whole interacts with San Diego's gay community and they have to be very, very careful and very conscious of this perception-inaccurate as it is-that there is some kind of link between the gay community and molestation of children," Steinberg said.
Murray-Ramirez agrees, citing slightly different reasons.
"There are more families in our community... so we as a community have to look at this and know that when it comes to any organization dealing with youth we have to do [background checks]," he said. "The most angry ones in all of this are gay and lesbian parents."
Community leaders have called a meeting on Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center in Hillcrest to discuss the matter and many are calling for a vote to gauge community confidence in the Pride board."The gay Pride parade is owned by the community.... They're the caretakers," said Murray-Ramirez. "What they have done by lying to the elected officials, lying to the news media, lying to the community, lying to our straight allies is a betrayal and they need to go.... This is not over for us until each and every one of them resign."