April 16, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Path of the rainbow 

The Gay Alliance is thrown a curve

Part one of a two-part series.

It's April 9, and there's an uncustomary rumbling at the Atlantic-University neighborhood's less up-and-coming eastern edge.

            Two-dozen men and women are making some commotion.

            But their cheers and jeers, punctuated by the heavy beat from a dance studio across the way, are not at all disturbing.

            Which is more than you can say about some of the allegations they're repeating for the media who've shown up -- alerted that an "angry mob" is outside the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley.

            The occasion is an Alliance board meeting, usually no news hook.

            But there are some big stories breaking. And they fall on both sides of the ledger: the Gay Alliance's hopes and plans for a bright future, and some internal strife that could overshadow those hopes and plans.

The situation revolves around the Alliance's new executive director, Chuck Bowen, a former South Carolinian with varied work experience.

            Bowen was most recently the CEO of America's Best Security, a Columbia-based firm run by "law enforcement veterans" and others. Before that, he was with the South Carolina Association for the Handicapped and Disabled. In the mid-1980s, he was executive director of the South Carolina Dental Association.

            He's been on the job here less than three weeks. But already he's shaken things up.

            On one side of the ledger, he and the Alliance Board have promised "bold" initiatives, including the creation of new staff positions, fundraising strategies, and outreach programs. An April 14 news release speaks of "a major shift in the Alliance's resources" designed to "take it [the group] in a new direction as it celebrates its 30th anniversary."

            The initiatives will include a new "Inclusive Culture Project" to teach "tolerance and respect in the workplace." A nationally known diversity trainer, Donna Red Wing, formerly of the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, will come here to develop the project. There'll also be new outreach programs aimed at complementing groups like MOCHA (Men of Color Health Awareness Project). And the Alliance's monthly paper, The Empty Closet, will "get a new look" and appear in an online interactive version, as well. To bolster all these efforts -- and to compensate for cuts in public funding -- the Alliance will get even more serious about fundraising.

            Bowen's first major act was not connected with these initiatives, at least not directly. And here's where the trouble started: Soon after taking the reins, he fired the Alliance's longtime program director, Tanya Smolinsky. Make that "eliminated the position," as he and the board would have it.

            The firing or elimination energized some Alliance members. In fact, they got hopping mad, not only about the firing -- most, if not all of them were the former program director's unabashed partisans -- but also because of real or perceived organizational problems that had festered for months.

            Hence the April 9 protest outside the Alliance headquarters.

            Lucinda Koessler was one of the protesters that night. A former Alliance board member (she resigned last November), Koessler has some overarching complaints. In a statement prepared for the protest, she reacts to the board's style: "I believed and felt that the leadership and direction of the board was inconsistent with the mission of the organization and was as oppressive as the homophobia and heterosexism that the [Alliance] is trying to fight."

            Koessler complains, too, about what she says are structural problems. The Alliance, she says, has hired four executive directors over the last three years, yet still has struggled financially. She plugs the person who was just fired, too: "In 1999, the program director secured a $95,000 grant from the New York State Department of Health that allowed the [Alliance] to hire its first executive director, its first youth coordinator, and its first administrative assistant."

            Chris Carol, who resigned from the board this past January, echoes some of Koessler's thoughts. Serious internal strife "has been going on since last year," Carol says. But protester Michael Avery is more direct. In a prepared statement to the board, he addresses Bowen's job history. Specifically, Avery charges that Bowen didn't really carry out the duties of an executive director with the South Carolina Association for the Handicapped and Disabled. Rather, says Avery, Bowen was the manager of a bingo hall and actually ran no service programs.

Say what? Did Bowen inflate his résumé? Well, within limits, résumé-inflation has become a common, even accepted practice.

            Nonetheless, a little research digs up facts that may raise a flag or two here. And several Gay Alliance members have been publicizing these facts, easily obtainable from publicly accessible databases.

            For example, look at recent IRS Form 990s filed by the South Carolina Association for the Handicapped and Disabled. (Not-for-profits are required to file these forms annually to detail their budgets and characterize their work.) The 990s establish that the Association is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization based in Columbia, South Carolina. But a phone number and staff names on one 990 indicate the association is connected to -- identical with? -- an operation called Five and Dime Bingo, also of Columbia. Bowen is named as a "former manager" on the Association's 990 for 2001. His name doesn't appear on the 990s the Association filed from 1997 through 2000. (The 990 form asks for the names of directors, officers, and "key employees," paid or unpaid.)

            There are questions about priorities, too. In 2000, Bowen's last full year with the Association, the group's 990 declares more than $1.3 million in total revenue. The form also states that the Association's "primary exempt purpose" (the program area that qualifies the group for not-for-profit, tax-exempt status) is to "operate bingo games to provide cash contributions to charities, primarily AIDS foundations."

            But according to the 990 for that year, the total given to charity in 2000 was $4,290, less than one-third of one percent of total revenue. The pattern holds for other recent filings. By contrast, wages and salaries that year totaled almost $300,000, while $800,000 was paid in bingo prizes. Bowen's compensation wasn't given; the 990 for 2001, though, says he and another "former manager" each received compensation of just under $56,000 for half-time work. (The 990 for 2001 was not prepared on Bowen's watch; he says he left the Association halfway through the year.)

            The Association's tax filings have caught the eye of regulators, too. Ned Badgett, assistant director of the Public Charities division of the South Carolina Secretary of State's office, says he's looked at the recent 990s. The form for 2001 "is all messed up," he says -- so much so, he adds, that it's been sent back to the group for correction and re-filing.

            Badgett emphasizes he's making no judgment about wrongdoing, illegality, or impropriety. The errors on any or all of the 990s might be simply a matter of putting the right information on the wrong line. "They have inadvertently called bingo a program instead of a fundraising event," he says, citing one example.

What does Bowen say about all this -- and about the effort to, well, impeach him?

            The South Carolina Association for the Handicapped and Disabled, he says, is a "certified not-for-profit" whose books were "kept by a well-known CPA." Bowen says he was indeed the Association's executive director, not a bingo-hall manager. Besides, he says, in South Carolina bingo halls "are where groups raise a lot of their money." The halls, he adds, "are very heavily regulated by the state."

            But back to the Association and its tax filings. What about the small percentage of revenue shown as actual donations to actual charities?

            "We actually had programs that we ran that didn't actually [give] money out," Bowen says. "We did food banks to help people," he says. He recalls special bingo events for kids or seniors, and a "Sisters in the Name of Love" program that helped people who were dying of AIDS. These and other programs weren't itemized on the 990s, he says.

            He analyzes the current fracas as a power struggle. "This whole thing," he says, concerns "a disgruntled ex-employee who's trying to validate herself by impugning the board. I'm deeply disappointed by the actions of these individuals... None of this started till I let [the program director] go."

            Bowen says the Alliance board and staff and he "are spending our entire day fending off demands" from the former program director and her allies. "This group is out to destroy this agency, and I hope you'll quote me on that," he says.

            We sought board members' comments on all these matters; only board vice president Tom Carlock responded. He explained that, in line with a board decision, all questions would have to be directed to Bowen. But the board's official statements have sounded conciliatory. For example, a recent news release speaks almost regretfully about "the recent decision... to eliminate the position of program director within the Alliance, which had been held by a very popular, respected member of the community."

            Likewise, the news release acknowledges that the April 9 protesters "spoke from the heart with love and concern for the [gay and lesbian] community..."

            For their part, the protesters have formed an unincorporated group called the "Alliance for Accountability." The group held an initial meeting April 13, and activists have created a Yahoo! discussion group for sharing information.

            "Our purpose," says the discussion group's self-description, "is to gather facts necessary to determine if the leadership is acting in the best interests of the membership of the GAGV, and if not, to hold them accountable... This is about seeking the truth and making it available to our community members and leaders... It is not about retaliation. It is not about personalities."

As the questions cycle and re-cycle, Chuck Bowen and the Alliance board are plowing ahead with what they call "bold" organizational initiatives. And to judge by a recent Alliance official statement, the board is backing Bowen all the way.

            Right now, says Bowen, the Alliance is working on "a comprehensive development plan," including "the possibility of an endowment-type fund... anything that we can do to get away from dependence on taxpayer dollars."

            Why does the Alliance get public funding? The group is well-known and respected for following its motto: "Educate, Advocate, and Celebrate." But the Alliance has also become a key service-provider to the gay community and individuals and families connected to it.

            The Alliance runs things like the "GaySource" phone information line, which takes more than 1,000 calls per year and makes referrals to "gay-friendly lawyers, doctors, therapists, businesses, and churches." There's also a state-funded "Teen Advocacy and Support Services" program that connects young people with crisis-intervention counseling and other supports -- all crucial in fighting gay-teen suicide, substance abuse, and other ills.

            But the Alliance's state funding has been drying up. Two years ago, says Bowen, state funds made up 60 percent of the group's budget. Today, the figure is 35 to 40 percent. And as with many not-for-profits, the next state budget may contain deep cuts that will drag the figure down further.

            "We do have some reserves," says Bowen. But the Alliance will still have to scramble. "We're trying to raise money through a coordinated development campaign." This effort, he says, will allow the hiring of a "youth outreach coordinator" who'll work with entities like the many "gay-straight alliances" springing up in high schools.

            The Alliance staff already includes a "youth program coordinator," Patty Hayes. According to a recent article in The Empty Closet, Hayes worked with local students on another April 9 event: a Day Of Silence. This national event was designed "to protest the discrimination, harassment, and abuse, in effect the silencing, faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people and their allies."

            Bowen says a new director of community development will replace the program director's position. And the Alliance board, he says, has approved the hiring of a Communications Director, as well.

            The Alliance is also banking on diversity trainer Donna Red Wing. The 1999 winner of the Walter Cronkite Award for Faith and Freedom, Red Wing will develop a program here that Alliance leaders hope will "become a nationally recognized model."

            Then there's bricks-and-mortar -- and a possible move.

            The Alliance has for some years owned its headquarters at 179 Atlantic Avenue, practically around the corner from "ArtWalk" and other attractions. But the solid-looking two-story structure may not suffice for long. "We've far outgrown this building," says Bowen. "It's all ours, free and clear," he says. But the building, he says, has a leaky roof, too little meeting and office space, and no air-conditioning.

While acknowledging that "protests and marches are important," Bowen believes a new angle must be found.

            "Our activism here is outdated," he says. "We've been 'queer-centric.'" But now, he says, the Alliance needs to focus on things in the wider world, such as gay rights in the workplace. He mentions plans for an Inclusive Culture Coordinator, who'll help employees in small businesses become "tolerant and respectful" of gay co-workers.

            As Bowen and others explain, this kind of program flows from the recent passage of the state Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act -- widely known as "SONDA" -- which at long last granted full civil rights to gay people. (See Chris Busby's report in City Newspaper, December 11, 2002.) Crowning three decades of attempts to pass such a law, SONDA has demonstrated the power of statewide and local organizing.

            But this success also leaves a couple of political questions hanging: "Where do we go from here?" and "What organizations will take us there?"

            The Gay Alliance's new directions obviously are part of the answer. But the group's prospects, especially in the near term, hinge on the current internal strife and organizational responses to it.

            For the present, though, the Alliance board has sought to calm the waters by sticking to business. The group's April 14 news release, for example, said little about personnel changes at the Alliance and nothing about challenges to Bowen's résumé. Yes, it listed some truly bold initiatives. But it also cautioned that "no new steps [can] be taken until new sources of revenue are established."

            The fact is, the Gay Alliance is so well established, maybe even "establishment," that money will make or break it. For good or ill, the modern rainbow -- that is, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered movement as it stands -- is dependent on that proverbial pot of gold.

Next week: What trajectory will the rainbow take? A look at the movement.

Speaking of Gay Alliance, Chuck Bowen

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