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SCOTUS ruling on Philadelphia case, LGBTQ groups view with some relief

Immediate reaction from some LGBTQ groups and individuals was dismay, while others viewed the decision as a relief.

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Graphic: The Los Angeles Blade

LOS ANGELES – The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision Thursday in a unanimous 9-0 ruling that sided with Catholic Social Services (CSS),  a Catholic social services organization that sued the city of Philadelphia after the city excluded it from a foster-care program due to the organization’s refusal to certify same-sex couples as foster parents.

Immediate reaction from some LGBTQ groups and individuals was dismay, while others viewed the decision as a relief. Shannon Minter, Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told the Blade in a phone call Thursday that ruling was exceedingly narrow, aimed at a section of the contract by the City, and more importantly was not a ruling that would be citable in future litigation in terms of an anti-LGBTQ basis.

Specifically, Minter noted that with this unanimous ruling, the court avoided a situation that would overrule the 1990 SCOTUS ruling in the case of [the] Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. That ruling, authored by Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had made it more difficult for religious people and groups to secure exemptions from generally applicable laws governing anti-discrimination

Scalia in the Smith case wrote; [that] “the Court has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that government is free to regulate. Allowing exceptions to every state law or regulation affecting religion would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.” Justice Scalia goes on to cite examples such as compulsory military service, payment of taxes, vaccination requirements, and child-neglect laws.

Minter opined that while there would be definite support to overturning Smith by three of the court’s conservative justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, he was doubtful that Chief Justice John Roberts, or the court’s other conservative justices Stephen Breyer, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett are that eager, given that there isn’t a legal remedy or replacement for Smith that would not create chaos within the federal judiciary in future challenges.

Properly understood, today’s decision is a significant victory for LGBTQ people, Minter said. The focus is on a contractual clause which is what the court focused in on. Writing in concurrence, Justice Alito noted, albeit it somewhat sarcastically, “This decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops. The City has been adamant about pressuring CSS to give in, and if the City wants to get around today’s decision, it can simply eliminate the never-used exemption power. If it does that, then, voilà, today’s decision will vanish — and the parties will be back where they started.”

Minter pointed out that the Court did not change the current constitutional framework, which permits governments to enforce antidiscrimination laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people even when doing so may have a disparate burden on those who hold certain religious beliefs.

“As a result of today’s decision, those who feared the Court might create a sweeping new religious exemption to such laws can breathe a sigh of relief,” he concluded.

Also weighing in was Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. “We are relieved that the court did not recognize a license to discriminate based on religious beliefs,” she said.

“Opponents of LGBTQ equality have been seeking to undo hard-won non-discrimination protections by asking the court to establish a constitutional right to opt out of such laws when discrimination is motivated by religious beliefs. This is the second time in four years that the court has declined to do so. This is good news for LGBTQ people and for everyone who depends on the protections of non-discrimination laws,” Cooper added.

Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law, writing in his Volokh Conspiracy blog noted;

Justice Barrett, joined by Justice Kavanaugh, concurring: The original meaning of the Free Exercise Clause is unclear on the broader question of religious exemptions from generally applicable laws, but “As a matter of text and structure, it is difficult to see why the Free Exercise Clause—lone among the First Amendment freedoms—offers nothing more than protection from discrimination.” Yet Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh are “skeptical about swapping Smith‘s categorical antidiscrimination approach for an equally categorical strict scrutiny regime, particularly when this Court’s resolution of conflicts between generally applicable laws and other First Amendment rights—like speech and assembly—has been much more nuanced.” In particular,

To name a few: Should entities like Catholic Social Services—which is an arm of the Catholic Church—be treated differently than individuals? Cf. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012) [providing broad protection for certain decisions by religious institutions -EV]. Should there be a distinction between indirect and direct burdens on religious exercise? Cf. Braunfeld v. Brown (1961) (plurality opinion). What forms of scrutiny should apply? Compare Sherbert v. Verner (1963) (assessing whether government’s interest is “‘compelling'”), with Gillette v. United States (1971) (assessing whether government’s interest is “substantial”). And if the answer is strict scrutiny, would pre-Smith cases rejecting free exercise challenges to garden-variety laws come out the same way? See Smith.

M. Currey Cook, Counsel and Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project Director at Lambda Legal, issued the following statement. “Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court is troubling but, importantly, it refused to give a free pass to people or agencies that want to discriminate against LGBTQ people for religious reasons and is limited to the specifics of Philadelphia’s foster care system. Instead, the Court validated the City’s ‘weighty’ interest in the equal treatment of LGBTQ prospective foster parents and foster children. The only reason those interests did not carry the day was due to the specifics of the City’s contract. Because the Court decided the case on contract-specific grounds, the City can address the situation by rewriting its contracts.” 

“But make no mistake.  Philadelphia has never refused to work with Catholic Social Services. The agency has continued to receive millions of dollars in foster care contracts from Philadelphia and the contract at issue simply applied a standard, important nondiscrimination principle to its contract agencies. Foster care is a government function, and all governments have a compelling interest in ensuring their contract agencies, including faith-based ones, treat all children and families equally. And today’s ruling does mean, at least for now, that different-sex married couples have access to all city agencies, while same-sex couples do not,” Cook said.

“The court’s ruling today on Fulton is a narrow one, limited in both nature and scope. The most important take-away is that the Supreme Court unanimously refused to allow a religious entity to have a license to discriminate. We stand in solidarity with the community in Philadelphia that is working for the fair and equitable treatment of  those who want to provide safe and loving homes to children and hold in our hearts the many children who will be impacted by this decision,” Kierra Johnson, Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force said.

“The work ahead for our community is clear – we must continue to advocate for local and state non-discrimination laws, apply the ones that exist and most importantly, fight for the Equality Act, which would provide long overdue Federal protections to the LGBTQ community and many others,” she added.

Equality California’s Executive Director Rick Chavez Zbur, a prominent civil rights attorney weighed in saying, “Today’s ruling by the Court is limited in nature and scope. While the Court ruled against the City based on the specific facts of this case, we are heartened by the fact that it did not recognize or create a license to discriminate. The Court’s ruling means that governments can — and must — continue to enforce neutral, generally applicable laws that protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination both inside and out of the foster care system.”

There was a note of defiance and dissent to the ruling from the SPLC listed anti-LGBTQ hate group, the Family Research Council, which released this tweet:

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Assembly race candidate amasses significant war chest 11 months out

Openly gay, Zbur has collected critical endorsements in the race, including125+ elected, community leaders & progressive organizations

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Rick Zbur addressing attendees at an Equality California event (Photo Credit: Rick Zbur)

LOS ANGELES – The race for state Assembly District 50’s seat by Rick Zbur, the outgoing head of the state-wide LGBTQ equality rights advocacy group Equality California, saw his campaign amass a significant campaign funds war chest total this past week.

A financial disclosure report from the campaign this week disclosed that Zbur had raised more than $615,000 through June 30, 2021, and will report $530,000 cash on hand approximately 11 months out from the 2022 primary.

In the race for the seat which is currently held by Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) who is running for the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, Zbur’s impressive fund raising could give him an edge over his fellow Democrat Sion Roy, a physician, who has not disclosed yet what his campaign has raised.

Openly gay, Zbur has been collecting critical endorsements in the race, including over 125 elected and community leaders, as well as influential progressive organizations. On Friday San Francisco Mayor London Breed added her endorsement of Zbur.  [A complete list of Zbur’s endorsements can be found here.]

There has not been an LGBTQ representative in Sacramento for the Western portion of Los Angeles County since 2008, when Sheila Kuehl left her Senate seat and later in 2014 ran a successful bid to become the Supervisor for the Third District on the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.

“While it’s still early and this is only the first of many key benchmarks that we plan to hit during this election, the depth and breadth of support we’ve received for this first fundraising report serves as a validation of our message of bold progressive leadership and the important work that we’ve already accomplished,” Zbur said Wednesday.

  

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How Stonewall Democratic Club retaliated against critics of its president

Stonewall Democratic Club is a powerful force in local politics, especially in the LGBTQIA+ enclave of West Hollywood.

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Lester Aponte speaking at the Stoneys in 2019 (from the Stonewall Democratic Club’s Facebook)

By Kate Gallagher  | LOS ANGELES – “I know the ugly side of politics quite well. Any endeavor that involves human beings, there’s going to be mischief somewhere,” said Lauren Buisson. “The system feeds on cronyism and self-dealing, and that’s what I saw at Stonewall.”

Buisson was a member of Stonewall Democratic Club’s Steering Committee until she was dismissed from her position in October 2018. Her capital offense was calling out the racist, transphobic, and otherwise inappropriate Facebook posts made by the organization’s president, Lester Aponte — whose current campaign for a third term as Stonewall president has the support of dozens of elected officials and Democratic Party leaders.

Stonewall Democratic Club is a powerful force in local politics, especially in the LGBTQIA+ enclave of West Hollywood. The organization’s leadership includes high-ranking members of the local, state, and national Democratic Party. Each election cycle, candidates for everything from the Santa Monica School Board to the U.S. Senate vie for Stonewall’s endorsement, a symbolic stamp of approval from the LGBTQIA+ community.

But beneath the veneer of progressivism, several current and former Stonewall members describe a toxic environment of harassment, bigotry, and abuses of power, where dissent is silenced and misconduct is swept under the rug. 

“It’s just a really twisted culture about personal gain, personal access, and nothing about advancing LGBT standards of living,” said Craig Scott, a lifelong LGBTQIA+ activist who served on Stonewall’s Steering Committee from 2017 to 2018. “

Sean Kolodji was an enthusiastic young activist when he joined Stonewall in 2009. He soon got involved in the membership team, where he was responsible for recruiting and credentialing new members. By 2015, he’d been appointed to the Steering Committee as Membership Chair. “I felt like we’re really fighting for something,” he said. “We’re fighting for LGBT rights, fighting for the trans community, fighting for diversity, and I was passionate.”

But cracks in the facade quickly started to show. In April 2017, Kolodji won a Stoney Award — the organization’s annual award ceremony/fundraiser — for Member of the Year. Eric Bauman, longtime Stonewall president and then-LACDP Chair, was also there to accept the Public Official of the Year Award. 

Bauman, who later resigned as CDP Chair amid sexual misconduct allegations, was “very handsy with everyone,” Kolodji recalled. At one point during the dinner, Bauman began massaging Kolodji’s 20-year-old guest while still seated at the table.

According to several former members, Bauman’s inappropriate behavior was an open secret at Stonewall. None of the club’s leadership ever intervened.

“The pain that we experienced in dealing with the way Eric Bauman interacted — what example did he set for us about how we get power?” Kolodji said. “I feel like there was a structural problem, where we didn’t set the ground rules and say, look, within a professional space we can’t do this.”

That summer, Kolodji was elected to Stonewall’s Executive Team as Communications Vice President. Just days later, Gemmel Moore was found dead in the home of prominent Democratic donor and Stonewall Steering Committee member Ed Buck.

Kolodji, Scott, and Alex Paris, who served as Social Media Chair, pushed the club to publicly disavow Buck’s behavior, and to donate $500 (the cost of Buck’s lifetime Stonewall membership) to Moore’s funeral expenses. They received pushback from several other Steering Committee members, including Aponte, Garry Shay (who serves as the parliamentarian for both Stonewall and the LACDP), and John Erickson, now a member of West Hollywood City Council.

“There were a lot of people in the party that just wanted to be quiet,” Kolodji said. He recalled that, when Black activists posted on Stonewall’s Facebook page asking where the organization stood on Buck’s behavior, Aponte asked that the posts be deleted.

Even once the Steering Committee voted to put out a statement regarding Moore’s death, Aponte fought to soften the statement’s language and frame it around the dangers of drug addiction, rather than Buck’s suspicious role in Moore’s overdose.

“They didn’t want to kick [Buck] out because he gave so much money to the club,” said Scott. “Lester was always like, we can’t jump to conclusions, we need more information.”

Although Buck soon resigned from the Steering Committee, Moore’s death, and the tepid reactions from the rest of the club’s leadership, was a tipping point for Kolodji. “Those experiences together radicalized me a little bit,” he said. “This organization has something rotten at its core, and I can’t just go along with it.”

Stonewall members celebrating pride on June 9, 2021 (From the Stonewall Democratic Club’s Facebook)

Lauren Buisson joined Stonewall in the summer of 2017, just after the Ed Buck scandal broke. “I actually went to some other [organizations’] events, and of all the ones I went to, the only person who chatted me up as a potential recruit was Sean.”

Kolodji and Buisson met at the annual Stonewall BBQ, hosted at the family home of State Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer. Buisson soon signed on to join Kolodji and Alex Paris on Stonewall’s communications team, where she managed the club’s social media and led writing and production on the Stonewall Spotlight podcast.

“Alex, Sean, and I worked really, really well together. We had the same social justice driven agenda,” Buisson recalled. “[But] I noticed the problems in the organization almost from the jump. And it especially became clear when the first crisis in the assembly happened.”

In late October 2017, Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra was accused of sexual misconduct. Just a week later, similar allegations surfaced against state Senator Tony Mendoza. After the news broke, Buisson, Paris, and Kolodji led an effort to convince the Steering Committee to draft a statement condemning the two officials’ behavior. 

However, Eric Bauman, who at that point was no longer a member of Stonewall’s Steering Committee, stepped in and cautioned them not to move forward with the statement. Buisson found his involvement alarming. 

“You had this guy who was himself a serial sexual harasser stepping into club business when he was no longer supposed to be involved,” she said. “Parts of the California Democratic Party like to assert that they have no control or association with the clubs. They absolutely do.”

The statement, drafted by Buisson, was eventually approved by a majority of the Steering Committee, over the objections of Aponte, Garry Shay, and Political Vice President Jane Wishon. As soon as the votes were in, Kolodji sent out the statement.

Immediately afterwards, Aponte confronted Kolodji for “going behind his back” by releasing the statement without his prior approval. Kolodji was baffled, since Aponte had put him in charge of counting the votes for the motion. “It showed that Lester and Garry and the power in the organization were uncomfortable with this kind of rebellion of the grassroots,” he said.

In the coming months, Buisson, Kolodji, Paris, and Scott frequently came into conflict with the rest of the Steering Committee. They were the only four Steering Committee members to vote against accepting a donation from Wells Fargo Bank, which had recently been rocked by a storm of scandals. Aponte ultimately decided to decline the donation after Kolodji leaked the news to LA Health Commissioner and former Stonewall Steering member Susie Shannon, who vagueposted about it on Facebook.

It gradually became clear to Paris that Stonewall’s leadership was “completely ignoring the important mission that this organization was started for… They’re more concerned with consolidating power, more concerned with glad-handing politicos and influence sharing than they are with actually helping LGBT people.”

The political disagreements sometimes turned personal. While discussing endorsements for the 2018 election, Scott, a longtime San Francisco resident, criticized Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s history of moderate positions and suggested that the octogenarian was getting too old to do her job effectively. In response, Erickson criticized Scott’s comments as “ageist” and sent an email to the Executive Team suggesting that Scott should be removed. 

“We looked at it, and we were like, okay, this isn’t… this is silly, right?” Kolodji recalled.

Jane Wishon (right) accepting an award for allyship alongside City Council President Nury Martinez (left). (From the Stonewall Democratic Club’s Facebook)

A more serious point of contention was the lack of diversity in Stonewall’s leadership. Of the eight elected officers, there’s currently only one who isn’t a cisgender man — Jane Wishon, who is a straight white woman. While officer positions are open to anyone, including straight allies, the lack of representation for LGBTQIA+ women within the club’s leadership is reflective of a larger problem, not just at Stonewall but in politics and LGBTQIA+ spaces in general.

In 2010, Aponte was on the board of a pro-marriage-equality organization called “Love, Honor, Cherish,” which crafted a failed ballot measure to overturn Proposition 8. The organization, which was entirely composed of cisgender gay men, failed to include any mention of gender identity in the measure. 

In response to a Facebook post about the lack of trans-specific language, Aponte said that none of the over 100 activists who were involved in the discussions ever raised any concerns. He seemingly recognized the problem with the group’s lack of diversity without claiming any responsibility for fixing that problem, simply saying, “Obviously we needed some of you in the room. The door has always been open.”

To Hannah Howard, this sounded like a cop-out. Howard, who is trans, attended one Stonewall meeting in 2005, but decided not to engage further after being repeatedly misgendered during the meeting. She was surprised when, just a few years ago, a Stonewall member made a Facebook post about the reasons why trans people have trouble engaging with the movement — and Aponte responded with incredulity. 

When Howard commented sharing her experience at the 2005 Stonewall meeting, Aponte “was shocked, disbelieving that such a thing could happen, but talking about [how] they were such great allies now,” she said.

However, according to current Steering Committee member Mackenzie Hussman, not much has actually changed. She recalled that, during a Pride event in 2018, a newer member of the Steering Committee, who is a trans woman, was working at Stonewall’s booth. An older man on the Steering Committee didn’t recognize her, and accused her of stealing from the booth. The incident was addressed awkwardly at the next Steering Committee meeting.

“Lester gave some sort of wash-overstatement like, ‘Oh we try to be inclusive of everyone.’ And then he proceeded to ask this trans woman how she would like to be treated,” Hussman recalled. “It just felt so insensitive. We’re an LGBT club, we should already know how to welcome trans members into our community. And she was publicly singled out in front of 30 people. It was embarrassing.”

In another example of Stonewall’s lukewarm commitment to inclusion, two Black LGBTQIA+ candidates, Steve Dunwoody and Ashley Marie Preston, intended to run in the 2018 special election for Assembly District 54. However, Wishon, as Vice President of Politics, made the decision that Stonewall shouldn’t endorse or support either candidate, because it would be “too divisive for us to choose between a Black gay man and a Black trans person,” according to Kolodji. In the end, neither candidate even made it onto the ballot.

Mitch O’Farrell being thanked for being a Platinum Sponsor of Stonewall’s 2019 Summer BBQ (From the Stonewall Democratic Club’s Facebook)

In April 2018, Buisson posted an article to the Steering Committee’s private Facebook group about the need for more Black women in Democratic Party leadership. All hell broke loose. 

Shay replied that Buisson’s post was “not productive,” and instructed Operations Vice President Steve Bott to remove the post. When Buisson noticed it was gone, she posted the article again. It was removed again, and Buisson was blocked from further posting in the group.

“I’m 6’1″ and 245 pounds. I don’t let men tell me when I can talk and when I can’t,” said Buisson. “You could throw a brick and not hit a person of color at these general meetings. This was a problem we needed to address internally. And they refused.”

Buisson brought her concerns to Kolodji, who raised the issue with the rest of the Executive Team, including Aponte, Shay, Wishon, and Bott. All four replied that any criticism of the Democratic Party is unwelcome on the Steering Facebook page. 

Kolodji repeatedly pointed out the irony of silencing a Black woman for calling out the Party’s silencing of Black women. Aponte, who is Puerto Rican, is the only person who responded to this point — he replied mystifyingly, “The real irony is that the only ethnic minority in this thread is me.”

At the time, Stonewall had no official grievance process — if Buisson wanted to press the issue further, it would be judged by the Steering Committee, which was overwhelmingly white and male.

Interestingly, Wishon had said that “no one is trying to censor Lauren on her own page,” and Aponte agreed that Buisson and Scott (whom no one else had mentioned) had “the entire wide world web” to post whatever they wanted. They quickly changed their stance on this.

Just a few weeks later, Scott shared a link to a video on his personal Facebook page with the comment, “Fag hags need to be checked so often.” The video depicted a brawl between a group of intoxicated white women and a group of queer men of color in an alley in West Hollywood. 

However, the Executive Team interpreted Scott’s comment differently. Within hours, the officers had been looped into an email with the subject line “URGENT: Regarding post encouraging violence against women.” 

Scott insisted that his comment was meant to condemn the violence. “There’s this ongoing debate within the LGBT, especially gay men, culture about the appropriateness of straight women and bridal showers going to gay spaces,” he told Knock LA. “So I just said you got to check your fag hags because you don’t want them beating up on queer people. I basically saw it as a gay bashing.”

Shay recommended that the board should immediately ask for Scott’s resignation. Wishon agreed. Attaching a screenshot of an unrelated Facebook comment by Buisson, she added, “And Lauren…”

By the next day, seven of the eight officers had signed a letter calling for Scott’s resignation. Kolodji was the only one who dissented. While he agreed that Scott’s post was “in very poor taste,” he told the rest of the Executive Team that he didn’t feel it was a resignation-worthy offense.

Neither did Scott, who deleted the post but refused to resign. At that point, the Executive Team (except Kolodji) motioned for the formation of an investigation committee to address the issue. 

The committee presented its findings at Stonewall’s June 25 general membership meeting. The room was packed. “They called all the members who don’t normally show up, describing [Scott] as this misogynist who’s endorsing violence against women,” Buisson said. 

LACDP Chair Mark Gonzalez was brought in to preside over the session. DNC member Laurence Zakson served as Parliamentarian. Scott himself chose not to attend the meeting, but Buisson led the defense on his behalf.

“It was a circus,” Kolodji said. One LACDP leader described the proceedings as “absurd.” At one point, West Hollywood City Councilmember John Heilman called impatiently from the back of the room, “Let’s vote already!”

In the end, the members voted, 48 to 14, to remove Scott from the Steering committee. That was the end of his involvement with Stonewall.

Regardless of whether or not Scott’s post should have been considered grounds for dismissal, the affair revealed a glaring double standard for whose inappropriate behavior is, or isn’t, punished. Just a year earlier, Stonewall had vigorously supported Eric Bauman’s campaign for CDP Chair, despite his well-known sexual misconduct.

“They all jumped on [Scott] because they wanted to get rid of a critical voice,” Buisson concluded.

Throughout the controversy, Kolodji had warned the rest of the Executive Team that “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, so to speak. Be careful pursuing this with Craig, because this is an abuse of power, and you’re setting a precedent that is going to come back.”

Kolodji had been Facebook friends with Aponte for years, and he was aware of several posts Aponte had made that were just as offensive, if not worse than the comment that led to Scott’s removal. He mentioned this to Buisson, who began combing through Aponte’s most problematic posts.

In October 2011, Aponte posted a link to an article about Hermain Cain with the comment, “I hear the camp is iin [sic] the Spik Valley and overlooks Gook Mountain. Ain’t Texas grand?”

In November 2014, he posted an article about Mia Love, a Black Mormon Republican recently elected to Congress, commenting: “Until 1972, official Mormon Church doctrine was that Black people were evil and could not be saved. Perhaps this is their way of proving it?”

In 2015, he deliberately misidentified Ann Coulter as trans: “I am saying Ann Coulter is transgender. Go ahead and sue me.” The comments on the post became filled with vitriolic anti-trans and misogynistic remarks. Aponte did nothing to stop the hateful discussion.

 In 2016, Aponte liked an anti-BLM post that said,  “I think these people are assholes. There I said it. I’ve grown to despise BLM because of their tactics and narrative.” 

In 2017, he joked that immigrant activists should be deported.

In 2018, Aponte described the Inclusive Pride Flag as “stupid.”

Buisson compiled 18 pages of screenshots of these and other inappropriate remarks. It was already clear to her that taking her concerns to the Steering Committee would be futile.

“It was not just about this one bigoted individual,” Buisson said. “It was infecting. You could see it in who was in the club, who was in leadership positions, who spoke from whom, who was excluded, the whole system was infected. And in my view at the time, that fish was rotting from the head.”

So, rather than rely on the club’s leadership to discipline themselves, Buisson sent the offending posts to several elected officials, asking them to withdraw their support for Stonewall until Aponte resigned.

Not a single official responded.

One of the recipients was Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, host of the annual Stonewall BBQ — which was coming up in just a few weeks. 

“My feeling was, as somebody with a reputation for advocating for the Black community, this man might be a little bit pissed off about these racist things,” Buisson said. “It would be no problem for him to say, this event is canceled until you resign. You’re out of Stonewall or doesn’t go forward.”

Jones-Sawyer’s office did reach out to Stonewall’s leadership — but not to demand Aponte’s resignation. Instead, they passed along Buisson’s letter, fingering her as a whistleblower.

A few weeks after her letter-writing campaign began, Buisson suddenly found herself locked out of Stonewall’s digital assets and social media accounts. Paris, who chaired the social media team, called Aponte in confusion. Aponte informed him that Buisson was no longer allowed to serve on the communications team.

“I said, what are you talking about, you’re just [removing] her?” Paris recalled. “And [Aponte] is like, ‘yeah, I can do that, I’m president.’ I was like… pretty sure you can’t.”

When Aponte realized that he could not, in fact, unilaterally remove Buisson from her Steering Committee position, he told Paris and Kolodji to ask for her resignation. They refused.

On September 26, Aponte sent an email to the full Steering Committee revealing that Buisson had sent letters to several elected officials accusing him of making “racist and bigoted statements.” Without revealing any details about the “statements” in question, Aponte called Buisson’s accusations “false and defamatory… harmful, not just to my personal reputation, but the reputation and public standing of our organization.” He asked that the Steering Committee vote on whether to expel Buisson from her position.

In stark contrast to Scott’s widely-publicized hearing, Buisson’s removal was handled quietly at a Steering Committee meeting on October 4. So quietly, apparently, that Wishon told Knock LA she didn’t remember the meeting had even happened — although the minutes confirm she was in attendance.

“There were wild allegations and actual shouting matches at this meeting,” Paris recalled. “That was an absurdly fireworks meeting over an issue that was not taken seriously.”

Buisson chose not to attend the meeting, but Paris and Kolodji argued on her behalf that the real problem at hand was Aponte’s behavior, not Buisson’s. Even if the committee didn’t feel that Aponte’s Facebook posts were grounds for resignation, his attempt to retaliate against Buisson was itself an abuse of power that warranted investigation.

However, other Steering Committee members said that Buisson should have brought the issue directly to them — which Kolodji found ludicrous, given their handling of Buisson’s previous complaints. “We tried to deal with this stuff internally,” he said. “But it seemed like their side was kind of like, ‘we’re gonna use our power — and we have more power — to essentially drive you out.”

The Steering Committee ultimately voted, 17 to 3, to remove Buisson from her position. Paris resigned the same day in protest. Kolodji soon disengaged from Stonewall as well.

“The organization just seemed destined to be an unredeemable mess,” Kolodji said. “Is there no shame, to just ruthlessly try to target someone that we need as a leader in queer spaces? And instead, what do we get?”

As a parting shot, Kolodji and Paris motioned for a separate investigation into Aponte’s Facebook posts. The motion was approved, and an Ad Hoc Incident Review Committee was formed to review the posts. The five-member committee included Aponte’s longtime ally, Garry Shay.

Knock LA obtained a copy of the investigation’s report, which was finalized in June 2019 and sent only to the eight members of the Executive Team. In Aponte’s statement to the committee, he defends each of his insensitive posts, which he maintains are not “racist [or] bigoted.” He claims Buisson only called out his comments because of a “personal vendetta.”

The committee’s assessment notes that Aponte’s posts are in “poor taste” and that each of the committee members would “know better than to make these kind of comments.” However, they largely accept Aponte’s justifications, some of which strain credulity (in one example, he insists that his sarcastic use of racial slurs “was in no way meant to condone the use of racial slurs in place names, but rather the opposite.” He doesn’t elaborate further.)

Ultimately, the committee decides that the posts are not grounds for Aponte’s removal. The report concludes: “What appears most important now is to move forward from this point.”

It’s unclear whether the investigation’s findings were ever revealed to the full Steering Committee or the membership at large. Wishon claims the investigation’s report was presented at a general membership meeting; however, Knock LA reviewed the minutes for every meeting from 2018 to June 2021, and there is no mention of the incident review committee’s existence.

According to a current Steering Committee member, at some point Aponte made a brief apology and deleted the Facebook posts, but that’s where the consequences ended. In May 2019, Aponte was nominated, unopposed, for a second term as president. Three of the five members of the official nominating committee were also involved in the incident review committee, whose investigation into Aponte was still ongoing.

Ultimately, Aponte was reelected, and his now-deleted racist Facebook posts were seemingly never mentioned again. During this same time, however, Stonewall was implicated in a wave of controversies that weren’t so easily swept under the rug. 

In November 2018, Eric Bauman resigned as CDP Chair after an onslaught of sexual harassment allegations. In January 2019, a second body was found in Ed Buck’s apartment. Later that year, a third victim narrowly escaped from Buck’s home alive, and Buck was finally arrested. He was eventually indicted on nine counts by a federal grand jury, and his trial is currently underway.

Meanwhile, in November 2020, John Erickson, a major player in several of Stonewall’s internal scandals, was elected to West Hollywood City Council, thanks in part to the resources that came along with his endorsement by Stonewall. Notably, four of the eight eligible candidates were inexplicably barred from participating in Stonewall’s endorsement process, and although two council seats were open, Stonewall’s membership voted to endorse only Erickson — Sepi Shyne, an LGBTQIA+ woman of color, failed to reach the 60% vote threshold for endorsement.

Lester Aponte presenting City Council President Nury Martinez with the Morris Kight Presidential Award in 2020. (From the Stonewall Democratic Club’s Facebook)

On May 24, Aponte announced his candidacy for a third term as Stonewall president. Interestingly, the same day as his announcement, he changed his Facebook cover photo to the Inclusive Pride flag that he previously decried as “stupid.” His slate, which is running on a platform of diversity and inclusion, includes five men and one straight woman (Wishon).

This time, however, Aponte isn’t the only candidate in the running — although he was chosen by the official nominating committee, another Stonewall member submitted a nomination for Alex Mohajer, who currently serves as Chair of Public and Media Relations.

According to Mackenzie Hussman, this year’s election has been tense from the very beginning, when the nominating committee itself was being chosen. “I felt rushed,” she said. “They were trying to put select people through who would nominate whoever [the current officers] wanted to.” 

When other Steering Committee members spoke up and suggested different names for the nomination committee, there was procedural confusion. “They were just shocked that people would not go with what they were saying,” Hussman said. “It’s just been very key prominent people running this club without check or challenge, and now there’s people challenging them. You can tell they feel threatened.”

Hussman notes that Aponte has personally blocked several Steering Committee members on Facebook, ostensibly for opposing his campaign for reelection. In a blast of deja vu, Hussman, who is Chair of Social Media, and another communications team member were both inexplicably locked out of Stonewall’s social media accounts on July 12 with no explanation, although their access was restored when the issue was brought to Operations VP Bott’s attention.

According to Hussman, the only people who could have revoked the access are Bott, Aponte, and Wishon. When Knock LA asked Wishon about the incident, she explained vaguely, “The Operations team examined all our permissions on the website and socials. Two members were moved to different permissions on [Facebook], but as soon as Operations was made aware that the previous level was required in order to stream they were moved back to their original levels.”

Lester Aponte with Congressman Adam Schiff at the Stoney Awards in 2019 (From the Stonewall Democratic Club’s Facebook)

Despite the internal dissent, Aponte still enjoys widespread support from the Democratic establishment. His reelection campaign has been endorsed by John Erickson; West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath; State Assemblymembers Reggie Jones-SawyerLaura FriedmanJesse Gabriel, and Isaac Bryan; State Senators Ben AllenAnthony Portantino, and Sydney Kamlager; LA City Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin; LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell; LACDP Chair Mark Gonzalez; CDP Executive Director Yvette Martinez; and at least six DNC members. 

As this roster of supporters suggests, the implications of Stonewall’s internal drama extend far and wide through state and local politics. 

To Buisson, the problems at Stonewall are emblematic of a larger problem with how the Democratic Party treats marginalized communities, particularly the Black women on whose votes and volunteer labor they rely. She notes that the refusal to prioritize the needs of diverse communities could be an existential threat to the Party’s survival.

“Juneteenth does not make up for George Floyd. And Kamala Harris does not make up for all the slights that women of color suffer,” she said. “[Last year], the entire region went ultra progressive. We had a record turnout. And yet they’re still trying to preach to us, you know, what the well-heeled people want. You think that they would realize where this is headed… The younger voters are willing to suffer through a Republican administration to teach the Democrats a lesson.”

But perhaps one of the most worrying consequences of Stonewall’s toxic culture is the impact on the LGBTQIA+ community. “I don’t want these creeps mentoring our queer youth. I don’t want them jaded and cynical after their first election,” Buisson said. “We can’t have vulnerable people having weak leaders or corrupt leaders. That does harm to our children and makes them even more isolated.”

“I think at the end of the day, this is about restoring the important place that organizations like Stonewall play in the progressive movement,” Paris added. “We can sit by and let the party apparatus do what it’s going to do to protect its insular interests, or we can stand up and fight back for the interests of the people that the party proclaims that it is in service of.”

Buisson believes the first step is to expel Aponte, not just from Stonewall, but from the CDP, where he currently serves as co-chair of the LGBT Caucus. Beyond that, she suggests that the LACDP should temporarily revoke Stonewall’s charter — essentially disaffiliating the organization from the Democratic Party — until the internal issues are addressed. 

This seems unlikely to happen, given that the LACDP’s executive director and parliamentarian are both members of Stonewall’s Executive Team, and LACDP Chair Mark Gonzalez has endorsed Aponte’s reelection campaign. But Buisson is hopeful that public pressure from elected officials could be enough to turn the tide and hold Aponte accountable.

“It’s one call from one of them… to the chair of the state party, to expel him, and to sanction Stonewall,” Buisson said. “It’s one call [from] one elected. That’s all it takes. And I’m laying down that gauntlet. Which one of you is it going to be?”

Knock LA contacted Aponte, who responded with a completely blank email. Garry Shay declined to comment. John Erickson didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Kate Gallagher is a freelance journalist and writer based in Los Angeles. She is also a Senior Content Writer for Parcast Studios on Spotify.

Gallagher is a graduate of the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature.

The preceding article was published at KnockLA, a Los Angeles based non-profit community journalism project and is republished by permission.

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Politics

U. S. Senate confirms LGBTQ nominees to high-profile defense roles

Skelly is second out transgender appointee to obtain confirmation

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate confirmed on Tuesday two Biden nominees — one lesbian, another transgender — for high-profile positions at the Defense Department by unanimous consent.

Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian former Air Force pilot and Texas congressional candidate, was confirmed as under secretary of the Air Force, and Shawn Skelly, a transgender 20-year U.S. Navy veteran and a defense appointee in the Obama administration, was confirmed as assistant secretary of defense for readiness.

For the second time in U.S. history, the Senate has confirmed an openly transgender person as a presidential appointee — and did so without controversy by unanimous consent.

Just months ago, Rachel Levine was confirmed as assistant secretary of health on a party-line basis after enduring rude, invasive questioning from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) during her confirmation hearing on transgender health care.

Jones has also made an achievement through Senate approval: She’s the first out lesbian to win confirmation to serve in a high-level defense position.

The Senate confirmation of the nominees by unanimous consent is consistent with their confirmation hearing, which both Jones and Skelly breezed through without hostility.

Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, pointed out in a statement the two newly confirmed presidential appointees both served in the U.S. military under bans against LGBTQ people in the armed forces.

“Gina and Shawn served their country when living openly could result in discharge and a lost career, so their ascension to key leadership positions is a powerful moment for those servicemembers who served or continue to serve in silence,” Parker said. “Their confirmation will transform perceptions of LGBTQ people within the ranks of the U.S. military, but also among the leaders of militaries we work with around the world.”

Another out LGBTQ person nominated by Biden for a high-profile defense role is Brenda Sue Fulton, whom Biden nominated to become assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs. Her nomination, however, has not even had a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee. It’s unclear why her nomination hasn’t moved forward.

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