NYAGRA history: 1999
NYAGRA’s first crisis was precipitated by Chelsea Goodwin and Rusty Mae Moore, who joined the working group in early 1999. I had warned Donna, Paisley and David that Chelsea’s membership of the working group would pose a significant challenge for the fledgling organization, but they would not listen to my warning. Paisley insisted that since transgendered people had historically been excluded from American society, it would be wrong for a transgender advocacy organization to exclude anyone from membership, even membership in the leadership of the organization. I argued that this was a false analogy, as the two types of ‘exclusion’ were fundamentally different in kind. To my mind, the argument that Paisley made was a fallacious one: the exclusion of a marginalized population from mainstream society simply could not be equated with the ‘exclusion’ of a disruptive individual from an organization advocating on behalf of that population. As I saw it, if an individual so seriously disrupted an organization that it threatened the organization’s ability to do the advocacy work for which it was formed, then the group not only had the right to keep that individual out of its leadership but the obligation.
Chelsea’s disruption of the organization began from the very first NYAGRA membership meeting that she and Rusty attended in the spring on 1999. By that point, we had established bi-monthly membership meetings at the Center, beginning in January and continuing through the odd months of the year (March, May, July, September, Novermber). Chelsea’s attempts to disrupt the May meeting became even more aggressive at the July meeting, where she shouted and screamed at everyone who dared disagree with her. After the meeting was over, Chelsea even followed me into the women’s room to continue to harangue me about my views on gender identity disorder (GID), a diagnosis that I find very problematic but which she supports. Chelsea was shouting and screaming at me so loudly that Donna, Paisley and the others who by that time were in the hallway outside could clearly hear Chelsea’s hysterical tirade. A number of newcomers were so put off by Chelsea’s behavior that they never returned.
At the same time that Chelsea was disrupting our membership meetings at the Center, she was flooding the working group’s e-mail listserve with posts forwarded from other lists that had nothing to do with NYAGRA’s work. As Joann Prinzivalli (another member who joined the group in 1999) recalled, when Chelsea posted a multi-page message about AIDS in Kenya forwarded from another list, even Joann realized that this must be part of a deliberate attempt to disable the listserve. With members now no longer even bothering to read messages posted to the NYAGRA listserve and with Chelsea driving people from our bi-monthly membership meetings, it was clear that we were now in the midst of our first crisis.
Paisley, Carrie, David, and Melissa Sklarz – who had joined the group around the same time as Chelsea – were ready to give up on the organization. My warning about Chelsea had proved prescient, as had my concern about the ‘come one, come all’ policy that Paisley, Donna, David and Carrie had insisted on; that policy – of allowing anyone to join the working group and its e-mail listserve – was precisely what had led us to this impasse.
Chelsea’s attempts to disable the working group listserve by flooding it with messages irrelevant to NYAGRA’s organizational business seemed obviously to me aimed at deliberately disabling the working group itself, and in that larger aim, she was successful. The business of the organization all but came to a halt, as WG members gave up on the listserve and members stayed away from in-person bi-monthly meetings at the Center because of Chelsea’s repeated disruptions. After one membership meeting in July 1999, Paisley, David, Carrie, Melissa and I walked out of the Center feeling despondent about the situation and everyone but me was muttering about the end of NYAGRA; no one seemed to have any ideas about how to put a stop to Chelsea’s destructive behavior, nor would anyone acknowledge that the ‘come one, come all’ policy that founding members had insisted on had brought us to this juncture.
Worst of all, there seemed to be no collective will to do anything about the situation. No one else was committed enough to the organization to take the proverbial bull by the horns. It became clear to me that something had to be done in order to save NYAGRA from an early grave, and if I did not act, the little organization that had begun with such high hopes would be dead within a year of its founding.
I proposed a board election, an idea that Donna, Paisley and everyone else readily accepted. Fortunately, members of the working group were able to reach consensus that Chelsea’s behavior was destructive and that she must be voted out if the organization was to continue. The only question was whether or not her partner should also be voted out of the working group. On the face of it, of course, Rusty Mae had done nothing herself to warrant expulsion from the WG. But Rusty had supported Chelsea throughout, and defending Chelsea when she flooded the WG listserve by telling members that they could simply delete them if they found them annoying. Most any disinterested observer would label Rusty’s behavior co-dependent; a psychotherapist would say that Rusty enabled Chelsea’s dysfunctionalities.
In any case, the working group did vote decisively to remove Chelsea; but unfortunately, a narrow majority voted Rusty onto the new board, thus unnecessarily prolonging the conflict until the end of 1999.
On October 19 of that year, David set up a new listserve to replace the old list that Chelsea had so effectively disabled. Posting the following message to the ‘NYAGRA-WG’ listserve at 1:01 p.m., David wrote:
so far Paisley, Pauline, Lisa, and Billie Jo have joined one list (and
so you are the only ones getting this email). Please continue to use
the old cc: list until everyone has joined for messages that you want to
go to the entire list.
But a new listserve was no match for Chelsea’s talent for disruption. Just as I had predicted, Rusty’s election enabled Chelsea to continue to make trouble, and throughout the fall, Chelsea would use Rusty’s e-mail address to continue to flood the WG listserve with irrelevant e-mail and Rusty refused to limit Chelsea’s access to a board list that she no longer had any right to post to.
In December, a misunderstanding between Donna and Rusty over NYAGRA’s approach to a viciously transgenderphobic article (“Suddenly Susan”) in the Village Voice by the notorious right-wing lesbian Nora Vincent led Donna to press for Rusty’s removal from the board.
Rusty had joined the NYAGRA-WG listserve on December 2. Three days later, Donna sounded the alarm, informing WG members that there had been a breach of the confidentiality of the list. In her message on December 5, Donna wrote:
Well, gang, I am upset . . . late last week, in a note to the working group
list about organizing the Voice action, I happened to mention a conversation I had with Wonbo Woo of GLAAD about the issue. The text of what I sent around follows:
> FYI, I happened to mention the action to Wonbo Woo of the GLAAD New York office yesterday . . . He seemed a bit taken aback on the phone, and today he E-mailed me suggesting that a demo might be counterproductive, piss off sympathetic people at the Voice, etc. I think he is wrong, for a number of reasons: primarily, this is hardly the first time the Voice has treated us with gross insenstivity — it goes all the way back to the Donna Minkowitz/Brandon Teena controversy five years ago; secondly that my own contact, a former Voice staffer, suggests that there is unhappiness among staffers there about current management and we might touch a sympathetic nerve among some of them; lastly, I think making a little public noise may “get their attention” in a way that nothing else can. I will E-mail Wonbo back, making these points. But given the uneasiness of even close allies, I think we should be mindful of the need to conduct the action in a relatively polite, helpful way.
I think I made perfectly clear here that I would handle responding to Wonbo, and that I only mentioned it to stress the possible delicacy of our position, even relative to our allies. Today when I came to work I picked up my Voice mail and got a message from Wonbo, saying he had received an E-mail from Chelsea Goodwin in which she “seemed upset” at Wonbo’s reservations about the Voice action. I was appalled by this breach of discretion and just plain good manners.
1. My original message was to the Working Group, of which Chelsea is not a member. She has no business picking up or acting upon Working Group business.
2. My ability to have frank and forthright conversations with Wonbo (and
GLAAD) has been compromised. I went to some difficulty to cultivate a good working relationship with GLAAD; I don’t know how bad the damage is, yet, but I am very concerned.
3. My conversations with Wonbo are my business, and no one else’s. If I choose to share some of what I find out, I expect at a minimum that people will use that information in a sensitive and reasonable manner. I will not allow this to happen in the future. If that means I cannot discuss things in confidence with the working group, then I guess I will have to limit my dealings with the WG and with NYAGRA.
(Re: Voice, GLAAD, and discretion, NYAGRA-WG message #39 of 6568, 1:42 p.m., 12.5.1999)
I responded less than an hour later, posting to the NYAGRA-WG listserve the following:
Dear NYAGRA colleagues,
Chelsea’s communication with Wonbo Woo constitutes a breach of ethics and of the rules of this organization, since she had no authority to communicate on behalf of NYAGRA. Since the listserve is closed, one can only conclude that Rusty shared the message with Chelsea, in direct contravention of the bylaws and of the stated consensus of the working group. I would therefore like to survey the working group on whether we should proceed to suspend Rusty from the working group’s listserve and/or to expel Rusty from the working group for her breach of confidentiality.
I also believe, given Rusty and Chelsea’s breach of confidentiality, that
neither should be allowed to take part in the demonstration against the Voice, and I’d like to hear back from other working group members on this issue as well.
(Re: Rusty’s breach of the bylaws, NYAGRA-WG message #39 of 6568, 2:35 p.m., 12.5.1999)
Rusty responded defensively and indignantly the next day, in one of several messages insisting that “I made no breech of ethics,” but adding that, “Regardless of this, I am getting angrier and angrier as I read this correspondence.” (Re: Rusty’s breach of the bylaws, NYAGRA-WG message #46, 10:33 a.m., 12.6.1999)
In a subsequent message, Rusty tried to explain (in my view, explain away) the breach of confidentiality of the NYAGRA-WG listserve with reference to her long-term relationship with Chelsea, writing,
Those people who have had long term love relationships may understand that there are issues of boundaries and respect which come up and are difficult to deal with. This has certainly been true in the three long term
relationships of my life.
(Re: Rusty’s breach of the bylaws, NYAGRA-WG message #47, 11:01 a.m., 12.6.1999)
It was precisely the lack of boundaries in Rusty’s relationship with Chelsea that had provoked the breach of confidentiality of working group communications, and from this message, it was clear that Rusty simply did not understand the responsibility that she had as a member of the working group – our de facto board of directors – after having been retained through the election. That responsibility meant that whatever her relationship with Chelsea, it was Rusty’s obligation to the organization to keep confidential the e-mail that she received through the WG listserve and above all to keep Chelsea from accessing those communications and using them for her own purposes, whatever those may be.
Some members (including David, Carrie, Joann Prinzivalli and Sophia Pazos) temporized, expressing their unhappiness with the breach of confidentiality but stopping short of considering Rusty’s expulsion, though Donna made clear to me in a phone conversation that day that she would resign if Rusty did not resign or were not removed from the working group post haste. I communicated Donna’s ultimatum to other members of the WG (including David, Carrie and Melissa) in phone conversations while messages were still being posted to the WG listserve.
In the end, Rusty left voluntarily before her colleagues had the chance to consider expelling her, posting a brief message of resignation at around noon on December 6 (Re: Resignation, NYAGRA-WG message #49, 12:08 p.m., 12.6.1999).
Even then, David posted a message to the WG list urging Rusty to reconsider and rescind her resignation (Re: Resignation, NYAGRA-WG message #50, 12:23 p.m., 12.6.1999), and Sophia joined David in pleading with Rusty to stay (Re: Resignation, NYAGRA-WG message #53, 6:48 p.m., 12.6.1999), as did Carrie (Re: Resignation, NYAGRA-WG message #58, 7:39 p.m., 12.6.1999) and Joann (Re: Resignation, NYAGRA-WG message #59, 7:42 p.m., 12.6.1999). But Donna remained adamant, writing,
To the NYAGRA working group:
I spent some time on the phone with Wonbo Woo of GLAAD this morning.
Although I am still not entirely clear on how it happened, he did tell me
that last Friday he got an E-mail from Chelsea Goodwin that said she had
“learned through the grapevine” about the reservations he had expressed to me privately about the Voice action (and that I then mentioned, assuming confidentiality, on the WG list). He said he was quite concerned last Friday about how this happened. I have repaired things with him to the
extent that they can be repaired.
(A fuller and franker report would, of course, be more informative, but
in view of the lack of confidentiality on the NYAGRA Working Group list, I
don’t feel that I can elaborate.)
I must say that beyond the breach of confidentiality last Friday
(SOMEHOW what I said on the WG list was passed back to Wonbo via Chelsea), I am disturbed by the fact that a majority of the WG members who have expressed an opinion so far (Sophia, Carrie, David, and Rusty) don’t seem to feel that confidentiality on the WG list is of any great concern.
In view of the lack of confidentiality on the list, I don’t feel that I
can feel any confidence in it. Therefore I will use it only for the most
routine or formal communications (i.e. voting, making motions, etc.)
Necessarily, this will involve sharply reducing my role in the WG and in
NYAGRA. That is unfortunate but at this point unavoidable.
I will send a separate e-mail about NYAGRA’s participation in the Voice
action (which I think we should cancel at this point).
Donna M. Cartwright
(Re: NYAGRA, GLAAD and confidentiality, NYAGRA-WG message #51, 3:44 p.m., 12.6.1999)
Despite Donna’s message and intense phone conversations, David seemed oblivious to the true significance of the breach of list confidentiality and the crisis that it provoked, writing,
My dear friends,
Can’t you see what’s happening here? NYAGRA seems to be in danger of falling apart, just as we were beginning to do something interesting. And this is what happens in grassroots organizations so often and so sadly Here’s what I think:
1. First, Rusty is not responsible for Chelsea reading her messages. At the same time, I think that Rusty should (as she intimated she would) look into a hotmail account that would be hers alone to read to prevent such future issues. I *have* to take Rusty’s word for this — in that I have to take all of your words. We are all in this because we believe in some ultimate goals of social justice, and on that good faith principle alone will NYAGRA flourish.
2. At the same time, there was clearly a breach of conduct and ethics on the list, and I understand Pauline and Donna’s concerns. I did not at all mean to minimize the impact of this either for Donna personally or for NYAGRA in general, and I think that if possible, it would be good for Rusty to reaffirm her commitment to maintaining the privacy of NYAGRA working group mailings. I apologize to Donna and Pauline for any implication that I don’t see this as an important issue. It certainly is, which is why I worked so hard on getting everyone onto Onelist in the first place.
3. Whether the demo goes ahead or not, I am concerned that the long (or short) term effect of this current event will be the dissolution of NYAGRA in one way or another: a. either by people not posting to the group stuff that is “sensitive” in some way or another or b. the resignation of one or more members who become tired of the in-fighting. Either way, it means that the efficacy of the organization simply dies. If Rusty resigns, or anyone else, NYAGRA will become characterized in trans-circles simply another clique disinclined to democracy. If the list stops being an effective tool for exchanging information because of distrust among group members, the same thing will happen: “power” (whatever the hell that means in a group with virtually no budget, and little clout) will be seen as being in the hands of a few and no-one will bother coming to any of the events that NYAGRA tries to put on. I’ve seen this happen time and time again in many organizations, both in the US and in South Africa.
In other words, and with great respect, love, and admiration for all the work you are all doing, I would ask that everyone take a deep breath,
TALK to one another, and let’s not let this polarize our group. There is simply too much work to do. I sense that the underlying issue for everyone is Chelsea, and I don’t think we should let the actions of a person who is not even in the working group pull apart what is and has been a great group with lots of potential. My suggestion is that we take our passion, direct it into respectful conversation with one another rather than to everyone on the list, and try and move forward.
I would ask publically that Rusty, Pauline, and Donna (all of whom I respect very highly) attempt to heal the wounds that are threatening the group by talking to one another privately in the spirit of the goals we all hold dear.
I hope that you all take my words as they are intended: with love, with respect, and with an intense desire that NYAGRA remains an effective and viable group.
(Re: Re: securing the NYAGRA working group listserve, NYAGRA-WG message #61, 9:05 p.m., 12.6.1999)
David did not seem to recognize that his attempts to keep Rusty from resigning could only serve to prolong the conflict over Chelsea’s involvement with NYAGRA. The breach of the confidentiality of the list in December 1999 would foreshadow a much more serious breach of list confidentiality the following year. But the conflict-avoidant behavior that several working group members engaged in throughout the December 1999 crisis bode ill for the resolution of future conflicts.
For me, the lesson was clear: conflict-avoidant behavior could only make future conflict more likely. The larger lesson was this: conflict is inevitable; it is how an organization manages that conflict that determines whether it succeeds or fails.
Fortunately for the cohesion of the group, Rusty herself confirmed her resignation, despite pleas from WG members to reconsider it. While Rusty never seemed to have grasped the significant organizational issues involved with the breach of WG listserve confidentiality, to her credit, Rusty did at least recognize that the compromise regime that WG members had sought to maintain from the board election until Rusty’s resignation – namely, keeping Rusty on after tossing Chelsea overboard – was ultimately untenable:
I resigned from NYAGRA essentially because Chelsea and I are a team, and it is too artificial for us to separate our involvements in trans-activism.
(Re: NYAGRA and the Voice action, NYAGRA-WG message #63, 7:49 p.m., 12.7.1999)
It simply cannot work for me to be a member of NYAGRA’s Working Group because it is more important to me to work closely with Chelsea.
(Re: Resignation, NYAGRA-WG message #65, 7:54 p.m., 12.7.1999)
Despite having incurred Chelsea’s eternal animosity for having challenged her dysfunctional and destructive behavior, I now felt confident that we had a real board of directors and a future as an organization. NYAGRA had survived its first real crisis and the foundation for growth could now be laid.