When I was 17 years old, there was no space like the LGBT Center of St. Louis. I found my outlet for support and safety in a few volunteer-run LGBT organizations, such as Growing American Youth, the local St. Louis-area queer youth group. We created our own LGBT community spaces through the generosity of churches, congregations and social justice nonprofits. As a homeless teenager, I met amazing adults who saved my life, tirelessly advocating for the diverse needs of LGBT individuals while empowering others. Today, many of these LGBT leaders are still dedicated to the St. Louis community and have ethical and appropriate boundaries with their organizations and their members.
Leon Braxton was assumed to be one of these leaders. According to Braxton's bio:
Leon Braxton is the Business Manager at Vital VOICE Omni Media, but best known for his illusion of the incomparable Dieta Pepsi. Braxton has been active in the St. Louis LGBT community for over 25-years raising countless dollars. The former Mortage Banker has served on the Board of Directors of the St. Louis AIDS Foundation and as a Master Guardian with Project Ark since 2004 and is the recipient of numerous community service/philanthropic awards.
In addition to these important contributions, Braxton recently came out as an intersex person and bravely shared his story with the public through an exclusive Vital Voice interview.
Last Monday, May 6, the St. Louis LGBT community was shocked to learn of Braxton's immediate resignation as the executive director of the LGBT Center of St. Louis, initially reported by the Vital Voice. Colin Lovett, president of board of the LGBT Center of St. Louis, said:
After regular conversations the past several months, and discussion around the vision and daily management of the Center, the Board and Mr. Braxton determined that in order to move forward that the leadership of organization would need to take a different approach and direction. It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to one of the Center's greatest advocates. But our charge is to be good stewards of the Center's resources; the health of the Center will always take precedence. For people who have donated monetarily to the Center, we would like to assure that all donations are secure and will continue to fund and support the programs and resources that benefit the entire community.
Because Braxton was a beloved leader, there was an obvious wave of dissatisfaction and speculation that sent ripples across social media over the next 24 hours, only leaving community members to further ask what exactly transpired.
On Tuesday, May 7, Chris McDaniel from Louis Public Radio reported more on Braxton's resignation, detailing how the board of directors of the LGBT Center of St. Louis "confronted him about personal uses of the organization's money." McDaniel explained that Lovett had shared, "It wasn't a ton. It was less than $5,000. They were personal in nature." Lovett elaborated further, "The Board has worked out a restitution plan with Mr. Braxton, and we are confident that that is going to work out just fine." This new information created a fury of online comments and critiques directed at Braxton, the center and the Vital Voice. As I read many of the online comments about Braxton's resignation, I was struck by some of these reoccurring themes: (1) people have an overwhelming desire to have a conversation as a community; (2) people were hurt by Braxton's actions, the center's silence and the Vital Voice's interest; (3) there is disagreement over what level of accountability is fair to expect from our LGBT leaders; (4) it is still important to recognize many amazing people in our community doing great work; and (5) we should have faith in the mission of the LGBT Center of St. Louis and its future.
When I asked McDaniel how he learned about Braxton's resignation, he shared:
Well, we actually heard about the resignation through the Vital Voice, as one of our reporters saw the press release posted on their site. The thing about the press release was that it raised more questions than it answered. For instance, the sentence devoted to reassuring donors that money is secure particularly piqued our interest in it.
Indeed, it seems that this violation of our community center has left many LGBT members calling Braxton's error embezzlement and furious that this important piece of information was left out of our only local LGBT news source.
Some vocal members of the St. Louis LGBT community spoke with me about their frustrations. Joshua Barton, a graduate of University of Missouri's School of Journalism and a former staff writer and assistant editor for the Vital Voice, shared:
I'm coming at it from two perspectives. I know from being a former employee and how the publication is operated, they are a lifestyle magazine. Even though they do cherry pick select news items that have to do with the local LGBT community, their goal has never been to be an unbiased news source with reporting like the Washington Blade. However, I feel ethically, because they have so many close connections between the Vital Voice and the Center, the Vital Voice should have said what was going on first before the NPR affiliate. For them to not be upfront on it, it gives the appearance that they are trying to cover something up.
Another community member, Angelo Olegna, lead organizer with Tower Grove Pride, shared:
This isn't just one incident. Over the years, I've seen and heard a lot of things and had to deal with a lot of things. There's so many problems that people know are going on, but no one really talks about it. They don't see the light of day -- especially press wise. I just feel that we don't seem to have a system in place to have criticism and investigation within our community. I think we are uncomfortable with that since we've spent so much of our lives trying to defend ourselves from people outside of the gay community, that when it comes to problems within or people doing bad thing within, our first instinct is to protect them. And yea, our gay community is big, but it's still pretty small, you know? Everyone is pretty well interconnected. The act of what Braxton did is bad, but it really just exposes the flaws at the whole.
Unfortunately, Braxton's alleged financial misdeeds only followed a few months after another St. Louis leader was accused of similar charges. Mark Erney, the owner of the two gay bars, Erney's 32° in The Grove and Loading Zone in the Central West End, was indicted by a St. Louis grand jury for theft over $25,000 from diverting money to his partners in Hamburger Mary's. Barton shared:
When Erney was arrested for embezzlement, there wasn't a story at all in Vital Voice. But they had a PR piece for Hamburger Mary's because Hamburger Mary's is an advertiser. You know, so people aren't stupid. And people do put up with a lot of things with the Vital Voice because it is the only press out there for the LGBT community that you can find anywhere in the city. But at the same time, if you are going to patronize your audience, while there are so many conflicting interests involved with the Center which means a lot to people, is a symbol and one of the only central resources for our LGBT community, that's why people are getting so emotional. And I think rightfully so.
It does seem that the Vital Voice had a vested interest in these two individuals, given that Erney regularly paid for advertising space while Braxton worked as Business Manager for the Vital Voice while also serving as the executive director of the LGBT Center of St. Louis. Furthermore, I learned that two current board members for the LGBT Center of St. Louis, Colin Murphy and board president Colin Lovett, are also listed as staff on the Vital Voice website. Therefore, it seems that the center may have suffered from too many cooks in the Vital Voice kitchen. I reached out to both Braxton and Darin Slyman, CEO and publisher of the Vital Voice, by email and phone, to ask them about these issues, but they did not respond to me at the time of this writing. Perhaps this is for the best and we should allow our LGBT community members to continue to call for better professional practices and transparency.
As Olegna elaborated:
When it comes to just random people commenting online, everyone is willing to talk and give their opinions. But when we're talking about inter institutional cooperation, that's when things get really complicated. It's clear that the Vital Voice is a very important part of the community and an important source of information, and the (LGBT) community has a lot of problems. There's a close relationship there and I don't think anyone knew exactly how to handle it who was involved in the situation. And I think what everyone in the community is expecting is to be told what's going on and to be given the full story, especially from an institution we look to for information. But the situation is, they're tied up in all of the organizations that they technically report on and rely on sponsorship from all of the gay establishments in the community. So when those establishments do things that are wrong and newsworthy, we don't really hear about it.
While many online conversations spoke to community members' criticisms of the Vital Voice, others expressed frustration with the center's board for Braxton's lenient restitution plan and questioned why no charges were filed. I spoke with a current volunteer of the LGBT Center of St. Louis who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of backlash. He quickly shared:
I'm one of the volunteers who put in 25 to 30 hours a week and people are always asking me this, "Why did you stay their so long?" and I said, "Well, because Leon wasn't really here that much". It was easy to be here when he wasn't micromanaging and snipping at people. It got to the point where the Board mandated that he needed to be here Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays -- at least 3 days of the week. Which meant he couldn't be working at the Vital Voice if he's here 3 days a week, so then he went down to 2 days a week at Vital Voice. And then, less than 3 weeks after him doing his new Monday, Wednesday, Friday gig here at the Center -- he started working here full time, which I thought was unusual, because all of the sudden he became nice. And then, sure enough this all comes out (his resignation) and all the volunteers got an email from the Center at 3am the day of the Vital Voice press release.
The center's internal aftermath following Braxton's resignation is difficult to navigate, but Lovett shared with me, "I have personally witnessed our own Center save lives -- and I have the utmost determination to make sure that we are still able to do the great things we do in the LGBT community."
I can relate to Lovett's sentiment. As an executive director of a small LGBT grassroots nonprofit that primarily runs on the contributions of my volunteer staff and the generosity of donors, I know it is important to be accountable for the work that we do and also celebrate what we have done. It is also important to recognize when we, as well-intentioned activists, feel burnt out or overcommitted or have conflicts of interest that can prevent us from doing our necessary work. The center still provides important resources to our community, and many LGBT people are embracing the change in the organizational structure. As one volunteer shares:
I had to learn how to find all these resources because know one was here to show me, no one was here to teach me. Whether Leon is here, honestly today is like any other day. I'm here helping people, keeping this place alive, answering phone calls -- wether it be domestic violence issues, whether it be a trans person calling having housing issues, any of those things...I'm still here helping those people. I do like that Colin Lovett had stated in article that there is a restitution plan so Leon will be paying us back and the money we do have is still here.
Thankfully, McDaniel's short and informative article on St. Louis Public Radio provides the missing pieces to the center's puzzling silence. Current social media speculations (and subsequent online support to these frustrations) continue to name other discretions surfacing with Braxton's resignation. Still, I empathize with the need for a safe space in our community, such as the center, for such spaces were monumental in changing my own life. I encourage us all to use this situation as a wonderful learning moment and chance for growth. The LGBT Center of St. Louis has over 40 dedicated volunteers who help make that center an inclusive home for members of our community, providing educational opportunities and personal healing. Along with many other LGBT community members, I remain positive and hopeful in the new direction of the LGBT Center of St. Louis and its longevity in our communities.
If you would like to learn more information on how to get involved with the LGBT Center of St. Louis, please visit them here.
Follow Randall Jenson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/randall_jenson