For several years, Celebrate the Night has honored National Coming Out Day with a women's variety show featuring a slew of talented local, amateur performers. Each year, the call goes out across the community to women of talent — singers, jugglers, musicians, poets, dancers, comedians and so forth. The unifying element is that performers are women coming together to “celebrate” women.
A local lesbian, Dr. Emilia Lombardi of the University of Pittsburgh, suggested that her partner, Jessi Seams, dust off her magic act and audition for CTN. Jessi submitted an audition tape, but was denied the opportunity to audition. Why? Because someone on the CTN committee had connected Jessi with an online profile identifying her as an escort.
CTN, apparently, did not want to be associated with sex workers.
Jessi and Emilia appealed the decision, claiming that the information on the profile was inaccurate and that Jessi had never worked as an escort. According to Emilia, CTN refused to reconsider and was not open to discussing the issue. Emilia then tried to have the Gay & Lesbian Community Center (GLCC) act as a mediator (the GLCC is the primary beneficiary of the event's proceeds), but again CTN refused.
That's when the story wound up in my email box. Frustrated with their inability to negotiate with CTN, Emilia and Jessi decided to share their story with the larger LGBT community.
I contacted CTN for their response to the allegations, but there has been no response to my inquiries. The CTN Producer issued the following statement on a local queer events email list.
As the producer of CTN, as much as I would like to indivually and immediately respond to these emails, given my commitment to CTN, and it's vision, I'm not authorized to speak for CTN, absent the collegial action of the committee as a whole. After we meet, a statement will be forth coming from the committee ASAP.
CTN defenders have claimed there is more to the story, hinting that Jessi had a “threatening nature” and the existance of conflicting information on multiple websites. Other members of the local women's community have their hackles up over this tacit moral code of conduct.
So let's take a step back. This is the transcript Jessi and Emilia provided of the email from CTN:
“It has come to our attention recently, at pridefest,that you are
acting as an escort. As you already know, Celebrate The Night is a “Celebration” of Women, and the information listed on the website of URnotalone has you listed as an escort, and we can not risk having that affiliated with CTN. It is with regret that we have decided not to accept your application to audition for CTN. We are sorry, we were looking forward to having a magician in the show, but we have to consider the interest of CTN first and foremost. “
What is unclear at this point is why the CTN committee has imposed a morality clause on the event. If Jessi were an escort, how does being a sex worker impact a woman's ability to sing, dance or dazzle us with illusions? Are there other behaviors that are deemed unacceptable by the committee? If so, that information should be made public so that sponsors and patrons are aware of the lifestyles and moral choices of which they are tacitly disapproving. I'd like to know because I wouldn't be happy if someone conducted a background check on me to determine if I am worthwhile to help raise money for the GLCC.
Further, how exactly did this information come to light? One can only presume that a member of the committee googled Jessi for some unknown reason, which looks suspiciously like a background check. Granted, information on the Internet is pretty much fair game for public consumption. But that should be an evenhanded process — in other words, are they checking out everyone who wanted to audition? And if so, for what information are they looking? Did they search the online database of PFA orders or for drunk driving violations? What about being behind in child support payments? Remaining legally married to your heterosexual spouse while engaging in an intimate relationship with your same sex g/bf? All of this is public information and accessible as easily as MySpace and Yahoo. Where do you draw the line?
Finally, there's the fact that Jessi claims she is not, and has never been, an escort. For some reason, CTN has not given her an opportunity to clear her name or face her accuser. Why not? If it is simply a misunderstanding, it should be cleared up quickly. Emilia is concerned that this is somehow connected with the fact that Jessi is a transwoman, in spite of CTN's history of behind the scenes trans participation. I've been racking my brains to recall if there have been any transgender female performers, but I cannot honestly say one way or the other. Emilia's concern seems to stem from some awkwardly phrased questions about Jessi's gender identity prior to being denied an audition. Wrestling with questions about who is a woman and who isn't hasn't worked out so well in Michigan, so perhaps airing this issue now will at least make sure everyone in the community knows the lay of the land.
I'm looking forward to the statement from CTN. I really hope there's a good “other side” to this story, because this side is really unpleasant. Remaining silent in the face of so many questions tarnishes the reputation of the event and diminishes the accomplishments of the many hardworking volunteers who have logged hundreds of hours over the years.
I also hope that the GLCC is taking note as they would be the prime beneficiaries of a policy that would impose a moral code of conduct on women.
What does ANY of this have to do with National Coming Out Day?
And, yes, a magician at the event would be cool. Let's work this out ladies so we can identify the internalized homophobia, transphobia, mysogeny and whatever else is going on and actually do something constructive to address it. Let's be adult enough to admit we don't always make the best decisions and ethical enough to examine them honestly.