Update, March 3, 2017, 6:30 p.m.: The Pride Center issued a statement Friday saying it will not tolerate hate speech and that it "rebukes the name Mister Sister." See the full statement below.
The Pride Center of Vermont board announced Thursday at a packed public forum that it will condemn the "Mister Sister" name of the gay bar proposed in Winooski.
At least 80 people attended the "trans town hall" in Burlington. Almost all of them spoke out against the name, saying it was a verbal slam on trans women.
Many speakers also hurled criticism at the Pride Center for failing to initially take a strong public stand against the name. The barrage went on for close to an hour before the board announced its new position on the matter.
"The Pride Center choosing not to take a side is taking a side. Inaction is action in favor of the status quo," said Ada Morse, a trans woman from Burlington, before the board announcement.
It would be hard to support the Pride Center going forward, Morse added, "because you all don't have my back."
Dusti Parker of South Burlington
Dusti Parker, a South Burlington trans woman who has long been an activist, said she "came out of retirement" to weigh in on the issue. The name is belittling, she said.
"It's a slur name," she said. "It's a bad name. It's a hurt name."
She suggested a boycott of the bar and a huge rally to protest the name.
The owner of the proposed bar, Craig McGaughan, is a gay man who has said in public statements that he sees the name as a gesture of inclusivity.
Robert Toms, owner of the now-closed 135 Pearl gay bar in Burlington, attended the meeting to express solidarity with people who are hurt by the Mister Sister name.
"This is really ripping me apart," he said about the controversy within the LGBTQ community.
It would be great for the region to again have a gay bar, but not if the name offends part of that community, Toms suggested. McGaughan needs to open his ears and get his "ego out of the way," Toms said.
Robert Toms, owner of the now-closed 135 Pearl gay bar in Burlington
McGaughan did not go to the forum at the Champlain Senior Center. He sent a representative, Maura O'Neill, who said McGaughan decided not to attend after conferring with Pride Center interim director Josie Leavitt. They agreed that McGaughan's presence would be like pouring gasoline on the fire, O'Neill said.
Many people expressed frustration that McGaughan has not been willing to meet with Pride Center leaders, and that he deleted some comments from the voluminous debate about the issue on Facebook.
O'Neill said during the first part of the meeting that McGaughan was not going to change the name of the bar. But after the forum, she took a more conciliatory tone. "I'm absolutely going to give this feedback to him, that's all I can say," she said.
At least five board members attended the meeting. They left the room at one point and went into the hallway to confer, then returned with the announcement that they would take a stand and issue a new statement on the matter Friday.
Paul Sisson, co-chair of the Pride Center of Vermont board
Paul Sisson, co-chair of the Pride Center board, said the meeting provided a "tremendous education."
He apologized on behalf of the board for not initially taking a stand. "We stumbled a little bit," Sisson said to the crowd. "We weren't sure. We were uninformed."
Sisson said that as a result of the meeting the board was "hearing loud and clear" that the name is unacceptable. "We no longer support the name of that bar," Sisson said.
People cried, swore and made heated comments about verbal bullying, shaming and degrees of persecution. The discussion also touched on privilege, gender and sexual identity, with numerous speakers saying the "T," or trans population, in the LGBTQ acronym is the most vulnerable and marginalized group in the community.
It took at least 45 minutes to get the crowd to agree on the ground rules for the discussion, and some people got so frustrated with the linguistic blockage that they left the event in a huff.
The crowd also decided by consensus not to allow TV cameras or newspaper still photography, which upset some attendees. Reporters with notebooks were allowed. Parker, the activist from South Burlington, initially walked out in protest partly over the decision to bar TV cameras.
"This is supposed to be a public forum ... The media needs to be there and not be excluded," Parker said after she walked out.
Ultimately she returned to the meeting and took the microphone several times.
A Seven Days photographer was not allowed to photograph the meeting, but shot some of the participants once it had broken up.
Elena Littlebug, a trans woman from Burlington, views the Mister Sister name as deeply offensive and called out both the bar owner and the Pride Center during the meeting.
By the end of the forum, though, some of the harshest criticism had subsided. Littlebug was feeling much better, and thanked the crowd for saying the right things, proclaiming: "I love you guys."
The Pride Center issued its statement Friday evening. Read it in its entirety below:
The Pride Center of Vermont stands with our trans community. At the Pride Center, we serve all spectrums of the LGBTQ community and we want to ensure any event we hold is in a location where all feel welcome. In support of this mission, we cannot hold events at any place that uses hate speech as its name. We cannot accept donations from any place with hate speech as its name. We condemn the use of hate speech in promotional materials and especially on signage. The Pride Center of Vermont rebukes the name "Mister Sister."
Last night's trans community forum was well attended by our community and the media. It was heated, emotional, and hopefully cathartic to all involved.
The trans community bravely came to advocate for their humanity and right to be treated with dignity and respect. Last night we gave you a microphone and a direct line to the Board of Directors at the Pride Center. You told us this is hate speech. You told us that we had failed you. You demanded that we act. We heard your voices. We felt your feelings. We witnessed faces acknowledging the painful words shared by trans people which lead to moments of learning.
We cannot tell what the future holds, but we hope that our community mends and we will continue to maintain our accountability to the needs expressed by the trans community.