Kingston LGBTQ Community Center faces criticism from Newburgh coalition

Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center.

For more than a year, the LGBTQ Community Center of Hudson Valley in Kingston has been facing a barrage of criticism for alleged “racist, oppressive, and imperialistic behavior” from a coalition of LGBTQ+, Black rights and social justice groups centered in Newburgh. The Center has undertaken various reforms, held “listening town halls’’ and even apologized — but the call for accountability continues unabated. 

The coalition of 15 groups, including Rise Up Kingston and Black Lives Matter Hudson Valley, along with four dozen individuals, says it’s demanding accountability from the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center on behalf of former constituents, volunteers, and employees for “predatory behavior in replicating programs, pursuing funding at the expense of other groups and hoarding resources.” It is accused of being elitist, unwelcoming to people of color and trans/nonbinary people and being reluctant to collaborate with other LGBTQ and community groups in the region.  

Under attack is the 14-year old Center in the Stockade District of uptown Kingston, at the end of a brightly painted rainbow crosswalk. It is the crowning achievement of a movement of lesbians and gay men galvanized by the marriage of 25 gay couples by the Mayor of New Paltz in 2004, at a time when such unions were not legally binding. The group organized in 2005 and, within two years, raised the funds and obtained a grant from the City of Kingston to buy the three-story building at 300 Wall St. 

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Early members, like Fred Mayo, have always been proud of their Center’s visibility. Until the pandemic, they ran programs in Ulster, Dutchess and Orange counties and organized annual fundraising galas and Pride events. The Center receives New York State funding to teach cultural competency, training institutions from hospitals, insurance companies, and government agencies to treat LGBTQ people with dignity and to respect their rights. Mayo, who spent six years on the board and several more on fundraising and gala committees, says the Center has always aimed to be as inclusive as possible. 

With seven paid staff, consultants and numerous volunteers, the Center offers advocacy, counseling and support groups for LGBTQ youth, the transgender community and programs for older LGBTQ adults. In 2018, the Center received the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s “Commitment to Community” honor. When the former Executive Director Jeff Rindler-Jordan announced in September of 2020 that he was stepping down to care for his ill mother, he was lauded for having doubled the Center’s budget and tripled the number of programs for LGBTQ youth during his four-year tenure. 

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan told the Daily Freeman, “I think the world of Jeff. I think he’s been an incredible leader for the organization.” But within the LGBTQ community, Rindler-Jordan and the Center were already controversial. 

At its 2019 Gala, the Center honored Yonah EtShalom, the founding program director of Transgender Health Services at Planned Parenthood mid-Hudson Valley, who uses they/them pronouns. Rindler-Jordan referred to them as “she.” Although he apologized at the event and again later, that misgendering tarnished his reputation.  

To its critics, this was just one sign of how out of touch with the needs of the broader LGBTQ community the Kingston Center is. 

Kk Naimool, a member of the Board of the Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center and co-founder of the Beacon Queer and Trans Liberation March, wonders who the Kingston Center is trying to serve. Why is the Center located where there is no public transportation?  Why does it close at 5 p.m.?  Why — with its apparently generous budget — are so many of its touted programs offered by unpaid volunteers? 

The coalition, calling itself the Queer Alliance, presented a petition, encouraging the Kingston Center to “confront and dismantle its own privileging of perspectives which are overwhelmingly white, moneyed, cisgender, and able-bodied.”  

The petition included a long list of demands. Some could be readily addressed. There was no safe wheelchair access to the Kingston Community Center, it said. The Center produced almost no materials in Spanish, despite the fact that a substantial portion of LGBTQ people in the Hudson Valley speak Spanish as their first or only language. There were financial requirements for board membership that excluded the majority of LGBTQ people in the Hudson Valley, making a representative board impossible.

The Center ordered a ramp and Spanish translations. It dropped the financial requirements for membership on its board of directors and hoped that LGBTQ people of color, disabled and trans/non-binary people would join. None did, with some saying they wouldn’t feel safe there.  

There were other problems that seemed fundamental: a high rate of staff turnover, allegations of a toxic work environment and charges that people who’d brought concerns to the Executive Director or the Board were “ignored, dismissed, gaslit and sometimes retaliated against.”  Center volunteers said they had directly experienced or witnessed harm.

Two Black lesbian staffers left and accused Rindler-Jordan of sexism and racism. The Board hired an independent law firm to investigate. 

To the coalition, a public misstep during Pride month in 2020 reinforced the perception that the Kingston LGBTQ Center was tone deaf. In last spring’s season of racial justice reckoning, just days after George Floyd’s murder, Norman Miller, the board president, made a speech at which he declared that “all lives matter.” He apologized as soon as it was pointed out to him that Black lives were the ones being taken by police, but the damage was done. Miller was forced to resign. 

A month later, the Center’s investigation into discrimination against its former employees found “no liability for discrimination against any protected class under federal or state law.” The former Executive Director told Hudson Valley One he felt absolved but was dumb-founded and hurt by the allegations against him. A month later, Rindler-Jordan announced his resignation to care for his ailing mother. 

Is reconciliation possible? 

The Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center in Kingston has had a new Executive Director since January of this year. He is Peter Criswell, an Ulster County legislator, a singer, actor and arts administrator who is also on the Kingston Arts Council.  

In April, the Center held a virtual town hall (its third in a year) but it soon became clear that the reforms the Center had instituted — from accessibility ramps and revised board rules to weekly 90-minute anti-racism discussions for the staff — had not appeased the Newburgh coalition.  They once again called out the Center for alienating people of color and trans people, saying Black LGBTQ+ people felt harmed by the Center. They derided the Center’s anti-racist sessions as a “book club.”  

The Center announced that it was undertaking a community needs assessment survey but admitted that its budget precluded the kind of in-person outreach that would guarantee the inclusion of Black and lower income individuals who may not have internet access. Callie Jayne, leader of Rise Up Kingston, called this embarrassing. “Are you hearing yourselves?…You said you didn’t have the money to reach the people whose needs you claim to care about. To say you don’t have the resources is unacceptable.”

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Co-board chair, Jim Walker, a straight Black man, invited dialogue and collaboration. “Yes, things have to change. But we have to do it together,” he said. Later he was shouted down by Phoenix Gayle, an organizer at the Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center, who told him he had no right to speak and should just listen. (Walker’s term has since expired.) Criswell emphasized that he, too, was ready to meet any of the Newburgh activists. 

Rae Leiner, Executive Director of the Newburgh LGBTQ+ Center, said they would not work with the Center’s leadership because “we have seen no movement. No concrete plans to address harm to people who were previously employed. No apology to those harmed. It doesn’t give us good faith.” But perhaps even more irritating to Leiner and the others: “You get the lion’s share of the funding, the notoriety.”  

(The Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center’s annual budget for 2018, the last year for which numbers are available, was $600,000.) 

Both Leiner and Jayne have been recent co-Marshalls of Gay Pride parades organized by the Kingston Center (in 2019 and 2018 respectively) but Jayne now says they realize they were being used to “put a Black face on a white supremacist institution.”

“This Center should be about more than dance parties for rich white folks,” Jayne said. “It is supposed to be about supporting those who are most impacted by systems of oppression…y’all with your big ass building need to give the money to the Newburgh Center…You all are standing in the way of our liberation.” 

Participants accused the Center of hoarding resources that could do more good in Newburgh, which serves people who are more diverse and working class. Gayle suggested the Center should shut down and give Newburgh its resources.

Rindler-Jordan thinks the fight against the Center is being inflamed by disgruntled former employees who have joined with the Newburgh Center. He sees the attack as a “smear campaign” by people who want to take over “what we’ve spent over a decade building” and believes they may be “more committed to the fight than the win.” 

The two sides appear deeply divided by almost every measure — by class, race, gender identity and age.  

Kingston’s constituency appears older, whiter, wealthier. But Criswell told Hudson Valley One in an email that he believes the differences can be overcome. “We recognize how very diverse our LGBTQ+ community is, and we hope our board, staff, volunteers, and resources and programming can mirror, as best possible, the broad range of constituents we serve.”

Naimool agrees that reconciliation is possible. They want to see Kingston joining other groups’ programs, not replicating them or claiming them as their own.  

On June 9, the Kingston Center posted an open letter to the community, in which it acknowledged causing harm in the past. “We hear you, we see you, and we are sorry,” it wrote and admitted “we are a little out of our depth here.” It pledged “to be transparent, to be accountable, and to work hard to regain the community’s trust.”  

The chasm of mistrust is enormous. Hudson Valley One asked Naimool how the coalition responded to the contrite open letter. They said it was insulting, rude because none of the people who had been at the town hall had been notified that the letter had been posted.  

The next step, Naimool said, will be for the Kingston Center to undertake community healing at a public meeting. They do need to rebuild trust. “It’s long term work at this point.”