Monday, November 23, 2015

Facebook Suggests Penises You May Know (NSFW)

Facebook became a lot more interesting for my friend Adam Sampson, a grad student in Louisville, when  penises began popping up in the "People You May Know" window.


I'm wondering if Facebook will penalize people for posting screenshots of images pulled from Facebook. 

"I was just looking for a friend, not syphilis!" Sampson quipped.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Vital Voice: Inside & Out

Last month I left Vital Voice after a firestorm erupted over my exit interview with former Rehab co-owner Jim Weckmann, and now that I'm no longer with the magazine I'm free to share some opinions. For my readers outside of the area, the glossy Vital Voice Magazine is the dominant LGBT publication in the St. Louis and Kansas City markets, but it began as a community newspaper much like The Bay Area Reporter or The Gayly.

Old vs. New Media

There's a vocal contingent in St. Louis who bitterly resents publisher Darin Slyman and the magazine in general for scrapping the original format for the lifestyle magazine concept. My answer to that is if you wanted the old version you should have supported it. Publishing and distributing requires advertising dollars, and former publisher Pam Schneider went $150k into debt to keep the community paper going and people still complained incessantly and expected everything for free. She went on to heavily subsidize the now-defunct LGBT Center of St. Louis by allowing them to pay less rent than what they owed, but when she finally sold the building many made her out to be a heartless, greedy landlord.

Enraged & Entitled

On the inside I witnessed the odd mix of hostility and entitlement firsthand. A perfect example is when the head of a now-defunct theatre company sent us a scathing letter saying we should be ashamed of ourselves for not covering The Normal Heart.

But we had covered it numerous times, and had even interviewed him. He was so disgruntled, it seems, because we didn't provide even more free publicity. Publisher James Lesch, normally the one who strives to calm the waters in these situations, sent a firmly worded rebuttal to the theatre's entire board, culminating with a demand for an apology. No apology was received and the company wound up folding within months.

Year after year the magazine gives free coverage for community festivals, whether they do business with the company or not, but despite choosing another, non-LGBT publication as their official sponsor, one committee was furious with Slyman for not getting national exposure for their event through his partnership with The Advocate -  a perk he provides for festivals who choose VV as their official sponsor. As an apparent result, tickets we were to receive for the VIP tent were "unavailable" and our excited, fresh-faced interns were told they couldn't hand out sunglasses and magazines at the festival.

A Tale of Two Cities

"I don't know if I should even let you in" snarled a notoriously bitter queen working the door of a popular Grove nightclub upon seeing Slyman approach. She was one of several affiliated with a local St. Louis LGBT blog who miss no opportunity to heckle Slyman and his staff, mostly over social media. At least the queen at the door delivered her hostility directly, unlike the others in the group who hide behind keyboards where they call VV writers "horrible people" and sometimes send hate mail under pseudonyms.

Meanwhile, Kansas City is warm, hospitable and lucrative - and they've even tried to get the magazine to relocate their base of operations there.

In the Black

The old Vital Voice was on the verge of folding. Darin Slyman was willing to save it, but not willing to go bankrupt to do so, and Schneider's example proves that one can give until it's gone and there's little appreciation in the end. Even in a community-minded business, you have to take care of business, and yourself.

Speaking for Myself

I know a few former VV employees who weren't happy when they left, and I don't claim to speak for them. I'm only sharing my own thoughts and observations.

While on the roster I wasn't permitted to speak in detail of the inner workings of the company, and despite the constant heckling we were to stay above the fray. Darin is not one to complain or to show emotion, but the way he's been treated by some in St. Louis is ridiculous and horrible, and I didn't want to officially close the chapter on my time working with him without first saying my piece.

Vital Voice is a business like any other. It employs people that have to get paid, and trains interns who go on to successful careers. You're entitled not to like them, but you're not entitled to anything more.

For my part, I'm enjoying the pivot to politics via, while reserving my local pieces for this blog where I no longer have to worry about skittish advertisers. I've lived all over and the biggest quirk I've found about St. Louis is the insistence that certain things aren't discussed. I think we're all better off speaking freely.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bad Blood in Belleville

Velvet Love, the reigning Queen of Metro East Pride, poured all she had into the Metro East Pride fundraiser at Club Escapade. She packed the venue with friends and family and bought $400 worth of shots for the audience. When she asked to say a few words MEPSI President Sarah Sowell said no, only the emcee could speak. Then, when the audience wanted an encore from Love, Sowell cut her off at the pass. "Nevermind. Lady Luscious has got it. We don't need you." 

With that Love removed her crown and handed it to Sowell. "Here. Take the crown. I don't want to be part of this anymore."   

To call Sarah Sowell polarizing would be an understatement. Past board members call her the biggest bully around, and point out the irony of her work with anti-bullying campaigns. 

Sowell stepped down as president during the 2012 Pride event where she took the stage and announced her retirement, but said she would remain the "executive board member," a position that doesn't exist in the bylaws. 

When her successor John Kreisel began his term he was met with Sowell's demands. "You need to include me on everything" she instructed. 

Kreisel and the board didn't acquiesce, and tensions continued to rise as the organization sought to grow the event beyond its roots as a block party for Club Escapade. Members sought to include other Metro East establishments including Bubby & Sissy's and Boxers, and to hold fundraisers, which turned out to quite lucrative, in St. Louis. 

Twice during Kreisel's term Sowell attempted to get back on the board. After the board unanimously rejected her first attempt she tried again at a meeting held in the dining room of Kriesel's classic Craftsman bungalow. Even though her own nephew was on the board, the vote was once again unanimous in opposing her return. The livid Sowell cried and things became personal when she confronted her nephew about his vote. 

The elegant John Kriesel was cautious about revisiting his time with the organization, but offered the following: 

"I really enjoyed my time there, mostly, but the actions of certain individuals and the need to be so closely associated with a for-profit business made me uncomfortable."

Tensions only escalated after Allen Irby took the helm, when Sowell and Club Escapade owners, livid at the organization's outreach efforts to other businesses, began a campaign of posting negative comments about the leadership. 

When the mayor offered to allow the festival to expand from three to five blocks, and move the stage to the fountain, which is the crown jewel of the town, Irby jumped on the opportunity. 

"[Escapade owner] Harold called me from his lake house, drunk as a skunk, yelling about us moving 'his' stage." Irby recalled, going on to equate his rant about the stage to Gollum's rants about the precious. 

"It's not his stage. He didn't pay for it!"

Former board member Bob Baker didn't mince words when it came to Sowell. 

"As a member of MEPSI's board of directors, I was able to watch Sarah Sowell quietly cause turmoil within the board, and one by one, members of the board left amidst the drama. This was her well calculated plan so that she could replace the board with her own followers. Those that held her up on a pedestal and worshipped the ground she walked on. For Sarah, it's all about power and control. Now because of her, MEPSI will never be the same until once again she is removed from the board, and never allowed to participate again. Then and only then can MEPSI regain the respect that this organization once had within the LGBT community."

Adam Kaemmerer/ Olivia DeMornay
The nightmare still isn't over for former president Adam Kaemmerer, who only months ago had to yet again address Sowell's accusations of forgery and embezzlement when they were made an issue for his mother at the local school district where she worked. 

Kaemmerer served as a volunteer for five years and received a community service award from the organization before being asked to join the board. After Irby left Kaemmerer was asked to take the reigns, but from day one Sowell was the elephant in the room. 

"We [the board] met with the owners of Escapade, trying to mend fences, and they said 'Before we go any farther, Sarah Sowell must be involved as an adviser." 

As a show of good faith the board agreed, and soon all meetings were being held at Sowell's home. 

"She put on a great mask" Kaemmerer begins. "She was always saying how much she liked me and how I was such an asset to the organization." 

The board decided to bring Sowell back as a voting member, and soon she began to question the use of petty cash as well as other ways in which the board handled money and banking. 

One Sunday in February Sowell called an emergency meeting during a time when everyone knew Kaemmerer was at work. Former VP Jason Lewis recalled Sowell making the case that Kaemmerer had to leave immediately. 

"I wasn't agreeing with what they were saying" Lewis begins. "She was saying he committed fraud and was forging checks, and I knew that wasn't true." 

Like the others, Lewis described Sowell as a bully, but said he wasn't having it. 

"I was the only drag queen on the board and I was going to speak my mind!"

In the end, though, one by one the board voted to remove Kaemmerer and replace him with Sowell. Lewis was the only dissenter with a "Fuck no!" vote that sealed his fate as well. 

Despite all the years of service, the owners of Escapade immediately blocked Kaemmerer on Facebook, effectively slamming the door in his face, and he still struggles with the rumors about his character. 

When the latest rumor hit his mother at work, Kaemmerer left a message on Sowell's cell phone threatening legal action if this continued. 

"I didn't do anything wrong, and haven't had so much as a police officer visit my house."

Sarah Sowell did not return my request for an interview. When I asked Kaemmerer how she'd likely respond to the airing of these accusations he said, "She's always the victim, despite the fact she's the source of all the turmoil. Publicly she's going to want to be rocked to sleep and comforted. Privately she's going to plot revenge." 

Despite everything, Kaemmerer would like to see the organization succeed, and would go back, on one condition: "They'd have to clear the whole board and start over." 

Any such resolution seems highly unlikely. There were discussions in the past about alternating the event between Belleville and Alton, but Sowell and Escapade wouldn't even accept the stage being moved around the corner, and moved it back to the bar at the first opportunity. 

"Despite the lofty name, Metro East Pride is really nothing more than a block party for Escapades" Allen Irby lamented. 


A Facebook group calling for a boycott of MEPSI and Club Escapade was created.