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America's Leading Gay News Source
Looking back on four years with Fenty
In the three-and-a-half years that he served as director of the city’s Office of GLBT Affairs, Christopher Dyer said he never met with Mayor Adrian Fenty to discuss gay-related issues in a private, face-to-face meeting.
Yet Dyer, who left office Dec. 31 in the closing days of the Fenty administration, said he had constant access to Fenty through a mayoral chain of command that allowed him to weigh in on all matters relevant to the LGBT community.
“Obviously there are ways that we could have been better and done the job better,” Dyer told the Blade.
In his first media interview after no longer being bound by a Fenty policy that barred him from talking to the press, Dyer provided a glimpse into the inner workings of the city’s handling of LGBT issues.
He praised Fenty’s accomplishments on LGBT and other pressing city issues. But Dyer also acknowledged he was as baffled as other political observers over how a highly popular mayor who won a landslide victory in the 2006 election could lose his re-election bid four years later amid accusations of being aloof and arrogant.
“We could have communicated better and done the job better,” Dyer said. “In hindsight, we could have done a lot of things differently. But in the end, I completely and thoroughly supported the mayor and I never for a moment didn’t think I had the support of the mayor in trying to get things done.”
Dyer disputes claims by some gay activists that he had little or no access to Fenty and that Fenty paid little attention to his advice on LGBT issues.
“By the way we were structured, I reported directly to the chief of staff at one point and then directly to the director of the Office of Community Affairs,” he said.
“And so all the communication went up the chain of command and so I could make recommendations,” he said. “On an extreme occasion if I really needed to get the mayor’s attention I could send him an e-mail.”
In the nearly four years that he worked for Fenty, Dyer said there were only two occasions in which he felt he needed to directly communicate with the mayor.
“And I did,” he said.
One of the occasions involved the beating death of gay Maryland resident Tony Randolph Hunter, who died from injuries he received in an assault while walking to the then 9th Street, N.W. gay bar called BeBar.
LGBT activists, led the by local group Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV), viewed the incident as an anti-gay hate crime, even though police said they lacked sufficient evidence to list the assault as being bias related.
Following an outcry by activists that Fenty speak out forcefully on hate crimes and anti-gay violence, Dyer said he urged the mayor to attend a community meeting called by GLOV to discuss the Hunter case. Fenty didn’t attend the meeting; District Police Chief Cathy Lanier and two City Council members attended the event.
Dyer said Fenty was concerned about hate crimes and took steps to make sure Lanier and top police officials investigated such crimes.
“But I don’t know if him speaking out on hate crimes would have done anything to prevent them,” he said. “It certainly would have made people feel a whole lot better. But in the end, he didn’t. And there was really nothing much I could do about that.”
On the subject of same-sex marriage, Dyer noted that Fenty was the first mayoral candidate in 2006 to come out for it and pledge to sign a same-sex marriage bill. Yet during the period in 2009 when the City Council deliberated over a same-sex marriage equality bill introduced by gay Council member David Catania (I-At-Large), Fenty, while reiterating his promise to sign the bill, did not appear before the Council to testify at a hearing on the bill.
He also did not send anyone from his administration, including Dyer, to testify for the bill, a development that troubled some LGBT activists.
“He didn’t need to,” Dyer said, when asked why Fenty didn’t appear to testify on the marriage bill, noting that everyone knew at least 10 of the 13 Council members were expected to vote for it.
“When the mayor ran in 2006 every mayoral candidate had not taken a position on marriage,” Dyer said. “He was the first to say I’m going to sign it. He wrote an op-ed in the Blade saying he was going to sign it and support it and defend it. And as a result of his position every candidate who ran for mayor with the exception of Vincent Orange endorsed marriage equality. That’s significant.”
Dyer recounted the one LGBT-related issue in which he felt the Fenty administration committed a blunder and told how he clandestinely worked to reverse it.
At the request of officials in the D.C. Department of Corrections, the mayor’s office asked the director of the Office of Human Rights to propose a regulatory change that, if approved, would exempt prison officials from complying with the Human Rights Act’s ban on transgender discrimination in the city correctional system.
The proposal was based on concern by prison officials that complying with the Human Rights Act would require them to place male-to-female transgender women in prison sleeping quarters with other women. Transgender activists have long called for placing transgender women prisoners in women’s facilities to avoid harassment by male prisoners.
Dyer called the proposal “remarkably stupid” and said he argued against it when informed it was under consideration.
“I knew this was a bad idea and I didn’t want to deliberately tell anybody what we were doing,” he said, noting that he was bound by rules barring him from publicly opposing an administration policy.
“So I saw [gay activists] Bob Summersgill and Rick Rosendall at a [Gertrude Stein Democratic Club] meeting. And I walked up to them and said, ‘Hey Bob, Rick, take a look at the D.C. Register this week. You might find something interesting.’”
Dyer’s tip to the two activists alerted them to the proposal’s official announcement in the D.C. Register, prompting them to issue an alert to the LGBT community that the mayor’s office was proposing a curtailment of the non-discrimination protections for the transgender community.
The alert triggered a firestorm of opposition to the proposal from the LGBT community and other progressive groups. A short time later, the mayor’s office dropped the proposal.
Dyer said the only other action that drew his concern occurred in 2007, shortly after Fenty took office. Fenty promised the LGBT community during his 2006 election campaign that he would release a memo written by former D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti under Mayor Anthony Williams. The memo addressed the question of whether D.C. could legally recognize same-sex marriages from other states or countries under the city’s existing marriage law.
Sources familiar with the Williams administration said Spagnoletti concluded in his memo that the city could recognize those marriages. Williams chose not to release the memo, expressing fear that it would prompt the then GOP-controlled Congress to pass legislation banning the city from recognizing same-sex marriages.
According to Dyer, Fenty chose not to release the memo, but for a different reason. He was in the process of pushing through his plan to take over the city’s public school system and worried that any controversial action such as a same-sex marriage recognition memo would anger some members of Congress, who might retaliate and block the Fenty school proposal, which required congressional approval.
Despite the few issues where he disagreed with Fenty’s actions, Dyer said the mayor’s administration was overwhelmingly supportive of the LGBT community.
Following is a partial transcript of the Blade’s exclusive interview with Christopher Dyer, former director of the D.C. Office of GLBT Affairs.
Washington Blade: Can you tell a little about what you did before you became director of the Office of GLBT Affairs, both career wise and in Mayor Fenty’s first election campaign?
Dyer: I was the manager of member services for the Congress of Lung Association’s staff, which is the professional development association for the staff of the American Lung Association. Someone had suggested — the late Larry Stansbury — that if I ever wanted a job in a political administration like Wanda’s job that I needed to volunteer for a campaign. And so when I noticed Mayor Fenty beginning to wander around the high heel race two years ago – two years before he ran – I thought “ah ha.” And so I got involved in his campaign. And it turned out that I really, really liked him. I don’t think I could have genuinely supported anyone who I didn’t like. I was immediately attracted to his energy, his excitement, his joie de vivre. And I thought that he would be a welcome change, a welcome addition to moving the city — continuing what Mayor Williams did but with more energy.
Washington Blade: Can you tell about the selection process that landed you in the job?
Dyer: Well, I knew all of his staff from the campaign. Tene Dolphin, who was the chief of staff and who was my direct supervisor, knew me from the campaign. The mayor knew me from knocking on doors and being involved in the campaign. So I got a call on Feb. 5 on a Friday night saying, ‘Chris, the mayor wants you to come in has the interim director. We’re going to do a search for the permanent director, but he wants you to be the interim.’ And so I said sure, why not? I’ll go in as interim director. That lasted for about six months. Now that was interesting to me because a lot of people came up to me and said do you know that other people are trying to lobby for the job. And I’m like, really? O.K. That’s nice. I don’t know if it hurt or hindered me but it didn’t affect me to the extent that I lost my staff member in May. I had inherited a program manager who had been working for Darlene [Nipper]. And when she resigned in May I was left alone in the office for four months until I was finally named permanent director and I could hire Clarence in December. And that was a little bit interesting. But I got the permanent job in September and I served until December 30 .
Washington Blade: Was there a time that the mayor talked to you directly about hiring you for the job?
Dyer: He called me and said Chris, would you do the job? And I said sure. But it’s important to understand — I would see the mayor once a month at cabinet meetings and we’d exchange pleasantries. He did consult with me a couple of times on the location of where the marriage ceremony was—where the marriage bill signing was. But the way that we were structured, I reported directly to the chief of staff at one point and then I reported directly to the director of community affairs and so all the communication went up the chain of command. And so I would make recommendations. On an extreme occasion if I really needed to get the mayor’s attention I could send him an e-mail. But we really tried to respect the standard chain of command.
Washington Blade: At the beginning who were those people in the chain of command?
Dyer: I worked for Tene Dolphin. And then they hired Carla Brailey. She was director of [the Office of] Community Affairs. And then she left and there had been a transition and I reported directly to Carrie Kohns. She was the next chief of staff. And then Sara Latterner was the director of community affairs and my final boss. She was awesome.
Washington Blade: Some people, including critics of the mayor, have said you had no real access to the mayor.
Dyer: If I needed to, I could have had direct access to the mayor at any point. But I was very trusting of the fact that I knew that every single thing that went up the chain of command—almost every major decision that had to happen in the GLBT Office was directly approved by the mayor. Almost every single piece that we wrote wasn’t. But like the strategy for marriage — obviously the mayor was directly involved in all that because he was getting feedback from Peter Nickles and Carrie and Sara and Tene’s senior staff. And my opinion was also being forwarded through all of this. So even though I didn’t have any five to 10 minute meeting with the mayor – I don’t know what I could have done in a five to 10 minute meeting with the mayor that I couldn’t get done the way I did it. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. And obviously I would also see him at the constituent community events that we would go to. And I don’t think there was ever a case – there are only two cases in the four years that I worked for him that I thought that I needed to directly communicate with him. And I did.
Washington Blade: What were they?
Dyer: There was trying to get him to attend the hate crimes — the guy that died. I can’t think of his name.
Washington Blade: Do you mean the incident near BeBar?
Washington Blade: Tony—
Dyer: Tony Hunter — the Tony Hunter case. I suggested he attend that [GLOV meeting to discuss anti-gay attacks, including Hunter case]. And then I think I needed his permission to get, to involve someone at the Frank Kameny bill signing and speak at the Frank Kameny press conference — the street-naming press conference. So it was interesting. I did hear the criticism that I needed more direct access. But on the other hand, by not having a direct report to the mayor I had a lot more freedom to actually do stuff. The mayor had a general vision of – I don’t know if it’s a copout – the mayor’s idea of running GLBT policy was to hire me and to pretty much let me do what I needed to do. So that’s where it was.
Washington Blade: There was criticism that the mayor was not vocal enough in response to the growing number of anti-LGBT hate crimes.
Dyer: I think personally it would have been nice if the mayor had spoken out just to reassure people that yes, the MPD is actually doing its job. In private, for example, I remember when Brett [Parson] was reporting the incident directly to him about the guy getting bashed in the head with a wine bottle on the C&O Canal towpath. The mayor said, God that sounds horrible. I don’t think the mayor didn’t think that hate crimes were important. I think that in the context of – I don’t know. I think that in context, all crimes are horrible. It would have been neat if he had talked about it. But I don’t know if him speaking out on hate crimes would have done anything to prevent them. It certainly would have made people feel a whole lot better. But in the end, he didn’t. And there was really nothing much I could do about that.
Washington Blade: How did Brett tell the mayor about this directly?
Dyer: Because Brett and I ran into the mayor at the AIDS Walk. It was one of those great things. We were at AIDS Walk. The mayor was doing AIDS Walk. I was staffing the mayor and Brett was at AIDS Walk. So Brett talked to the mayor directly about what had happened. The mayor said he heard there was a crime last night because Peter Rosenstein was bugging the mayor about it. And so the mayor asked Brett what happened because Brett was running the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit at the time. So in private the mayor was very compassionate. I wish that compassion could have shown but for whatever reason it didn’t.
Washington Blade: Was there a time when you began to realize that the mayor was alienating a lot of people, including people in the LGBT community?
Dyer: I really don’t understand it. It’s a mystery to me. I don’t know if there was a conscious decision on his part or not whether to be accessible. But he was constantly accessible to every community event and every community meeting that he would attend. Whenever he would be out there people would be nice – except starting in 2009 and 2010. At the 2009 high heel race — last year’s high heel race — people were booing him. It was after he fired the teachers. I think the whole thing about him being indifferent is – I think more in the arrogance charge that might be true. But I think that’s really more sort of a code for why people wouldn’t vote for him – that they didn’t like the fact that he let go teachers, the fact that we fired 1,500 or 2,000 government employees and that had a direct effect. I also got the sense from talking to people on the campaign trail that some voters had this expectation that he would be more like Marion Barry meaning more of a man of the people. And he simply wasn’t. And I don’t know what had happened. But to answer your question, did I have a sense that things were going south — well obviously when I read the Post poll in January 2009 that showed him with 42 percent approval I began to think there might be trouble.
Washington Blade: Did that come as a shock to some in the administration?
Dyer: It came as a surprise to me. I wasn’t involved directly in the campaign brain trust. But I do know that it came to a surprise to a lot of people. It was interesting to me that they finally understood and finally captured that people were pretty upset at him after he lost the Ward 4 straw poll because there was a definite shift in his tone. Toward the end of the campaign he began to sound more apologetic. And of course by then it was too late. But it was an interesting thing. We really were aggressive as an administration. We did a lot of things that probably alienated a lot of voters and took on vested interests and I think that in the end, coupled with his arrogance, or perceived arrogance, was the undoing of him.
Washington Blade: On the other side of the equation, do you think overall he was helpful to the city and the LGBT community?
Dyer: This mayor has done more for LGBT issues than any other mayors combined — period. I mean obviously, by signing the marriage bill — he did that. But also, by letting our office run with stuff we did more – I don’t want to claim that we did more for LGBT people than any other administration. But we had a pretty strong marker. In addition to signing the marriage bill, we started the Wanda Alston House. People had been asking for LGBT housing. When I started at the job there was a list of things from the summit — the LGBT citizens summit — that had been recommended. And we got LGBT housing taken care of for youth. For years people wanted an LGBT health report done. We delivered on that. We got an LGB health report. We didn’t have transgender data. We delivered on that. People wanted us to train Fire and EMS and MPD [the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services and the police department]. We did a comprehensive training at Fire and EMS. We started and developed a partnership with community groups to start doing a quarterly, an intense training of MPD officers. We trained 10,000 government employees. So we did a lot of good.
Now whether it was the mayor himself sitting there and saying, “Chris, I want you to specifically train these 10,000 people” — no that never happened. But he hired me and he hired people like [Schools Chancellor] Michelle Rhee and [Police] Chief [Cathy] Lanier and cabinet members who got things done. And for the city, I think the most fundamental thing that will really be the most transformative in the end is not only the fact that we had so many construction projects going on — we essentially saved the construction industry for about a year by doing all the renovations of schools and parks and rec centers. We started school reform again. That’s going to have a long-term effect. But I think we also downsized government by two or three thousand positions, which in the end will be putting us in much better financial shape moving forward. So there are a lot of examples of things that people don’t obviously see. And in the end, I think we’ll be viewed as a very transformational administration.
It was interesting when we were campaigning in 2006 a lot of people in Wards 2 and 3 were concerned that Fenty would turn into another Marion Barry. In the end, those same voters were concerned that Gray was going to take that spot. I think Fenty surprised a heck of a lot of people when he turned out to govern more like Williams than people ever thought he would — but with a lot more energy.
Washington Blade: When you say the mayor started the Wanda Alston House, isn’t that a project of Transgender Health Empowerment?
Dyer: We funded it. We didn’t start it. Let me make that very clear. We funded it.
Washington Blade: It was created by THE.
Dyer: It was actually created by Brian Watson [THE’s director of programs]. Let’s be clear. Brian had the idea. Brian started lobbying us intensely. And this is a good example of how to actually work with government.
Washington Blade: How much did the city allocate for the Alston House funding?
Dyer: What the city does is it appropriates a certain amount of money to the Community Partnership to End Homelessness. And the Community Partnership then does all the distribution, does a significant distribution of funds for homeless services in this city. And they get as contract from the city. So I don’t know what our final thing is. I think it’s around a quarter of a million. But you’ll have to ask Brian what he gets from the city.
… The other thing we did in addition to Wanda Alston is we worked with the Department of Human Services to update their shelter inspection guidelines so that when you go to inspect a shelter people know how to be in compliance with the new gender identity laws. We did a series of trainings with THE’s frontline staff on how to interact with transgender residents and LGBT residents. So there’s a lot of other work that got done. We also finally, in the last, toward the last [part of the administration] we published a tip sheet for shelter providers on how to properly house and interact and take care of LGBT residents.
Washington Blade: Can you summarize the most important accomplishments the administration did on LGBT issues?
Dyer: Well obviously signing marriage — signing the marriage bill was huge.
Washington Blade: On that issue, critics like Lane Hudson said the mayor didn’t do anything to advance the bill in the City Council other than say he would sign it. Did he do any lobbying for it?
Dyer: He didn’t need to. Here’s the interesting thing. When the mayor ran in 2006 every major mayoral candidate had not taken a position on marriage. He was the first to say I’m going to sign it. He wrote an op-ed in the Blade saying he was going to sign it and support it and defend it. As a result of his position, every candidate who ran for mayor with the exception of Vincent Orange endorsed marriage equality. And that’s significant.
Washington Blade: Didn’t Linda Cropp hesitate on the issue?
Dyer: Yeah, but Linda Cropp moved on it. So by endorsing it, by saying he was going to sign it, he moved the discussion. You know, did the mayor ask Chairman Gray to drop [introduce] the marriage bill? No. Would Chairman Gray have agreed to it if he said [introduce] the marriage bill? No. But did he help Catania? Did he stop Catania? No. Did he stop Mendelson? No, he couldn’t. The Council very wisely did what the Council was supposed to do and they passed the marriage bill. And he signed it promptly. And he’s aggressively and vigorously defended the marriage bill [against attacks] by the National Organization for Marriage [the lead national group opposing gay marriage]. And that’s what the executive branch does.
Washington Blade: Are you referring to city Attorney General Peter Nickles’ court filings defending the marriage law?
Dyer: Yeah. That’s the role of the mayor. We would get criticized for not attending every LGBT event. I think it’s nice to have direct interaction with the mayor but it’s impractical for the mayor to attend thousands of events every year.
Washington Blade: But did you tell the mayor he would have done better with LGBT community if he attended a few more of these events?
Dyer: I didn’t think it was appropriate to tell him he should attend more events. I recommended the events he should attend but it was – if he decided not to attend, you didn’t argue with him. In some ways he did have a sense of – it was clear to me that he did have a sense of what he needed to do to take care of the LGBT community. And for the most part, he did. But some people obviously wanted him to attend more events.
Washington Blade: So then it was you who attended all these events?
Dyer: Yes. And to be honest, I think that’s the role of what the director of the Mayor’s Office of GLBT Affairs should be doing. And that’s also the mayor’s legacy. I was at almost every LGBT event. But the mayor had a staff person at every community event that ever happened in the city. We had the Mayor’s Office Community Relations and Services that would attend tons of community events a day and would do great fixes across the city and get things fixed that had not been fixed before. And the city looks a lot cleaner than it has because we literally have people going and having to take photos of projects they worked on and sit with the mayor every week to review their progress in cleaning up the ward.
Washington Blade: So did these people who went to the meetings report back to the mayor?
Dyer: They reported back to the agencies. They didn’t report directly to the mayor.
Washington Blade: Can you tell a little about the cabinet meetings with the mayor? About how many attended those meetings?
Dyer: About 50.
Washington Blade: Where were those meetings held?
Dyer: They were held all throughout the city. The mayor made a point of having a cabinet meeting in each ward. Once we went to a rec center in Ward 5 that had sort of been rundown. And he pointed to where the rundown parts of the rec center were. At every cabinet meeting we would have a briefing on the budget on where we were in the city. If it were summer job season, we would have briefing from the director of the employment services. An occasional agency would have an opportunity to spotlight what they were working on … But the real advantage of those cabinet meetings for me was I got to lobby my fellow agency directors and follow up on projects we were working on … It was very convenient to be able to lobby 10 or 15 agency directors in a cabinet meeting helped me get a lot done.
Washington Blade: Were these meetings open to the public?
Dyer: No. I guess all meetings are open to the public, but they were never publicized.
Washington Blade: Did you use private rooms in these public places where the cabinet meetings were held?
Dyer: No, we had very public rooms. If it was a rec. center, there would be a meeting space where we’d meet. So I suppose anyone could wander in … One of the things that was quite fun – every late August we had a cabinet meeting right around the time for cleaning up the schools. The weekend before the schools were to open we’d have a cabinet meeting because there would also be this project of sprucing up the schools going on. So I got to paint—paint doors in public schools with the chief of police.
Washington Blade: Cabinet members did that?
Dyer: Yeah, we all did this. For one of our cabinet meetings we would go out and spruce up a school once a year. At another cabinet meeting we distributed turkeys … So it was interesting that we had this perception that we were out of touch and yet we would do all these great things while being in touch with the community.
Washington Blade: Was there ever a time when the mayor went around the room asking the cabinet members to say anything?
Dyer: It would be impractical. There are 60 cabinet members.
Washington Blade: So each one didn’t report on what was going on with his or her agency at these meetings?
Dyer: No. That would take forever, it would take two hours. What the mayor would do is the way he would get feedback from the agency directors is he would go through the city administrator. Once a year he would have sort of a strategy meeting with each agency director and somehow we never got to be on the list to have that meeting. He didn’t make it through all 60 agencies. But the way the government is structured, most agency heads report directly to the city administrator. And then the city administrator reports directly to the mayor about what’s going on. And obviously if the event was important enough that there would be press involved, the mayor got a full briefing. And then the mayor would have a senior staff meeting every week.
Washington Blade: Just to be clear, in your entire tenure in office, did you ever have a sit-down meeting with the mayor?
Dyer: No, not a direct, face-to-face sit-down meeting with the mayor. I don’t know how Mayor Williams did it. But I don’t think that’s unusual. I think Wanda [Alston] had face-to-face meetings with Mayor Williams because she wanted to get this thing going. But I would come across paperwork where it was the same procedure. You have an idea. You report to your chief of staff or your director of community affairs. They run it up the chain of command. And then the mayor gets things done. One of the things I’ve observed in the last three and a half years that was quite interesting is I think there’s a slightly different perception in the community on how important our issues are in the cosmic scheme of running a complete city. I don’t mean that to be bad. I think our issues are very important. But when you’re mayor of a city you’re focusing on lots of things like fixing potholes, plowing streets, fighting crime, putting out fires. This idea or notion of trying to figure out a way to also give LGBT residents a different set of treatment – or not a different treatment but to be sensitive – the idea of how to be sensitive to LGBT residents – it doesn’t occur to people. It doesn’t occur to government agencies. And that’s why the job of LGBT director – one of my jobs was to remind agency directors — hey, there needs to be a slightly different approach here. We worked with the Department of Mental Health to improve their training and their cultural competency. Here’s a great example of things you don’t see in the paper. For years, SMYAL wanted to have a director of mental health services and they approached us to get—to see if there could be city funding hire a mental health counselor to work with SMYAL. Our Department of Mental Health is not structured to give direct grants to community organizations. So what we did is I went to the head of youth care or clinical care. And DMH said how can we get these core service agencies that are getting D.C. government funds into a training with LGBT youth providers … we set a meeting up. And as a result, SMYAL has set up three relationships with three core service providers. And now they have a place to refer their LGBT youth. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done systemically to get everyone to be LGBT culturally competent. And we sort of did that strategically.
Washington Blade: Can you say now, having been inside the administration, what happened to prompt Dr. Shannon Hader to abruptly resign as head of the AIDS office?
Dyer: I really don’t know what happened. I sensed that there had been a conflict with her and the director of the Department of Health.
Washington Blade: Dr. Pierre Vigilance?
Dyer: Dr. Vigilance. I don’t know the details. But I think that’s what it had all come down to.
…With HIV and AIDS, the mayor did everything that the HIV/AIDS Administration suggested he do. The release of the study that showed MSM [men who have sex with men] behavior around HIV prevention – the fact that the mayor stood up at a press conference and released that really was a bit—in the end, I think it was probably more courageous than some of the members of his administration wanted it to be.
The other thing I learned is that no matter what the issue, our LGBT stuff was always treated as something to be sensitive about. There was a very deliberative approach to anything LGBT. And people were very cautious releasing anything about LGBT issues. We got the stuff done but there was a lot of back and forth on the [lesbian, gay & bisexual] health report about why we need to release a health report. There was a lot of back and forth on do you release this HIV study? There was a lot of back and forth on the marriage bill, on when do we sign the marriage bill. I don’t know if other agencies dealt with that level of caution, but to me it felt like we were very cautious on LGBT issues.
Washington Blade: Why do you think that was? Were they worried those issues were too controversial among some voters?
Dyer: I don’t know. It might have been that we were very deliberative on everything. There is still a lot of general lack of knowledge of LGBT issues among D.C. residents. We’re a pretty progressive city but there are parts of the city that just don’t understand our issues. I trained 10,000 government employees. Half of them didn’t even know the difference – that there’s a difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. And so I had to very deliberately in my training point out that it was a different entity. People have a general view of what transgender people were but they didn’t really understand what a transgender person went through. And so if there’s that basic level of lack of knowledge and it is not surprising that there would be a difficulty in getting people to suddenly release a tip sheet on how to provide adequate medical care to LGBT patients.
Washington Blade: Tell about how you did these trainings. Did you speak at an auditorium at government agencies?
Dyer: We would have a group of 25 to 50 employees and we would use a conference room at an agency. And we developed, with the Office of Human Rights, a two-hour training and use the Human Rights Act as a framework of providing the training. We would go through all of the provisions and we would have a very specific and intense training on sexual orientation and gender identity. That was about an hour. And there were a lot of good questions and answers. We trained 25 to 50 people at a time. So it would take us three to four weeks to go through an agency…I actually liked the session when people would flip out because you would have a teachable moment…when you talked about transgender residents using bathrooms, that was always enough to get a few people vexed. And you had to go through that conversation…One guy once asked me how does God’s law interact with the Human Rights Law? And after going back and forth I had to say I don’t think the District government follows God’s law in providing services. It was a very interesting conversation.
Washington Blade: When you said 10,000 people were trained, did you appear before them all during your time of service?
Dyer: The only group I didn’t appear before was Fire and EMS. They got a core of trainers to do that. And the Department of Corrections was done by Earlene Budd. But our office, yeah, we trained –- we did a lot of sessions.
Washington Blade: How did you approach your job in terms of reaching out to the community?
Dyer: Brett Parson, who was the head of the [police] Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, gave me the best advice. He said the reason that I was able to make the GLLU so successful is when I took over I went everywhere. And so I followed that. I went everywhere. I think it’s crazy not to be out among the people. I developed great relationships with leaders in the community because there wasn’t a lot our office could provide in terms of money. But we sure as heck could provide a proclamation or we could do a service of trying to navigate how to get the mayor at your event. That’s just good old-fashioned customer care. Wanda [Alston, head of the GLBT Affairs Office under Mayor Anthony Williams] had done some of that and Darlene [Nipper, who succeeded Alston as head of the GLBT Affairs Office under Mayor Williams] had done some of that…In fiscal year 2007, before I took over, we had contact with 7,000 residents in that fiscal year. By last year, we had 28,000 indirect or direct contacts with LGBT residents. We quadrupled the scope of the outreach of the office.
Washington Blade: How do you keep track of that?
Dyer: First of all, web visits, web hits. I would track the unique hits on our web page. That’s one element.
Washington Blade: That’s not you personally meeting people.
Dyer: But that’s a direct access. That’s a direct interaction with our office. My rule of thumb was if we delivered the service, if we did the training – I would count that as a hit…
Washington Blade: Now that you’re out of office is there anything you can reveal that you weren’t able to before?
Dyer: The only interesting thing besides the bodies that we buried – I’m kidding. The only fascinating thing – and this goes to process – we campaigned on a promise of releasing the Spagnoletti memo [a legal memorandum written by former D.C. Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti during the Williams administration on whether existing city law allowed the city to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and countries]. The whole marriage issue was very fascinating to me on how it went down in the inside and outside game. The Spagnoletti memo was [prepared] under the previous administration and when we took over – we had campaigned that we were going to release this thing. So within a month of our taking over, what’s the question we kept getting? When are you going to release the Spagnoletti memo? The question was asked around the same time we were trying to get school reform passed – to get the power to take over the schools. There had to be an affirmative action by Congress to grant us the authority to take over the schools — to change the Home Rule Charter. And I think there was a deliberate effort on our part not to do anything remotely controversial to tick the Senate off or the Congress off that would possibly get them to block us from taking over the schools.
Washington Blade: When was this?
Dyer: It was right at the very beginning of the administration in February and March 2007 when we made the decision to take over the schools. I’m not going to suggest that the Spagnoletti memo was put in the pocket of someone but it’s clear that it wasn’t released. It was interesting because when we tried to take over the schools two U.S. senators put anonymous holds on the change in the Home Rule Charter. Ben Cardin did it because he wanted to get something resolved with our youth detention center. And another senator put an anonymous hold on it because the school board president, Robert Bobb, didn’t want to lose power. Mary Landrieu put a hold on the thing. But the holds were taken care of. I suspect that if the Spagnoletti memo had been released there might have been an opportunity for some conservative congressman or senator to put some mischief in releasing the bill to take over the schools.
Washington Blade: Isn’t it assumed by most people that the Spagnoletti memo said the city could legally recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions?
Dyer: I haven’t seen the Spagnoletti memo myself but I’ve been told by people that the memo pretty much said we could recognize marriages [from other jurisdictions]. There was nothing in D.C. law that said we couldn’t do it.
Washington Blade: Ultimately the City Council passed legislation recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages.
Dyer: Yes and the mayor signed it…
Washington Blade: Concerning the marriage bill itself, some activists criticized the mayor for not testifying in favor of it before the Council and not sending anyone from his administration to testify.
Dyer: I could have probably testified. This was a case of symbolism. It would have been nice to have someone from the mayor’s office testify at this thing. But in the end it wasn’t necessary. We passed the bill.
Washington Blade: Did you have the option of testifying if you wanted to?
Dyer: I could have. I suppose I could have really pushed to testify and they would have granted me the ability to testify in front of the Council. But this is the way the office was structured. We had a very deliberative communications strategy where there was one voice speaking for the entire administration and that was the mayor. It was very clear about that. Occasionally some of the agency directors would be able to engage with the media. But I’m part of the mayor’s staff so I’m not going to be running around talking a lot to the press.
Washington Blade: You weren’t allowed to.
Dyer: No. But I did do a couple of op-eds in the Blade. At times I thought it was important to just remind people that we’re actually doing things. Obviously some of the activists weren’t pleased with everything we did or what the mayor did. But in the end it didn’t prevent us from signing a marriage bill. It didn’t prevent us from getting the Wanda Alston House started. We released the health report. We provided [LGBT] training to 10,000 employees, created an economic development conference. Our office did serious deliberative work on economic development for the first time in the gay community. It didn’t stop us from working with the transgender community…
Here’s the other interesting tidbit. We did something remarkably stupid. I don’t want to use the word stupid, but we did something that I didn’t think was really smart. We tried to amend the Human Rights Act to give Corrections an opportunity to – not to amend the act. We were going to propose a new rulemaking that would give an exception to Corrections and we were also trying to get rid of — someone suggested that we eliminate the provision that allows unisex bathrooms. I was told that this was happening. The director of OHR asked me what I thought about this and I said that’s a really bad idea.
Washington Blade: Do you mean Gustavo Velasquez, director of the Office of Human Rights?
Dyer: Yeah, and I said this is a really bad idea, Gustavo. We proceeded with trying to release it. So what I did is I knew this was a bad idea and I didn’t want to deliberately tell anyone what we were doing. But I know we had posted the proposed rulemaking in the D.C. Register. So I saw Bob Summersgill and Rick Rosendall at a Stein meeting. And I walked up to them and said hey Bob, Rick, take a look at the D.C. Register this week. You might find something interesting. And of course the proposed rulemaking was there. I was checking my e-mail. I was at JR.’s at Show Tunes checking my e-mail and within three hours there was an action alert out and all hell broke loose in the community. It was impressive. I had never seen every local and national organization come together quite well like they did. So I was sitting there thinking to myself I only wished they had waited a day. Could they have at least given me a day? But it was an interesting position because from an administration perspective I’m supposed to be defending what we’re trying to do publicly. But privately I’m like go guys—go, go, go.
Washington Blade: The mayor’s office dropped the proposal a short time later.
Dyer: Oh, almost immediately. There was such an intense opposition that it was dropped. Peter Nickles [the D.C. attorney general under Fenty] got involved in it. We ended up developing a policy with the Department of Corrections that isn’t perfect but it’s better than what it was. [The policy allows male to female transgender women to be housed in female prison facilities rather than being placed in the male sleeping facilities.]
Washington Blade: But the issue never made it to a cabinet meeting?
Dyer: No, but it didn’t need to. That issue was dealt with appropriately. The activists set up a meeting with Gustavo [Velasquez] and the OHR staff. They aired their grievances at the staff meeting. They were going to air their grievances at the Human Rights Commission meeting and it would have been taken care of. And it did. It got taken care of.
Washington Blade: Is it a concern that Gustavo, as head of the Office of Human Rights, was going along with the proposal?
Dyer: He was asked to do it. I don’t know what Gustavo did or didn’t do. Someone ordered it. I don’t know whether the mayor ordered it or whether it came out of the city administrator’s office. It was a bad idea. It was probably one of only two times in the administration that I sat there consciously and I thought what are we doing?
Washington Blade: Did you communicate that to the mayor?
Dyer: No, I communicated it to my staff and I communicated it to the chief of staff. I said Carrie this is a horrible idea. I sent e-mails and I talked in person and said guys this is a horrible idea. So I assume that message was conveyed up the line.
…The other thing I did that I found fascinating is I started assisting the communication director in messaging in the way we talk to the LGBT community because we did sound cold originally on the response to hate crimes. I think we could have done a better job in showing our compassion because we were compassionate. But that’s just the strategy that was employed.
Washington Blade: On the Tony Hunter beating death case, the mayor did appear with the police chief at a news conference at the time an arrest was made.
Dyer: And that was the standard operating procedure. The mayor very rarely attended memorial services for victims of homicides. As a procedure, he very rarely attended. He would send staff and letters of condolence. That’s the thing that most people don’t appreciate. There was also an unofficial rule on the calculus the mayor made in attending events. For him, it was more important to talk directly to residents. He did talk to community leaders. But he really wanted events that he could be directly in touch with voters. So attending a ceremonial dinner for an out-of-town LGBT organization to personally greet attendees from out of town was not that important to him. He wanted to directly talk to D.C. voters so that kind of tension was interesting. So I personally counseled groups on how to fill out the event form to improve the chances of the mayor attending.
Washington Blade: Did he attend any events by national LGBT groups like an HRC dinner?
Dyer: No, none of the national groups. But his first year in office he did attend the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance award ceremony. He did attend the SMYAL brunch when he was mayor-elect. He did one presser with us when they released the HIV report. He did two bar openings at Mova because he knew Babek [Movahedi, the Mova owner]. He attended every high heel race and every Pride parade, which, by the way, Tony Williams only attended one Pride parade in his eight years…
Washington Blade: Some of the activists criticized the mayor for siding with Police Chief Cathy Lanier on what the activists say has been the dismantling of the police Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit through its decentralization.
Dyer: That is the biggest myth that some activists have perpetuated because they don’t understand what’s going on. Basically what happened is there was a staffing issue with the GLLU and when Brett [Parson, former director of the GLLU] left the unit the chief decided that she wanted to try to expand the reach of the unit and have more affiliate GLLU officers. And she had a fundamental difference on how she wanted GLLU to operate. She wanted GLLU members in the police districts. She wanted the central [GLLU] office but she also wanted other officers out in each of the police districts…So it’s not true to say she dismantled the office but the perception was there among some that she did.
Washington Blade: What is your view on the state of the Office of GLBT Affairs as a new mayor takes office?
Dyer: One of my goals when I took the job was to take this office that was still relatively new and define what it did. We had a full administration to really run the office in a way that I think the founders of the office had envisioned. So I think we succeeded in really planting the idea that there is an Office of GLBT Affairs within the members of the community. And I also think we really did a good job in explaining what government does and really educating people on the services that government offers. And it was a lot of fun.
Washington Blade: From your perspective, again, now that you can speak freely, how did the mayor do on LGBT issues and could you have persuaded him to do more?
Dyer: Obviously there is ways that we could have been better and done the job better. We could have communicated better. In hindsight, we could have done a lot of things differently. But in the end, I completely and thoroughly supported the mayor and I never for a moment didn’t think I had the support of the mayor in trying to get things done. Everything I wanted to do we got done. It might not have been the way I had originally planned it. And everything the community had wanted us to do we managed to get done as well on GLBT issues. And that’s very important. There are some things we left on the table. I still think we need to improve our response to bullying. We need to improve our hate crimes stuff. We still need to figure out a way to increase HIV/AIDS education. We need to improve the awareness and delivery of LGBT health services. But we made enormous progress and I don’t think that it was for a lack of support by the mayor or his members of the cabinet. So that’s what I want to make very, very clear.
Tagged with Adrian Fenty, Chris Dyer, Mayor's Office of GLBT Affairs
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