The history of any movement is littered with betrayal and shame. The women’s movement is no different – and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.
SILENCED HISTORY OF A HEIST: ‘… every lesbian in the community in turn was heavily warned to never speak of this shameful incident as we were all told, ‘if this news gets out it would only make all of us ‘sisters’ look bad.’
Back in the early 80s there was this incredible lesbian owned ice creamery that became a cultural hub for our community in the East Bay of San Francisco. This tiny spot in downtown Berkeley became so successful that it not only turned a nice profit but spawned a second store about six miles away. Along with all the bookstores, eateries, bars and clubs that lesbians had created, it cannot be stressed just how important Vivoli’s became in the reshaping of societal acceptance of lesbian culture and visibility.
The thriving culture at that time was built primarily on the backs of working class lesbians who came from various backgrounds, but the clear sentiment was that every one of us had struggled to combine a feminist ethos within a capitalist structure. What that was supposed to reflect were values of fairness and equal access for all women, but it also carried an unspoken contract of honesty and always making an effort to lift others up within a structure that came with many flaws.
Vivoli’s employed a plethora of young lesbians who faced discrimination in the general work arena and the owners recognized this and often hired second-chancers who’d been previously fired from another job simply for being homosexual. Based on the belief that they were building a sense of loyalty to the company as a whole, the owners were fairly generous in their bonuses and vacation scheduling with all staff. Overall, it was pretty successful for them until they hired a particular couple: one as the bookkeeper, and the other as the primary delivery driver. Unbeknownst to all their co-workers and the owners, this cocaine-fueled and party-hard couple had developed a great system of embezzlement. Working together, they concocted a scheme in which one resold the product for cash-in-hand while the other cooked the books. Unfortunately, their cocaine habit took them over the edge and one day they absconded with $35,000 in cash and left town.
Rumour had it that when they landed on the big island of Hawaii the authorities were waiting for them. A fateful end to a hot romance, perhaps. But what is beyond question is that the company’s workers and every lesbian in the community in turn was heavily warned to never speak of this shameful incident as we were all told, ‘if this news gets out it would only make all of us ‘sisters’ look bad.’
A collective Scarlet Letter if you will on the Sisterhood.
The theft was viewed as such a massive betrayal in the lesbian community and was so shocking that a shame was cemented very easily and quickly. Silence was the daily diet for at least a year. So many gains had been made within the community-at large that took a little over a decade to obtain, so it felt too precious to examine. If any of it could possibly lead to learning of others who might have known about the embezzlement and the heist, how would we deal with that knowledge? But after some time passed, gossip and questioning of the couple’s friends shut down quietly a number of relationships and splintered our lesbian-utopian bubble for a period anyway. The shame just really took a toll.
The fraud and grand theft episode of Vivoli’s ended up being silenced thoroughly. However it ended up carrying over into another chapter of financial betrayal in the lesbian community a couple of years later. After the sting from that shock and betrayal, along came a multi-level marketing scheme that felt urgent for some 90% of the community to join in on. Again, with a largely working class ‘sisterhood’, the seduction of a gain of $11,000.00 by investing $1,500.00, The Airplane Game flew into town in the guise of a friend asking for ‘a hand of support’ as it was sold. While some of us saw it for the danger that it was, most took to it like a social contagion and got deeply involved.
All of a sudden many of us were receiving phone calls from long lost ‘friends’ who were asking for ‘a hand of support’ from out of the blue. Yeah, nah.
Like with every Ponzi scheme, there were only going to be a limited number of those who would end up with cashing out of the ‘game’, while many would end up losing more than they bargained for. Relationships of all types were destroyed over a period of about three years in the late 80s and into the 90s throughout California as access to money was shifting everyone’s perspectives about what ‘sisterhood’ even meant any longer.
While some of the early adopters were placing down payments on houses or producing expensive vanity projects all of a sudden, a silencing came crashing down around our community as those who gained in wealth began to recognize those who’d been the collateral damage of their unmitigated greed.
Again, shame would cloud so much of the culture we’d worked so hard to create and many bonds were broken that had an overall negative affect on the whole west coast arguably felt for around a decade.
A FRAUD AMONG US: …’ today’s equivalent of those old rent parties now comes in the form of the online crowdfunder. The stakes though and the amount of the asks are much higher.’
So here I am some forty years later and I’ve just witnessed the biggest financial mishap and betrayal in the women’s community I’ve seen in years. This particular betrayal, within a small group of women who all care deeply about the rights of women and girls, arrived in the form of a charismatic smile and the urgent call to make some noise and help prevent the President of the United States to not turn all women in real life into one of the female characters from The Handmaid’s Tale. Without a huge following but a decent eye for talent in other forms, this saleswoman was just skilled enough to help average a take of approximately a thousand dollars a day in just over thirty days.
Now back in the 70s and 80s we used to throw rent parties and the host would provide some minimal eats and drinks in exchange for maybe a ten-dollar bill with the goal of keeping a roof over our heads. The objective was clear, no need to put it in writing, and so we collectively understood what activity we were engaged in. The added benefit of socializing was an attractive pull as well. No mystery afoot. But today’s equivalent of those old rent parties now comes in the form of the online crowdfunder. The stakes though and the amount of the asks are much higher. Also, you don’t get snacks.
In today’s climate of raising money and in order to justify asking for it, we need to substitute the basic goal that used to be for survival (those rent parties) with other honorable reasons for desiring the intended amount. It may still be personal and is often a vanity ask, but the request for donations is driven by an emotional contract between the ‘asker’ and the ‘potential donor’. In this particular situation though the reason for the desired goal was never stated on the website. What would substitute for basic transparency of that goal became instead a silent worry that would be carried by the few individuals who believed that they should not question the motives of the asker.
With lots of self-promotion, promises of private security and a professional film crew for the up-coming main event, this saleswoman who was the central figurehead managed to convince mothers it would be fine to bring their children, too. For this event – in the great tradition of sign-holding, yelling loudly into mega-and-micro phones – would be one to surely provide a great opportunity to feel Sisterhood and share in something that had been stripped from the women who marched with all those pussy-hats at the corporate-captured Women’s March just a few years ago. THIS was going to be different. THIS was going to be special. And THIS was going to end up taking the donations from 345 (mostly) women to apparently help 99% for the immediate organizer (the saleswoman). This may not have been her original goal, but it did become her moral and ethical downfall because make no mistake: this became a heist.
“I expected security. Every meeting included a crystal clear discussion about security, hired security, being paramount to our safety at the event. I spent hundreds of dollars traveling and donating for this event, and I trusted the only two people I saw as holding leadership positions. I was told they had already secured private security, that it was a done deal. I was also told they had found an out-of-state professional film crew who were willing to travel to cover this event. These things never materialized.”
By the time the actual event was over and the saleswoman could be tracked in her social media seen traveling seamlessly from state-to-state, those who had been closest to the situation began asking the simple question: Where was the money? But instead of responding to that question she continued doing live streams in her travels and kept asking for more donations so that she could continue ‘building the movement’ as she claimed. With her very public behavior and apparent ignoring of the elephant in the room of the accountability issue, a bombshell hit the small community:
the semi-public resignation of one of the organizers that blew the issue up in a much wider way as she claimed that she was resigning due in large part over the lack of accountability for the donated funds. She needed to publicly distance herself from what was about to become a meltdown of the saleswoman’s character, fading charisma and integrity of any sort who had sole access to donations in the crowdfunder.
“I think the biggest flaw overall is that there was never a budget to begin with. We never mapped out what expenses we could expect and where the money would go. This is the flaw that really set off all other things… had there been a clear budget to begin with things could not have unraveled in this way.”
The realization that the saleswoman had actually withdrawn ALL the donations and transferred them directly into her personal credit union account had been made public, and this created a stronger demand to know how all that hard-earned money had been used. This pressed the saleswoman to finally create a semblance of a spreadsheet that she then sent out as a large group email to explain the reconciliation and accounting for all funds collected. But what she offered in her version of a spreadsheet was a total disaster and did not accurately represent the expenditures in the slightest. Those who received the attachment were in shock and two days later when the saleswoman called for a kind of online ‘clearing up’ about the matter with a very large group of affected women, this semi-public display of admission only revealed that she was afraid of Excel and that she was a disorganized person. And that was really that.
(If someone placed a blank piece of paper down on a floor and had their cat walk across it with dirty paw prints, THAT would have made a better ‘spreadsheet’. Just draw a big dollar sign on it and it’s good-to-go!)
With every attendee who experienced that ‘clearing up’ online session, this played out like a performance of a bad audition for blatant incompetence coupled with a type of hubris that was akin to a collective feminist nightmare. The saleswoman then stated that she felt the information in the spreadsheets was clear and then introduced another woman who was supposed to act as the ‘moderator’ of this invitation-only ‘zoom-confessional-combined-with-Q&A for viewers’ session. But what the audience actually received from saleswoman #2 was a syrupy pitch about how the event from a few weeks before now was a great success and how everyone should be proud of what they all had accomplished in this ‘sisterhood’ together. She continued and revealed her own bombshell that the remaining funds that had been transferred from the crowdfunder into the personal account of the original saleswoman had then been transferred to her own personal account, and there the money would stay until a brand new non-profit was created to place those funds into.
But wait! That’s not all!
The new yet-to-be-realized non-profit needed a brand new Board of Directors, so saleswoman #2 informed the audience that the new Board was going to be comprised of herself, saleswoman #1, and a random innocent who would then be able to decide how to utilize those said funds.
LET. THIS. ALL. SINK. IN.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF: …’How this will allow us to move on and forward with having to deal with the amount of fall-out and damage will only be measured in years now.’
Theft does not occur in a vacuum. The saleswoman had a handful of individuals who bore witness and suspicions around her activities and behaviors for weeks leading up to the event had only grown. As has been suggested – the saleswoman may not have schemed in advance to abscond with the thousands that have gone unaccounted for
to-date, but the signs of her lacking in any accountability were clear. In another group email from one of those close to the original plans, this co-organizer claimed that she’d been asking the saleswoman ‘for weeks’ to reconcile the expenditures.
Weeks later when the saleswoman actually arrived at the location prior-to the big event, everyone in her immediate proximity soon learned that she had zero plans, no notes and zero leadership. It was obvious that she was incapable of directing any type of organized event let alone a movement. But the urgency to take ownership and action to replace her by those who could have became stifled. It was reported that a kind of shock and disbelief had taken hold and if not for a few who jumped into panic mode and utilized their organizational skill sets, the event would not have pulled off as much as it did.
It cannot be denied that a good portion of the women who attended this quickly-rushed event experienced a wonderful time as this was certainly nothing like the infamous Fyre Festival, where participants were duped into attending a fraudulently marketed event—quite the contrary. But the inner circle that inhabited that behind-the-scenes production process had an entirely different experience and at the point of this writing, no one is really willing to make their experience about it public. The funds are disappeared like smoke from a joint, the saleswoman appears to be flaunting her ‘earnings’, and a small group of women have retreated into embarrassment and shame of their participation in it all. How this will allow us to move on and forward with having to deal with the amount of fall-out and damage will only be measured in years now. This betrayal was a huge set-back and like in the 80’s and 90’s, the recovery of broken relationships and other political alliances will likely not be fully mended.
I’ll leave the following statements made by one of the top organizers of this outrageous debacle that occurred on American soil as our original Suffragette Foremothers roll in their graves from embarrassment for the existence of it:
“I both want to defend my own involvement… and yet, I want to put down my hands and reveal the truth. The truth is that I don’t know what the justification ever was for raising $30k. The truth is I don’t know what the ‘leader’ or anyone else ever planned for that money. The truth is that I have no idea where that money is today. The truth is that raising that much money with no plans was irresponsible at best, and deceptive at worst.”
“There are a lot of excuses I could provide for my own actions, my inexperience, my trust in others who I believed had more experience than me, my trust in those who I assumed would never allow anything out of integrity to happen, and so I felt more willing to dismiss my worries. And the excuse that everything happened so fast, that we created this event in six weeks time and everything was so rushed and reckless and filled with the energy of the righteous fight. I don’t know what these excuses can possibly add up to, but they are also true.”
“Am I still proud that I protested Biden’s ridiculous executive order that outright attacks women/girls? Yes. And I’m still grateful to have met so many women and had the opportunity to stand in solidarity with them. I’m still grateful for all the connections.”
“I’m proud of what we accomplished together. And I’m defensive of this pride. How can I protect what was good, and earnest, and connecting about this event, while revealing the disorganization, miscommunication, shifting narratives, and manipulations? I don’t know how to resolve those two needs. Perhaps this story will accomplish those things? That is my hope.”