The LGBTQ Center Long Beach has opened an investigation into its executive director after 14 anonymous former employees wrote a letter accusing the nonprofit’s leader of creating a “traumatizing and hostile work environment” for its Black staffers and other employees of color, particularly women, and demanding his removal. The Center said Executive Director Porter Gilberg was placed on leave pending results of the investigation.
Gilberg said in a Facebook post that he welcomes the investigation and is committed to making The Center a better place.
The Center provides services for the LGBTQ community that include support groups, workshops, free HIV and STI testing, legal assistance and more. It also organizes and supports cultural events, such as the annual Long Beach QFilm Festival.
Gilberg has led the organization since 2014 and has been on leave for the past month amid the probe into his behavior and leadership, according to The Center. A spokesperson for the organization declined to share whether Gilberg’s leave is paid or unpaid.
Gilberg, for his part, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But he said in a Facebook post at the end of June, shortly after the letter was published, that he took “these concerns seriously and am willing to take responsibility to learn and to grow as a person, as a member of the Long Beach community, and as a leader.
“Like many in the world learning how to better practice anti-racism and solidarity, I am learning right now too,” he added. “I wholeheartedly support an independent audit of The Center, overseen by our Board of Directors, including an evaluation of my leadership, our staffing, and our organizational practices.”
In the post, Gilberg said he wouldn’t make further public statements until the investigation ends.
The Center’s board president, Stella Ursua, said the organization is committed to a fair investigation, slated to end next month.
“Allegations of organizational impropriety are taken seriously at The LGBTQ Center Long Beach,” she said in a written statement. “Furthermore, the board has a fiduciary responsibility to its employees, The Center, and its constituents. We will investigate and adjudicate these matters appropriately based on the findings borne out from this investigation.”
This news organization spoke with three former employees, including one who participated in writing the letter, who said their experiences at The Center aligned with the culture described in the document. They also said they believe the current investigation is an opportunity for the nonprofit to fulfill its mission of inclusivity.
The letter, which was first reported by Q Voice News, said the impetus for its publication was Gilberg’s decision to speak at a Black Lives Matter rally.
“Gilberg’s purported support of this movement has made it clear to us that we can no longer remain silent about the traumatizing and hostile work environment created under his leadership,” the letter said, “particularly for The Center’s Black employees.
“Many Center employees have experienced repeated and sustained antagonistic, abusive, and degrading behaviors perpetrated by Gilberg,” the letter continued. “These behaviors have included his overt misogyny toward, tokenism, and harassment of Black and non-Black women and femmes of color.”
A femme is a person of any gender or sex who identifies as feminine.
The letter itself did not describe any specific incidents. But it did say that staff members “witnessed him yell at and shame their colleagues. Staff have been subject to harassment of and degrading gossip about staff, volunteers, and community members," the letter said.
“Gilberg often exhibits obvious conflict with and contempt for staff members, regularly showing his disdain for them,” the letter continued. “Staff are often pushed to work unsustainable hours and Gilberg openly belittles and criticizes those who work fewer than 50+ hours per week.”
The letter said accounts of more than 60 incidents of “abusive behavior” were sent to The Center’s board. The Center confirmed it received those accounts.
The Center in a statement this week also said that three people filed complaints against Gilberg with the board in February. The Center, according to the statement, then began an internal investigation, but the effort was put on hold soon after because of the coronavirus pandemic.
At that point, this week’s statement said, “the Board and staff shifted focus to keep services in operation for its clientele and to ensure that employees would continue to be paid.”
The open letter was then published June 26, and Gilberg was placed on leave June 29, the same day he posted his statement on Facebook. A law firm and an independent private investigator were hired by June 30, according to The Center, “and the formal investigation began.”
The letter called for The Center to take six actions by the end of September:
End Gilberg’s contract as executive director;
Ensure Gilberg is not offered an alternative role within The LGBTQ Center Long Beach;
Form a hiring committee with members of staff to recruit a new executive director, with an emphasis on Black people and other people of color;
Hire a third-party human resources agency for all human resources needs;
Open a formal investigation of all terminations and resignations under Gilberg’s leadership; and
Investigate Gilberg’s use of non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements and terminate all such existing agreements.
The letter also made further recommendations to The Center, including adopting a formal review process of exit interviews and creating a diverse stakeholder advisory council to ensure accountability for The Center’s commitment to its values of anti-racism, inclusivity and social justice, among other requests. The letter also called on The Center to conduct “bi-yearly” reviews of the executive director using anonymous employee input; it did not clarify whether that meant twice a year or every other year.
The Center said it has selected a human resources firm that will begin in August. It also said the investigation into Gilberg’s behavior will be completed by the end of August, at which point “the Board will consult with staff on a plan of action to foster a positive and safe working environment,” the organization’s statement said.
Gilberg, besides endorsing the investigation, also said, toward the end of his Facebook post, that he remains committed to The Center and that he hopes the end result will be positive.
“I know we will find a path forward,” he wrote. “I hope all employees, volunteers, clients, donors, and community members will feel heard, and a process is implemented to ensure a moment like this never occurs again.”