Former PFLAG prez files suit against nationals

The national office of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays agreed this week to return the registration fees for a former PFLAG chapter president whose membership and organization were both dissolved last year.

John DeBartola was impeached as president of the PFLAG chapter in Johnstown, located 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, and his membership was revoked and the subsequent chapter he began was shut down.

Steve Ralls, director of communications for the national PFLAG office, said DeBartola “was not meeting all of the obligations” required of PFLAG members, but DeBartola claimed he was removed from the organization because of an ongoing conflict he had with and the Johnstown chapter’s board members.

Beginning in late 2007, DeBartola, the show director at Lucille’s, a gay bar in Johnstown, began planning a drag show at the establishment, sponsored by PFLAG Johnstown. DeBartola said the rest of the organization’s executive board had approved the event.

But shortly before the Feb. 8 show, DeBartola said a local lesbian couple approached Lucille’s management and the PFLAG board, alleging that the show parodied their life, which DeBartola denied, and requesting that it be cancelled. The show proceeded as planned, but several members of the PFLAG board issued a letter to the bar, stating they did not approve of the show’s content.

Also in February, DeBartola said he contacted the national PFLAG office about creating a new chapter — PFLAG Laurel Highlands — that encompassed Johnstown and several other surrounding areas.

Several weeks later, however, DeBartola said the Johnstown chapter’s executive board held a closed meeting and voted him out of office; he appealed the decision to the national office, arguing that the board improperly removed him. The national office reinstated him as president, a position he’d held since September 2007, but the board officially voted again to remove him from office during its March 20 meeting.

DeBartola said that in the past two years, the organization has had seven presidents.

A representative of PFLAG Johnstown declined to comment on the situation.

In March, instead of pursuing the umbrella chapter, DeBartola decided to start a PFLAG chapter in nearby Altoona.

However, contended DeBartola, the Johnstown board and the lesbian couple who requested the cancellation of the drag show criticized his leadership of the new chapter.

DeBartola’s attorneys sent a letter to the PFLAG Johnstown board, which was also issued to national representatives, July 9 to request that it “cease and desist with the dissemination of false statements and publicly apologize in writing to [DeBartola] for the wrongful treatment and defamation of his character.”

On July 15, PFLAG National director of policy and programs Elizabeth Hampton Brown issued a letter to DeBartola informing him that the national office was temporarily suspending recognition of the Altoona chapter “pending review and discussion of the chapter and chapter president’s adherence to the values and mission of PFLAG.”

DeBartola said he recruited 11 members for the Altoona group, which held a drag-show fundraiser for one of the officers whose house burned down, as well as a gay prom; sponsored a bowling league; and held several support meetings in its first few months.

DeBartola said he met with Hampton Brown in person Aug. 26, and that she enumerated several reasons for the chapter’s suspension, including that PFLAG National felt the group had too much of a focus on social events and did not have a broad-enough membership from the communities PFLAG represents.

DeBartola said that at the time, the chapter was comprised of seven gay men, two transgender individuals and two parents.

Jody Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG National, issued a letter to DeBartola on Oct. 9 informing him that the Altoona chapter was permanently dissolved.

“Our review has determined that your group does not fit with the goals and mission of PFLAG, nor does it fulfill the basic requirements of a chapter,” the letter stated in part.

“The national office sets forth a number of benchmarks and obligations that chapters have to their local community and there was some concern that John and the chapter were not meeting all of those benchmarks,” PFLAG spokesperson Ralls said.

DeBartola said he tried to contact the national office numerous times to request that the $120 registration fee he paid for the Altoona chapter be returned, as well as to inquire about his status as a member of PFLAG Johnstown. On Dec. 28, after he did not receive a response, DeBartola filed a civil suit against Huckaby to recover the money.

Hampton Brown sent DeBartola an e-mail Jan. 13 confirming that the national office would refund him the $120, as well as the $30 he paid to become a member of the Johnstown chapter and the $66 fee for filing the suit.

Ralls said this was the first time he’s encountered such a situation, but that PFLAG National remains committed to the satisfaction of its members, past and present.

“In every case where a member contacts us with a concern and if for any reason they are not able to fulfill their membership or don’t want to remain a member, we do our best to work with them to resolve that, as we are doing with John,” he said.

DeBartola also said he filed a criminal complaint with the Johnstown District Attorney’s Office several weeks ago against the PFLAG Johnstown executive board and the two lesbians who brought the original claims about the drag show.

The Johnston DA could not be reached for comment.

Since the dissolution of the Altoona chapter, DeBartola created the Keystone Alliance, an LGBT organization that draws members from Johnstown, Altoona and Cumberland. Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].