UPDATED: The Dirty Little Secrets Queerty Doesn’t Want You to Know
They offered me $2K to buy my silence. But you need to know that the man I call “Captain Bullshit” fired the only trans writers at this LGBT news site.
by Dawn Ennis
Author’s Note: Today marks five months since the day I was fired from my job as assistant editor at LGBTQ Nation, effective immediately. The website is owned and operated by Queerty, Inc.
Since then, I’ve applied for 350 positions, written hundreds of cover letters, and after all that I’ve had two interviews and one “get to know you but I don’t have a job for you” lunch. I’m collecting unemployment, paying the mortgage and utility bills with my children’s social security payments and pension payments from their mother’s death one year and ten months ago.
Last month, the only public utility that refuses to join an energy assistance cooperative for indigent folks like me turned off our running water because I couldn’t afford to pay the bill. Still, we managed. We showered at the Jewish Community Center and I scraped together some money to buy a few jugs of water for cooking, washing and flushing the toilets. It’s only thanks to generous strangers and my town’s emergency fund for the poor that we finally got it turned back on.
Yesterday my eldest son and I took advantage of the free hot breakfast at our town’s Universalist Church, and brought home bags of fresh vegetables and loaves of bread so I can feed him and his two siblings. He’s taking a gap year to work three part-time jobs so we can pay the other bills, buy gas and so he can save money for college next year. Fingers crossed.
The church, our town’s free food pantry and the one at the local Jewish Family Services office are helping me feed my family. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m terrified for the future. The unemployment won’t last forever; it will get us through the holidays and not much further.
I’m lucky I still have six other publishers to ply my craft, every once in awhile. Last month, I reported an entertainment story for NBC News and another big story is coming soon in The Advocate. I’m putting the finishing touches on my profile of a leader in the transgender community that’s been in the works for several months, also broke 40 years of silence with my own #MeToo tale for HuffPost, and last week I started a new, freelance gig writing medical news for a big city hospital, about one story a month provided they like my first piece. It’s good to be writing again, but it’s not reliable income. All this writing I did? I haven’t seen a penny from it yet.
The bottom line is, I need a steady job. And even though I’ve applied for even low-income, minimum wage jobs, I’m not getting hired. And that is frustrating for someone with my experience. And humbling. But I am not defeated.
This story has been viewed more times than I had ever hoped, and until now I only hinted at the company and the players involved. I wasn’t out to start a war, just to call out those people responsible in a way that showed I wasn’t going to let them get away with what they did.
Five months later, I’m done protecting their identity. With the exception of the name of the one other person involved, this story has been updated throughout to name names and put the reading public on notice about what Queerty did. As I told a friend who feared I was burning a bridge: I was halfway across when they set it ablaze and tossed me the matches.
My story follows:
The strawberry margarita in my hand offered cool, liquid proof that I was not dreaming, but that I was indeed in Cabo San Lucas, feeling mellow as I stared out across the infinity pool to the ocean beyond our beach. The boys frolicked in their speedos as Pacific gray whales leaped under an unblemished blue sky, spouting rainbow-hued streams.
It certainly could have been a dream. But in fact, I was at work, as I muttered to nobody in particular:
“This does not suck.”
Just the fact that I was included on this all-inclusive working vacation in paradise came as a shock, and a tremendous honor. Two other freelancers, including our supervisor, joined me. Just like the full-time staff, we had been flown at company expense from all over the country to a big party in Los Angeles, and now we were in Mexico. Never in my life have I been treated this well by someone for whom I work… without having to sleep with them.
Is there any media company like Queerty, Inc.? This online news, entertainment and travel resource publisher targets the LGBTQ community, and is co-founded by two white gay men.
The editorial staff is made up of fewer than a dozen white, mostly millennial, gay men, one young, white bisexual man and two transgender writers. I was one of the trans writers, and both of us are white. So except for a Latino gentleman who works in advertising, Queerty is not a diverse workplace by any stretch of the imagination. There are no people of color, and no, those who got a great tan in Mexico don’t count.
For most of the past year, I served as assistant editor at LGBTQ Nation, as well as the only woman on the team.
That is, I was… until July 7th, 2017.
That was the day I was fired, 5 months after our all-expenses paid “business retreat” to Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, where we were endlessly wined and dined. When we weren’t lounging around in bathing suits, we were encouraged to participate in uber-casual meetings about strategy, advertising, and how well our company was doing.
So the fateful call that Friday came as an even bigger shock than my invite to the retreat. I was told co-founder Chris Bull had recalled our supervisor Bil Browning from his paid vacation, and told him to call the other trans writer and me and let us go.
I believe he did this from Palm Springs; CEO Scott Gatz was in Costa Rica. Or vice versa, or maybe one was leaving or just returned. I admit, I might have mixed up their travel plans, given the incredible frequency of their out of town jaunts to top-shelf gaycation destinations.
What had we done to deserve this, I wondered?
…they owed him so many months back pay — thousands of dollars in invoices, waiting to be reimbursed — that the bosses opted to “stop the bleeding” by making sure there wouldn’t be any more invoices. Problem solved!
The other trans writer had just contributed a series of wildly popular stories that drew a lot of eyeballs, and I had spent the week filling in for that vacationing supervisor, running the site as acting editor, dispensing assignments, deftly handling breaking news and (I thought) making everybody proud. As it turns out, I did; both Bil and Chris told me this was “not a performance issue,” and that they loved me, and they hoped that I might work with them again in the future on an unspecified project that would call upon my talents in video production.
Video, hmm… Was this, then, like all the recent incidents of massive media layoffs, a result of the so-called “pivot to video?” Were we just the first to go? Given that they “loved” me, what else could it be? Perhaps sex or age discrimination? I was the only woman on the team, but that’s never, ever been an issue. As for my age, I am 53, and it just so happens that my 33-years in journalism make me one of the oldest members of the team.
But so far, Queerty’s three sites are actually posting even fewer videos than before I got canned. And in addition, since gender and age discrimination are illegal, the fact that the writer fired along with me identifies as male and is in his early 30s makes those scenarios unlikely.
The only thing we have in common, actually, is that we are both transgender.
Was It Coincidence or Discrimination?
That fact was never mentioned when we were told we were let go. Bil told us in our respective phone calls that this was the result of “budget cuts.”
No specifics, but my first thought, of course, was the $45,000+ getaway the company treated us to in February, which included our airfare, airport transfers and margarita-making lessons.
Given the luxurious, $3,500 per person/per night villas were the most decadent accommodations of my lifetime, I’m not ungrateful.
But, guys… if you’re gonna be broke in five months, maybe we should just do a conference call instead?
Before you tell me, firing someone who’s trans because of their gender identity is illegal, um, yeah.
Yes, I am THAT Dawn Ennis
I’m the one who made headlines both as the first trans journalist to come out in a network TV newsroom… and the first one to get fired.
Up until 2014, I worked for a little company started by a Mouse, with a name that reminds folks of Alphabet Soup. But my termination had nothing to do with my gender transition, an anonymous “insider” told a tabloid.
Of course not! It was “performance issues.”
As Bil explained this second unexpected upheaval, I remained calm, having survived the “whaddaya mean, I’m fired?” drill just three years earlier.
Then I learned two things that took me by surprise:
As a result of our firing, Queerty offered one of the remaining writers and Bil full-time staff positions, including benefits — so long as they agreed to pay the company’s cost of providing them. How nice.
And an insider revealed to me that the bosses decided to let the other writer go because they owed him so many months back pay — thousands of dollars in invoices, waiting to be reimbursed — that the bosses opted to “stop the bleeding” by making sure there wouldn’t be any more invoices. Problem solved!
What truly stunned me, though, was not the “you’re fired” part, but that this “budget cut” impacted nobody else. No one. There were no explanations, and no regrets at negatively impacting the only member of the editorial team who was supporting three children as a single parent on the measly wage that falls under the federal poverty line, even after my “promotion” to “assistant editor.” Oh, and the company made it very clear we would not collect unemployment. More about this in a moment.
Prior to this, I was the news editor at The Advocate, the pre-eminent LGBT news site, based in Los Angeles, partnered with the 50-year-old magazine of the same name. It was the most fabulous job I’d ever had in a city I loved, and the first one I landed as my authentic self.
My transition in 2013 had sparked a bitter separation from my wife of 18 years. But after finally reaching a friendly reconciliation as co-parents and housemates, my brief return to our home in 2015 ended in a move 3,000 miles away from my loved ones, for one and only one reason: those nine months I spent trying to find a job had wiped out our savings. I had to work to support my family, and this was the only offer on the table.
And although I missed my children horribly, as well as my wife, I learned to love L.A. and my job.
I even made headlines when I scored a one-on-one interview with another transgender woman you might have heard of.
But just days before my wife was to finally get her wish of a divorce, she passed away quite unexpectedly, on January 20, 2016, the final blow after a 30-week battle with cancer. On that day I resigned and headed east to care for our three children, choosing to not further damage them by uprooting them from everything they knew and loved.
Those first few months as a widow raising children on my own were scary, soul-crushing and uplifting all at the same time. And then work found me, in May 2016.
Bil Browning is someone I’ve known for a few years, a legendary gay journalism pioneer who was one of my writers when I was his boss in L.A. He hired me as one of his writers. We had tussled many times, but always shown each other respect. Today’s intern, they say, can come back as tomorrow’s boss; It’s happened to me more than once.
It was accepted by everyone on our team that everything he said was a lie, from his promises to his praise.
What I didn’t expect was that when Bil became my boss, his boss would become my nemesis.
Oh Captain, My Captain
This is a man who would sweet-talk me to death, only to turn on me and play dumb when confronted with what he had said. It was accepted by everyone on our team that everything he said was a lie, from his promises to his praise.
Now, in my three decades in the news business, I’ve worked for a lot of colorful characters:
· A woman who did her nails during news meetings and repeatedly told me that, to be successful, I needed to get in touch with my feminine side (how’d I do, Sheila?).
· A man who told the newsroom after I came out that he could now save the network money by paying me 70-cents on the dollar.
· The lady who asked me on my job interview if anyone had ever called me an asshole (the answer: “Yes, my wife, this morning: I missed my flight and had to buy myself a $900 plane ticket to get here on time.” I got the job).
· And who could forget the cable news boss who confiscated a bag of white powder left behind by a coked-up singing superstar? Fortunately, he and another executive “investigated,” until there was nothing left.
But Captain Bullshit — the name I gave Chris Bull for the purposes of my story — puts them all to shame.
He’d play us, one against the other, and deny declarative statements that he had made only verbally so that they could not be verified given there was no paper trail.
…the CEO tried to buy my silence if I would sign a release, promising to not go after them for discrimination, to not tell my story, and to basically take the money and shuddup.
It didn’t take me long to figure out the Captain’s favorite method of gamesmanship: one of us would send him a text or an instant message via the widely-used workplace app, Slack. He’d respond with a non-committal thought or opinion and ask you to call him. But the call would never, ever be answered, and the only choice would be to leave a voicemail and wait for him to call you back, at his convenience, almost always after hours, even on weekends. The power trip must have delighted him as much as it annoyed the hell out of everyone I knew.
After being told I was fired, I explained to the good Captain that a letter he sent me for employment verification confirmed I was paid by the month, and that the contract he drew-up said he had to give me ten working days’ notice for any termination to be effective. Captain Bullshit replied that he was being generous in offering me two weeks’ pay — half of what I was entitled to — which he also said he didn’t have to pay. Except that he did, according to his own ridiculous contract which repeatedly misgendered me as “he” and “him” and stated its end date was in 2013.
I stood my ground, Bil backed me up and Scott, the Good Cop, cut me a check. Captain Bullshit then called me to ask me to not engage in any more exchanges of “email warfare,” claiming it stressed him out. And he once again promised to discuss hiring me for a video production project, and pledged to bring me back as needed for vacation relief, which was, of course, just more bullshit.
July turned to August, and Bil assigned me a freelance story, and after writing it and even self-publishing it on the site, I submitted another invoice for the month.
However, even five months later, the company has still not yet sent me written notice. After I refused to respond to any more of his Saturday calls, texts and emails, Captain Bullshit finally retreated from the battlefield. Scott then tried to find a way forward, which we pursued in earnest. He is not just the Good Cop; he is a good man, a decent man. But he’s still in cahoots with my nemesis.
I thought we were actually making headway, until the day Scott proposed to buy my silence. It had all the earmarks of the Captain. All I had to do was sign a release, promising to not go after them for discrimination, to not tell my story; basically, to take the money and shuddup.
Captain Bullshit certainly dreamed big. But knowing my history, why on earth would he even attempt to mislead me?
Their offer was to pay me one month’s salary and the agreed-upon price for a commissioned article of branded content (an advertisement disguised as news that I had written for the Captain). A month had passed since I’d been let go, and while I considered this offer, and reviewed the terms with attorneys, I took a break from the battle and hit the beach.
Something about the salt air and the wild waves of the Atlantic crashing into the sand of Jones Beach always brings me solace, and clarity. That is where I finally decided, enough was enough. I hit them with something they never, ever expected: I filed for unemployment.
My writers, Bil, and all of us freelancers were told we were “independent contractors,” and therefore not entitled to unemployment benefits. And that is exactly what our contracts all said, too.
But the great state of California views employment very differently from the company for whom I worked remotely.
In fact, state law says I was very much an employee of their queer California company, because:
1. I had set hours and days, and a variety of assignments.
2. I participated in meetings and conference calls.
3. I received weekly reviews of my performance.
4. I was given a company email account, and had access to control, moderate and even delete reader comments.
5. I was paid via direct deposit like all the other employees and I was even paid during my vacations.
6. I represented the company at conferences.
7. And I gratefully accepted their invitation to the all-inclusive Mexico retreat, where I and the other freelancers were treated just like every other employee.
Contrast that with a contractor. That is defined by California as someone you hire to do a job, like build a fence or erect a sign. You agree to his or her bid, and then when he or she finishes the job, you pay up and either he or she starts on a new project, or you part ways. Captain Bullshit called me a contractor to stop me from collecting benefits I am entitled to receive, a fact certified by the State of California, which investigated and has ordered Captain Bullshit and the company to pay me unemployment benefits.
EDIT: Just to be clear, because I’ve been asked by a few folks: yes, I am now receiving unemployment benefits, a little more than half of what I used to earn per week, and I’m very grateful to the state auditor and benefits administrator who decided in my favor. Just in time for Labor Day!
A little bird told me fines and penalties might also result from them trying to pretend I was not what I am. I was told in a threatening email they would challenge my unemployment claim, but the only thing they did was pay me the $75 fee for one story I wrote after being fired, and a measly $20 for another.
Errors of Pretense
To me, Queerty’s biggest mistake of many, many errors was its lies to its employees. Like how the Captain harped on his desire that we provide original content to the LGBT community, but wouldn’t let up on pressuring Bil to assign us to rewrite other outlets’ original works. If its budget cuts are due to reduced revenue, then this company is failing in a business where rich gay men make a fortune on the backs of broke queer writers. It’s no joke; these jetsetters spend more money on a bottle of wine than they do on journalism. The going rate at Queerty is $20 a story and op-ed contributors don’t earn even a penny for their labors. It is a wonder why anyone would pretend to be interested in journalism when the bottom line is nickels, dimes and a pat on the head.
Other than raking in more money than he shells out, I cannot figure out his motive. Captain Bullshit certainly dreamed big. But knowing my history, why on earth would he even attempt to mislead me?
I am that woman who spent decades pretending I was a man. And as a man, I won multiple awards and the respect of colleagues across the country.
Also, I was an asshole, a hardass and relied upon an overly intense expression of my very unfair approximation of how I thought a man behaves.
Apparently, I was very convincing.
I was afraid to live as my authentic self, as the woman I knew myself to be, because of the potential backlash: the breakup of my marriage, the end of my career, and to be seen as crazy or unstable by people I called friends, and even strangers.
Everything I Feared
All that came true when I stopped pretending, and it didn’t help that my transition was rocky and fraught with medical issues that played out under an international spotlight that brought me nothing but shame, derision and eventually, unemployment.
But the truth is, I survived those dark days. I even thrived, finding my stride and relaxing that false intensity I had worn as a disguise… only to be detoured once again by the death of my beloved. Yet even that tragic turn led me to new challenges and adventures, and at last, the place I am now.
I am finally what I always should have been: a mom. I’m in my third evolution, and nobody can tell me I’m not what I know myself to be.
One thing every child and their dad knows about moms: “Ain’t nobody happy if the mama ain’t happy.”
And I am, even though I risked the unemployment I am due, and I explored options to address potential issues of gender identity discrimination.
EDIT: No one wins when lawyers get involved. I made the decision to not pursue a claim of discrimination, and let people draw their own conclusions. Much has been whispered about as a result of my coming forward. I presented the facts here as I know them. And as I think I’ve shown, I’m willing to make changes if people come forward with new information.
I close with this thought about two things every journalist must do: let us awaken “the ears of our ears” and open “the eyes of our eyes.” That’s a line from this inspiring expression of true delight and genuine gratitude by my favorite poet:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
— e e cummings
About the Author:
Before moving to online journalism, she worked as an executive producer at Politico, as well as at several TV stations across the country. She got her start at CNN and worked her way up to producing for CBS, NBC, and ABC News.
Ennis was America’s first transgender journalist in a TV network newsroom when she came out 4 years ago. Since then, she’s spoken as an advocate for transgender rights at national media, religious and civil rights conventions, as well as on TV and on NPR. She reports for NBC News, The Advocate, NewNowNext, GO and Outsports. Her work also appears in HuffPost and previously she was the assistant editor at LGBTQ Nation and the news editor at The Advocate.
She is also a widow who does the job of mom for three children who call her “Dad.”
Ennis and her family reside in Connecticut with their cat, Faith.