Volunteer details Pride official’s alleged inappropriate behaviorAround the City, Top Highlights Thursday, October 27th, 2016
Thom Senzee, author of this article, is a West Coast-based freelance journalist, and a regular contributor to San Diego LGBT Weekly.
The big moment was at hand. Butterflies in her stomach, spine stiffened and her mind trained on listening for the cue that would prompt her to stride with purpose alongside her guide dog, Camille, across that daunting stage during the kickoff ceremony at 2016’s San Diego LGBT Pride festival.
“I was at the back of the stage, waiting to give my talk,” recalled Jennifer Restle.
Restle, who heads San Diego LGBT Pride’s Accessibility Team, recalls feeling mostly confident that day. She and Camille had spent plenty of time working with organizers preparing the logistics. She was also, understandably, nervous.
“We had been told that the stage had cables all over it and that the back of the stage was wide open,” Restle told San Diego LGBT Weekly during a recent interview in San Diego’s Uptown District. “We had been told very clearly if I got too close to the back of the stage, I would fall off of it.”
Getting to the podium without a human escort to deliver a speech about being bisexual in 2016, while also representing the disabled and visually impaired community as strong and independent was her primary objective.
Not stepping backward, not even one step was also high on Restle’s list of things to keep in mind. But the unexpected arrival next to her on stage of a man who stepped over Camille and crossed over to her right suddenly broke her concentration if not her composure. Restle fought hard to keep the latter.
What’s going on? Why is this guy here? Don’t step back. Don’t step on Camille.
From where she stood, San Diego LGBT Pride Board of Directors Secretary Jaime Carrillo had come out of nowhere. Now he had her boxed in on all sides except in front. Worse, his hands seemed to be everywhere. Her feet stayed planted while her upper torso swayed in search of escape.
“I believe he introduced himself,” she told LGBT Weekly. “And then he’s standing there and he’s got one hand on my arm and one on my back. Then he’s standing at an angle to me and his body is partially standing in front of mine on one side. And there’s nowhere for me to go.”
Then, out of the blue, Restle told LGBT Weekly, Carrillo announced to Restle something she said he told her that he tells almost no one: that he’s not gay, but that he’s actually bisexual.
To be clear, Restle does not believe that Carrillo’s behavior was intended as a sexual overture of any kind. But she does think it was inappropriate … in many ways.
“He was way too touchy,” she says, adding again that she did not feel that Carrillo’s physical contact, which can be seen in a video shot during the incident, was sexual in nature.
“There is this tendency people have to think they can, or even that they should, physically touch blind people and people with other disabilities in ways they wouldn’t even think about doing with people who are not disabled,” Restle explained to LGBT Weekly. “They think they’re being helpful.”
But by joining her on stage, Carrillo allegedly violated an informal pre-event arrangement among festival organizers and Restle.
“We had gone up before and trained the dog to do it all on her own because I didn’t want the visual of somebody assisting me to the podium when I had a guide dog with me,” Restle said.
“I thought [having a human escort] was not the appropriate image to present to the public,” she continued. “A lot of times blind and visually impaired people are seen as not capable of taking care of themselves and not capable of navigating; and since I am capable of getting from point A to point B; and since my dog is really good at learning routes like that, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to get help in a situation like that, where I really didn’t need help. I felt it was especially not appropriate when I was going in front of a very large audience.”
But with flexibility and a little space to be independent, Jennifer Restle is able to do amazing things. In addition to coordinating San Diego LGBT Pride’s Accessibility Department, she has another, somewhat more intensive volunteer gig.
“I am chief financial officer of the board of directors of Disability Rights California,” she explained. “It’s also a volunteer position. We’re a disabled advocacy and protection organization that promotes the rights of people with disabilities. We do litigation, direct advocacy, class action and anything short of direct lobbying that helps disabled people in California. The organization has 220 employees and a budget of about $25 million.”
Introducing her on stage, San Diego LGBT Pride Board Secretary Jaime Carrillo also noted that Restle was CFO of Disability Rights California. Fully aware of how capable she can be, Restle is sure he also knew or should have known that she was adamant about wanting to be on stage alone after her introduction; that she did not want to be escorted to the podium; that she did not want or need to be physically “aided” in order to deliver her speech. But he held her gingerly and as if she were exceedingly breakable several times on stage and guided her to the podium.
“It took me about a week to realize what had happened,” she said. “I can’t see the video, of course. But people tell me it makes them very uncomfortable to watch.”
Said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, a former board member at San Diego LGBT Pride and leader of the movement to dislodge most of the current board, “When you first see the video, you kind of think, OK, this guy is really in her personal space.”
But according to Rodriguez-Kennedy, the real problems with the video only become visible after one learns the backstory.
“It’s not until you understand that Jen is visually impaired and that there is a statement that she’s trying to make on behalf of visually impaired and disabled people everywhere about empowerment and independence that you see how really awkward it is,” he said.
“At the 41-minute mark she’s fine,” he continued. “It’s her and Camille, her guide dog. She’s serene and focused, ready to deliver that speech. Knowing that Jen is blind and that she could have been badly injured if she had fallen backward when Jaime jumped into her space completely against the way it was planned is really hard to watch.”
Just as bad, says Rodriguez-Kennedy, Carrillo escorted Restle to the podium against her will.
“That was the one thing that was most important to her that day.”
During Pride’s public board meeting in September, Restle asked the Pride board to consider reprimanding Carrillo for the incident which she described in the most general of terms, without naming him.
“I didn’t name him publicly,” she explained to LGBT Weekly. “Then he made this dramatic over-the-top announcement that was rather dismissive. I didn’t know where he was sitting and really what was going on.”
In a room full of people, Carrillo said loudly, “It was me! I’m the one!”
“Before that, I was hoping the board might consider a three-month suspension,” Restle said. “Now, I want him to be removed from the board or at least to be forced to resign.”
Restle refuses to think of herself as a victim. But some, not least among them Rodriguez-Kennedy, believe Carrillo’s board meeting antics represent a passive-aggressive attack, not only on Restle, but on San Diego’s LGBT and disabled communities.
“He robbed the visually impaired and disabled community of their moment and no apology will change that,” said Restle, who isn’t interested in an apology from Pride or Jaime Carrillo.
Multiple attempts were made to obtain comments from Jaime Carrillo and other San Diego LGBT Pride officials regarding Jennifer Restle’s allegations and concerns. At the time this story was filed, no reply had been received other than a reference to a statement from Pride’s board of directors about regarding the posting of meeting minutes several months after said meetings had ended, as well as the following passage:
… The Board of San Diego LGBT Pride is continuing a dialogue with the community through public comment at the monthly meetings. Additionally, meetings have been held between board members and key members of the community …
The entire statement can be found at the organization’s Web site, sdpride.org.
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