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Two women turned away from holding their wedding at a Cancun resort plan to file a complaint with the Mexican government for discrimination.

Giulia Umile and her fiancée, Jess, last month filled out an application to be married in November 2019 at Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun. They were planning to bring more than 30 guests to the resort, which runs about $800 per room a night in peak season.

Tony Doran

Tony Doran is the president and founder of Woodbury Community Pride in Woodbury, N.J. He also serves on the board of Woodbury Old City Restoration Committee and is the Economic Development Committee Chair of Woodbury Community Pride. Doran and the WCP team pushed for LGBT equality in the South Jersey town. These efforts resulted in Woodbury Council approving a nondiscrimination ordinance, an LGBT-inclusive regulation that bans discrimination in public contracting and the establishment of the city’s Human Relations Commission to enforce nondiscrimination and promote public education. As a result, Woodbury was named the most LGBTQ-friendly town in South Jersey, receiving a perfect Municipal Equality Index score from the Human Rights Campaign.

When Giulia Umile and her fiancée, Jess, got engaged earlier this fall, Umile knew just the place to hold the wedding.

A world traveler, the COO of Slice Communications in Old City said that one particular vacation she took in Mexico stood out “as one of the most beautiful and pleasant vacations of my life — I literally did not want for a single thing. The service was spectacular, the resort is gorgeous and I always thought that if I got married, this would be a phenomenal place to do it.”

The Le Blanc Spa Resort is one of 10 AAA Five-Diamond-awarded oceanfront properties belonging to Cancun-based Palace Resorts, regularly featured in celebrity magazines for the sheer volume of famous people who vacation at the resorts, most of which are in Cancun but also in Los Cabos and Jamaica. Ellen DeGeneres has more than once given vacations to her entire studio audience to at least two Palace Resorts.

So, Umile immediately contacted Le Blanc and filled out the form requesting a sunset wedding ceremony on the beach for Nov. 9, 2019. More than 30 guests would stay at the spa resort for one week, with a price starting at around $800 per night.

A destination wedding made sense for Umile, a Fishtown resident. “We’re older, our friends are more established and financially secure — with enough notice, they can come.”

The sales coordinator for weddings, Laura Jimenez, responded the same day Umile contacted Le Blanc, on Dec. 5 indicating she had received the request “and will be more than glad to help you.” What followed in the email exchange, a copy of which was provided to PGN, was a list of options for wedding packages.

Umile responded: “We are very excited. I do have a question — what if we have over 30 guests? Can that be accommodated at Le Blanc? Also please note there is no groom — two brides!”

Two and a half hours later, Jimenez replied: “I would like to let you know that as we still do not have our same-sex wedding program available we are not performing same sex wedding [sic] at the moment,” adding, “I will however keep your information on our file and if I receive any update I’ll keep you posted.”

At the time Umile received the email, she was sitting on the floor of the gym where she teaches cross-fit, waiting for her class to begin.

“I’m not an emotional person, but I started to cry. People noticed and came over to ask and I slipped them my phone. I took a screen shot and sent it to the group text I have with all these guys [her staff] and was like, ‘You have to help me – I don’t even know what to do with this.’”

Umile said she’s going public with her story to inform the people and hopefully spare other couples from having the same experience.

“It was so disappointing — you’re riding such a high of excitement when you get engaged and share the news with people and it was such a difficult pill to swallow. No one wants to start their wedding planning off on that note.”

PGN contacted Jimenez for comment on whether the resort — which offers weddings that vary from Mayan ceremonies to Catholic to enormous Bollywood-style Indian weddings, replete with a ceremonial horse, henna tattoos and fireworks — does in fact offer same-sex weddings.  

Jimenez told PGN she had not received the email requesting comment for this story, but then said she was “instructed not to comment on this.” She then referred PGN to the Palace Resorts public-relations department, which had an email only and no phone number. Repeated requests for comment were not answered.

Mexico is a federation of states, with each determining certain matters such as civil law. In the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, same-sex marriage was legalized in May 2017, when the civil code there was reformed.

Article 602 of the civil code recognizes marriage as a legal bond between people, without any consideration of gender. As the Mexican consulate in Philadelphia told PGN in a statement, “At no time does sex [gender] distinguish between people who marry [sic].”

On a federal level, then-President Vicente Fox signed a groundbreaking antidiscrimination law in 2003 banning all forms of discrimination, including sexual orientation, in Mexico. The law bans any act that “has the effect of preventing or nullifying the recognition of rights and real equality of opportunity for people.”

Section XIV of article 9 in the law “considers as a discriminatory behavior to prevent the free choice of spouse or partner,” according to the consulate.

“The government of Mexico will seek, in the terms that this and other laws dictate, [to] promote the conditions of freedom and equality inherent in each person and, in any case, sanction public or private organizations that hinder its guarantee,” the consulate statement read.  

Umile and her fiancée have since found another Cancun resort, Unico, that is more than happy to host their wedding. “Their paperwork had same-sex language on it,” she noted.

This incident serves as a reminder that discrimination occurs in ways you least expect it, said Umile.

“All I want is for people to have the information, so that when they’re thinking of booking a vacation, they can make an informed decision. Instead of wasting your time with people who want nothing to do with you, you can put your energy into places that you know will support you.

“There are plenty of people in this world who will make decisions that are guided by their hearts and moral compass — and sometimes those decisions come directly from our bank accounts,” Umile added. “If Palace Resorts realized there were consequences to their actions, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either.”

Mazzoni Center’s board of directors has lost two more members, with the secretary recently ousted in a majority vote and a second member resigning Tuesday, PGN has learned.

The departures from the board are the latest in an ongoing drain of institutional memory from the beleaguered agency, the largest LGBT-focused health facility in the Philadelphia area.

CEO Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino resigned last month after just seven months on the job. COO Ron Powers also announced his departure at the same time after more than 20 years in the position. Both resignations are effective Dec. 28.

The board of directors now has eight members following the most recent departures. PGN’s reporting confirmed Tuesday’s resignation but not the former board member’s name.

The former secretary, Miriam S. Edelstein, a litigation attorney with ReedSmith, was on the board for less than a year. It was not immediately clear why she was voted off. Edelstein was appointed last December along with Allison Bloom, who left the board earlier this year; David Davis; Mohamad El-Khatib; and Nu’Rodney Prad, now the acting president.

At the time of the quintet’s appointment, Mazzoni Center issued a statement saying that “among other skills and experience, Mazzoni Center’s new board members bring many talents.”

In a statement to PGN on Edelstein’s removal, Prad said, “We are grateful for Miriam’s contributions and those of others who have left the board.”

When asked about Edelstein being voted off rather than voluntarily leaving, Mazzoni Center refused to comment.

Edelstein also declined requests for comment.

In October, five Mazzoni Center board members retired after 13 years.

“Now it’s time to make space for new faces, new voices and new perspectives,” then-board president Chris Pope had told PGN. He since has resigned from the board, citing he wanted to spend more time with his family, and continues to serve in an advisory capacity.

When asked about the vision and mission of the board, Prad reiterated the mission statement on Mazzoni Center’s website, saying the board makes decisions with the goal of providing health and wellness services “while preserving the dignity and improving the quality of life of the individuals we serve.”

The board will continue to bring on new members “reflecting the diversity of staff, patients and the community we serve,” Prad said, declining to elaborate.

Pope Francis, once seen as opening the door to gay priests with a 2013 statement to the press, seems to have changed his mind.

When asked about gay priests then, Francis said in a groundbreaking statement, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Yet another shakeup in the leadership of Mazzoni Center raises questions about the organization’s future direction as it grapples with developing a new management model.

On Monday, CEO Lydia Gonzalez Sciarrino announced her resignation after seven months. COO Ron Powers also resigned after more than 20 years in his position. He declined a request for comment.

Gonzalez Sciarrino was hired after a five-month nationwide process involving an executive-search firm at the behest of the board of directors, now consisting of 12 members (at the time of Gonzalez Sciarrino’s hiring, there were 17 members.) She offered her resignation on Oct. 23. It was accepted by the board “after we heard her reasons for leaving,” Chris Pope, the head of the board of directors, told PGN.

“She was clear with us that Mazzoni Center needed new leadership to be able to move forward,” he added.

Gonzalez Sciarrino is the third CEO in under two years. At the time her hiring was announced in March, she was attacked on social media by Mazzoni Center employees and others demanding her resignation, at least partly due to her non-LGBT status.

The Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (BBWC), who say they represent nearly 400 workers in Philadelphia, told PGN in a statement in early April, just days after Gonzalez Sciarrino took over as CEO: “The days of people who are not from our communities coming in to take up a considerable amount of power in our communities is over,” said BBWC cofounder Shani Akilah. “A white, straight cis woman is not fit to lead Mazzoni, no matter how much experience she claims to have,” said Akilah. “The one thing she does not have and will never be able to have is lived experience.”

Pope responded to the social-media campaigns, telling PGN at the time that Gonzalez Sciarrino “is committed to the LGBT community and she’s fully aligned with the mission of Mazzoni Center.”

Seven months later, the board has determined that no single individual can lead Mazzoni Center, Pope said. “I think we needed to go through this process to learn that.”

A new leadership committee, led by co-chairs David Davis and Nu'Rodney Prad, both current board members, will make decisions around the search process and serve in an advisory role around the new collaborative-leadership model.

A replacement search is not yet underway because the search process will be revamped and at the moment, it’s not clear what will definitively come next, Pope said, adding that the collaborative-leadership model buys the time to accomplish those goals.  

“Because we’re not going to be looking for a specific CEO leader, we might be looking for one or multiple positions — or none at all, because we may find that the folks who are leading now really do fit what we need to do.”

The three new leaders are Medical Director Dr. Nancy Brisbon, Care Services Director Alicia Manley and Chief Financial Officer Racquel Assaye.

In a joint statement to PGN, the Interim Leadership Team said changes “will be made to Mazzoni Center’s organizational structure that will clearly delineate roles and reporting relationships, making this transition easier.”

The statement noted that Mazzoni Center continues to meet or exceed “our contract goals and outcomes relating to federal, state and city funding,” citing “a sound financial environment.”

But the resignation of Gonzalez Sciarrino represents yet another setback as the organization tries to stabilize following a series of scandals.

Last year, Mazzoni Center was plagued by published reports of systemic racism, mismanagement and dysfunction. In April 2017, Robert Winn resigned as medical director amid charges of sexual misconduct. CEO Nurit Shein was asked by the board of directors to resign later that month, following accusations of delayed action on Winn’s alleged misconduct.

Stephen Glassman stepped in to fill the interim CEO job in July 2017. During his tenure until March, he hired consultants with far-right ties to discourage employees from unionizing, which sparked another controversy. Last September, Mazzoni Center employees nevertheless voted 51-34 to unionize, organizing under the Service Employees International Union (the SEIU).

The wave of crisis is preventing Mazzoni Center from moving forward, Gonzalez Sciarrino told PGN in an exclusive interview — one that was conducted with no pre-conditions.

“We are spending so much time addressing the crises that we haven’t had a chance to sit back, put the blueprint on the table, and say, ‘OK, these are the chips that are moving to create the final product,’” she said.

Gonzalez Sciarrino said she resigned because she does not want her presence to detract from the vital mission of Mazzoni Center.

“The very reason I took this job eight months ago is the reason I feel I need to step aside today,” she said. “Mazzoni Center saves lives. People in this community depend on Mazzoni Center’s stability, on it being a safe place. If others will not step aside and let progress happen, then I have to because at some point in time, somebody has to, because I cannot imagine a future without Mazzoni Center.”

The outgoing CEO expressed concern about how the tumult affects the organization in ways not immediately visible.

“As CEO, I am looking at the bigger picture. I am concerned about those people in the community who have supported us for years — and whose financial and community support we need in years to come — and those are the individuals who are paying close attention to what is happening in the organization. They are, little by little, without anybody noticing, walking away — they are starting to back off.”

Right now, the turmoil within the organization “makes people with the means to contribute to us rethink that, and I don’t want them to go,” she said.

Sloan-FB-Comment-Mazzoni-.jpg

A Facebook post from Nefertari Sloan, Senior Health and Sexuality Educator at Mazzoni Center

In April, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, cofounder of BBWC and a former Mazzoni Center staffer, and Akilah threatened further action until Mazzoni Center meets their conditions.

“We expect to engage in escalating actions against Mazzoni leadership until our demands are met,” said Muhammad.

The BBWC did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Gonzalez Sciarrino denied that social-media pressure forced her to resign, citing an incident that happened Aug. 20, the same day she fired Kay Martinez, Mazzoni Center’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion. An estimated 50 people participated in a walk-out to protest the firing, including Amber Hikes, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs.

That evening, Gonzalez Sciarrino got in her car and almost immediately saw a message that she had low pressure in her tires. She stopped at a gas station and found one of the caps had been removed from a back tire. She filled it and began driving again. A subsequent message inside her vehicle indicated that all the tires had “very low pressure.” After taking the car back to the dealership, Gonzalez Sciarrino was told that the air was manually removed from the tires.

A PGN reporter read a copy of the internal incident report detailing the events and corroborated the account with a witness. Gonzalez Sciarrino stopped driving to work and started walking, changing her route every day.

She expressed concern for her own personal safety, and said Nov. 14 would be her last day at the office. She will work remotely until Dec. 28, she told PGN.

“By bringing this to light, I am hoping that if anyone thought to cause harm at Mazzoni Center, think about it — don’t.”

Hikes expressed cautious optimism about the new leadership structure at Mazzoni Center, adding that “lived experience” qualifies a leader for an organization that deals with marginalized communities.

“I think that personal, lived experience with those communities is essential to be able to serve them appropriately,” she told PGN. “In the same way that I think it is appropriate for a black person to lead Black Lives Matter, it is appropriate for a woman to lead the National Organization of Women, I think it’s appropriate for an LGBT person to lead an LGBTQ center.”

Mayor Jim Kenney weighed in on Tuesday, telling KYW the joint leadership taking over Mazzoni Center means “more oversight and more to carry the workload.”

Mazzoni Center, which turns 40 next year, is a comprehensive LGBT-focused health center based in South Philadelphia. The center has 35,000 clients and an annual budget of $16.5 million, $6 million of which is comprised of federal grants. The balance comes from revenue generated through the health center and private-development funding.

Gonzalez Sciarrino said Mazzoni Center needs a plan — not just for three months down the line, or even three years. “There needs to be a strategic, long-term plan for this organization,” she said.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Philadelphia’s Jewish leaders are mourning the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 while planning how to protect the city’s large and diverse Jewish population against a similar attack.

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