opinion
4 min

Who’s lying in St Paul’s Brilliant fundraiser story?

Former event producer says he was told to ‘get the gay off the runway’

Someone is lying.

The controversy now swirling around the resignation earlier this week of Dean Thullner — founder and producer of the St Paul’s Hospital Foundation fundraiser Brilliant! — has two irreconcilable story lines.

Thullner says foundation staff told him to tone down the gay content in the annual fashion show he created, which has raised just over $2 million for HIV/AIDS, mental health and addiction services since 2012.

The foundation says Thullner’s allegations are “completely unfactual.”

There’s no way to have this both ways. Either Thullner was told to “get the gay off the runway” or he wasn’t.

And the man who could hold the key to corroborating one of these story lines isn’t returning my calls.

As former vice-president of campaigns for the St Paul’s Hospital Foundation, David Love is one of two people who know for certain what was said at an August 2015 meeting where, Thullner alleges, Love passed along a directive from foundation CEO Dick Vollet to “tone down” the show’s gay presence.

“David told me that they wanted to ‘get the gay off the runway’ and there was to be no representation of same-sex couples, no same-sex kisses, and nothing that represented the gay lifestyle,” Thullner told me April 6, 2016, the day after he very publicly resigned from the event.

According to Thullner, Love claimed Vollet’s de-gaying request was prompted by his wife Evelyn, who works as the director of services and justice for the Vancouver Roman Catholic Archdiocese. One concern, according to Thullner, was that Archbishop J Michael Miller would be attending the show.

St Paul’s Hospital and the Foundation are entities of Providence Health Care, itself a creature of the Roman Catholic Church in BC.

Thullner says he decided to press on with last September’s Brilliant! because he only received the instruction six weeks before show time. “I was outraged, and I let Dick [Vollet] know that right away, but I needed to honour all the commitments I had made to the venue, the participants, and the community.”

A month after their fall 2015 meeting, Thullner says Love left the Foundation.

Love was fired, Thullner alleges. Vollet says, “it was a mutual agreement between David and I,” which seems like corporate-speak for much the same thing.

And so Thullner found himself planning this year’s Brilliant! with a group of foundation associates under a radically re-organized administration, which included events officer Monica Chan and Renee Fisher, now director of stewardship and events.

Chan and Fisher may also hold the keys to this truth, but they’re not talking either.

In February 2016 Thullner staged another fundraising event, Red, also at The Commodore, this time on behalf of Positive Living. Thullner claims Chan, who had previously worked for Positive Living, called him to a meeting with herself and Fisher a week later, where she “basically raked me over the coals for holding another fundraiser at the Commodore and ‘diminishing our brand.’

“I had to ask, ‘when did Brilliant! become yours? It belongs to our community, not to St Paul’s or anyone else’s brand,’” Thullner says.

An earlier clue to that question may have been found in a conversation Thullner reports having with Vollet in 2013, when Vollet asked if Thullner would have any problem with the Foundation trademarking the name of the event. Thullner, perhaps naively, saw no problem with that, and that’s really how Brilliant! ceased to be a community effort and became the property of the foundation, which was only one of three beneficiaries of the first event in 2012.

Thullner says Chan told him they needed to increase the “investor interest” and make the event “more off-shore investor friendly.”

“So they want to turn a grassroots community event, an opportunity for the LGBT community to give back to St Paul’s Hospital in their own way and on their own terms, into a high-end corporate-driven fundraiser. That was never the intention and not the spirit in which I started this,” Thullner says.

According to sources in other local media outlets, Love won’t speak on the record, claiming he is bound by a confidentiality agreement. And the foundation is keeping Chan and Fisher away from the media, saying only “Mr Vollet will speak on behalf of the Foundation.”

And Vollet simply says, “the allegations that Dean Thullner makes are completely unfactual.”

So let’s cut to the chase here. Someone is lying.

Is Dean Thuller lying when he claims he resigned as producer of Brilliant! because he was told that in order to placate the archbishop they “didn’t want any gay on the runway” and that foundation officials would “tell you what we think is acceptable?”

Why would a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor, who says he’s eternally grateful to “the angels” at St Paul’s Hospital who saved his life, sabotage an event he spent four years conceiving, creating and promoting?

Is foundation president and CEO Dick Vollet lying when he asserts, as he did in person to me and in interviews with several other media outlets, that Thuller’s statements are untrue?

Why would the head of an important non-profit foundation make such a blanket denial if there was even a grain of truth? Is this effective crisis management?

What’s really going on here? Has an event that came out of our community been co-opted by various arms of a gay-hostile church?

Only David Love, Monica Chan and Renee Fisher were at those two meetings with Thullner, so only they really know what was said and by whom. And of the four, only Thullner is talking.

The truth may be murky here.

According to one local media reporter, Love told them repeatedly, though off the record, that “the truth is grey.”

It is indeed.

Editor’s note, April 7, 2016: This story has been corrected to reflect that St Paul’s Hospital Foundation applied to trademark Brilliant! in 2013.

(Kevin Dale McKeown was Vancouver’s first out gay columnist, penning QQ Writes . . . Page 69 for the Georgia Straight through the early 1970s. His Still QQ column for Daily Xtra runs biweekly. Contact him at stillqq@dailyxtra.com.)

This story is filed under News & Ideas, Vancouver