LGBTQ prison abolition group split by racism accusations 

Firing of Black staff member at center of acrimony-filled rift   

THE ADVOCACY GROUP Black and Pink Massachusetts was formed to fight on behalf of some of the most marginalized and powerless people in society – gay, lesbian, and transgender people and those living with HIV who are incarcerated or were recently released from prison. For months, however, the group has been riled by allegations of racism within its leadership and questions about whether the group is itself marginalizing Black members 

The internal battle has split the organization and the community that relies on it. Both sides say they want to resolve the dispute through what they call a “transformative justice” process, a mediated form of dispute resolution. But even reaching agreement on how to engage in that process has proved elusive, leaving the two sides at odds as the ongoing clash diverts attention from the small nonprofit’s mission.

Tensions had been mounting in the group for several months, but the trigger for the open conflict now roiling the organization was the firing in early August of Charlese Horton, a Black, transgender woman who worked coordinating aid for individuals being released from prison, by Michael Cox, the head of Black and Pink Massachusetts.  

Horton alleges that racism is at play, saying she was fired by Cox, a white gay man, “due to retaliation and racism.” She and her supporters organized community gatherings, and more than 45 people affiliated with Black and Pink Massachusetts signed a letter supporting Horton. The community letter accuses Cox of creating “a culture of anti-Blackness.”  

Cox acknowledged that people are questioning the “optics” of the firing, but he denied racism was at play and said Horton’s supporters are “shooting first, asking questions later.” Cox says he is trying to engage Horton in a transformative justice process where all the parties can sit down with a skilled facilitator and talk things out. 

“There’s room for us to grow,” Cox said. “I’m not going to solve racism in America, I’m not going to solve racism in Black and Pink, but I can take steps to mediate that and make it a little bit better.” 

House coordinator Erin McLaughlin and Michael Cox of Black and Pink Massachusetts at the Alexia Norena House, a home for recently incarcerated transgender individuals. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

Cox and Horton said communications are ongoing about setting up the transformative justice process. However, Horton and her supporters say they have concerns about Cox’s continued leadership of Black and Pink Massachusetts and whether the process would provide a fair and safe space for them. 

The dispute in some ways is a simple employer-employee disagreement. But it has blown up to include others within the community of criminal justice reform and LGBTQ activism. It illustrates the challenges faced by even the most progressive communities in dealing with allegations of racism and bias. 

Grace Moreno, executive director of the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce, worked with Cox and his team when the chamber and Black and Pink shared a large grant. Moreno said she thinks the tensions that can occur even within a well-intentioned organization like Black and Pink Massachusetts reflect “the ongoing friction we have as a society.”  

“For Black and brown people in our community and trans people, there’s no trust because things have been bad outside of the organizations,” Moreno said. “So you bring that in and then you’re on your guard because you think you’re being discriminated against.” 

Moreno said she does not doubt Cox made mistakes despite a commitment to equity. “Even the best of white men screw it up,” Moreno said.  

But Moreno, who has professionally coached both Cox and Horton, suggested that a big part of the dispute between them was the growing pains of a small organization with little money, staffed by those coming back to the community after incarceration – who are the population the organization serves but not necessarily people with significant business experience. “I didn’t think there was racism,” Moreno said. “I think there is definitely a lot of opportunity to learn about how to be a grown-up organization.” 

Black and Pink Massachusetts was previously part of a national Black and Pink group but broke off to form its own organization. It offers practical assistance to LGBTQI people in the criminal justice system. It runs a pen pal program, posts bail, offers financial assistance, and has volunteers available to attend court hearings and help with transportation. Black and Pink Massachusetts also provides housing assistance, and in August opened a home for recently incarcerated transgender people.  

Horton was hired by Black and Pink Massachusetts in September 2021 to help people released from incarceration obtain jobs, health care, and other resources like gift cards and phones. The organization had just three staff members. 

From the beginning, Horton alleges, her relationship with Cox was acrimonious. According to Horton, who spoke by phone and in person, in a park near her Brighton home, she told Cox her paycheck was too high, and he accused her of stealing for not noticing sooner. She said he promised her a company laptop but refused to buy her one for months. She said he insisted she front her own money for rideshares or take public transportation when picking up people from prison.  

Horton says she was treated differently from other employees – denied access to the organization’s debit card, required to attend weekend work events, and denied access to a phone account to talk to incarcerated people. Cox required her to attend a company trip to Provincetown, knowing Horton needed permission from her parole officer to travel, Horton said. Once when Cox left town and gave her the company credit card, he instructed her “don’t buy no Louis Vuitton,” Horton said. 

Horton quit in February then reached an agreement with Cox to return later that month. Cox fired her in August.  

Horton alleges that Cox’s behavior toward her was part of a trend of racist behavior. She says he distributed organizational grants primarily to white, gay men. Horton said Cox made people of color go through more hoops, like providing additional documentation, to get assistance. 

Cox said as an employer he does not want to discuss specific allegations while he tries to engage with Horton and her supporters. “We don’t want to exacerbate anything, we want to get to the table and have a transformative justice conversation,” Cox said.  

But Cox said the accusations of racism regarding grant distributions are “baseless,” and that an audit found that 53 percent of the group’s aid went to Black members. “There’s been a lot of lying and accusations happening,” Cox said.  

After she was fired, Horton wrote an open letter to the community. “I experienced racism, discrimination, transmisogyny, and policing that made it difficult to do my job and made me feel like I never truly belonged,” she wrote.  

A group of Black and Pink members, organizers, and volunteers led by former Black and Pink organizer Rachel Lewis signed a separate letter supporting Horton and questioning Cox’s management of the organization. “As a result of concerned conversations after this firing, we have compiled several discrete instances of racism, transmisogyny, and classism in Mike’s treatment of the Black and Pink MA community, corroborated by many formerly incarcerated members of color in Boston,” the group wrote. They asked for Cox to be removed from his supervisory position and participate in a transformative justice process.  

Cox said some of the things in the letter “are half stories.” 

CommonWealth reached out to several signers of the letter, none of whom responded. 

However, the allegations have led to concerns about Black and Pink’s work. Lewis said part of the reason she got involved is because she worries about the organization’s management, between Horton’s firing and what she calls “mismanaged crises” at the new Black and Pink house for formerly incarcerated transgender people who need housing.  

CommonWealth wrote about the house in August, around its official opening. According to Lewis, Cox, and Horton, two people lived there while it was being renovated. One was a woman with mental illness who experienced a crisis, leading to a police call.  

The second was Armani Pascual, a Black man who moved in after being released from prison. Pascual signed the letter supporting Horton, and there are conflicting accounts about his time at the house.  

Cox said Pascual brought a dog in after Cox asked him not to, then would leave the dog in a small cage untended and would let the dog foul up the house.  

Pascual said Cox asked him to watch the house while it was undergoing renovations, then asked for rent money. Pascual said Cox tried to set rules for him and kick out his emotional support dog, and generally treated him differently than White members of the organization. “He’s very careless about what people of color need, and it shows,” Pascual said. 

Cox said the incidents taught him that residents need onsite staff support, and the house needs to be selective to ensure it only accepts residents it can support. “We paused all placements until the house was ready and we had staff to support the house,” Cox said. 

This is not the first time Black and Pink leaders, including Cox, faced allegations relating to racism. Two Black women hired into leadership roles by the national Black and Pink organization in 2017 sued Black and Pink and its leaders, including Cox, in 2020 for race-based discrimination and retaliation. One woman had a conflict with a white male colleague she previously dated. The woman said Cox sided with the man and mistreated and harassed her. The other woman said Cox worked with another organization leader – a gay, White man – to interfere with her ability to run Black and Pink.  

An Illinois judge dismissed the claims. The women tried to bring the suit again in Massachusetts court, but a judge dismissed that case too. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Chastity Bowick, executive director of the Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts and a transgender woman of color, said she is neutral in the dispute and respects that different people have different experiences with racism. But she said her personal experience has been that Cox is well-intentioned, adding that he has reached out to ask her for advice in working with transgender women of color. Regarding allegations that Cox has been racially insensitive, Bowick said, “I work very hard to combat white supremacy and racism and am fighting for the betterment of trans women of color. I would not be in communication or in partnership with anyone who has such attributes.”