Dorinda Henry once had big political ambitions, until she filed a sexual-harassment complaint against her boss, then Seattle City Council member Sherry Harris. Nothing was the same after that.
Back before she became a Baptist minister, before she left Seattle with the intention of never returning, the Rev. Dorinda Henry was a 28-year-old firebrand with burning political ambitions.
Having started in the trenches organizing students at the University of Washington, she served several years in the U.S. Army before returning to activism in Seattle and joining the staff of then-Seattle Councilwoman Sherry Harris.
Henry quickly moved from unpaid intern to close assistant to paid staff for Harris, who, like Henry, is African-American and a lesbian. Just as quickly, Henry said, her boss began harassing her.
Suggestive comments from Harris progressed to phone calls and greeting cards, unwanted dinner invitations and touching behind closed doors, she said. Eventually, it led to sexual assault, according to Henry.
The young intern reported the abuse to the city, and nothing was the same after that: Harris fired her and publicly accused her of trying to blackmail her way back into a job. Any dreams Henry had of running for office were incinerated, she said.
Before the #MeToo movement, many women remained silent about workplace harassment, afraid they would not be believed. While Harris denies ever sexually abusing anyone, Henry’s story shows how those fears were realized, and the harsh retribution that followed.
Now Henry is willing to risk telling again, this time publicly, hoping that, like other women who have shared their experiences, she will free herself of its power over her at a time when sexual abuses in the workplace are being re-examined.
“This has held me hostage for 20 years,” she said. “I have been hiding, and this is why. I’m scared of the ghost.”
Confronting sexual harassment and abuseThe #MeToo movement has sparked a national conversation about sexual harassment and assault. From actors in Hollywood to security guards at the Seattle Public Library, more people are coming forward with painful and intimate stories of abuse, casting new light on behavior that for too long has been dealt with in whispers, secret settlements or not at all. So where do we go from here? The Seattle Times' occasional series explores that and other questions as we move forward in this changed landscape.
The Seattle Times reached out to Henry in February in her role as a social justice minister to broaden its coverage of the #MeToo movement without knowing she had previously reported harassment. Henry said she saw it as the hand of the divine, and after talking with friends and family, she decided to share her side of a story that first appeared in these pages 23 years ago.
“Who knows where I’d be?” said Henry, now 52. “I might have beat Barack Obama to the White House.”
Harris, who is nine years older than Henry, denied harassing her employee.
“I’ve never sexually harassed anyone, and certainly not my interns,” she said in an interview.
Harris initially said she did not even recall the 1995 complaint or the events around it. And she said she had never heard of #MeToo. She did not respond to subsequent calls and emails to discuss the specific allegations made by Henry, who worked with Harris for a year.
On Sunday evening, after this story had been online for more than two days, Harris issued a statement to The Seattle Times amplifying her earlier denial.
“I’m aware of and fully support the recent, national attention on workplace sexual harassment,” she said. “Workplace harassment is particularly damaging to its victims and workplace reforms are necessary, for the good of all. And, for the good of all, complaints should be taken seriously and cases built using careful research and objectivity. Ms. Henry was not a victim of harassment during the brief time she worked in my office.”
Henry said telling again is scary.
“What happens when the person who sexually harassed you, who forced themselves upon you, is a woman? If you’re a woman, what then?” she asked. “Are you going to give me the benefit of the doubt that what happened, happened; that it was not my choice; that it made me uncomfortable; that it directly impacted me emotionally and psychologically; that it impacted my life socially and politically and privately? That it impacted me in such a way that 20-some-odd years later, I’m triggered when I hear all this stuff about sexual harassment?”
Henry was gaining stature in the Seattle’s LGBTQ and African-American communities when she joined Harris’ staff in March 1994. She had been working to raise awareness of AIDS in those communities, and she was able to serve as an envoy to two constituencies that were important to Harris’ political future.
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Charismatic, with a big voice and a preacher’s cadence, Henry attracted a crowd. She had the kind of passion and confidence that prompted people to ask when she would be running for office. She wondered, too.
Harris, a former Boeing engineer and policy wonk, became a celebrity of sorts as the first out African-American lesbian to hold public office in the United States. After her 1991 election, she gave speeches around the country and attended national events.
Though Henry was initially brought on as a volunteer, Harris eventually found money to hire her part-time. But, Henry said, even as a volunteer, Harris expected her to be available all the time.
Henry said Harris called her at home so often that Henry’s then-partner asked whether there was something going on between them.
“I thought, ‘This comes with the territory of working with an elected official’ — until she started coming at me and approaching me in a more physical way, and started encouraging me to leave my partner,” Henry said. “It became a very difficult dynamic to negotiate.”
Harris often invited Henry into her office, closed the door and tried to kiss or press up against Henry, calling Henry a prude when she said “No,” or moved away, according to Henry. She gave Henry greeting cards, invited her to dinners, and, at one point, suggested they could be “a power couple,” Henry said.
“The more I rebuffed her advances, the more aggressive she became,” Henry said.
In December 1994, Henry said, “she forced me to have sex with her.” Harris had arranged for Henry to stay at the home of a relative in Oakland, California, and then showed up unexpectedly. According to Henry, she came into Henry’s bedroom that night, and physically pinned her down.
Henry said she told Harris “no” and tried to push her away. At one point, Henry said she told Harris, “I can’t believe you are doing this.”
“I relented because the only other way that I would have to deal with her was to punch her or physically harm her, and I didn’t want to do that — couldn’t bring myself to do that,” Henry said.
Henry, who lived on the streets as a teenager and served in the Army for nearly five years, said she thought, “I’m strong enough. I’ll get through it and deal with it later.”
Afterward, Henry said, she told Harris, “This is going to stop. I’ve had enough of you.” She said she told her she would file a harassment complaint against Harris when they returned to Seattle.
According to Henry, Harris replied: “No one is going to believe you.”
Henry said she filed the complaint with the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission, hoping that Harris would be admonished on how to treat her staff. Instead, according to Henry, Harris said Henry would be fired and warned her: “I’ll destroy you. You won’t be able to do anything in this city,” according to Henry.
At the time, Henry was organizing an event that would bring the Rev. Bernice King, youngest child of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Seattle for a speech on AIDS. Henry also was studying theology at Seattle University and won an MLK Jr. leadership award from the Seattle College District.
Henry was so stressed during this period, she said, that her hair began falling out.
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She said she confided at the time in Arlis Stewart, a prominent Seattle activist who worked with LGBTQ youth in Seattle through the American Friends Service Committee, and whom Henry credited with providing resources to ensure the King event would continue as planned even if Henry was no longer working for Harris.
Stewart, who is retired and in her 70s, said she has no clear memory of the controversy surrounding Harris’ office at the time, but she expressed confidence in Henry’s account.
“If she says she told me what was going on, I believe her,” said Stewart, who said she was impressed by Henry’s vision, organization and sharp political instincts, and said of Henry, “I never felt she was anything but truthful.”
The Feb. 5 event was a success, with overflow attendance and widespread media coverage focused on AIDS in the African-American community.
The joy of the accomplishment was short-lived though. A Seattle Times reporter called Henry to ask about the abuse complaint against Harris. Henry thought the process was secret and was shocked to get the call. She didn’t call him back.
On Feb. 17, 1995, before the city had completed its investigation, Henry’s phone rang off the hook. Friends wanted to know if she’d seen the newspaper.
The article, which ran on the front of the Local News section, was headlined: “Harris: Ex-aide’s complaint is revenge.” In it, Harris said the aide, who wasn’t named, had been fired for poor work performance and was trying to blackmail her way back into a job.
Harris told the reporter she didn’t know the specifics of the complaint, but said she and her advisers had decided to issue a statement to “get ahead” of it because people were talking about it in political circles. Although the article did not name Henry, it didn’t need to: There was only one woman on Harris’ staff.
“Everybody knew,” Henry said. “I was destroyed. No one had to know, if she had not done that. But she was doing exactly what she said she was going to do: Destroy me.”
Seattle political consultant Cathy Allen, a personal friend and adviser to Harris and a frequent visitor at her office, said in an interview that she had only general recollections about the situation.
Allen recalled that Harris had a problem employee she wanted to fire, but that Harris had not properly documented the problems. Allen said she remembers advising Harris to build a file so there would be a record when she fired the employee, and Allen said she “probably would have told Harris to get out ahead of it, if it was without merit.”
Five days after the article, the city dismissed Henry’s complaint after a preliminary investigation. The investigator did not address whether sexual abuse had occurred. Rather, in a letter to Henry, she said she found “substantial evidence that Councilmember Harris discussed work performance issues with you and terminated your employment based on work performance.”
What records remain of the complaint are bare-bones and contain no intake or witness interviews. The lead investigator, reached by The Seattle Times, said she had no recollection of it.
In her Sunday statement, Harris said she welcomes a “review of the EEC investigation file, notes and conclusions.”
Two men who worked as Harris’ full-time legislative assistants said they did not observe Harris behaving inappropriately toward Henry. But one of those assistants, Ken Vincent, said Harris seemed particularly fond of Henry.
“Sherry, when she took her on, elevated her,’’ he said. Henry “was imperious for an intern, but Sherry gave her the authority.”
Vincent, who now works as a news director for a public-radio station in Southern California, said the two women seemed close, and spent “a lot of time together here and there.”
“I don’t think Dorinda ought to be blamed for anything,” he said, saying that her performance was on par with the rest of the office. “I don’t think Dorinda did anything unprofessional that merited being attacked by someone who was being accused of impropriety.”
In fact, he said it was Harris who was getting flak for her job performance as backlash built against her national travels and failure to show at Seattle events.
After the article ran, Henry said she felt diminished and vulnerable, and scared of what else might happen to her.
After graduating from Seattle U., she moved to Atlanta and earned a master’s in theological studies from Emory University. She stayed in Georgia, working as a chaplain for the Atlanta VA Medical Center and keeping her activism to a minimum.
Four years ago, Henry returned to Seattle to help care for her former partner and best friend, who was ill. She started RIZE Fellowship and worked as a chaplain at Highline Medical Center. She is now a spiritual-care counselor at Kaiser Permanente and an associate minister at New Hope Baptist Church in Seattle’s Central District.
Henry said she is proud of standing up for herself, but paid a heavy price for it.
“Who knows what Dorinda Henry would be right now if that had not held me or locked me up?’’ she said. “Who knows?”
Editor’s note: This story has been amended from a previous version to include a statement from Sherry Harris and additional details about the investigative file from a 1995 sexual harassment complaint filed by Dorinda Henry.