May 18, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
In shakeup, HRC poised to lead Md. marriage effort

The Human Rights Campaign is expected to emerge as the coordinator of a reorganized coalition of national and local LGBT groups pushing for passage of a same-sex marriage bill in the Maryland Legislature next year, according to sources familiar with the effort.

In a separate development, a new statewide transgender advocacy organization called Gender Rights Maryland announced its presence on the Maryland political scene this week, saying it will take the lead role in pushing for a “comprehensive” gender identity non-discrimination bill.

Attempts failed earlier this year to pass same-sex marriage and gender identity bills in the Maryland Legislature. Now, insiders familiar with LGBT politics in the state say these two new developments represent a shakeup of the established order, where the LGBT group Equality Maryland led lobbying efforts on behalf of the two bills for the past seven years.

Meanwhile, rumors that HRC has offered to make a significant cash contribution to the financially troubled Equality Maryland in exchange for the group allowing HRC to select its next executive director were heightened this week when HRC’s regional field director, Sultan Shakir, began working at Equality Maryland’s headquarters office in Baltimore on Monday.

“HRC is working with local and national groups to help build a strong campaign to pass Equality Maryland’s entire legislative agenda next year,” said HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz. “While HRC currently has a field staffer working in the Baltimore headquarters to support their new executive director, there are no set plans to keep him there,” he said.

“Reports of large cash contributions in return for certain actions are completely false as evidenced by the fact that Equality Maryland has a leader,” Sainz told the Blade on Wednesday.

Sainz was referring to the selection last month by the Equality Maryland board of LGBT rights advocate Lynne Bowman of Ohio as Equality Maryland’s interim executive director. The board, which said it was conducting a search for a permanent executive director, named Bowman to the interim post after firing the previous executive director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets.

Meneses-Sheets’ dismissal prompted the group’s development director and chief fundraiser, Matthew Thorn, to resign in protest, raising questions about whether the staff turmoil would further hinder the group’s finances.

Two sources familiar with Equality Maryland who spoke on condition that they not be identified, said some Equality Maryland staffers and board members reported that HRC had expressed an interest in installing HRC’s Shakir as the lead decision maker for Equality Maryland regardless of the title he would assume.

The sources said Shakir is well-liked by most LGBT activists in Maryland who know him and is viewed as a qualified strategist on LGBT issues. But they said reports of HRC arranging for one of its chief lieutenants to assume a lead role in Equality Maryland’s day-to-day operations would be viewed by some Maryland activists as an intrusion by a national group into the affairs of an established state organization.

“Sultan is here to look at, with me, which is part of the job I was brought in to do, how the marraige campaign was run during the beginning of this year and to start to make some plans for how we can move foward,” Bowman said on Wednesday. “He is not an employee of Equality Maryland. He’s not going to start running Equality Maryland. It’s simply a partnership extra hand on deck as we move things forward.”

Bowman noted that Shakir worked on the marriage campaign during the Maryland legislative session this year as part of HRC’s field team.

“He has a history and perspective that I don’t have,” she said.

Patrick Wojahn, a member of the board of the Equality Maryland Foundation, which operates out of the same offices as Equality Maryland, said it wasn’t unusual for a staff member of HRC – which he noted is one of Equality Maryland’s national coalition partners – to be spending time in the Equality Maryland office.

“But I can tell you Sultan Shakir has no formal relationship with our organization right now and there is no intention to give him one,” Wojahn said. “I can say that we’re working together with HRC. We appreciate their support but our relationship is as a coalition partner with them and no more,” he said.

Evan Wolfson, executive director of the national same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry, confirmed that his organization is among the national groups working with HRC to put together a revamped and strengthened Maryland marriage equality coalition.

“Freedom to Marry is going to look closely together with HRC, with Equality Maryland, with local leaders and other players at how best to set up the team effort to get the job done,” he said. “I look at this as a really positive thing.”

Wolfson acknowledged that many in the LGBT community were disappointed over a decision earlier this year to recommit Maryland’s same-sex marriage bill to committee in the state’s House of Delegates after it passed in the State Senate by a comfortable margin. Recommitting the measure to committee killed it for the legislature’s 2011 session, which ended April 11.

Advocates for the bill were divided over the decision to recommit it to committee. Some blamed the national groups — including HRC and Freedom to Marry — for pressuring Equality Maryland and the seven gay or lesbian members of the House of Delegates to go along with a decision to pull the bill rather than risk a losing vote.

“We decided we needed a little more time to make the case and pick up the extra couple of votes that were short,” Wolfson told the Blade on Tuesday. “And so what we’re looking at now is how we do that in the strongest, best way possible to pick up where we left off, fix the things that we need to do better and make the case to pick up the remaining votes.”

He said representatives of the emerging new coalition are already making plans for an aggressive outreach to the black community in Prince George’s County and other parts of the state where black lawmakers were reluctant to support the bill following opposition from black churches.

“We believe there is actually significant African-American support in Maryland and there are certainly many African-American families and allies who have important stories to tell that can help shore up the votes,” Wolfson said. “And we want to get those stories out there. So the work over the next several months is to do exactly that.”

Beyer to head new trans group

Dana Beyer (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In a statement released on Tuesday, the newly formed group Gender Rights Maryland announced that former eye surgeon and nationally recognized transgender rights advocate Dana Beyer will serve as the group’s executive director.

Sharon Brackett, president and CEO of a Maryland-based systems engineering company, will serve as chair of the group’s board, a statement released by the group said.

Three other founding board members include Donna Cartwright, co-president of Pride AT Work, an LGBT group within the AFL-CIO; Caroline Temmermand, division chief for Parks and National Resources for Arlington County, Va.; and Alex Hickcox, former board member of Equality Maryland.

“The purpose of Gender Rights Maryland is to promote civil rights, education, tolerance, equality and acceptance on the basis of sex and gender identity/expression in the State of Maryland,” the group said in its statement. “Gender Rights Maryland’s initial legislative goal is to see the passage of a comprehensive gender identity anti-discrimination bill by the end of the 2012 legislative session.”

Beyer told the Blade that the new group plans to work closely with Equality Maryland, which led efforts to push for the gender identity bill this year and in past years.

But she noted that the staff shake-up at Equality Maryland in April, when the board fired Meneses-Sheets and its chief fundraiser resigned in protest, has raised questions about whether it has the capability to begin lobbying effectively on the gender identity bill between now and January, when the legislature begins its 2012 session.

Beyer said one of the group’s first objectives will be to raise funds needed to hire a professional lobbyist to coordinate a campaign on behalf of the gender identity bill.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

16 Comments
  • I hope that Gender Rights Maryland will take a fresh look at the oppressive definition of “gender identity” in the legislation. I shope that it will modify the definition to ensure that the legislation achieves the goal of eradicating irrational discrimination while ensuring that it does not oppress women.

    • Examples Cathy? Honestly, you just keep the same sentence without noting any specifics.

      “…the goal of eradicating irrational discrimination while ensuring that it does not oppress women.”

      Totally curious about the wording here… you know I’m a woman right?

    • queerhummingbird

      do you mean to say that the definition oppresses cis-gender women? in what way?

  • Also, Maryland has banned discrimination based on sex – including sex stereotyping – for many years.

  • “In shakeup, HRC poised to lead Md. marriage effort”

    So – no changes at all going forward. I too hope that people change the definition in the gender identity bill and the 150 other bills around the country with this same language that have passed over the last three decades. We’ll of course have to stop ENDA and revoke the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act and repass it. But – no price is too high to pay for Cathy Brennan’s comfort.

    • Yes. This is of course all about me. Forget about roughly half of the population of the world.

      Seriously. If you spent as much time trying to be logical as you do following around an anonymous Interwabs person, you might find that you can be productive.

      • Indeed it is about you. Three decades of evidence in these laws notwithstanding – we should all bow to your preference in how we draft legislation else so bad thing might happen – that hasn’t happened. Solid advice about the innertubes too – you should get back to work.

  • Jeffrey Wigand Jr.

    Marty Rouse has been attempting to get Sultan Shakir installed as the Executive Director of Equality Maryland for months. This is the worst kept secret in Maryland. He made no secret of wanting Morgan to be fired and replaced by Sultan. When this did not happen, he came up with the idea for a separate “Campaign Manager” who would lead the effort to pass a marriage bill outside the structure of Equality Maryland. Want to guess who that “Campaign Manager” might be ?

    HRC has engineered similar takeovers of state organization efforts to pass marriage bills in Rhode Island (via Ray Sullivan) and New York (via Brian Ellner). Their offers of “help” come with the understanding that refusal to co-operate may jeopardize future funding assistance for the State organizations. Having failed to secure legislative protections at the federal level when Democrats had control of the House of Rrepresentatives, Senate and White House, they are looking for ways to justify their existence by overtaking State efforts.

    No one would argue that State legislative victories are welcome and necessary. But doing so in such an adversarial manner, under the threat of fiscal starvation, has contributed to the serious rifts that now exist among the state legislators, lgbt communities, staff and boards in both Rhode Island and Maryland. One can only wonder what will be left of Empire State Pride Agenda at the conclusion of the New York “marriage campaign”.

    • “One can only wonder what will be left of Empire State Pride Agenda at the conclusion of the New York ‘marriage campaign’.”

      But one needn’t wonder where trans equality in New York will be at the conclusion of that ‘campaign’ – it will be as non existent as it is today and was the second that SONDA was decanted.

  • Sharon Brackett

    Although we appreciate the article it should be pointed out that this is really two different unrelated news stories in one article.

    Gender Rights Maryland is an independent organization founded by Maryland transpeople. This formation is in response the opportunity presented by recent events including a new community awareness from the activities of the last legislative session, recent events within the state, and the Governor’s pledge of support for advancing rights in the coming legislative session. And although it is our intent to build useful coalitions with like minded rights organizations, we presently have no formal affiliation, or agreements, with any existing civil rights organization including those mentioned in the piece.

    We welcome interested parties and organizations to join us in support of our efforts. Please watch for our formal launch announcement in coming weeks.

    Sharon Brackett – Board Chair, Gender Rights Maryland
    sharon@GenderRightsMaryland.org

  • “Gender Rights Maryland is an independent organization founded by Maryland transpeople”

    So let’s see, a group founded by the most visible trans people who set themselves up to defend EqMD and, by extension, our subordinate position within the “movement” decided to form a group. A group that is totally not going to continue to shelving trans issues so that the GLB can get what they want at the expense of the needs of trans people.

    If these battles weren’t so important, I’d be laughing right now. Instead..I’m just a little sickened that a group who so willingly ignored the BS from last session, who were so willing to make excuses for the LGB’s history hink that can speak for me and women like me… disgusting.

  • The fact still remains that the national organizations pressured us to recommit the marriage bill and the rank and file did not want that. We are the voters, NOT HRC or Freedom to Marry. We appreciate your help, but this is our state. We wanted to know where people stood and YOU blocked us from finding that out. If Equality Maryland has HRC take any management role in the organization or making legislative decisions, the Equality Maryland needs to find a new state to go to work for and we’ll create our own new lobbying group. If Equality Maryland wants support locally then they need to do what locals want done.

  • Concerned RI Lesbian

    The author of this piece might find the situation in Rhode Island of interest (or concern) — almost the identical scenario… What is up with HRC?

  • Jonah Leinowens

    I think people need to remember that Marty Rouse came from Massachusetts where there is marriage equality, and in large part due to Marty’s work at building a coalition of both local and national organizations. I think this is called strength in numbers if I am not mistaken. And HRC also does a lot of behind the scene stuff that they don’t take credit for. I think that people need to either get on board with the coalition or join the Christian Right or just STFU!

    • Jeffrey Wigand, Jr

      Good call Jonah.

      I believe that was exactly how Marty and HRC put it to the state organizations in NY, RI and MD: “I think that people need to either get on board with the coalition or join the Christian Right or just STFU! “

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