Things continue percolating for LGBT activist groups in Maryland. Gender Rights Maryland, a new group dedicated to getting trans protection legislation passed, had its launch events last weekend. And this week Equality Maryland announced a strategic plan for how it plans to regroup and rebuild for the rest of the year.
On June 23, Gender Rights held a gathering at Blair Mansion Inn Restaurant in Silver Spring. According to Dana Beyer, the group’s volunteer executive director, about 60 attended.
“It was kicked off with a lot of enthusiasm,” Beyer said. “There was a nice broad spectrum of people there and it was very inspiring. There was definitely a sense that this was a historic event. There’s never been a trans-focused politically directed organization in Maryland before.”
Last weekend, the group’s organizers met with leaders from national LGBT groups based in Washington at the DoubleTree Hotel on Rhode Island Avenue, then on Sunday the board held its first meeting. The organization has a 16-member board but hopes to expand to 18.
Beyer, who co-founded the organization with four other transgender Maryland residents, says the group has been a dream of hers for years. A number of considerations, Beyer says, factored into the timing of the group’s formation — a public accommodations bill getting further along toward passage (though it ultimately fell one vote shy of what it needed) in the state’s most recent legislative session and the national media attention that a video received showing Maryland resident Chrissy Lee Polis getting beaten in a McDonald’s restaurant in April. Beyer says many in the group have assisted Polis in getting help. They say she’s doing well. Polis attended Baltimore Pride two weekends ago.
Also last week, Equality Maryland announced a six-month “strategic action plan” that the organization’s remaining five board members are enacting. The organization is in the midst of “a thorough self-evaluation” the release said. Recent months have been tumultuous for the group. Former director Morgan Meneses-Sheets was fired in April. Two LGBT bills — one for same-sex marriage and another for transgender accommodations — failed earlier this year. The board is about half the size it was six months ago. Only one person remains on staff, an office manager. Other employees of recent months had contracts that were not renewed, the board said. After June 30, the organization will have two staff members — an office manager and a gender identity field organizer — and plans to retain Lynne Bowman as a contractor and to add Andy Szekeres as a fundraising consultant.
“Over the past two months, the remaining members of the board have undertaken a thorough process of self-evaluation,” said Patrick Wojahn, chair of Equality Maryland Foundation, which leads the organization’s education efforts, in the announcement. “Through individual conversations, over a dozen Listening Tour stops and more than 1,200 responses to our online survey, we have actively gathered input about what people want to see from their statewide equality organization. We have coupled that input with the results of a comprehensive internal review and developed a strong six-month plan that will allow Equality Maryland to become the organization it must be in order to achieve legislative and cultural equality in our state.”
Board Chair Lisa Polyak mentioned several other goals, such as a “major” reconstitution of the board with “more diversity and a bigger skills set,” the hiring — tentatively slated for fall — of a new executive director with a new job description, financial stabilization and “more input from the community about what our mission should be.”
Polyak said board members have left for a variety of reasons. At least one resigned over the handling of Meneses-Sheets’ employment but another, Scott Davenport, moved out of the area and another took on more responsibilities at his job, Polyak said.
“It wouldn’t be fair to characterize it as any one thing,” she said.
Polyak said the formation of Gender Rights Maryland is a “natural evolution for the trans community” and cited other states, such as New York and Massachusetts, that have both state LGBT organizations and separate transgender political groups.
“I think it’s a great thing,” she said. “It ultimately gives more power to the issue of gender identity concerns, which, frankly, just based on numbers, is numerically small. It makes sense that they might have their own organization for protections. … We look forward to working with them.”
Did the Equality Maryland upheaval contribute to the formation of Gender Rights Maryland? Beyer, a former Equality Maryland board member, said “nothing in politics or life is ever completely isolated” and that it’s hard to quantify to what degree one series of events affected her group’s launch.
“Our desire, willingness and determination to start really had nothing to do with Equality Maryland,” she said. “But that’s not to say that the vacuum left by having no trans board members there and the organization having spent most of its political capital on marriage didn’t provide an opening for us to take off and grow … I think it was the time. The time was now for us to grow, regardless of the state of Equality Maryland.”
The group’s main priority is to pass a comprehensive gender identity anti-discrimination bill by the end of the 2012 legislative session.
And has the passage of same-sex marriage in New York cast this year’s Maryland failings in a harsher light? Gov. Martin O’Malley told regional news outlets a stronger stance on his part in support would “have kicked it into the gutter of partisan division.”
Polyak doesn’t buy it.
“When you see executive leadership that is fully invested in the passage of any law, the chances of its success are much higher and that’s what we saw in New York. Gov. Cuomo used his policy tools as well as the bully pulpit and in closed door meetings admonished senators that our families and our relationships are just as valid. He spoke from the heart and there’s no substitute for authenticity. If Gov. O’Malley would show similar heart when he speaks of the commitment to this bill that he says he possesses, if he really put his heart into it and made it part of his legislative package for 2012, it would pass. It’s not a partisan issue. Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Republican, has spoken very movingly of his commitment from a civil rights standpoint and we believe there are those of a similar mind in the House of Delegates.”