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Unfinished business as lawmakers prepare to convene

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In the two and a half months since her appointment, Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the new executive director of Equality Maryland, has been visiting cities and towns across the state and introducing herself to the LGBT community.

Now, as the 2010 Maryland legislative session approaches — with significant unfinished business as it relates to LGBT issues — the DC Agenda, in partnership with Baltimore OUTLoud, sat down with Meneses-Sheets to talk about the political landscape and the strategies her organization intends to employ to advance pro-LGBT legislation.

The 2010 session begins Jan. 13 and runs through April 12. Equality Maryland’s Lobby Day is scheduled for Feb. 8 in Annapolis.

Agenda: Since you were selected for the position of executive director at Equality Maryland, you have been going non-stop on a statewide tour, meeting people and organizations. How has this been valuable to you?

Morgan Meneses-Sheets: I am committed to ensuring that Equality Maryland truly represents the needs and interests of Maryland’s LGBT community. Attending community events and making presentations has enabled me to start to build strong partnerships and have authentic conversations about the future of our organization and the LGBT movement.

The welcome receptions have been my coming out parties to introduce me to the community as the new director. They have offered me an opportunity to emphasize that we have a strong team in place and we are ready to get it done.

Agenda: You were successful in building a nationwide advocacy program from the ground up when you were with the Amputee Coalition of America. How did that experience, plus the experience gained from the other positions you held, prepare you for your role at Equality Maryland?

Meneses-Sheets: From day one with the ACA, I was charged with building a strong, grassroots network that would have the ability to generate enough pressure to impact the policy making process in each of the state legislatures. We were successful in passing over a dozen different bills to enhance access to care. It was all about doing the work to engage and develop our local supporters, identify and cultivate relationships with potential partners and being strategic each step of the way.

In January, we are launching the Equality Maryland Vision Task Force. The task force will be comprised of thought-leaders in various areas including development, communications, organizing and program development. The goal of the Task Force is to work with us to create a comprehensive strategic plan to ensure that we not only have the key votes, but also create true and lasting equality throughout the Free State.

Agenda: We head into 2010 with some restrained hopes based on the experience here in Maryland over the past several years concerning the signature issue of marriage equality. Is there any reason to be more hopeful this time around and if so, why?

Meneses-Sheets: We have built a strong foundation, but there is still work to be done. 2010 is a build year. We have to really invest in building a network of pro-equality activists, public officials and religious leaders through education and outreach efforts. We are working to design an ambitious and sophisticated PAC plan to ensure the election of candidates who believe in fairness and equality.

This year is about building momentum and putting the plans and tactics in place to take us through the elections into a legislative victory. We are also already laying out a wide-ranging strategy to ensure that we have the necessary public support to beat back a referendum aimed at rolling back our gains.

Activists must not only remain hopeful, but also be committed. We need Marylanders and all of our supporters to be in this with us for the long haul.

Agenda: We had a mixed year in 2009 concerning LGBT rights, especially marriage equality. New states legalized it while another, Maine, had it stripped away at the ballot box. And in New York it was defeated in a disheartening vote by the Senate. What lessons, if any, have you drawn from these two significant defeats?

Meneses-Sheets: We have certainly had our share of ups and downs over the past year, but the mere fact that our issues have been front and center in the public arena is a sign of progress. People are talking about LGBT equality. Lawmakers are really digging in on our issues in state legislatures, county councils and Congress.

The loss in Maine was devastating and yet we must remember that we lost by less than 30,000 votes. That is huge! New York was a disappointment and yet the week before the loss in the Senate, New York was also the site of a big step forward in case law. The New York Court of Appeals issued a favorable ruling on marriage recognition for same-sex couples. The Court of Appeals left in place lower courts’ rulings applying New York’s marriage recognition rule to marriages of same-sex couples.

According to a recent poll sponsored by Equality Maryland, for the first time a majority of Marylanders support passage of the Religious Freedom & Civil Marriage Protection Act. We are currently working with a number of funders and partners to launch a wide-scale plan to engage with partners in communities of color and communities of faith, as well as to build on our past successes with the Pride in Faith initiative and our strong partnership with the Maryland Black Family Alliance.

We have had some setbacks this year, but we have also had some huge steps forward. It is going to take time and hard work, but we are confident that equality will win out in the end. We are fighting for civil rights. That has never been easy, but it is certainly worth it.

Agenda: Besides marriage equality and transgender protection, what other legislation are you hoping to pass this year? And would you be willing to accept civil unions at this time?

Meneses-Sheets: Civil unions provide no guarantee that the protections will travel with them to other states. They are second-class protections. Equality under the law for same-sex couples means equal marriage rights. The same social, legal and financial benefits currently afforded to heterosexual couples in Maryland can only be replicated for same-sex couples by granting the same marriage license.

While we are still working with our legislative committee to finalize our agenda for 2010, there are a number of important issues that we would like to support in addition to anti-discrimination protections and marriage equality.

The Maryland Family Medical Leave Act would allow people to utilize leave for their brother, sister, grandparent, grandchild, or domestic partner. Family leave can be used to provide care to family members with serious health conditions or in the case of the birth of a child.

Agenda: You and your wife Rae married in Vermont … with the hope that, until marriage equality is passed here, Maryland will recognize our marriages from other jurisdictions. Now our next-door neighbor, Washington, D.C., is poised to [enact] same-sex marriages. We’ve been waiting a long time for Attorney General Doug Gansler to issue an opinion on whether Maryland can recognize our marriages.
What’s holding the decision up? And what is Equality Maryland doing to put pressure on Gansler?

Meneses-Sheets: Many couples around our great state have made the trip to places like California, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut to get a marriage license. But when they return home, this piece of paper may be suitable for framing, but does not come with any of the 400 or so benefits provided by the state for other married couples.

Equality Maryland has been working in coalition with groups like the ACLU and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to conduct research on past precedent and work with local legal scholars to submit supporting information and analysis to the Attorney General’s office as part of this process. In November, we also solicited stories and pictures from local folks who received licenses in other states to submit as part of the public comment process.

There is legal precedent in the state of Maryland to honor the licenses of couples validly married elsewhere. The Attorney General’s opinion will determine the legal possibility of building on that precedent to honor the licenses from other states or countries. The decision is pending.

Agenda: What are you hearing about the timing of the opinion’s release?

Meneses-Sheets: In a recent interview with WTOP, Mr. Gansler suggested that the opinion would come out either before the session or early in the session. While we are all anxious to hear back, we know first hand from our recent dealings with the AG’s office around the [Maryland Vehicle Administration] issue that they are bombarded with new requests and obligations every week as part of helping to do the business of the state.

The initial analysis by many prominent legal experts suggests that we are in a strong position as a state to provide legal recognition of out-of-state licenses. We are holding out for a positive opinion.

Agenda: What will be the impact of the legalization of same-sex marriage in D.C.?

Meneses-Sheets: This will be just one step in our journey toward full equality. Now that LGBT couples can obtain a marriage license by simply traveling to the District, Maryland must move forward in not only recognizing out-of-state marriages, but we must also pass the Religious Freedom & Civil Marriage Protection Act.

Agenda: Let’s talk about Lobby Day, which is a significant event in the quest to gain equal rights in Maryland. There are those who have criticized the rally in the past for its declining turnout and logistical snafus, particularly in lighting and sound at the rally. Are there any steps you plan to take to remedy these concerns for the Feb. 8 event?

Meneses-Sheets: We had a record turnout in 2007 as part of the push around the Court opinion. After the very disappointing ruling, some folks were quite disempowered, but in recent months we have really seen an increase in excitement and commitment from our activists. Maryland is on a short list of states that have the potential to enact true marriage equality in the next couple of years. We just received a two-year grant to support enhancing our organizing around equal protections for transgender Marylanders. We are truly on the cusp of making sweeping changes, so we have an obligation to do all we can to not only build support, but also demonstrate the strong support for our legislative priorities.

Lawmakers need to talk with their constituents. They need to hear our stories — otherwise we are letting our opposition tell them who we are.

Agenda: We have a Democratic governor, the leaders of both legislative chambers are Democrats, and the overwhelming majority of the General Assembly are Democrats. We have made some important progress over the past four years or so, yet we cannot seem to wrest the two remaining big bills — marriage equality and transgender protections — from committee. Is there a strategy in place to move the bills so at least there could be an up-or-down vote?

Meneses-Sheets: While we should maintain perspective on the recent setbacks, we also have to realize that each loss gives our opposition another opportunity to claim a victory and gain ground. We are truly making progress, but we have to be smart about each step that we take. We have to lay the groundwork so that we can not only win on our important issues, but also protect and maintain those wins. We are taking the time to really think through every tactic, every target and every step along the way.

We will work to generate pressure at the grassroots level to push for co-sponsors and really ramp up support for our key issues. In many ways, 2010 will be a building year. We have work to do to continue to educate lawmakers, increase our organizing efforts and build the campaign we need to not only win, but also protect our victories.

Agenda: Does Equality Maryland plan any face-to-face meetings with the governor and/or Senate and House leaders on these issues?

Meneses-Sheets: We have been working with the governor’s office around the MVA issue. We have also reached out to a number of leaders in the Assembly and Senate as we work to prepare for the upcoming session. We will continue to leverage every opportunity to sit down with key stakeholders and partners as we work to advance our legislative priorities.

Steve Charing is managing editor of Baltimore OUTLoud and can be reached via baltimoreoutloud.com.

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Film ‘Wonderfully Made LGBTQ+R(eligion)’ set for D.C. premiere

Documentary explores challenges faced by queer Catholics

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‘Wonderfully Made LGBTQ+R(eligion)’ premieres in D.C. on Dec. 12.

A feature-length documentary film called “Wonderfully Made LGBTQ+R(eligion),” which explores how religion has played a leading role in perpetuating anti-LGBTQ attitudes and highlights the challenges and aspirations of LGBTQ Catholics, is scheduled for a special D.C. screening on Dec. 12 at the E Street Cinema.

The film’s director is gay filmmaker, actor, and LGBTQ rights advocate Yuval David. It was jointly produced by David and his husband, attorney and LGBTQ Catholic advocate Mark McDermott. The premiere D.C. showing of the film is being hosted by Real Affirmations, D.C.’s LGBTQ film festival.

“The film focuses on the Catholic Church because it is one of the largest religious organizations in the world, and because its anti-LGBTQ+ stance is known and growing more hardline, at least in some circles,” a statement announcing the D.C. showing of the film says.

“The narrative of the film is shaped by the process of a fine art project creating unprecedented, photographic iconography depicting Jesus as a member/ally of the LGBTQ+ community, represented by multiple LGBTQ+ models,” the statement says.

David and McDermott told the Washington Blade in a Nov. 21 interview that production of the film was completed at the end of August of this year, and it has since been shown at film festivals across the U.S. and overseas. It was honored as the Best Feature Film at the LGBTQ Toronto Film Festival.

“One of the things we discuss in our film and the way this makes it contemporary, and even pertaining to this horrible shooting [at the LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado] and the various other attacks on the LGBTQ community, is the fact that the vast majority of anti-LGBTQ and homophobic beliefs, including laws and legislation, are on the basis of religion,” David said.

“Ninety something percent of homophobia and anti-LGBTQ beliefs are on the basis of religion,” David said he and McDermott saw in research findings.

David and McDermott said one of their objectives for the film, which includes interviews with leading LGBTQ Catholic activists and supportive Catholic priests, was to show how images of the church and Jesus through art and iconography going back several centuries has impacted the religious views of Catholics, including LGBTQ Catholics.

Among the LGBTQ supportive people interviewed in the film include Sister Jeannine Gramick, a Catholic nun who co-founded New Ways Ministry, the LGBTQ Catholic advocacy organization; Marianne Duddy-Burke, president of Dignity USA, the national LGBTQ Catholic group; and Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author, and outspoken advocate for LGBTQ supportive policies in the Catholic Church.

The film also discusses the fact that the top leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has issued statements in support of LGBTQ Catholics while at the same time some if not many Catholic cardinals and bishops have continued to promote traditional church doctrine condemning homosexuality.

David and McDermott point to their film’s groundbreaking use of a form of iconography that they and their creative team, including photographers, created as part of an art project to make the church’s imagery more welcoming to LGBTQ people.

“The idea behind this is in Christianity and Catholicism, Jesus has always been portrayed one way for the last 1,700 years,” McDermott told the Blade. “That he has been portrayed as a white man of Northern European descent with blond hair and blue eyes. And as we set up the film, we wanted to challenge that history of art, change it,” he said, to show that “the divine is in all of us,” including LGBTQ people.

McDermott and David told how they conducted a casting call for actors and models to portray Jesus as LGBTQ people who were highly diverse by way of ethnicity, gender, and gender expression. To their amazement, about 500 people responded to the casting call.

“And out of that enormous group we selected nine models,” David said. “And the people we cast are truly a diverse array of LGBTQIA+ people representing different ethnicities, different races, different genders, different body types,” he said. “We wanted to cast people who not only were models but actors and people who truly identify with this topic,” David said.

Several of the actor-models are interviewed in the film, with some describing their own experiences as a person of faith in a church that is sometimes not accepting of them.

David said several thousand still photos were taken of the nine model-actors selected to portray Jesus. He said about 160 of the photo images were selected to be shown in the film in which the actor-models portray Jesus in various stages of his life as described in the scriptures, including scenes of the crucifixion.

The still photos are shown in a dramatic presentation at the conclusion of the film, with each of the model-actors exhibiting highly emotional facial expressions, especially as they are shown tied to a cross with a crown of thorns.

McDermott said he and David came up with the film’s “Wonderfully Made” title from a biblical passage known as the Book of Psalms in which the biblical figure David says while praying to God, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Biblical scholars have said the word “fearfully” as used in that biblical passage by David was intended to mean with great reverence, heart-felt interest and with respect.

Mark McDermott and Yuval David told the Blade that while their film shows the hardship faced by LGBTQ Catholics and people of faith, many people of faith, including the religious experts they interview in the film, believe Catholicism and religion in general can be interpreted to be supportive of all people, including LGBTQ people.

But the two say a positive perspective on how religion has and continues to impact LGBTQ people, such as the story told in their film, is needed.

“Forty percent of our homeless kids are LGBTQ – 40 percent,” McDermott said. “And we know why they ended up homeless. They got thrown out of their houses by their own family,” he said. “And it’s almost always because of their family’s religious views.”

Added McDermott, “One in three LGBTQ kids in the last year contemplate or seriously think about suicide.”

According to he and David, stress or conflict with their family’s religious beliefs is very often the root cause of stress and depression among LGBTQ people. They are hopeful, they said, that their film will be seen by many facing these problems and who may be helped by the film’s strong message that it’s ok to be a person of faith and LGBTQ.

“We created this for those who must see this, so they don’t feel that way,” said David.
Tickets for the Dec. 12, 7 p.m. screening of “Wonderfully Made LGBTQ+R(eligion),” which is open to the public, can be purchased online or at the E Street Cinema at the time of the showing if tickets are still available.

A trailer preview of the film can be viewed here: wonderfullymadefilm.com; you can follow news of the film on social media, instagram.com/WonderfullyMadeMovie. Tickets can be purchased from the Reel Affirmations website and more information can be found on the Facebook event page here.

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District of Columbia

Man charged with assaulting lesbian activist pleads guilty, gets 14 months in jail

Aiyi’nah Ford hit in head with barstool at Congress Heights restaurant in August

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Lesbian activist Aiyi’nah Ford was attacked in August. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A D.C. Superior Court judge on Nov. 17 sentenced a 46-year-old D.C. man to 14 months in jail after he pleaded guilty in September to an assault charge for an incident in which he attacked lesbian activist Aiyi’nah Ford at a restaurant on Aug. 3

An arrest affidavit filed by D.C. police on Aug. 12 states that Donnell Anthony Peterson allegedly knocked Ford to the floor at the Player’s Lounge restaurant and bar in the city’s Congress Heights neighborhood before hitting her in the head twice with the metal legs of a barstool.

Ford told the Washington Blade that Peterson, who was a regular customer at Player’s Lounge as was she, assaulted her while repeatedly calling her a “dyke bitch” after the two got into a verbal argument over, among other things, the city’s violence interruption program. Ford said she told Peterson and others who were having a discussion that she considers the program to be ineffective and a “joke.”

According to court records, witnesses reported seeing Ford bleeding profusely from the head before an ambulance took her to George Washington University Hospital, where she received multiple stitches to treat a serious head wound.

Court records show that D.C. police, who were called to the scene at the time of the assault, initially charged Peterson with Assault With a Dangerous Weapon. The records show that Peterson through his attorney agreed in September to accept a plea bargain offer by prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C.

The offer called for lowering the charge to Assault With Significant Bodily Injury in exchange for pleading guilty with a promise by prosecutors to seek a sentence of no more than 14 month in jail.

The court records show that Superior Court Judge James A. Cromwell sentenced Peterson to 32 months of incarceration but suspended 18 months, requiring that he serve 14 months after which he would be released on probation. Court records show the probation was to last 18 months. Under court rules, if someone violates the terms of their probation, which almost always prohibits them from breaking the law or threatening a person they were charged with assaulting, the released person is ordered back to jail to serve the remaining time that had been suspended.

At the time Peterson was arrested in August a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, in response to a question from the Blade, declined to disclose why prosecutors chose not to classify Peterson’s assault against Ford as a hate crime based on her sexual orientation.

Ford told the Blade this week that the lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alec Levi, was supportive of her throughout the case and told her a hate crime designation sometimes makes it more difficult to obtain a conviction if a case goes to trial. Ford said Levi told her prosecutors wanted to do all they could to bring Peterson to justice for his attack against her.

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District of Columbia

Longtime activist Lane Hudson arrested on drug charges

Homeland Security launched probe leading to August 2021 raid

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Lane Hudson was arrested last year on drug charges. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Documents filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia show that law enforcement officers with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations division and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department arrested D.C. gay activist Thomas Lane Hudson on Aug. 11, 2021, on charges of possession with the intent to distribute illegal drugs.

An affidavit filed in court says the arrest took place at Hudson’s Logan Circle area apartment after officers forcibly entered the apartment when Hudson did not respond to their knocking on the door announcing their presence with a search warrant.

The affidavit says the officers discovered and seized illegal narcotics that were field tested and weighed and which included “1,096.4 grams of a mixture and substance containing Methamphetamine, a Schedule II controlled substance; 29.5 grams of a mixture and substance containing Heroin, a Schedule I controlled substance; and 322.974 fluid ounces of a mixture and substance containing Gamma Butyrolactone (‘GBL’), a Schedule I controlled substance.”

Court records show that Hudson was held without bond until at least Aug. 25, 2021, when U.S. District Court Judge Robin M. Meriweather approved a motion filed by prosecutors to seal the case from the public record on grounds that it “contains sensitive information regarding the underlying ongoing criminal investigation.”

The Aug. 25 entry that up until then was part of the public court record announcing the decision to seal the case did not disclose any information about an underlying or ongoing investigation. It also did not disclose why federal Homeland Security investigators became involved in a drug case ordinarily handled by D.C. police.

Hudson and his attorney, who is identified in the court records as Brian Keith McDaniel, did not respond to repeated requests by the Washington Blade for comment on the case and to disclose whether they dispute the accuracy of the charges filed against Hudson.

The arrest affidavit, which was filed before the case was sealed, remains a part of the public record. It says that in addition to the allegation that illegal drugs were seized from Hudson’s apartment, the officers conducting the search found “assorted items related to distribution of controlled substances.”

Among the items found, it says, were digital scales, plastic zip bags, vacuum sealer and vacuum sealer bags, a currency counting machine, and “approximately $48,000 in United States currency.” 

Although the public court records do not show whether Hudson was released while awaiting trial or was still being held, sources who know Hudson pointed out that he resumed posting messages on social media in December of 2021 after a period when no postings from him could be found. This suggests he has been released while the case remains pending.

Hudson’s arrest came less than a year before the D.C. Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance released its 2022 D.C. LGBTQ Election Guide called Leave No One Behind, which calls for the decriminalization of possession of currently illegal drugs for personal use.

Although the GLAA document doesn’t call for decriminalizing the selling of illegal drugs, it says “evidence demonstrates criminalization has done little to curb the prevalence of drugs in our communities and is not an effective way of getting people into treatment because it stigmatizes drug users.”

Hudson is well known in the D.C. area and among LGBTQ advocates locally and nationally. He was twice elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention; served on Hillary Clinton’s national finance committee; and once worked for the Human Rights Campaign. 

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