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‘Strategic blunder of monstrous proportions’

Insiders rip HRC, Gill decision to cancel Maryland vote on marriage

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The decision to cancel a March 11 vote on a same-sex marriage bill in the Maryland House of Delegates was a mistake that could hurt rather than help the chances for passing the bill within the next several years, according to Maryland-based advocates who lobbied for the bill.

The advocates who expressed this view, some of whom spoke on condition that they not be identified, said at least four national LGBT groups put pressure on lawmakers through Equality Maryland, the statewide LGBT group, to withdraw the bill rather than risk a losing vote.

One of the advocates called the national groups and their political operatives who came to Maryland to lobby for the bill well intentioned but unfamiliar with the nuances and “rhythms” of the Maryland Legislature.

“I think this was a strategic blunder of monstrous proportions,” said Mark McLaurin, political director of Maryland’s Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which lobbied for the bill.

McLaurin, a gay man who has lobbied the Maryland Legislature for progressive causes for more than 15 years, said many insiders familiar with the legislature don’t think a losing vote by a close margin would hurt the bill’s chances in the future.

On the other hand, McLaurin and others who favored taking a vote on the marriage bill said the legislature has a history of not taking up highly controversial bills two years in a row. McLaurin said he fears that the bill won’t come back for a vote until 2015, even though Speaker of the House Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) said he would try to bring the measure back in 2012.

Busch said supporters appeared to fall just a few votes shy of the 71 votes needed to pass the bill in the 141-member House. However, he said wavering delegates might have chosen to vote “yes,” raising the possibility that the bill could have passed.

Several knowledgeable sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed with McLaurin’s assessment.

“Gill and HRC decided it was detrimental to the larger movement to have the vote go down,” one source said. “Gays and lesbians in Maryland deserved a debate and a vote on legislation that we waited years for.”

Another source criticized Busch’s handling of the bill.

Maryland House of Delegates Majority Leader Kumar Barve and Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“[Speaker Michael] Busch could have squeezed harder but didn’t. This is a new House of Delegates and this man didn’t bother to take the temperature of the new House of Delegates. I was shocked. I thought House leadership was more strategic, intelligent and powerful than this and it all evaporated.

“God forbid we put our swing vote Democrats on the line to take a vote for our families. Or maybe the Speaker has lost control of his chamber.”

There was also criticism of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who the sources faulted for not taking a more public stand in support of the bill.

“O’Malley stopped by Friday for a photo op with marriage supporters,” one source said. “What a vacant gesture at the 11th hour. You couldn’t write an op-ed the week before?”

The Civil Marriage Protection Act won approval in the Maryland Senate earlier this month. It died last Friday for at least this year when the House of Delegates approved by voice vote a motion to send it back to committee.

All of the bill’s sponsors, including seven openly gay members of the House of Delegates, appeared to support the motion, a development that stunned LGBT activists watching the proceedings from the visitors’ gallery.

The motion to recommit the bill to committee came after supporters and opponents engaged in an emotional, two-and-a-half hour debate over the bill.  Most of the activists for and against the bill watching from the galleries didn’t know that the bill’s sponsors had decided beforehand to cancel the vote.

McLaurin said he learned from those attending strategy meetings that the eight-member LGBT Caucus of the legislature was divided over whether to postpone the House vote.

The caucus includes Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Montgomery County), and House of Delegates members Maggie McIntosh, Mary Washington, and Luke Clippinger, each Democrats from Baltimore; Heather Mizeur, Bonnie Cullison, and Anne Kaiser, each Democrats from Montgomery County; and Peter Murphy, a Democrat from Charles County.

Spokespersons for Equality Maryland, the statewide LGBT group that led the lobbying effort for the bill, and officials with the national groups Freedom to Marry and Human Rights Campaign defended the decision to withdraw the bill.

They said the decision was made jointly by the bill’s lead sponsors, including the one gay male and six lesbian delegates, who determined it was better to postpone the vote than to risk a losing vote, which they said would be perceived as a defeat.

“This is a strategic effort to give ourselves more time to make the case and win,” said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. “And all of us believe we can win. It’s just a matter of nailing down the votes and getting there.”

HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz said the decision to cancel the vote came after it became clear that supporters didn’t have the votes to pass it.

“This was a shared decision by all the stakeholders – Equality Maryland, the state’s LGBT Caucus, Gill Action, Freedom to Marry, and HRC,” he said. “It was the consensus belief that the best way to win marriage in Maryland was by a delay and not by losing a vote.”

Officials with Gill Action, a philanthropic group founded by gay businessman Tim Gill in Colorado that funds LGBT rights causes, did not return a call seeking comment.

An official with the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, Robin Brand, also pushed for postponing the vote, activists familiar with the legislature said. Brand told the Blade she discussed the issue with the gay delegates in the Victory Fund’s role of working with openly gay elected officials. She said she left it up to them to decide on whether or not a vote should be taken.

McLaurin, a former member of the Equality Maryland board, said the advocates who wanted the vote to go forward believe it would have been worth “a roll of the dice” to determine if supporters had the 71 votes needed to pass the bill.

“In the worst case scenario we would have come up two or three votes short,” he said. “And I think that a loss by two or three votes would be much more galvanizing to the community of supporters that we’re going to need to rally and accomplish this goal.”

McLaurin added, “Either way it was going to get billed as a failure. I’d rather have on record who’s with us and who’s against us.”

Another former Equality Maryland board member, David Toth, wrote in a Facebook posting that the group was deleting messages left on its own Facebook page that were posted by a large number of supporters who expressed outrage over the decision not to have a vote on the bill.

“Anyone who is asking questions of EqMD or its staff is having their posts deleted like crazy,” he wrote. “After donating thousands of dollars and working on the board for over six years I simply find this appalling.”

Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Wolfson of Freedom to Marry cautioned that a public fight over the decision not to have a vote could hurt efforts to bring the bill back next year.

“This is a temporary pause in the voting and it’s not a pause in the work,” he said. “So we don’t need finger pointing and recriminations, we need redoubling the effort to win.”

Although Equality Maryland, led by executive director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets, was billed as the lead organization calling the shots, insiders say field workers from the national groups like Freedom to Marry, HRC and Gill Action Fund far outnumbered Equality Maryland’s staffers working the halls of the legislature in Annapolis.

It was the national groups, rather than Equality Maryland, that had the ear of supportive lawmakers, including the LGBT Caucus members, during the days leading up to the scheduled vote on the bill in the House, McLaurin and other insiders said.

In a March 10 e-mail sent to LGBT Caucus members and other lawmakers supporting the bill, representatives of Freedom to Marry, Gill Action and HRC urged the lawmakers to postpone the vote.

“With the rights of so many Marylanders on the line, we wanted to flag our serious concern about going to a floor vote tomorrow when it’s not been confirmed we have 71 votes,” the e-mail says. “Various counts have us at 69 or 70 but not 71 or beyond.”

The e-mail adds, “The decision on whether to ask the leadership to move forward or postpone the vote rests with our openly LGBT legislators and other sponsors (in consultation with EQMD) who know their colleagues far better than we do, and who have so courageously led the way.”

The e-mail was signed by Bill Smith and Sarah Vaughn, national political director and deputy political director of Gill Action; Marty Rouse and Sultan Shakir, the lead officials at HRC’s field office; and Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry.

In a separate e-mail sent the next day to most of the same people, HRC’s Rouse warned of serious political consequences if a vote on the marriage bill were to be taken.

“I plead with you to please delay this vote,” he said. “It would be devastating to suffer a huge loss. There will be vitriol and pain that may take years to soothe.”

Rouse said he also feared that a losing vote would damage relationships between the LGBT community and lawmakers who voted against the bill.

“I am sure that relationships are already frayed, but, if there are impassioned speeches on the floor, and tears shed, and we still lose, those relationships will be damaged even more. The air in the chamber will be toxic for months if not years,” he said.

McLaurin said at least some of the strained relations that Rouse mentioned have already come about, in part, because of the impassioned debate on the House floor that took place on March 11. He said he was puzzled over why those making the decision chose to have the debate and not go one step further to allow a vote to take place.

According to McLaurin, Speaker Busch left it up to the bill’s supporters and Equality Maryland to make the final call on whether to have a vote.

“From what I’ve been told by people in the know, he said, ‘What’s your pleasure? I’ll defer to you.’”

“And so from my understanding, there was a lot of pressure from the national organizations not to pull the trigger on a vote unless you are certain you had 71 votes because apparently it would demoralize our [same-sex marriage] efforts in Rhode Island and New York,” said McLaurin.

“I say poppycock. Pulling the bill from the floor is a defeat every bit as much as a losing vote is,” he said.

McLaurin said he thinks some of the national LGBT officials pushing for a delay in the Maryland vote had a fundamental misunderstanding that the Maryland House of Delegates would act like the New York State Senate acted in 2008, when it defeated a same-same marriage bill by a 38-24 vote.

Most supporters of the New York bill thought the vote would be much closer. Gay State Sen. Tom Duane (D-Manhattan) said he believed he had lined up enough votes to pass the measure. But when a roll-call vote started, a few wavering senators voted no, causing what observers called a cascading or “avalanche” effect, prompting others whose support was shaky to vote no.

McLaurin said such a development could not happen in the Maryland House of Delegates because all votes are cast electronically at the same time. No one knows who votes which way until the final tally is released seconds after the votes are cast. Pages on the floor then distribute a printout showing how the delegates voted.

“That’s why one of my underlying themes is you’ve got to know the Maryland Legislature,” he said. “We can’t have national groups fly in from L.A. and New York and train in from D.C. and conduct this campaign because we’re fundamentally different. We’re a different body.”

If some of the national group representatives had been in Annapolis at the time the legislature debated a highly contentious bill to repeal the state’s death penalty in 2007 or during several abortion related debates in the 1990s they would have seen a great reluctance to revisit these issues a second time, McLaurin said.

“What I fear is next year there’s just not going to be the stomach to do this again,” he said in discussing the marriage bill. “If you listened to the debate on the floor, everyone spoke of how deeply divided the House was, how deeply emotional this was, how it frayed relationships, how people weren’t speaking to each other.

“Do you think they will have the stomach to do that again next year without any reasonable expectation of a different outcome because they’re still pitching the same ideas to the same audience?”

“No one would be happier to be wrong about this than me,” he said. “But I just don’t think that I am. And I know I’m not alone. Some of the chief strategists behind this bill feel the same way I do.”

Wolfson of Freedom to Marry disputes that assessment.

“Anyone who is making comments to you or to anyone else suggesting that somehow this is over and it’s now a cause for finger pointing has failed to understand that it’s not over,” he said. “We’re in the midst of the work and we all should keep our eye on the prize of doing what we can to round up the last few votes and win.”

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District of Columbia

D.C. ceremony welcomes affirming church as ‘full standing’ UCC congregation

Bishop Abrams officially installed as pastor of UCC Empowerment Liberation Cathedral

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Bishop Allyson Abrams (far right) was installed as pastor of UCC Empowerment Liberation Cathedral.

The Mt. Rainier, Md.-based Empowerment Liberation Cathedral, which Washington Blade readers have selected for five years as the D.C. area’s Best LGBTQ Church, was honored as an official United Church of Christ congregation in a ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Plymouth United Church of Christ on North Capitol Street in D.C.

The ceremony, organized by the Potomac Association of the United Church of Christ, which admitted Empowerment Liberation Cathedral as a UCC congregation last fall, also officially installed lesbian Bishop Allyson Abrams as pastor of the now UCC-affiliated Empowerment Liberation Cathedral.

Abrams founded Empowerment Liberation Cathedral in 2014 at its original location in Silver Spring, Md., as a nondenominational Protestant church that she declared would be a welcoming and affirming congregation “where all of God’s children are welcomed,” including LGBTQ people of faith. Washington Blade readers have also named Abrams the D.C. area’s Best Clergy for seven years.

Although many consider Empowerment Liberation Cathedral a “gay” church, one of its spokespersons, Kendrick Keys, told the Washington Blade ELC considers itself a welcoming church and congregation open to everyone, even though he said a majority but not all of its members are LGBTQ.  

A biography of Abrams prepared by the LGBTQ Religion Archives Network says her founding of Empowerment Liberation Cathedral came one year after she resigned as pastor of the Zion Progress Baptist Church in Detroit in 2013 and two years after she was consecrated as a bishop at Pneuma Christian Fellowship, a religious order in Orange County, Calif.

The biography says Abrams created a stir in 2013 shortly before her resignation as pastor of Zion Progressive Baptist Church, when she announced to the congregation that she had just married another female bishop, Diana Williams, who at the time was Bishop Emeritus of the Imani Temple African American Catholic Congregation.

A short time after that, Abrams and Williams moved to the D.C.-Maryland area where Abrams mapped out plans to open the Empowerment Liberation Cathedral known as ELC.

 “Bishop Abrams came to the Washington, D.C. area with a new blitz about her marriage to another female bishop,” a statement released by ELC says. “She was outcast by many organizations and religious groups for declaring you could be gay and Christian,” the statement says.

“When Abrams decided to open a church in the Washington Metropolitan Area many media outlets discussed her keeping her faith and opening a church for those who have been marginalized and disenfranchised from the church and from their legacies in churches across America,” the statement continues.

“Bishop Abrams has remained on the forefront of ministry and has united with a denomination that believes in justice and equality for all – the United Church of Christ,” says the statement.

It was referring to the United Church of Christ’s status as an LGBTQ-affirming church that welcomes LGBTQ people into its services and congregations.

A separate ELC statement says among those attending and participating in the Feb. 25 ceremony at Plymouth Church were pastors, bishops, ministers, parishioners, community leaders, organizations affiliated with ELC and the United Church of Christ’s Potomac Association.

Among them was Japer Bowles, director of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, who delivered a statement from Bowser.

“As Mayor of Washington, D.C., I congratulate Empowerment Liberation Cathedral as you join the United Church of Christ (UCC) family and install Bishop Alyson Abrams as pastor,” the statement says. “As you gather to celebrate this momentous occasion, may both pastor and congregation be inspired to even higher heights of achievement and service to our communities,” the mayor’s statement says.

The Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes D.C.’s annual LGBTQ Pride parade and festival, issued its own statement congratulating Empowerment Liberation Cathedral. The statement mentions that in 2016, Capital Pride honored Bishop Abrams as a Capital Pride Hero “in acknowledgement of her work in the faith community for the acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ+ Christians.”

ELC spokesperson Keys said the church holds its weekly Sunday services at the Mt. Rainier Arts Center at 3311 Rhode Island Ave., Mt. Rainier, Md.

He said a nonprofit community services organization created by ELC called Empowerment Justice Center, is located at 1015 15th Street, N.W., Room 653 in D.C. The church office is also at that location, Keys said. 

Further information about church services and events can be obtained by contacting ELC at 202-798-4371 or at empowermentliberationcathedral.org.

But Keys said the church’s location in Maryland had not been updated on the website, which lists its former location in Lanham, Md., rather than its current location in Mt. Rainier.

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Virginia

Va. lieutenant governor misgenders Danica Roem

Manassas Democrat is first trans person elected to state Senate

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Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears speaks at CPAC in 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears on Monday misgendered state Sen. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) on the Virginia Senate floor.

WVTF Richmond Bureau Chief Brad Kutner in an X post said Earle-Sears, who is a Republican, referred to Roem, who is a transgender woman, as “sir” during a debate on House Bill 964, which would allow attorneys to serve as the executive director of the Virginia Board of Medicine. 

Kutner said the Senate went “recess twice after reportedly ‘Sears refused to apologize.'”

“I’m not here to upset anyone, I’m here to do the job the people of Virginia have called me to do,” Earle-Sears later said, according to Kutner.

Roem in 2018 became the first trans person seated in a state legislature in the country when she assumed her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Voters in the 30th Senate District last November elected her to the Senate. Roem is the first trans person seated in the chamber.

The Washington Blade on Monday reached out to Roem, but she declined comment.

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District of Columbia

GW transgender, nonbinary student group criticizes Utah governor’s on campus comments 

Spencer Cox decried ‘genital-mutilation surgeries’

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Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (Photo courtesy of Cox's office)

A George Washington University transgender and nonbinary student group has criticized Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s comments about gender-affirming health care that he made last week during an on-campus.

The GW Hatchet reported Cox on Feb. 21 described gender-affirming health care as “genital-mutilation surgeries” during a “Disagree Better” event the university’s School of Media and Public Affairs hosted. Jonah Goldberg, a conservative writer and commentator, and NPR “Morning Edition” host Michel Martin also participated in the event that Frank Sesno, a GWU School of Media and Public Affairs professor who was previously CNN’s Washington Bureau chief, moderated.

The Transgender and Nonbinary Students of GW in a post to its Instagram page said it is “hurt, ashamed and frustrated that such harmful language was allowed to be given a platform on our campus.”

“Fear mongering claims that young trans people are ‘mutilating our bodies’ are factually incorrect and damaging to our community,” said the group in its post that notes the event took place days after Nex Benedict, a nonbinary student in Oklahoma, died after a fight in their high school’s bathroom. “Gender-affirming care for minors saves lives, and is approved by reputable institutions, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychiatric Association.”

The GW Hatchet notes Cox told Sesno that he invited trans youth and their families to the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City “to discuss state measures that pertain to transgender people, a conversation that he said led to legislative change.” 

Cox in 2022 vetoed a bill that banned trans students from playing on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. The Utah Legislature later overrode his veto.

The governor last year signed a bill that bans gender-affirming health care for minors in his state. Cox last month signed a bill that prevents trans and nonbinary people from using restrooms and locker rooms in public schools and government buildings that correspond to their gender identity.

The GW Hatchet reported Cox in response to a student’s question said “no one” in Utah has died by suicide because they were unable to access gender-affirming care.

“I care deeply about these kids. I love these kids. I want these kids to thrive. I want these kids to be successful,” Cox said, according to the GW Hatchet. “I think there’s a better way to do that than by having genital-mutilation surgeries before they’re 18 and old enough to have a rational decision, to actually make a decision for themselves. And so we can disagree with that.”

“As the only trans student org at GW, we refuse to let our community have their right to exist be put up for debate and threatened by disinformation,” said the Transgender and Nonbinary Students of GW in their statement. “We call on GW administration to consider ways in which they can repair the harm caused by Gov. Cox’s statements on campus, and make the safety of their trans students, faculty and staff a priority in a sociopolitical climate that is fixated on our eradication.”

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