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Accusations fly as Equality Md. copes with crisis

State group could close; board blames fired director for mismanagement

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Equality Maryland will likely lay off its four remaining staff members and could be forced to close if sufficient funds aren’t raised to cover costs, according to its board president, who blames the organization’s former executive director for the crisis.

“We brought in an interim executive director to assess the state of our resources,” said Charles Butler, Equality Maryland’s board president. “She did a rapid assessment and confirmed our fear that Equality Maryland has been perhaps irreparably damaged by the previous executive director.”

Morgan Meneses-Sheets was fired as director last month. Butler claims she entered into expensive contracts on behalf of the organization and hired staff without the board’s approval or knowledge.

“The most serious of the harms that we’re facing now is the depleted financial conditions of the organization, which may require the termination of existing staff due to the financial commitments [Meneses-Sheets] made on the organization’s behalf,” Butler said.

He appealed to the LGBT community in Maryland to step up and save the organization with donations of money and volunteer time.

“Hopefully the LGBT community in Maryland will come together and support the organization financially because otherwise that will leave a void in the state,” he said.

Meneses-Sheets sharply disputed Butler’s accusations and in a candid interview took aim at Equality Maryland’s board and even the state’s eight-member LGBT Caucus.

“I wish he’d be a grown up and allow me to move on,” she said, describing her termination as “a groundless rash decision.”

She denied entering into contracts without the board’s knowledge and claimed she wasn’t authorized to sign anything in the last six months of her tenure without approval. Further, she said she could not pay any bill in excess of $1,000 without approval from the board treasurer.

“We produced monthly reports and there weren’t contracts or liabilities they weren’t aware of, it’s complete nonsense,” Meneses-Sheets said. “Maybe Chuck wasn’t paying attention to the reports but they were generated.”

But a second knowledgeable source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Meneses-Sheets agreed to a payment plan with a vendor that included a June 2011 balloon payment in excess of $10,000. The source said Meneses-Sheets did not inform the board of the obligation. In addition, the source claims that Meneses-Sheets brought on four staffers as contractors without the knowledge or consent of the board.

In addition to the accusations of financial mismanagement, Butler said there were other problems with Meneses-Sheets’ performance. He claims she made a controversial decision to remove a public accommodations provision from the state’s gender identity non-discrimination bill without informing the board. That decision riled some transgender activists, who pulled their support for the bill, which ultimately died. Again, Meneses-Sheets denies that she acted unilaterally and said the decision to pull the provision came from the bill’s sponsor, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties).

“It’s unfortunate that the board chair is pointing fingers,” Meneses-Sheets said. “Board members were consulted … the decision was made by the sponsor and our choice was to support the bill. It’s ridiculous to suggest that I was running around willy-nilly.”

Again, Equality Maryland insiders paint a different picture. The anonymous source said Meneses-Sheets approached national LGBT partner organizations and the bill’s sponsor and “made a deal without board approval or knowledge.” By the time the board found out the public accommodations provision had been stripped, the bill was already being written in Annapolis and it was too late to change it, the source claims.

Butler also claimed that Meneses-Sheets left Equality Maryland’s member and donor database in disarray. He said the database was damaged while merging information from another database but that Meneses-Sheets didn’t inform the board.

“That database is arguably our most valuable material asset,” Butler said, adding that most donor information obtained at the organization’s fall gala that raised $25,000 was lost. He urged Equality Maryland donors to proactively contact the group as some e-mail addresses and phone numbers can’t be found.

Once again, Meneses-Sheets tells a very different story. She claims the database was “a wreck” when she arrived at Equality Maryland and that the new problem surfaced in the fall but that she brought on a volunteer to clean it up and rebuild it.

“Wrong,” the anonymous source said, “she knew the database was damaged and did nothing about it.”

Meneses-Sheets made allegations of her own — that she never had performance reviews, was treated unprofessionally, left the organization with money in the bank and that the board deceived her about the stability of the organization when she was hired. “They were in the red and barely getting by,” she said. Despite the accusations, she said she didn’t contemplate a lawsuit after her departure and never filed for unemployment benefits. She found a new job and now works for Pride at Work.

She claims that the eight-member LGBT Caucus was a “major force in choosing me as the scapegoat.”

“Several sources told me they played a big role in deciding I would be the scapegoat,” she said. “Should the LGBT legislators decide who staffs the LGBT organization? They’ve created an untenable situation where they dictate everything.”

Sources dispute the claim that Equality Maryland was in the red at the time the group hired Meneses-Sheets and insist that she neglected her responsibility to raise funds.

“Her idea of development was to go to happy hours all over the state of Maryland and ask for $5 donations,” the source said. “Her fundraising plan was never more sophisticated than that.”

The flap over Meneses-Sheets’ termination has offered a glimpse into how state LGBT rights groups interact with national groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry and the Gill Action Fund.

“The shit has hit the fan,” Meneses-Sheets said, “[the board] realizes there are major problems with the LGBT Caucus and that the national groups have their own agendas that have nothing to do with supporting Equality Maryland. They’ve gotten no money and they’re panicking.”

She claims that at the time she left the organization, there were rumors that HRC would keep Equality Maryland out of future efforts to pass a marriage equality bill, following this year’s failed attempt.

Butler confirmed that the national groups are involved in Maryland’s marriage fight. HRC’s regional field director, Sultan Shakir, began working at Equality Maryland’s headquarters office in Baltimore earlier this month.

“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.

Butler said the national groups are working on a campaign field strategy and a plan to combat an anticipated referendum to overturn a same-sex marriage law and that he’s unsure if that effort would be run out of Equality Maryland or be physically located elsewhere. Sainz denied rumors last week that HRC sought to install Shakir as the new Equality Maryland director.

But the marriage struggle in Maryland could be hampered if Equality Maryland is forced to close.

“We need your support, financially and otherwise, we need your involvement,” Butler said. “I’m fairly optimistic we can raise enough funds so that we can keep the organization running. I think we do have a realistic shot at getting the marriage bill and the gender identity bill passed in the next legislative session.”

Assuming the organization can raise funds to cover its expenses, Butler said the next step would be to hire an executive search firm to “find us a competent, strong director.” He said it’s important to work more closely with the community and, to that end, the organization now seeks to expand its board.

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District of Columbia

Bowser budget proposal calls for $5.25 million for 2025 World Pride

AIDS office among agencies facing cuts due to revenue shortfall

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed 2025 budget includes a request for $5.25 million in funding to support the 2025 World Pride celebration. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget includes a request for $5.25 million in funding to support the June 2025 World Pride celebration, which D.C. will host, and which is expected to bring three million or more visitors to the city.

The mayor’s proposed budget, which she presented to the D.C. Council for approval earlier this month, also calls for a 7.6 percent increase in funding for the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, which amounts to an increase of $132,000 and would bring the office’s total funding to $1.7 million. The office, among other things, provides grants to local organizations that provide  services to the LGBTQ community.

Among the other LGBTQ-related funding requests in the mayor’s proposed budget is a call to continue the annual funding of $600,000 to provide workforce development services for transgender and gender non-conforming city residents “experiencing homelessness and housing instability.” The budget proposal also calls for a separate allocation of $600,000 in new funding to support a new Advanced Technical Center at the Whitman-Walker Health’s Max Robinson Center in Ward 8.

Among the city agencies facing funding cuts under the mayor’s proposed budget is the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease, and Tuberculosis Administration, known as HAHSTA, which is an arm of the D.C. Department of Health. LGBTQ and AIDS activists have said HAHSTA plays an important role in the city’s HIV prevention and support services. Observers familiar with the agency have said it recently lost federal funding, which the city would have to decide whether to replace.

“We weren’t able to cover the loss of federal funds for HAHSTA with local funds,” Japer  Bowles, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, told the Washington Blade. “But we are working with partners to identify resources to fill those funding  gaps,” Bowles said.

The total proposed budget of $21 billion that Bowser submitted to the D.C. Council includes about $500 million in proposed cuts in various city programs that the mayor said was needed to offset a projected $700 million loss in revenue due, among other things, to an end in pandemic era federal funding and commercial office vacancies also brought about by the post pandemic commercial property and office changes.

Bowser’s budget proposal also includes some tax increases limited to sales and business-related taxes, including an additional fee on hotel bookings to offset the expected revenue losses. The mayor said she chose not to propose an increase in income tax or property taxes.

Earlier this year, the D.C. LGBTQ+ Budget Coalition, which consists of several local LGBTQ advocacy organizations, submitted its own fiscal year 2025 budget proposal to both Bowser and the D.C. Council. In a 14-page letter the coalition outlined in detail a wide range of funding proposals, including housing support for LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ seniors; support for LGBTQ youth homeless services; workforce and employment services for transgender and gender non-conforming residents; and harm reduction centers to address the rise in drug overdose deaths.

Another one of the coalition’s proposals is $1.5 million in city funding for the completion of the D.C. Center for the LGBTQ Community’s new building, a former warehouse building in the city’s Shaw neighborhood that is undergoing a build out and renovation to accommodate the LGBTQ Center’s plans to move in later this year. The coalition’s budget proposal also calls for an additional $300,000 in “recurring” city funding for the LGBTQ Center in subsequent years “to support ongoing operational costs and programmatic initiatives.”

Bowles noted that Bowser authorized and approved a $1 million grant for the LGBTQ Center’s new building last year but was unable to provide additional funding requested by the budget coalition for the LGBTQ Center for fiscal year 2025.

“We’re still in this with them,” Bowles said. “We’re still looking and working with them to identify funding.”

The total amount of funding that the LGBTQ+ Budget Coalition listed in its letter to the mayor and Council associated with its requests for specific LGBTQ programs comes to $43.1 million.

Heidi Ellis, who serves as coordinator of the coalition, said the coalition succeeded in getting some of its proposals included in the mayor’s budget but couldn’t immediately provide specific amounts.  

“There are a couple of areas I would argue we had wins,” Ellis told the Blade. “We were able to maintain funding across different housing services, specifically around youth services that affect folks like SMYAL and Wanda Alston.” She was referring to the LGBTQ youth services group SMYAL and the LGBTQ organization Wanda Alston Foundation, which provides housing for homeless LGBTQ youth.

“We were also able to secure funding for the transgender, gender non-conforming workforce program,” she said. “We also had funding for migrant services that we’ve been advocating for and some wins on language access,” said Ellis, referring to programs assisting LGBTQ people and others who are immigrants and aren’t fluent in speaking English.

Ellis said that although the coalition’s letter sent to the mayor and Council had funding proposals that totaled $43.1 million, she said the coalition used those numbers as examples for programs and policies that it believes would be highly beneficial to those in the LGBTQ community in need.

 “I would say to distill it down to just we ask for $43 million or whatever, that’s not an accurate picture of what we’re asking for,” she said. “We’re asking for major investments around a few areas – housing, healthcare, language access. And for capital investments to make sure the D.C. Center can open,” she said. “It’s not like a narrative about the dollar amounts. It’s more like where we’re trying to go.”

The Blade couldn’t’ immediately determine how much of the coalition’s funding proposals are included in the Bowser budget. The mayor’s press secretary, Daniel Gleick, told the Blade in an email that those funding levels may not have been determined by city agencies.

“As for specific funding levels for programs that may impact the LGBTQ community, such as individual health programs through the Department of Health, it is too soon in the budget process to determine potential adjustments on individual programs run though city agencies,” Gleick said.

But Bowles said several of the programs funded in the mayor’s budget proposal that are not LGBTQ specific will be supportive of LGBTQ programs. Among them, he said, is the budget’s proposal for an increase of $350,000 in funding for senior villages operated by local nonprofit organizations that help support seniors. Asked if that type of program could help LGBTQ seniors, Bowles said, “Absolutely – that’s definitely a vehicle for LGBTQ senior services.”

He said among the programs the increased funding for the mayor’s LGBTQ Affairs office will support is its ongoing cultural competency training for D.C. government employees. He said he and other office staff members conduct the trainings about LGBTQ-related issues at city departments and agencies.

Bowser herself suggested during an April 19 press conference that local businesses, including LGBTQ businesses and organizations, could benefit from a newly launched city “Pop-Up Permit Program” that greatly shortens the time it takes to open a business in vacant storefront buildings in the downtown area.

Bowser and Nina Albert, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, suggested the new expedited city program for approving permits to open shops and small businesses in vacant storefront spaces could come into play next year when D.C. hosts World Pride, one of the word’s largest LGBTQ events.

“While we know that all special events are important, there is an especially big one coming to Washington, D.C. next year,” Bowser said at the press conference. “And to that point, we proposed a $5.25 million investment to support World Pride 2025,” she said, adding, “It’s going to be pretty great. And so, we’re already thinking about how we can include D.C. entrepreneurs, how we’re going to include artists, how we’re going to celebrate across all eight wards of our city as well,” she said.

Among those attending the press conference were officials of D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance, which will play a lead role in organizing World Pride 2025 events.

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Maryland

Health care for Marylanders with HIV is facing huge cuts this summer

Providers poised to lose three-quarters of funding

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(Photo courtesy of NIH)

BY MEREDITH COHN | By the end of June, health care providers in Maryland will lose nearly three-quarters of the funding they use to find and treat thousands of people with HIV.

Advocates and providers say they had been warned there would be less money by the Maryland Department of Health, but were stunned at the size of the drop — from about $17.9 million this fiscal year to $5.3 million the next. The deep cuts are less than three months away.

The rest of this article can be read on the Baltimore Banner’s website.

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District of Columbia

Taste of Point returns at critical time for queer students

BIPOC scholar to speak at Room & Board event on May 2

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A scene from the 2022 Taste of Point. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Point Foundation will kick off May with its annual Taste of Point DC event. The event will be hosted at Room & Board on 14th Street and feature a silent auction, food tastings, a speech from a scholar, and more. 

Point’s chief of staff, Kevin Wright, said that at Taste of Point, the scholars are the star of the show.

“People never come to an event to hear Point staff speak, they come to hear from the people most impacted by the program,” he said. “At its core Taste of Point is designed to center and highlight our scholars’ voices and experiences.”

This year, a Point BIPOC Scholar, Katherine Guerrero Rivera will speak at the event. 

“It is a great opportunity to highlight the scholars out there on the front lines making impacts in almost every sector and job field,” Wright said. 

Wright pointed out that this year especially is a pivotal time for LGBTQ students. 

“In 2023, there were 20 states that passed anti-LGBTQ legislation,” he said. “By this point in [2024] we already have more.”

Wright said the impacts of those legislative attacks are far reaching and that Point is continuously monitoring the impact they have on students on the ground. 

Last month, The Washington Post reported that states with anti-LGBTQ laws in place saw school hate crimes quadruple. This report came a month after a non-binary student, Nex Bennedict, died after being attacked at school. 

“So, we see this as a critical moment to really step up and help students who are facing these challenges on their campus,” Wright said. “Our mission is to continue to empower our scholars to achieve their full academic and leadership potential.” 

This year Point awarded nearly 600 LGBTQ students with scholarships. These include the flagship scholarship, community college scholarship and the BIPOC scholarship. When the foundation started in 2002, there were only eight scholarships awarded. 

Dr. Harjant Gill is one of those scholars who said the scholarship was pivotal for him. Gill said he spent his undergraduate years creating films and doing activism for the LGBTQ community. 

As a result, his academic record wasn’t stellar and although he was admitted into American University’s graduate program he had no clue how he would fund it. 

Upon arrival to American he was told to apply for a Point scholarship and the rest was history.

“It ended up being the one thing that kept me going otherwise I would have dropped out,” he said. “Point was incredibly instrumental in my journey to becoming an academic and a professor.”

More than a decade later, Gill serves on the host committee for Taste of Point and is a mentor to young Point scholars. He said that he donates money yearly to Point and that when he is asked what he wants for a gift he will often tell his friends to donate too.

To attend the event on Wednesday, May 2, purchase tickets at the Point website. If you can’t attend this year’s Taste of Point DC event but would like to get involved, you can also donate online. 

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