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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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35 Comments

35 Comments

  1. Claire Orr

    May 25, 2011 at 10:07 am

    I want to know who these “Equality Maryland Insiders” are because I know the folks at EQMD and this person is talking a load of bull. No wonder they want to be kept secret, they are making stuff up.

  2. Cathy Brennan

    May 25, 2011 at 10:22 am

    This is a ridiculous article, and the Blade should be ashamed of itself for its reliance on “anonymous sources” to engage in character assassination. Anyone who gives EqMD two dimes after this debacle clearly hasn’t been paying attention. The time is ripe for a new organization to step into the breach. Please, for the love of pete, new organization, where are you?

  3. Charlie

    May 25, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Really? Give me a break? The board had no idea of the financial state of their organization? Whatever! Or is that Lynne Bowman just up to her old tricks, like the old fat dog she is! Pitting people against eachother to come in and save the day. You folks should watch out….she’s a splitter and pitter! Wake up people! If the board really didn’t know what was going on….SHAME ON YOU ASSH%LES! I don’t live in Maryland…but try to give whenever and where I can. You boards are eating your leaders alive did you see all the resignations this week? This movement won’t go anywhere…and these board of egos are the reasons why.

    • Wondering ?

      May 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm

      Charlie, why so angry at Lynne Bowman ?

  4. Pete

    May 25, 2011 at 10:34 am

    To the first commenter — People can either put two dimes into the existing organization, which has valuable community assets, or they can put two dimes into forming a new organization, which has none. Why don’t you do one of those things rather than simply complaining all the time?

    • Cathy Brennan

      May 25, 2011 at 3:46 pm

      Pete – You clearly don’t know me. Silly man.

  5. Concerned RI Lesbian

    May 25, 2011 at 11:07 am

    Mr. Naff — Check in on what’s going on in Rhode Island — the same exact thing; HRC came in, got rid of the ED, killed the bill and is taking over operations….. Just sayin’….

  6. Pete

    May 25, 2011 at 11:26 am

    To be clear, Pete’s earlier comment was aimed at Cathy’s Brennan’s comment.

  7. Reality Check

    May 25, 2011 at 11:36 am

    It seems like the big takeaway here is that the Board knew that the ED had serious problems, but faced a Sophie’s Choice of firing her and risking public fallout that would damage efforts in the General Assembly, or keeping her and trying to manage it internally.

    It is easy to second guess that decision now, but it seems like the Board tried to protect the legislation until they could deal with the continued realtionship with the ED. The fact that EqMD is in such serious financial trouble less than a month after the ED left suggests that it was probably in that shape before the ED left.

  8. Jason West

    May 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I hate to say it, but hire a hetrosexual professional who won’t let emotion or politics get the better of them. Someone who is an LGBT sympathiser, but doesn’r carry the baggage.

    • Steve

      May 25, 2011 at 4:56 pm

      Heterosexuals don’t have emotion???

      • Syd Diamond

        May 25, 2011 at 10:18 pm

        Whitman Walker Clinic and Food and Friends have heterosexual leaders and they don’t have the same cat-fighting that EQMD does.

  9. Jason West

    May 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I hate to say it, but hire a hetrosexual professional who won’t let emotion or politics get the better of them. Someone who is an LGBT sympathiser, but doesn’t carry the baggage.

  10. Banger

    May 25, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Reality Check. Morgan may or may not have been problem. It is CLEARLY evident by this misdirected and disgusting display of public bashing that the Board is a serious problem. Everyone last one them should fire themselves and appeal to the public with some amount of dignity to save the Equality Maryland Brand. The board should be reconstituted if the org has any chance to survive. If the executives of this board are so darn good at what they are doing they would have had a plan out and ready the minute Morgan walked out the door. They would have forseen the possibility that she would leave rather than negotiate with the very people that treated her like shit for months. So if they KNEW she had to go as far back as DEC where is the PLAN?? You don’t just fire your top executive without a plan. Its asinine. In the last month only 3-4 emails have been sent out to people. One of them was yesterday. Regardless of the financial state of the organization prior to Morgan leaving… that money only last so long. You have to fund raise. So we get a Welcome Lynne letter, a call for some money letter, speaking tour letter, and a OMFG the organization is imploding SAVE US letter racked full of shit. The board locked down the messaging coming out of the office months prior to Morgan leaving. So who is to blame? Who failed to maintain and build relationships? The truth of it is.. that if you sat everyone down at the table I’d put my money on who would actually own their mistakes and shortcomings, and none of those people would be board members. An Ego cannot run an organization. Building relationships with strong leadership and compromise is what helps steer a healthy organization. EQMD has been sick for a long time.

    Appealing to the populace for money on the back of a really really bad PR move does not show good leadership. It only shows a lack of accountability. I wouldn’t give this board a dime… I would give a handful of dimes to a group of people of willing to clean up this mess and get it right though. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

    • David

      May 25, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      I’m with you. The only problem is that the board is full of volunteers and the selection process is crap. They all have jobs and lives and there is no guarantee they are the LGBT stars of MD. I agree they are accountable and this debacle is on them, even if Morgan did do XYandZ as alleged. But how can you get volunteers to do all that we needed them to and need them to now? The Board Chairs should resign immediately. They ARE responsible and should own that immediately. But then we need a volunteer selection committee to select competent replacements. I think we’ve gotten by on luck so far. It all worked fine when major rights were a far off hope and the org had one employee, Dan Furmansky. But then we started hiring all sorts of additional staff (without much value add) and it just went to crap after that. EQMD was not well run and that’s why we are here. They’ve known of this money nightmare for at least 6 months. I want to see an accounting of all of the money that came in over the last two years and what we spent it on (that postcarding effort??) and what we achieved from that expenditure.

      I guess we weren’t creating a war chest for a referendum effort.

      The accusation as to secret staff and contractors is ridiculous.

  11. Mary Moses

    May 25, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    This type of bickering in public does nothing to advance marriage and the trans bill. This disgusting display of division is an opportunity for our enemies to take advantage. We must reassess and move on to win….the bickering is not productive!

  12. Syd Diamond

    May 25, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    I am uncomfortable with EQMD playing the blame game. My GAYTM is closed until I see a coherent plan going forward.

    • Cathy Brennan

      May 26, 2011 at 11:15 am

      GAYTM!!! hahahahahaha!!!!!

  13. Pete

    May 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    All you commenters ever do is complain and spew speculation. I’m certain not a single one of you has ever given a dime to Equality Maryland or any other organization. Why don’t you all show up to an annual meeting, get on the board, and volunteer your time? Why don’t you either put up or shut up?

    • Banger

      May 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      I know for fact several of the posters have done all or some of the above. Why don’t you direct your anger towards an unaccountable board of directors. They have a significant share of the blame here.

      • Wondering ?

        May 25, 2011 at 4:13 pm

        Banger — you seem to be awfully confident about you say, and you certainly seem to want others to believe what you are saying. If so, the first step to credibility is being willing to put your name to your assertions. The Board members and the ED were willing to do so — what about you ?

    • Cathy Brennan

      May 26, 2011 at 11:15 am

      Because EqMD isn’t the only game in town, and many of us who are 100 years old know this, and work around them. “Pete.”

  14. Pasqualena

    May 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Two EDs terminated within two years, many of the same problems and accusations. The Board would be wise to look at the common denominators, including themselves individually and as a decision-making unit.

  15. Wondering ?

    May 25, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Banger — you seem to be awfully confident about what you say, and you certainly seem to want others to believe what you are saying. If so, the first step to credibility is being willing to put your name to your assertions. The Board members and the ED were willing to do so — what about you ?

    • Banger

      May 26, 2011 at 2:19 am

      Interesting request ‘wondering?’.  Everything I said is common knowledge to people close to the org or those that pay attention to what’s been publicly said already. I’d like to see some accountability from the board. The org has done really great work over the years. It’s demise is a shame.  My name is irrelevant. If that lacks credibility so be it. The writing is on the wall. I have always functioned under an alias due to work. Not all of us in the LGBT community have the privilege of being out in the Ethernet.  That’s a reality to the Internet age, it is also a reality to the lack of our civil rights.  I’m not attacking or criticizing a specific person but rather  a portion of a whole. The names, as you point out, do not by default lend credibility to the story. The board members and the ED have put themselves on display and criticism of such is open to the public, named or not. You are using an alias. Some are using first names real or not. Some are using perceived legal full names. Wondering ? If you are going to stand on a principal then at least make yourself known as part of the credibility meme. And while we are at it… Who is anonymous in the sibling blade article? Appears to be a high level staffer and or board member. Considering the source info is very much against the former ED… It’s a likely board member. Credible information? Perhaps… perhaps not.  

      • Jinx

        May 26, 2011 at 7:33 am

        “They would have forseen the possibility that she would leave rather than negotiate with the very people that treated her like shit for months.”

        ” I’m not attacking or criticizing a specific person but rather a portion of a whole.”

        Ummm, Banger — you do realize that people can see what you wrote ?

        • Banger

          May 26, 2011 at 3:32 pm

          touché. maybe.

  16. C.H. Jones Esq.

    May 26, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    When you first read this you are speechless, then angry, then sad and then you ask yourself who actually are these board members. Are they members of what we would call the LGBT community and if so why is it in their interest to defunct an organization, place blame on individuals that are both still are currently employed there and that have left. We are a community and people need to remember that fact. This in no way shape or form provides an adequate example of how community should act, take effect and look like.

    Furthermore, the critiques, trials and tribulations of Equality Maryland do not rest with one person. An organization is like a car, it takes many components to make it work. I have critiques of individuals with Equality Maryland. My concer…n with the behavior over the last 36 hours is large.

    A) The current board chairs Charles Butler a…nd Patrick Wojahn interviewed several times for the Executive Director, therefore it should have disqualified them from becoming chairs of the organization.

    B) if the organization was in that much financial stress and not once but two times individuals and organizations had to “float” Equality Maryland; then why wasn’t this board doing more from the onset. Are you honestly telling all of us that you sat there let someone carry the weight for you and then did nothing? B.S.

    C) If what you said was true in the article, please tell me how complacent and delusional each of you are that you were not paying attention to what was going on. I know of most of you and know for a fact that you were heavily involved in t…he day to day operations. So don’t be spinning foolish information to the public, cause it comes… back. Lying only leads to more lying and then eventual truth and I doubt any of you are going to like what comes out in the truth.

    D) Why is it that you yourselves are not holding each other accountable? You all sit there, place blame on Morgan, Lynne and whoever else you care to and “there” the problem, its not collective? or inclusive? you should have been working as a team and doing your part and take responsibility for the mistakes you made.

    E) Dispatching your spouses (Dave Kolesar on Facebook) to spin this for you is pathetic. Own up, make some phone calls, reach out don’t go to the Blade and Metro Weekly and then send out an email. You preach about contact with the community! Then show …us. The listening tours were a joke. That wasn’t contact with the community enough. You need to …be at the happy hours, events, pride festivals, making phone calls to your supporters and donors. Show us that you actually can put a plan together and execute it not direct someone else to do it under your purview and “guidance” (which is worth nothing at the moment).

    F) Give us a plan. If you say you know what needs to be done, then write one out and put it up on the sight and show us. Maybe, just maybe then the community will actually listen to what you have to say.

    G) Please, if you are going to make salicious comments, at least back them up. I know from individuals who were at your last board meeting that financially, field operations, and communications had consistent and objective plans that you yo…urselves must have approved? Please tell me why Rosemary Nicolosi, Chuck Butler and Patrick Woja…hn did not know what was going on financially? Guess what part of being on a board is financial oversight and fundraising. What fundraising did you do in the last month? You are just trying to scapegoat your ineptitude and complacency on someone else besides yourselves. Equality Maryland had an amazing shot even with the staff changes but you sacrificed EqMD by not conducting yourselves professionally and going and putting the blame on someone who has not been there for almost a 1 1/2 months.

    H) Resign. If a state equality organization is to exist and to exist in a healthy manner, none of you should be involved. It is time for new leadership, new guidance and new paths. A healthy organization is comprised of dialogue between sta…ff, the board and the community. A new organization can be created instantly. I have started man…y myself. If you truly and I mean truly care about the health and well being of the organization as you so adamently proclaim you do in the articles and statement then this and only this is what you can do after you have completed all of the above to make the brand of Equality Maryland once again successful.

    Think about it!! Stand in the mirror and look at yourselves and think about each of your next moves.

    • David

      May 26, 2011 at 8:38 pm

      I have to agree with you. The approach that Chuck Butler took is sickening. I don’t know him but damn this tells me a lot. Even if Morgan Meneses-Sheets bungled things in some or many or all ways, it still doesn’t warrant this. Employers do not do this and certainly not in the media where people can Google this for years to come. Especially where we are looking for confidence in the board and, newsflash, saying you have a rogue employee who caused the demise of the org doesn’t fly at any organization or company anywhere. You are ultimately responsible, even if someone were to buy your bullcrap story that all would have been fine had you known and been allowed to actually be in charge.

      There are many ways to communicate the state of affairs and that Chuck couldn’t see them or chose not to use them shows how emotionally or self-serving he is behaving. This article is Exhibit 1 that Chuck does not have the best interests of the community or EQMD. He just lost everyone’s confidence. He went down with Morgan M-S. Ruining her reputation to save your own or for revenge? Where is the accountability of the board?

      Here, I’ll write your first lines: Equality Maryland has had many problems some of which are long-standing and some of which recently surfaced, all of which are the collective responsibility of the staff and board of Equality Maryland. The problems include X, Y, and Z and they are now so significant that we are in a crisis. While we know we should have taken earlier steps to avoid this crisis, we are now committed to doing all we can to right the ship. The board is working closely with Lynne to develop 3 possible comprehensive actions plans for the next 90 days, 1 of which will be selected next week. On a volunteer basis, we have engaged an accountant and non-profit management consultant to assist Lynne and to ensure that we are dedicating everything we have to get the best outcome. The leading option right now is to X, Y, and Z. In order to effectuate this plan, we will need to….and each member of the [no.] person board as well as Lynne are committed to working day and night to ensure the best possible outcome for the organization. While we are asking for donations, we understand you may not feel comfortable donating until you see a plan. A plan will be released imminently. In the interim, each board member is donating $1000 to the future of the organization to show the community that we think the money is going to good use. We will earn your faith and confidence in short order. Thank you for your patience and we share your dismay for being in this position.” Yada yada yada.

    • C.H. Jones Esq.

      May 27, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      Diogenes; my name is Caleb first and foremost.

      I have donated to Equality Maryland and will not again. I would not serve on the board until the board is reconstituted, then and only then would I make my decision on that. The mere fact you offer that suggestion you do not know the construction of a non-profit board. These members collectively would hold the majority of the vote, and one vote would not change anything. That is the reason several members left in the recent year, because they couldn’t do anything with these crazies.

      What is your real name while we are on that topic. Seems everyone who asks us to reveal are names also has aliases.

      There are few options left for this organization and it seems to be that the board of director’s minus Patrick who reached out to me personally just doesn’t care. No phone calls, no more email statements, no more press releases. This is very unprofessional on their part.

      Even if Morgan was that bad, IT JUST DOESN’T MAKE SENSE FOR THEIR IRRESPONSIBILITY AND UNPROFESSIONALISM. You don’t got and just ruin someone in the press, it makes you look petty and naive. Aren’t they suppose to be professionals in the community. None of their employers would do that. Own YOUR mistakes! They did nothing for the last month besides bring in Lynne Bowman who tried and they put it all on her to fix. You can’t just keep passing the buck around to different people. At some point you have to roll up your sleeves and do something too.

      I just don’t know why people don’t get that. They should have known, if you were that delusional about what was going on then you should not have been on the board to begin with. Second, actually show us these accusations they have not provided any proof of anything. Why won’t they put it out there, I mean let us be real they could be saying anything at this point do we actually know what is going on organizationally no! We have to take their word, and personally I am not going to do that till I see hard evidence of what is going on just like any investor in a business show me a strong business plan and then maybe I will get involved.

      I am not just going to fling my money any where.

      As far as I am concerned, I have made my points and this is my last statement on any of this. I am done. I do want to wish the staff (current and former) the best in their future endeavors and the people that EqMD used to serve because it is all of them who have been the most affected and the most hurt in this entire thing.

      What a joke!

  17. Diogenes

    May 26, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    Wow. Maryland is really lucky to have the talents of C.H. Jones and Dave in service of the lgbt community. All Equality Maryland needed was one of their plans. Let’s see what the survey says…

    Anyone ever given an hour or a dollar to Equality Maryland ?
    Ever volunteer to serve on the Board and share all that expertise ?
    How about just sharing your real names so the community can thank you in person ?

    {crickets, crickets, crickets}

    • David (not the other David posting below)

      May 27, 2011 at 11:43 am

      Yes (a shitload) and Yes (spoke several years ago with Dan F. about this) and I bet I’ve done and given more than you. I get that these people are volunteers and there are just a few of them. I think our selection process for the board needs to be revamped and we need to utilize volunteer professional consultants to help us manage what has turned out to be a big operation dealing with big issues and money.

  18. David

    May 27, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Haven’t donated to Equality Maryland in several years, despite being a major donor for many years prior to that, and don’t intend to re-start my giving. This Board has violated every sense of trust and responsibility. This is the second executive director they’ve hired and then fired in two years or less. They bad-mouth their staff in the media. Complain, complain, complain. Board governance requires leadership, financial and personal responsibility, succession planning, and personal and collective responsibility. These losers should finally demonstrate the last characteristic–they should resign and put a process in place to select a completely new Board. Until then, none of this pointless drama will be resolved.

    The Maryland Family Action group, the catholic bishops, Delegate Dwyer (R-Bigotry), and their ilk are eating this up. Time to act like adults, Charles Butler, Patrick Wojahn, and all the rest.

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Virginia

Va. businessman apologizes for burning of rainbow flag poster

‘Shocked and horrified’: Ashburn incident caught on video

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Organizers of an event where a Pride symbol was burned say the incident was a misunderstanding.

The owner of a Virginia technology company that hosted a private Veterans Day party on the grounds of an Ashburn, Va., brewery in which a company employee used a flame-throwing device to ignite a rainbow flag poster said the selection of the poster was a mistake and he and his company have no ill will toward the LGBTQ community.

The Washington Blade learned about the poster burning from a customer of the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, where the incident took place on its outdoor grounds. The customer made a video of the incident with his cell phone and sent a copy of the video to the Blade.

The video, which includes an audio recording, shows a man using a hand-held flame-throwing device to ignite the rainbow poster, which was hanging from a cable and appeared to be mounted on cardboard or a thin sheet of wood. Bystanders can be heard laughing and cheering as the poster is set on fire.

The poster consisted of a variation of the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag that included the word “love” configured from an upper white stripe on the rainbow symbol.

The customer who took the video, who has asked not to be identified, thought the decision to set the poster on fire was a sign of disrespect if not hatred toward a longstanding symbol of LGBTQ equality and pride.

Chris Burns, Old Ox Brewery’s president, shared that view, telling the Blade he and his staff were “shocked and horrified” when they learned later that a rainbow flag poster had been burned on the brewery’s grounds. Burns said Old Ox supports the LGBTQ community and participated in LGBTQ Pride month earlier this year.

He said the company that held the private party paid a fee to hold the event on the brewery’s grounds, but the brewery did not know a rainbow poster would be burned.

“I’m mortified that our event was interpreted in this way,” said Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC, the Falls Church, Va.-based technology company that organized the Nov. 11 party at Old Ox Brewery. “I can assure you that ZERO ill-will or offense was meant,” Reynolds told the Blade in a Nov. 24 email.

“We held a small private party for a few clients, which included a demonstration of Elon Musk’s Boring Company ‘Not a Flamethrower,’” he said in his message. He was referring to one of billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s companies that specializes in boring through the ground to create tunnels for cars, trains, and other purposes. 

“After so many being isolated during COVID, we wanted to have an event that was lighthearted and to some small effect, silly,” Reynolds said in his message to the Blade.

According to Reynolds, in thinking about what should be used for “fodder” for the flame-thrower, he went to a Five Below discount store and purchased items such as stuffed animals and posters, including a “Space Jam” movie poster as well as what he thought was a poster of the British rock group The Beatles.

“When I pulled the Beatles poster out of the tube it was instead the ‘Love’ poster,” he said, referring to the rainbow flag poster the Blade asked him about in an earlier email.

“All I focused on was the ‘Love’ wording and not the rainbow and did not draw the conclusion that the poster was an icon that represents the LGBTQ community,” Reynolds said. “It was my own ignorance of not connecting the symbolism of the poster. If I had realized it was a symbol of the LGBTQ community, I would not have used it,” he said.

“I feel terrible, and I want to emphasize that I am solely responsible for this mistake – not the Old Ox Brewery,” he wrote in his message. “Nobody at Old Ox had anything to do with this activity.”

Reynolds added, “Hate has no place in my heart, and I sincerely apologize for any offense that could have been drawn from what I now realize was poor judgement on my part. I simply didn’t correlate this poster with the LGBTQ pride symbol.”  

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Before Reynolds issued his statement of apology, Burns, the Old Ox Brewery co-owner, told the Blade in an email he was “saddened and upset” over the rainbow poster burning on the grounds of his brewery.

“We do not wish to benefit from this event,” he said in his email message. “Therefore, Old Ox is donating 100% of the revenue generated from the private event to GLSEN.”

GLSEN is a national LGBTQ advocacy group that focuses on education and support for LGBTQ youth. Burns said Old Ox Brewery also donated proceeds from a Pride month event it organized earlier this year to GLSEN.

LGBTQ activists and organizations contacted by the Blade said they were unfamiliar with the variation of the rainbow flag with the word “love” that was the subject of the poster burning incident. The poster is available for sale at Five Below stores in the D.C. metropolitan area for $5.

Small print writings on the poster show it is produced by Trends International LLC, which describes itself on its website as “the leading publisher and manufacturer of licensed posters, calendars, stickers and social stationery products.” The Blade couldn’t immediately determine who designed the poster.

 The video of the poster burning incident can be viewed here:

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Fairfax schools returns LGBTQ-themed books in high school libraries

Review found ‘no pedophilia’ in texts as critics claimed

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(Book cover insert courtesy of Amazon)

The Fairfax County Public Schools announced on Tuesday that following a detailed review by two committees appointed by school officials it has returned two LGBTQ themed books to its high school libraries that had been temporarily withdrawn after being challenged by critics who claimed they included sexually explicit content inappropriate for students.

The two books, “Lawn Boy,” a novel by author Jonathan Evison, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” which is described as an illustrated autobiography by non-binary author Maia Kobabe, each contain descriptions of sexual acts.

But supporters of the books have argued that they have won praise by literary critics and, while describing intimate relationships, they tell stories that do not fall into the category of pornography.  

Fairfax County Public Schools, the name used for the county’s public school system, on Tuesday said in a statement that a thorough review of the books by two committees consisting of educators, school officials, parents and some students found that neither book contained content that could be considered to depict pedophilia as claimed by some parents and others opposing the two books.

School officials announced they had temporarily withdrawn the two books from school libraries following a Sept. 23 meeting of the Fairfax County School Board where strong objections to the two books were raised by parents.

“Two books that were subject to formal challenge have been deemed appropriate for high school readers following a two-month review process and will be reinstated to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) libraries,” Tuesday’s statement by the school system says.

“The decision reaffirms FCPS’s ongoing commitment to provide diverse reading materials that reflect our student population, allowing every child an opportunity to see themselves reflected in literary characters,” the statement continues. “Both reviews concluded that the books were valuable in their potential to reach marginalized youth who may struggle to find relatable literary characters that reflect their personal journey,” the statement says.

The statement says the final decision to reinstate the books was made by Noel Klimenko, the Fairfax County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for its Instructional Services Department.

The two books have received favorable reviews in various literary publications. Both have received the American Library Association’s Alex Award, an annual award that recognizes the year’s 10 books written for adults that the association says have a special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.

“The robust committee process took place over several weeks and considered whether the books flouted regulations by being obscene or harmful to juveniles as defined by the Code of Virginia,” the school system statement says. “The members also considered the work in line with an excerpt from the FCPS Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook pertaining to possessing obscene visual imagery as defined in the Code of Virginia,” the statement says.

“After careful consideration, neither books were deemed to have fallen foul of these regulations,” it concludes.

The decision by Fairfax school officials to reinstate the two books came about six weeks after more than 425 LGBTQ students and allies from over 30 Fairfax County public high schools sent a letter to the school board and the school system’s superintendent urging them to reinstate the two books.

The Pride Liberation Project, a coalition of LGBTQ and allied students in Fairfax County, organized the joint letter.

“Student representatives from over 30 schools, including nearly every high school in Fairfax County Public Schools, have signed this letter, and many of us are students of color, low-income, gender expansive and not out to our families and communities,” the letter states.

“We are writing to ask you to reject calls to remove Maia Kobabe’s ‘Gender Queer’ and Jonathan Evison’s ‘Lawn Boy’ from Fairfax County Public Schools libraries,” the letter says.

It points out that “hundreds of books in our schools already depict heterosexual relationships and physical intimacy,” and says singling out LGBTQ themed books with similar stories of intimacy for rejection is unfair.

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Transgender Zimbabwean woman in Md. wins asylum case

Mattie Tux Horton lives in Rockville

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Mattie Tux Horton, right, with her lawyer Ankush Dhupar in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Mattie Tux Horton/Facebook)

A transgender woman from Zimbabwe who lives in Rockville won her asylum case in late October after living in the U.S. for the past five years. 

Mattie Tux Horton was represented by Ankush Dhupar from the Los Angeles law firm Paul Hastings LLP.

“I feel at ease,” said Horton. “Although a lot is going on in the [United States], it’s [significantly] different compared to where I’m coming from.”

Horton said that she now considers the U.S. to be her home. 

Although she has been living in Maryland for a while now, receiving asylum stripped away the anxiety associated with returning to Zimbabwe had the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency denied her request. 

With protection from the U.S. government, Horton gets to live in a safe environment and without the vile treatment she encountered in Zimbabwe because of her transness.

In her hometown of Bulawayo, Horton faced constant public humiliation and was once fired from her job as a graphic artist because of her dress presentation, according to an interview she did with Medium. 

She was attacked by a violent group of men in 2014, and was outed later that year following a holiday trip to South Africa, according to the interview. 

This incident garnered media attention and The Sunday News, a Zimbabwean newspaper, published an article in which it misgendered Horton throughout the entire piece. 

This prompted Horton to apply for a U.S. visa so she could attend an LGBTQ leadership conference in D.C. and remove herself from the cacophony in her town.

The Sunday News later ran a story about Horton’s departure in which they misgendered her again and referred to her as a “transgender man” and “alleged gay.”

Horton arrived in D.C. in December 2016 and began her asylum process there. 

While visiting a friend in Los Angeles, she connected with the city’s Human Rights First chapter that referred her to Dhupar, who represented her pro bono. 

Dhupar is a labor and employment law attorney at Paul Hastings LLC and he volunteered to work on Horton’s case as part of his firm’s partnership with Human Rights First to do pro bono LGBTQ advocacy work.

Horton’s asylum was his first ever immigration case.

While the legal underpinnings of immigration were new to him, Dhupar did not struggle to situate his modus operandi because of how compelling Horton’s case was.

“I always referred to the facts of the case because the law is geared towards helping situations like [Horton’s] where someone fears for their life in their home country,” said Dhupar. 

Dhupar also added that Horton’s case was a prime example of why the asylum process exists.

Horton submitted a psychological evaluation in February 2021 that would expedite her asylum case and grant her an interview notice sooner than usual. 

At that point she had lived in the U.S. for more than four years, but she still had to wait a couple more months before she was called for an interview. This caused Horton to feel trepid about whether her case was strong enough. 

“I went through depression and had psychological breakdowns,” said Horton. “I have friends who were called in for an interview months after moving here and didn’t have to wait five years [like I did].”

This hurdle, however, gave Horton and Dhupar adequate time to build an indisputable case. The two built a personal relationship that kept them vigilant despite the abounding uncertainty. 

“She was a perfect advocate for herself and took the initiative to make sure the case did not fall on the backburner,” said Dhupar. 

Now that she has won her case, Horton is taking time to relish on her recent success. 

“I’m going to take a breather,” she said.

She also plans to secure full-time employment in 2022 and build a makeup brand. Horton currently works part time as a steering committee member — a role she says is fulfilling — at the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project- Transgender Law Center.

There, she links Black trans and gender nonconforming individuals to education, employment, legal and healthcare resources.

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