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Disbelief, backlash after vote against marriage

Colleagues, former friends denounce Md. Del. Arora; aide resigns in protest

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Sam Arora

Del. Sam Arora changed his mind on the marriage bill, which he once sponsored, and voted against it last week. (Courtesy photo)

Maryland Del. Sam Arora’s decision to vote against the same-sex marriage bill last week proved unpopular with many in his progressive Montgomery County district, but no one was more disappointed than Arora’s own state senator, Roger Manno.

Sen. Manno (D-District 19), in a lengthy interview with the Blade, recalled his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to persuade Arora to support the bill, stretching back to last year.

“It’s a very tough situation,” Manno said. “I’m extremely concerned and disappointed and have spoken to constituents who are confused and concerned. I’m so … deeply disappointed and sad that Sam could not get there for whatever reason.”

Manno said he began meeting regularly with Arora shortly after he was elected in 2010 and heard that the freshman delegate was struggling with the marriage issue. Arora had campaigned on a pledge of support for the bill and even co-sponsored it initially before changing his mind last year.

“I could sense there could be a problem,” Manno said. “And I tried to mentor him. Freshmen make mistakes here and it’s easy to do things that are damaging to your career and that hurt people.”

So Manno and several other members of the Montgomery County delegation to Annapolis tried “to get him to see the issue as we saw it.”

“In my heart, marriage equality is an important and timely issue of emancipation for loving families who happen to be of the same sex,” Manno said.

After the marriage bill died in the House last year and the session ended, Manno said Arora took time off to study for the bar exam. Then last summer the two colleagues met again to discuss marriage.

“We sat for several hours and talked about his thoughts on marriage equality and where he was on the bill and he represented it was a crisis of faith,” Manno said.

At that point, Arora expressed a range of concerns about the bill, Manno said, including religious, moral and constitutional objections. Still, Manno urged Arora to keep an open mind because he knew that Gov. Martin O’Malley was planning to introduce the marriage bill in 2012. In late summer, Manno asked Arora to join him at a press conference where O’Malley announced his plans for the marriage bill, but Arora failed to show up.

When the 2012 session started last month, Manno said he continued to reach out to Arora, culminating with an hour-long meeting last week before a joint committee vote on the marriage bill; Arora serves on the Judiciary Committee, which was considering the measure.

“I didn’t know where he was going to go that week,” Manno said. Arora ultimately abstained from voting in committee at which point, “I put my head in my hands and said, ‘oh no,’” Manno said. After the committee sent the bill to the House floor, Arora received multiple calls from senior Democrats seeking his support, including O’Malley and former President Bill Clinton.

“When he went to the floor, I was there in the House chamber to give him a hug and let him know he had my support to vote for equality,” Manno said. “The vote came Friday, I was on the floor, I sent him a text a minute before the vote. I believed at the end of the day he would put a green vote on the board and he didn’t. The chamber erupted in jubilation, rightfully so, but I was standing on the floor with my head hung because Sam had disappointed a lot of people.”

Arora has yet to publicly disclose his reasons for opposing the bill after once sponsoring it. He has refused repeated interview requests from the Blade and other media outlets since last year.

Joshua Lapidus, Arora’s legislative director, quit in protest Friday night just after the marriage vote in a scathing resignation letter obtained by the Blade.

“I respect you and your beliefs, however I cannot respect your decision to place personal religious belief over the roles and responsibilities of the stewardship the people of District 19 entrusted unto you,” Lapidus wrote. He added, “It saddens me that you are standing against the tide of history and ending your career over an issue that will no doubt be decided in the affirmative, with or without your vote, over the next couple years.  So, I write this letter to inform you that if you vote don’t vote for HB 438 l can no longer work under your employ.”

Arora issued a brief statement to the Blade in response to Lapidus’s resignation.

“I don’t comment on personnel issues,” Arora wrote. “That said: Josh continues to be a friend, and I wish him well.”

Another one-time friend of Arora’s, columnist and Democratic strategist Karl Frisch, praised Lapidus for stepping down.

“I think it’s gutsy,” Frisch said. “It’s the right move and shows that we had allies working on our behalf in his office.”

Frisch, a D.C. resident, donated $100 to Arora’s campaign in 2010 and said he knew Arora socially for several years. But after rumors emerged that Arora’s marriage position was changing, Frisch said his calls and emails went unreturned.

“I feel personally betrayed,” Frisch said. “I don’t take candidates’ word for it — he was listed as a co-sponsor of the bill and filled out an Equality Maryland questionnaire [on marriage]. … I’m used to politicians lying, I’m not used to being lied to by a friend.”

After Friday’s vote, Frisch said he took part in a conference call with a group of “national and Maryland-based political operatives to discuss every tool we can deploy to send Sam packing in 2014.” Manno said he wasn’t on that call but noted that politicians have to answer to their constituents.

“A former boss of mine once said that politics is about loyalty — to people, ideas, communities. At the end of the day, that’s really what we do,” Manno said. “Politicians have to answer for what we do in the next election and we all have to answer for what we do in the next life and I try to keep that in the forefront of my thoughts everyday.”

Manno, 45, is straight and married but credits his upbringing in the diverse and gay-friendly neighborhoods of Chelsea and Greenwich Village in New York for influencing his views on marriage. He once interned in the Clinton White House for Richard Socarides, who advised Clinton on gay-related issues.

“Marriage is a terribly uncomplicated issue,” he said. “If you love people and want to see that spark ignite, you have to love everyone.”

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Local

LGBTQ seniors celebrated at Silver Pride

Community gathers for games, resource fair and tea dance

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Rayceen Pendarvis serves as the emcee for Silver Pride on June 20. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“Joy in Justice” was the theme for this year’s Silver Pride celebration of seniors in the LGBTQ community. The event was hosted by Rayceen Pendarvis at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery (702 8th St., N.W.) on Thursday, June 20, and included a number of games, booths from vendors, and a tea dance. Sponsors included AARP of the District of Columbia; East River Family Strengthening Collaborative, Inc.; Anybill; Team Rayceen Productions and the Capital Pride Alliance. Music was provided by DJ Alex Love.

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Local

Camp Free2Be helping trans youth find community

‘A space where it’s completely safe to be their authentic selves’

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(Courtesy Camp Free2Be)

In 2019, Elizabeth Erion wished that her trans daughter had an opportunity to create community with other trans kids in the area.

“I knew there were a few sleep-away camps for gender-expansive youth, but they were too far away, and financially out of reach for our family,” Erion said. 

So she worked with another parent of a trans teen and formed Camp Free2Be. It started as a weeklong camp with eight campers and six junior counselors. This year, the camp will serve more than 60 campers. 

Erion said that queer students may have limited opportunities to meet students who are like them, which makes the work Camp Free2Be does so important. With the recent spike in anti-LGBTQ legislation around the country, a recent survey revealed that nearly half of trans youth feel unsafe in school.

“Camps like ours offer trans and nonbinary youth a space where it’s completely safe to be their authentic selves; to wear clothes they might not normally feel able to wear; to try out a new name or pronouns; to meet other kids who know exactly what it’s like to be gender diverse.”

To continue to build queer youth community, the camp is led by junior counselors from 15-18, who are also trans or non-binary. Applications are still being accepted with a June 23 deadline. Counselors who participate in both weeks of the camp will receive a $150 stipend for their participation. 

“[Junior counselors] serve as role models for our younger campers, while also making friends and developing leadership skills.”

This day camp is located in Arlington, in walking distance from the Metro. Campers will engage in STEM, arts and crafts, outdoor games, theater, and more at the camp. Once a day, the entire camp gathers for a lesson on LGBTQ history. 

“These are lessons our youth probably won’t be given in school, and they are important in showing them that they are part of a larger community with a rich history.”

For Erion, the most rewarding parts of the camp are the unscheduled and spontaneous conversations she overhears from campers. 

“While doing arts and crafts or playing board games, they will casually talk about issues unique to growing up trans or nonbinary. They are learning from each other and finding out that they have shared experiences.” she said. 

One of the best parts of the camp is that it will cost parents nothing. Camp Free2Be is in partnership with SMYAL to make the camp free for campers and junior counselors. 

This year, camp will run through two back-to-back weeks, July 15-19 and July 22-26. Registration closes June 23 and can be found at campfree2be.org. If you have already planned your summer, be on the lookout in January 2025 for summer 2025 registration.

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Virginia

Suspect in 1996 murder of lesbian couple in Shenandoah National Park identified

Convicted serial rapist died in prison in 2018

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Laura 'Lollie' Winans and Julianne 'Julie' Williams (Photo courtesy of the FBI)

The FBI has identified a then-48-year-old man from Ohio who it describes as a convicted serial rapist as the person it believes committed the May 1996 murder of a lesbian couple at their campsite in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

In a statement released on June 20, the FBI says newly analyzed DNA evidence and an extensive review of other evidence surrounding the 28-year-old murder case has enabled it to identify Walter Leo Jackson, Sr., as the prime suspect in the murders of Laura “Lollie” Winans, 26, and Julianne “Julie” Williams, 24. 

The FBI statement says the two women’s bodies were found on June 1, 1996, after an extensive search by rangers with the National Park Service after family members reported them missing. 

“In 2021, a new FBI Richmond investigative team was assigned to conduct a methodic review of the case,” the statement says. “FBI special agents, intelligence analysts, and other FBI Richmond employees reassessed hundreds of leads and interviews,” according to the statement. “They spent countless hours to identify and prioritize evidence from the crime scene to retest and submit the items to an accredited private lab.”

It says the lab successfully extracted DNA from several items of evidence and, with help from Virginia State Police, and through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System a positive DNA match to Jackson was obtained. 

“Those results confirmed we had the right man and finally could tell the victim’s families we know who is responsible for this heinous crime,” Stanley M. Meador, the FBI Richmond special agent in charge, said in the statement. 

“After 28 years, we are now able to say who committed the brutal murders of Lollie Winans and Julie Williams in Shenandoah National Park,” U.S. Attorney Christopher R. Kavanaugh said in the statement. “I want to again extend my condolences to the Winans and Williams families and hope today’s announcement provides some small measure of solace,” he said. 

The FBI statement says Jackson, who died in prison in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in March 2018, had a lengthy criminal record that included kidnapping, rapes, and assaults. It says Jackson worked as a residential painter and “was an avid hiker and was known to visit Shenandoah National Park.”

Walter Leo Jackson, Sr. (Photo courtesy of the FBI)

The FBI has stated in past statements regarding the two women’s murders that it did not have evidence to classify the murders as a hate crime in which Jackson targeted the women because of their sexual orientation. 

Media reports at the time of the murders identified Williams as a native of Minnesota who moved to Vermont, where she helped form a group supportive of LGBTQ people with a Presbyterian church ministry. Winans was a wilderness guide in Michigan and met Williams through an outdoor program in Minnesota called “Woodswomen,” media reports said. 

A report in the Advocate published before the FBI’s identification of Jackson as the man responsible for the women’s murders, said the two women had been dating for about two years before their murders. It reported they had planned to move in together that summer to a home in Huntington, Vt., and that Williams had recently accepted a new job as a geologist at a location near Lake Champlain in Vermont. 

“The FBI will continue to work with law enforcement partners to determine if Jackson is responsible for other unsolved crimes,” the FBI’s June 20 statement says. “Anyone with information on Jackson should call 1-800-CALL FBI or submit it online at tips.fbi.gov,” the statement concludes.

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