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Freedom to Marry changes course, launches Md. marriage PAC

Organization had declined to join coalition of groups defending state law

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Evan Wolfson

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

The Washington Blade has learned that Freedom to Marry has formed a political action committee that will allow it to raise money to defend Maryland’s same-sex marriage law, a change of course from earlier this year when the organization declined to join the coalition of groups defending the law.

Maryland State Board of Elections records indicate that the Freedom to Marry Maryland PAC with Teresa Williams of Cheverly as its chair was registered on Sept. 18. Williams’ partner, Jo Deutsch, who is Freedom to Marry’s federal director in D.C., is the PAC’s treasurer. Former Equality Maryland Board President Scott Davenport, who is Freedom to Marry’s COO, is listed as its deputy treasurer.

Maryland law requires that all PAC officers are registered to vote in the state.

“The PAC is basically a legal mechanism that’s required for reporting certain kinds of contributions so we really just have set it up to be able to do what we want to do consistent with the reporting legal requirements,” Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson told the Blade. “Freedom to Marry has all along been assisting the campaign and providing certain kinds of help, and now obviously we’re all in the home stretch on these four ballot measures [in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington]. And we all need to step up and do as much as we can to win as many of them as we can so we just really wanted to have the legal mechanism ready to basically keep helping and hopefully do more even as we focus on the states where we’ve also been pushing to get the victory that is our number one priority for the end of the year.”

The PAC’s registration comes in spite of Freedom to Marry’s announcement last year that it would not join the coalition of groups defending Maryland’s same-sex marriage law.

“Freedom to Marry has made it clear to members of the coalition and to lawmakers that our goal is to win, not simply to pass a bill, if there is not sufficient groundwork and investment in a campaign to win at the ballot,” Wolfson told the Blade earlier this year. “We have continued to press for clarity and progress on benchmarks for success, and have urged elected officials, national organizations, and advocates on the ground to show the plan, investment, and activities needed now to build public support and succeed at the ballot, not just the legislature.”

Wolfson told the Blade last month that Freedom to Marry has provided what he described as a “huge amount of messaging, research and experience and council” to Marylanders for Marriage Equality. He said his group has also invited Marylanders for Marriage Equality to take part in “regular calls” between the four campaign managers to “coordinate and share best practices, brainstorm and problem solve.”

Freedom to Marry announced in August that its contributions to same-sex ballot measures in Maine and Washington and the campaign to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman in Minnesota through its Win More States Fund had topped $3 million. It hopes to raise an additional $10 million for these campaigns by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, a Freedom to Marry press release on Sept. 7 that announced a series of house parties that will take place across the country on Oct. 13 to raise funds for statewide same-sex marriage campaigns specifically cites Maryland as among the states with ballot measures. These include one that will take place at former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman’s Manhattan home, according to BuzzFeed.

Wolfson said that observers should not read too much into the timing of the PAC’s registration, which comes less than two months before the referendum on the law that Gov. Martin O’Malley signed in March. It also coincides with the Sept. 13 fundraiser for Marylanders for Marriage Equality in New York City at which the governor spoke.

“We believe there’s a pathway to win in Maryland and it’s going to take a lot more effort and significantly more resources and using the time to make the case,” said Wolfson when asked about the effectiveness of the campaign to defend Maryland’s same-sex marriage law. “If we all step up and do that whether in Maryland or in the other states we can hope to have the victory in one or more states that we at Freedom to Marry have prioritized as our remaining goal in 2012.”

Josh Levin, campaign director for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, described Freedom to Marry’s involvement as “a vote of confidence.”

“Happy to finally make Maryland an ‘all hands on deck’ state like it should be,” added Fred Sainz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the group that had given Marylanders for Marriage Equality $723,000 in cash and in-kind donations as of Aug. 6. HRC also contributed $853,000 to the legislative campaign to secure passage of the state’s same-sex marriage law earlier this year. “We value Freedom to Marry as a partner and are delighted that they’ll be engaged in the effort to protect marriage equality in Maryland.”

Lisa Polyak, who, along with her partner of more than 30 years, Gita Deane, became the lead plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage lawsuit that Equality Maryland and the American Civil Liberties Union filed in 2004, also responded.

“Gita and I welcome Freedom to Marry’s increasing participation in the struggle to keep full marriage equality in Maryland,” Polyak told the Blade. “We know that they’ve been helpful in the past. We were surprised and disappointed that they weren’t more involved in this year’s effort to pass the marriage equality bill, especially since they seemed to be working hard in other states trying to pass a marriage law or manage a ballot referendum.  But there is no question: We need all hands on deck at this time.”

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Va. senator introduces anti-transgender student athlete bill

Democrats have vowed to thwart anti-LGBTQ measures in state Senate

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Virginia lawmaker has introduced a bill that would ban transgender students from joining school sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Senate Bill 766, which state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) introduced on Friday, would require “each elementary or secondary school or a private school that competes in sponsored athletic events against such public schools to designate athletic teams, whether a school athletic team or an intramural team sponsored by such school, based on biological sex as follows: (i) ‘males,’ ‘men,’ or ‘boys’; (ii) ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; or (iii) ‘coed’ or ‘mixed.'”

“Under the bill, male students are not permitted to participate on any school athletic team or squad designated for ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; however, this provision does not apply to physical education classes at schools,” adds the bill. “The bill provides civil penalties for students and schools that suffer harm as a result of a violation of the bill. Such civil actions are required to be initiated within two years after the harm occurred.”

Kiggans introduced her bill less than a week after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office.

Youngkin during his campaign said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity. Elizabeth Schultz, an anti-LGBTQ former member of the Fairfax County School Board, has been named the Virginia Department of Education’s Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the state House of Delegates. Democrats still control the state Senate, and they have pledged to thwart any anti-LGBTQ bills.

“Let’s be clear: This is part of an ongoing, nationwide effort to exclude trans people from enjoying the benefits of sports like their cisgender peers,” tweeted the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on Friday after Kiggans introduced SB 766. “We won’t tolerate this.”

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Comings & Goings

Hazen inducted into Cooperative Hall of Fame

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Paul Hazen

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected] 

The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success. 

Congratulations to Paul Hazen on his being inducted into the 2022 Cooperative Hall of Fame.  On receiving the honor, he said, “I am very lucky to be given the opportunity to combine my work in international development with my volunteer cooperative development work in Washington DC.”

Hazen is executive director, U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) and has devoted his career to elevating the cooperative voice domestically and internationally. U.S. co-ops include Ace Hardware, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Sunkist, REI and the Associated Press. Hazen helped establish federal legislation promoting rural co-op development.  

Prior to joining OCDC, he was CEO of Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International. During his 25-year tenure with the organization, he held key positions, including chief operating officer, vice president of public policy, vice president of member services and director of consumer cooperatives.

He worked for Rep. Al Baldus (Wisc.). He was executive director of Rural Housing Inc. in Madison, Wisc., where he developed co-ops and affordable housing projects in rural communities. 

As a volunteer, Hazen formed the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) with 12 congregations in D.C.  In 2020, CPA secured more than $18.7 million in contracts resulting in an investment of $13 million in D.C.-based small businesses owned by people of color.

Ben Finzel

Congratulations also to Ben Finzel, who was inducted into the National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame. Upon receiving the honor, he said “To be recognized by your peers is wonderful; to be honored by them is amazing. I still can’t quite believe I have done enough to be worthy of this recognition, but I know enough to be thankful and appreciative of this high honor. Thank you PRSA National Capital Chapter for including me in such inspiring company; I will be forever grateful.”

Finzel is president of RENEWPR, a D.C.-based public affairs, communications consulting firm. In 2004, he helped launch FH Out Front, the first global LGBTQ communications practice at an international firm, Fleishman Hillard, and served as its first global chair. He started DC Family Communicators, a professional networking group for LGBTQ communications professionals. Finzel served on the Victory Campaign Board of the LGBTQ Victory Fund from 2007 to 2017.

His firm is currently celebrating its seventh year in business. To recognize that accomplishment, Finzel is launching an endowed scholarship at his alma mater, Texas Tech University. His business is certified as an LGBT Business Enterprise by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

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Maryland

Judge rules trans teacher’s lawsuit against P.G. County can go to trial

Gay man files separate case charging discrimination

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Jennifer Eller, gay news, Washington Blade
Jennifer Eller alleges the P.G. County school system subjected her to discrimination and harassment. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)

A federal judge in Maryland issued a ruling on Tuesday, Jan. 18, clearing the way for a lawsuit filed by transgender former English teacher Jennifer Eller in 2018 charging the Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools with discrimination and harassment based on her gender identity to proceed to a trial.

In the ruling, Judge Theodore D. Chuang of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied key parts of several motions filed by attorneys representing the P.G. County Public Schools that in effect called for the dismissal of the lawsuit. The motions, among other things, claimed the lawsuit failed to provide sufficient evidence that Eller was subjected to discrimination and harassment, which forced her to resign due to a hostile work environment.

Chuang also ruled against a separate motion introduced by Eller’s attorneys calling for him to issue a summary judgement decision affirming all the lawsuit’s allegations that would have ended the litigation in Eller’s favor without the need to go to trial.

Eller’s lawsuit charges that school officials acted illegally by failing to intervene when she was subjected to a hostile work environment for five years that included abuse and harassment by students, parents, fellow teachers, and supervisors and retaliation by school administrators.

The lawsuit alleges that the school system and its administrators in its actions against Eller violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and the nondiscrimination provision of the Prince George’s County Code.

“We think the judge did as best he could,” said Omar Gonzales-Pagan, an attorney with the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, which, along with the D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter, are representing Eller in her lawsuit.

“The takeaway is that the case is now in a posture to proceed to trial,” Gonzales-Pagan told the Washington Blade. “The court found that the alleged facts and the information as discovered throughout the case in the discovery process is sufficient to allow a jury to find whether Jennifer Eller was subjected to a hostile work environment and constructive discharge and retaliation unlawfully by the defendants,” he said.

By the term constructive discharge, Gonzales-Pagan was referring to the lawsuit’s charge that Eller was forced to resign from her teaching job in 2017 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the alleged abuse she faced on the job.

P.G. County Public Schools officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit on grounds that the school system has a longstanding policy of not discussing pending litigation. However, in its response to the lawsuit in court filings, school system officials have denied Eller’s allegations of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

“For years, I was aggressively misgendered, attacked and harassed in the hallways and even in my own classroom by students, peers and supervisors,” Eller said in a statement released by her attorneys.

“My pleas for help and for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, were ignored,” Eller said in her statement. “The relentless harassment stripped me of the joy of teaching and forced me to resign,” she said. “It is time for Prince George’s County Public Schools to be held accountable.”

The lawsuit says the harassment and discriminatory action against her began in 2011 when she began presenting as female during the school year. It says school officials initially responded to her complaints about the harassment by demanding that she stop dressing as a woman and return to wearing men’s clothes, which she refused to do.

In a separate action, gay former Spanish teacher Jared Hester filed on his own without an attorney a lawsuit in the Maryland federal court charging the P.G. County Public Schools with failing to take action to prevent him from being subjected to discrimination and harassment similar to some of the allegations made in Eller’s lawsuit.

Hester told the Blade that he was subjected to harassment by students who repeatedly called him “faggot,” but school officials, including the principal of the middle school where he taught, refused to take action to stop the harassment.

He provided the Blade with copies of earlier complaints he filed against school system officials with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, and the P.G County Public Schools’ internal Office of Equity Assurance. Each of the three agencies issued rulings against Hester’s complaints, with two of them saying sufficient evidence could not be found to support his allegations.

The EEOC, in a Nov. 3, 2021 “dismissal” notice, told Hester the EEOC “will not proceed further with its investigation, and makes no determination about whether further investigation would establish violations of the statute.” The notice added, “This does not mean the claims have no merit” or that the respondent, meaning the P.G. County Public Schools, “is in compliance with the statutes.”

The notice did not give a reason for why it chose to end its investigation into Hester’s complaint, but it said his filing with the EEOC cleared the way for him to file a lawsuit to further his case against the school system. 

Hester told the Blade he reached out to Lambda Legal to represent him in his lawsuit, but the LGBTQ litigation group declined to take on his case without giving a reason. Gonzalez-Pagan, the Lambda attorney working on the Eller case, said he was unfamiliar with Hester’s request for representation. Another Lambda official couldn’t immediately be reached to determine the reason for its decision not to represent Hester.

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