July 8, 2015 at 12:07 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Equality Maryland faces uncertain future
Maryland State House, gay news, Washington Blade

Supporters of Equality Maryland maintain the organization still have a role to play in Annapolis. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The chair of the Equality Maryland Foundation on Wednesday said LGBT youth and other vulnerable people will “have a harder time” in the state if the advocacy group closes its doors.

“Our organization is a part of the safety net to help educate and inform organizations, corporations, police departments, health care workers, teachers about the realities of the LGBT community,” Isabella Firth told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “We think that our work is part of the safety net that protects those more [vulnerable groups.]”

Firth spoke with the Blade eight days after she and Stephanie Bernstein, chair of the Equality Maryland board of directors, announced the organization may close later this month because of a budget shortfall.

They noted in their statement that funding “dwindled” after Maryland voters in 2012 upheld the state’s same-sex marriage law and, later, the passage of a transgender rights bill. Firth and Bernstein also announced the financial crisis prompted Equality Maryland to lay off Carrie Evans, who had been the organization’s executive director since November 2011.

Firth told the Blade the organization’s annual budget in recent years ranged between $200,000 and $300,000.

“We have been trending downwards,” she said.

Firth said the board is currently “researching” how much money it needs to raise in order for Equality Maryland to remain open. Firth also noted the organization is accepting donations on its website.

Firth told the Blade the board will meet in the coming weeks to determine the organization’s future.

“We’re in the next phase of the movement,” she said.

Longtime Equality Maryland supporters with whom the Blade spoke this week agreed the organization can still play an important role in the state.

“I feel strongly there needs to be an LGBT watchdog in place in Maryland,” said Larry Jacobs, a former president of the Equality Maryland board of directors. “If that’s not going to be Equality Maryland, who’s it going to be?”

Scott Davenport, another former president of the Equality Maryland board of directors who joined the organization after it and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed a marriage lawsuit in 2004, agreed.

“The community needs a voice in Annapolis,” he told the Blade. “They have a proven track record.”

Gay state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County), who received Equality Maryland’s endorsement last year in his campaign against Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer in the Democratic primary, said the organization is “a victim of their own success.” The Montgomery County Democrat nevertheless said he feels that Equality Maryland can still play a role in organizing, education and political outreach in Annapolis.

“We should have a conversation about this as a community,” Madaleno told the Blade.

Gay Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin, a longtime Equality Maryland donor who was a member of the search committee that hired Evans, made a similar point.

Slavin pointed out to the Blade that Evans is a former staffer of the Human Rights Campaign, which made significant financial contributions to the 2012 campaign that defended the state’s same-sex marriage law. He questioned why the current Equality Maryland board members did not approach HRC and “tell them the shape they were in.”

“Do people in the movement really want to see Equality Maryland shut down,” asked Slavin. “It just looks bad.”

Love Makes a Family of Connecticut in 2009 dissolved after same-sex couples won marriage rights in the state. Freedom to Marry plans to close in the coming months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gays and lesbians have the constitutional right to marry throughout the country.

The Equality Maryland supporters with whom the Blade spoke this week dismissed suggestions that former Executive Director Morgan Meneses-Sheets’ 2011 termination played any role in the organization’s current financial crisis.

“I really don’t think that’s true from what I know being involved in the organization,” Jacobs told the Blade, noting that Evans had ties with national LGBT advocacy groups. “If anything she did a better job through the marriage campaign and afterwards.”

Madaleno said that issues surrounding parenting, insurance and name changes for trans Marylanders will continue to “pop up” in Annapolis. He acknowledged these issues from a legislative perspective may not be enough “to sustain a whole organization” like Equality Maryland.

“We’ve accomplished almost everything we want legislatively,” said Madaleno.

Observers have discussed the possibility of Equality Maryland merging with Free State Legal Project and the ACLU of Maryland.

Firth told the Blade that the board has “had discussions with other organizations” but they “didn’t work out.”

She declined further comment when the Blade asked her for specific reasons.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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