January 6, 2016 at 12:59 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
FreeState Legal, Equality Maryland to merge

Patrick Paschall, gay news, Washington Blade

FreeState Legal Executive Director Patrick Paschall describes his organization’s decision to merge with Equality Maryland as an “opportunity to consolidate our efforts.” (Photo courtesy Patrick Paschall)

FreeState Legal and Equality Maryland on Wednesday announced they plan to become one organization.

A press release the two organizations released says they “will merge to form a comprehensive, statewide direct legal services and policy advocacy organization that addresses the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Marylanders.” The new group will also continue to “focus on the needs of low-income LGBTQ Marylanders.”

“It’s an opportunity to consolidate our efforts,” FreeState Legal Executive Director Patrick Paschall told the Washington Blade.

Paschall said the organizations in the coming months will schedule a series of “listening sessions” across the state in order to gauge feedback from LGBT Marylanders. He told the Blade he expects the merger — including a decision about the new organization’s name — will be complete by the end of June.

“We really want to do an across the state outreach effort,” said Paschall. “We’re going to reestablish our mission.”

Equality Maryland in 2015 curtailed operations

Free State Justice in 2001 became Equality Maryland when lawmakers approved a bill that added sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination law. The Baltimore-based FreeState Legal since 2008 has provided legal assistance and advocacy to low-income LGBT Marylanders.

Wednesday’s announcement comes roughly five months after Equality Maryland curtailed operations amid a growing budget shortfall.

The organization said funding decreased after voters in 2012 upheld Maryland’s same-sex marriage law and the state’s transgender rights law took effect in 2014.

The financial crisis prompted Equality Maryland to lay off then-executive director Carrie Evans in June 2015. The organization last summer closed its Baltimore office.

Larry Jacobs, chair of the Equality Maryland board of directors, told the Blade that his organization and FreeState Legal began to talk about a potential merger last year before Evans left.

“Its a good thing,” said Jacobs. “I don’t think the organization had the capability to survive on its own for much longer.”

Evans did not return the Blade’s request for comment.

Gay state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County) — who Equality Maryland honored in 2013 at its 25th anniversary gala in Baltimore — said he is “thrilled by the announcement.”

“The new organization will be well positioned to address the political and legal needs of the LGBTQ community of Maryland moving forward,” the Montgomery County Democrat told the Blade.

Gender Rights Maryland Executive Director Dana Beyer, who unsuccessfully challenged Madaleno in 2014, specifically applauded FreeState Legal.

“Gender Rights Maryland is proud of its relationship with FreeState Legal and its executive director, Patrick Paschall, and congratulates them on their growth,” she told the Blade. “We look forward to working more closely with them in the future, on behalf of the LGBQ as well as the trans community.”

Merger puts LGBT Marylanders in ‘stronger position’

Love Makes a Family of Connecticut in 2009 dissolved after same-sex couples won marriage rights in the state. Freedom to Marry last summer announced its plans to shut down in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that extended nuptials to gays and lesbians throughout the country.

Empire State Pride Agenda, the largest statewide LGBT advocacy group in New York, last month announced it plans to shut down this year.

The organization said the decision came “on the heels of securing our top remaining priority.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last fall during an Empire State Pride Agenda dinner in Manhattan announced statewide regulations banning discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Advocates who criticized the organization’s decision to close its doors noted, among other things, that a bill that would codify Cuomo’s executive order into law has languished in the New York Senate for more than a decade.

“They seemed to suggest the work is done and we’re not really needed anymore and we’re going to shut down,” Jacobs told the Blade, referring to Empire State Pride Agenda. “I have never believed that was the case in Maryland. I don’t believe it’s the case in New York. It’s certainly not the case nationally.”

Madaleno agreed as he discussed Equality Maryland and FreeState Legal’s decision to merge.

“This new organization puts the Maryland community in a far stronger position than other states like New York, where the state organization just closed,” he said. “I am excited and enthusiastic to work with this new group to move Maryland forward.”

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

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