Saturday, November 19, 2005

A Model for Advocacy

How a local PFLAG chapter is working behind the scenes for YOU

By Steve Charing

While most members of the lgbt community are going about their normal business, a small but dedicated group of people is working to enrich the lives of all of us.

The Columbia/Howard County chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is well known for its marching in the Baltimore and D.C. Pride parades. And you may be familiar with its two support roles: to parents who have children that came out as lgbt or the kids themselves who may be experiencing alienation from family members, friends and/or classmates. Both of these components within this organization—the Parents Support Group and the youth group (Rainbow Youth Alliance)—have been extremely successful and have garnered many plaudits from those in and out of PFLAG.

However, a third arm of the chapter, the Advocacy Committee, is constantly striving to ensure equality for the entire lgbt community, in addition to supporting the parents and the children. The accomplishments of this group have been amazing during the relatively short time it has been in existence.

"We are determined to achieve equal rights for the lgbt community," said Dan McCarthy, a father of a gay son and co-chairman of the Advocacy Committee. "And marriage equality is one of our top priorities." He acknowledged that there are lgbt individuals who may not foresee marriage in their immediate future or may not want to marry, but "I want them to at least have the option. When marriage equality is achieved, all other rights for lgbt individuals will fall in place," he said.

The other co-chairman, Kevin Jordan, is a gay man with a partner of over 10 years. He is responsible for much of the grass roots effort and strategy needed to change the hearts and minds of "the movable middle," as he puts it—those who are not at the extremes of the political spectrum—and in arranging meetings with local officials in Howard and Carroll counties.

Jody Huckaby, the Executive Director of the 500 chapter national PFLAG organization, recognized the significance of the committee’s work and accomplishments. Following a visit to the Howard County chapter’s November meeting, he noted on the national PFLAG’s website that the Advocacy Committee’s members "in partnership with their local and statewide allies, participate in advocacy work to help protect the rights of their lgbt loved ones. Their education and advocacy activities keep them engaged and unified."

Using quiet diplomacy as a tactic, the chapter’s Advocacy Committee was instrumental in securing domestic partner benefits for Howard County government employees, Howard Community College, the county’s Board of Education and the Columbia Association. The significance of these victories cannot be understated given the anti-gay rhetoric that permeated during the 2004 presidential elections and in some quarters of the State House.

PFLAG-Howard County and its Advocacy Committee worked hard to help Equality Maryland, the state’s largest lgbt civil rights organization, achieve success during the last General Assembly. The Hate Crimes Bill and the Medical Decision-making Bill were the two major victories.

Alas, Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., in pandering to extremists on the religious right, vetoed the Medical Decision-making legislation that had been passed with bi-partisan support saying, "…the creation a new term of life partner will open the door to undermine the sanctity of traditional marriage."

At this past year’s Lobby Day, an event on Valentine’s Day in Annapolis organized by Equality Maryland to rally the community and discuss lgbt issues with legislators, PFLAG-Howard County mustered over 90 people to attend on a chilly, soggy day. That represented the highest total of any group participating.

"[The Advocacy Committee] members involve themselves with every level of politics in Howard County and have created a level of dialogue between legislators and constituents that is unprecedented," said Equality Maryland’s Executive Director Dan Furmansky. "If only every county in Maryland had a grassroots group with the strength of Howard County-PFLAG - we'd have all of our rights and protections and then some."

As we await the Baltimore Circuit Court’s ruling on the lawsuit, Deane and Polyak v. Conaway that is challenging the constitutionality of the state marriage law which restricts marriage to one man and one woman, the Advocacy Committee is attempting to thwart any anti-gay legislation that may arise from a backlash following the ruling. Although the judgment will be appealed regardless of the outcome, the committee is leaving nothing to chance.

Members of the committee have already met with County Councilman Christopher Merdon, a Republican candidate for County Executive, to discuss local issues. In addition, meetings were held with state Delegates Neil Quinter and Frank Turner, two Democrats from Howard County, as well as Republican state Senator Allen Kittleman. A meeting with Republican Senator Sandy Schrader is scheduled for December 6.

The primary objective of the meetings is to explain the lawsuit and to secure support in the event of a backlash instigated by extremists on the right. These efforts are critical, as already there is a movement underway by anti-gay Delegate Don Dwyer from Anne Arundel County to introduce an amendment to the state’s constitution that would ban same-sex couples from marrying. A similar effort failed during this past session.

Members of the advocacy group also made presentations to the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee and the Howard County Republican Central Committee to tell individual stories to add a personal touch concerning the issues facing the lgbt community. This approach has been instrumental in trying to educate skeptical politicians.

"Advocating even with our enemies is worth it," said Dan McCarthy. "We share the stories of our families and put our ordinary human faces on the debate. It gets very tough for them to be so virulent when they can see themselves in us. We always change their hearts first, then their minds follow."
The Advocacy Committee and the PFLAG chapter organized a debate in October between both sides of the marriage issue that received broad coverage in the media. Dan McCarthy and Anthony McCarthy impressed the 150 in attendance with their persuasive, well-reasoned arguments against opponents who had nothing to offer that was credible.

The Howard County chapter co-founder and chair Colette Roberts, who was honored at the Equality Maryland Jazz Brunch on November 20 for her efforts, is very proud of the work of the committee. "With the formation of this committee we have made great strides," she said. "Once parents and members of the lgbt community actually lobby and see a bill get passed they not only gain confidence for themselves but encourage others to also participate in the process."

And that’s how you get it done.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

IRS attacks churches critical of president

Letter to Baltimore Sun--Published 11/15/05

I was in total disbelief the first time I read the small news item "Anti-war sermon elicits IRS threat" (Nov. 8).

The article notes that the IRS has warned a liberal church in Los Angeles that it might lose its tax-exempt status because a reverend had articulated his opposition to the war in Iraq (and tax cuts) on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.

He did not, however, advocate the election of either candidate.

In this country, apparently, a church or any religious institution can run afoul of the government if it had the audacity to espouse peace instead of war. God forbid.

The hypocrisy of such a standard is blatant.

While the tax-exempt status of the church in question is in jeopardy for supposedly "intervening in political campaigns and elections," one must call into question the numerous churches that publicly endorsed President Bush and actively supported such divisive issues in the 2004 campaign as a ban on gay marriage to garner more turnout and votes.

It seems that the IRS selectively applies its regulations to those who oppose White House policies as a form of retribution.

Sound familiar?

Steve Charing

Friday, November 11, 2005

Give ’em Hell Harry!

Sen. Harry Reid paves the way for Dems to finally stand up to Bush
By Steve Charing

I was wondering along with many other Democrats when and if somebody from the Party, some elected Democrat, would finally show a bit of spine and do to Republicans what the GOP has done to Dems for the past 25 years: trash them.

The frustration felt by Democratic partisans has almost been suffocating. The GOP has been relentless in criticizing Democrats for so long it’s impossible to enumerate examples here unless this paper expands to 120 pages. But Democrats have long taken it on the chin without a counter-punch. So it’s no wonder we all had a feel-good moment when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pulled a fast one on the cocky, arrogant GOP-controlled Senate. summed it up well:

"Since 2004, Republicans have stonewalled on a promise to investigate the Bush administration deceptions that led to the Iraq war. So Republicans thought it was business as usual Tuesday afternoon (November 1) when Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid took to the floor of the Senate to comment on Iraq. Then a modern day Boston Tea Party began.

"Reid stopped all other Senate business and forced the Senate into a special closed session (Rule 21) to discuss Iraq and demand accountability in the White House CIA Leak scandal. It was a bold move, but after more than an hour, Democrats emerged victorious having won a renewed investigation into the misuse of intelligence leading to the war in Iraq--including the White House CIA leak."

Reid had said that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's grand jury indictment "asserts this administration engaged in actions that both harmed our national security and are morally repugnant."

Finally the Dems speak out!

The reactions from the stunned and chagrined Republican Senate leadership were pathetic, if not outright funny. Comedian Bill Maher termed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) as a "girlie-man"—a take off on California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s characterization of some Democratic legislators within the state—because as a result of Reid’s action, Frist felt he was "slapped in the face with such an affront." Others also feigned outrage, such as the ever-popular former Senate leader Trent Lott (R-MS).

The Democrats need to demonstrate the same feistiness as exhibited by Reid in dealing with the GOP that is known for more for its smear and fear campaigns than for competence in governing.
I am still angry over the Democrats’ reticence with respect to the poorly termed but politically effective "gay marriage" issue. Since it landed on the national stage, Democrats have cowered in their corners and refused to participate in the debate on the merits of marriage for same-sex couples in the same manner in which the GOP used to avoid discussing Social Security until President Bush made it a second term priority. To Democrats, "Gay marriage" was a lightening rod to avoid at all costs. They did. And they will continue to do so.

The silence on the part of the Dems has been deafening, especially during Bush’s presidency. Even though they managed to lose both houses in Congress, the Democrats have the responsibility of performing the "loyal opposition" role—something they seem unwilling or incapable of executing.

The aftermath of 9/11 and the incessant charge that anyone opposing the war (and Bush for that matter) is unpatriotic contributed greatly to this muted criticism. Democrats fell into that trap (as did the media), buttoned their collective lips, and most of Congress wound up supporting the Iraq invasion against their instincts and personal misgivings.

Despite Bush’s poll numbers tanking, the Democrats have failed to benefit politically thus far from the incompetence of the Administration. And certainly there were opportunities: the never-ending war in Iraq and the lies that got us there; the proliferation of the use of torture; the indictment of Scooter Libby and the connection to Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney in the outing of a CIA operative; the pathetic and apathetic response to Katrina ("You’re doin’ a heckuva job, Brownie"); the escalating record-breaking deficits; the rising costs of energy mixed in with obscene profits and tax cuts for the large oil companies; the likely corruption investigations at the top of the Republican House and Senate leadership; the bungled Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination and its attendant cronyism; and, of course, our diminishing standing in the international community.

But the GOP hadn’t been worried to a large extent that such a sterling record would cause a change in congressional control. They had counted on the Dems to stay quiet. At least until now. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Libby trial, if one indeed takes place, will put the run-up to the war in Iraq on the front pages, where it should have been back in 2002. Moreover, the push for right wing Judge Samuel Alito for Supreme Court justice may finally scare moderate Republicans into believing the unspoken truth: George W. Bush is owned by the religious right.
Much of politics is rhetoric, sound bites and demagoguery, but all these components appear to be the province of the GOP spin machine.

Yes, one can catch the senatorial but bland Charles Schumer (D-NY) appear in front of TV cameras and offer his commentary on a variety of issues. And Sen. Reid is not exactly a spark either.

But what Sen. Reid did was show Democrats that it is time to hold this administration accountable for their infinite miscues and provide a platform from which they can wrest control of one or both houses in 2006 and perhaps the White House in 2008. One can hope his unorthodox action in the Senate would boost the Dems and give the spine they sorely need. Now we must hear their voices—loud and clear.