Tuesday, October 23, 2007

‘All or Nothing’ Strategies Divide Community




By Steve Charing


Two parallel events are occurring whereby activists are working towards lofty goals. One is an all-inclusive (gay, lesbian, transgender and gender identity protections) ENDA—the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The other is a plan to seek full marriage equality during Maryland’s 2008 General Assembly.

ENDA (exclusive of transgender protections) had been proposed since 1974. The new ENDA battle has traveled a convoluted road in Congress so far. A bill that would include transgendered persons as well as gays and lesbians was introduced in April with lead sponsor openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) that would, if signed into law, prevent discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Then the crushing political reality set in: the Democrats in the House apparently did not have sufficient votes to pass an all-inclusive ENDA; that is, expanding the bill to cover gender identity would not pass. Some thirty votes were lacking. Rep. Frank, in consultation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, pulled the bill and pared it so that it would sexual orientation only.

The removal of gender identity from the original bill did not resonate well with many gay, lesbian and transgender rights organizations at the state and federal levels. In fact, over 300 such organizations, led by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, signed on to a letter to Ms. Pelosi (who favors an all-inclusive bill) that vigorously opposed the bill as it stands because it "leaves part of our community without protections and basic security."

The truncated bill passed committee and at press time a floor vote was scheduled for an amendment introduced by the other openly gay member of the House, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) that would re-write gender identity protections back into the bill.

Equality Maryland, the state’s principal lgbt civil rights organization is among those who staunchly support an all-inclusive ENDA. At a recent gathering of local activists, executive director Dan Furmansky said, "Protections for transgendered people and gender identity are inexorably linked to lesbian and gay rights." He argued that delaying transgender legislation historically does not equate to fast action in the near term.

Indeed, Furmansky’s point is bolstered by the fact that a bill to safeguard transgendered people from discrimination failed during last year’s General Assembly despite indications that it had received broad support. While gays and lesbians earned protections as a result of Maryland’s enactment of the Non-Discrimination Act of 2001, transgendered people, who need the most protections, were omitted. They continue to lack them nearly seven years later.

Many lawmakers as well as their constituents are not familiar with transgendered individuals and are reticent about extending protections. They are fearful of the unknown, especially the political consequences. This complicates all-inclusive legislative strategies.

While these organizations seek to install transgender protections in ENDA, the rank-and-file appears divided. Bloggers and others decry the fact that if ENDA fails because of gender identity being added, the majority of the lgbt community would be left out in the cold and would lose long-sought anti-discrimination protections in the workplace.

Gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein, a member of the Gertrude Stein Club who opposed an "all or nothing" strategy on ENDA, was quoted in the Washington Blade that he did not believe the rank-and-file membership or constituents of the statewide and national groups support their leaders’ "all or nothing" position. "I’m not aware of a single one of these groups polling their members or taking a survey of their members," Rosenstein said.

Some gay activists don’t believe that gay and lesbian fortunes should be tied to the plight of the transgender community. "Other than sharing this minority status, I don't fully understand why transgender is part of a struggle that is being fought to specifically end discrimination based on sexual orientation," said Rob Lance of Columbia. "I see these two issues as apples and oranges: sexual orientation vs. gender identity." But Lance is opposed to discrimination against any group.

While I have always advocated full protections for transgendered people, I, too, never saw it as a matter of sexual orientation or rationalized the connection to lesbian and gay rights.

The upshot of this controversy is that ENDA, in any form, will not be enacted this year or next. Even if the bill passes the House (that would be historic to say the least) with or without gender identity, it is unlikely to pass the Senate, and if it did, President Bush will probably veto it. The Senate cannot muster enough votes to override the veto.

Therefore, the argument that lesbians and gays would be harmed if an all-inclusive ENDA went down to defeat does not wash. The best approach is to find a way to include transgender protections in the bill and begin a process of educating the public starting at the state level and hope that a Democratic victory in 2008 will translate into widening majorities in both the House and Senate and a more receptive president in 2009.

For those who are fearful that an all-inclusive bill would further delay protections based on sexual orientation, keep in mind that over 300 lgbt groups are opposed to excluding gender identity. That’s a lot of lobbying power. No bill will advance as long as there is pressure from these groups to keep the bill all-inclusive. So, it’s in everybody’s interest to get it right.

The other controversial issue confronting lesbians and gays in Maryland is the push for full marriage equality during the 2008 General Assembly. Equality Maryland will try hard to shepherd the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which promises to be an uphill struggle to say the least. They will not only be challenged to obtain sufficient votes on this hot-button issue, but will be forced to stave off a threatened constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

Recognizing the political hurdles that are presented, gay activists as well as some local groups in Maryland are questioning the strategy of pursuing what is perceived to be an "all or nothing" approach. That is, Equality Maryland is advocating full marriage rights instead of seeking perhaps a more politically acceptable civil union type arrangement.

One activist told me that Equality Maryland is moving without the general backing of the gay and lesbian community. She urged a community-wide town hall meeting where all voices can be heard—not just from Equality Maryland’s leadership—to discuss the implications of the current strategy and what might be the best approach.

In fact, Equality Maryland is scheduling Town Halls starting off in Baltimore on November 5 at First and Franklin Church and in Takoma Park on November 8.

Of course, the concern is that if the so-called "all or nothing" effort fails, gays and lesbians would be deprived of any partnership rights that are offered to same-sex couples in Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Connecticut through civil unions.

Dan Furmansky understood these concerns and explained to groups and individuals that marriage equality must be sought but that the organization will also "do what we can to assure that protections are afforded to our community as swiftly as possible."

As Furmansky stated to me in an exclusive interview for Baltimore OUTloud, "Starting out the legislative process to win marriage by asking for [civil unions] that is intended to deliberately withhold marriage from same-sex couples does not make sense, either politically or philosophically."

Clearly the ENDA and the Maryland same-sex marriage efforts will present dicey moments for the community. As in physics, strong actions usually result in strong reactions. But no civil rights battles have been waged without controversy or second-guessing by others who are not directly leading the fight. To succeed, activists must overcome opponents of gay rights as well as opposition from those for whom the struggle will ultimately benefit.

No one ever said it would be easy.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Raising LGBT Visibility in Northeast Baltimore








By Steve Charing




Cindy Grim lives with her partner Barbara Stratton and their two young boys Charlie, age 7 and Ridgeway, 10 months, in the Gardenville neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. The two moms had explained to Charlie that there are all types of families including single-parent families, families with two moms and families with two dads.

Seven year-old Charlie understood. But not everyone else has that understanding. Accordingly, it became the mission of Cindy and Barbara, as well as other lgbt couples in the area, to help educate the public and elected officials that can only visualize families in the mode of "Ozzie and Harriet."

"Our family is no less of a family as anyone’s," Cindy said, clutching on to Ridgeway, to an applauding gathering of lgbt neighbors and activists from legislative District 45 at a town hall on October 13.

What led to this eventual town hall meeting was that one of the delegates in District 45, Talmadge Branch, had an Ahmadinegad moment a couple of years ago and reportedly denied the existence of gays and lesbians in the district.

This nonsense motivated Susan Francis, who is now the Development Director at Equality Maryland, and a few other people to organize and spread the word that in fact, lgbt people do live in the district, have families and are viable members of the community. There are two gay bars in the district—Thirsty’s II and the Blue Parrot.

Del. Branch’s alleged comment plus the desire to maintain a dialogue with district legislators throughout the year on issues that concern the lgbt community resulted in the formation of Equality 45 by a handful of Baltimore City Lobby Day participants.

To raise the visibility of lgbt folks in the district, Equality 45 maintained a booth at this past Pride festival in Druid Hill Park that featured a map of District 45. The group’s members were encouraging pride-goers who lived in the district to paste a colored star on the map where their home is located. At the end of the day, it was clear that there was a sizable lgbt population within the district, and the members of the fledgling group were determined to see that these numbers from the star-studded map translated into political influence in Annapolis.

Equality 45 took the next step and organized the town hall event on October 13 that would serve as a platform to thank those legislators who had supported the lgbt community in the past. They would also feature actual lgbt couples—some with children—who would explain why they need the same protections that routinely accrue to heterosexual couples.

About 60 people from Lauraville to Rosemont and from Beverly Hills to Overlea attended the October 13 event at Jerusalem Lutheran Church at the corner of Moravia and Belair Roads. It featured comments from several lesbian and gay District 45 activists, Equality Maryland’s executive director Dan Furmansky and two legislators from District 45—Delegate Cheryl Glenn and Senator Nathaniel J. McFadden.

One invited lawmaker, Delegate Hattie Harrison could not make it but dispatched a representative Ava Scott to attend Equality 45’s town hall. Delegate Talmadge Branch, who now apparently realizes there are gays and lesbians in the district, could not attend as well. All but Del. Glenn, who was just elected in 2006, have supportive lgbt legislative records according to Equality Maryland’s website.

Dan Furmansky kicked off the program by outlining Equality Maryland’s legislative agenda for 2008 and emphasized the goal of achieving same-sex marriage via the General Assembly. Furmansky applauded the formation of Equality 45 and indicated to OUTloud that his organization would "absolutely" help other districts organize similar town hall events

In addition to Cindy Grim, other speakers, such as Pam Watkins and Louise Harmony, discussed how they are just like everybody else and want similar rights. All the speakers from Equality 45 told their personal stories and explained why marriage equality is important to them.

Then it was the legislators’ turn. Delegate Cheryl Glenn disappointed the audience by candidly stating that she opposed same-sex marriage based on her religious beliefs. She is supportive in other areas of concern for lgbt people and backs the community’s right to fight for same-sex marriage. But her faith keeps her from envisioning a married couple that does not consist of one man and one woman. Del. Glenn maintains that she represents everybody in the district and acknowledges the issue is important to gays and lesbians. She is willing, unlike homophobic elected officials, to maintain an ongoing dialogue.

On the other hand, Senator Nathaniel J. McFadden pleasantly surprised the audience when he stated that the issue of same-sex marriage should not be tied directly to the religious aspects of marriage. Raised as a Southern Baptist, Sen. McFadden said his position "evolved" and had heard the same arguments before in places where blacks could not marry whites.
"Discrimination in any form is unacceptable," he declared to the cheering audience.

Susan Francis was the principal organizer of the town hall, but other key people like Brian Armstrong and Tim McCoy—both co-chairs of Equality 45—as well as several other core members had significant roles in this event.

According to members of the Equality 45 steering committee, this town hall will lay the foundation to future individual meetings with the legislators on lgbt-related matters. "The District 45 Town Hall was a successful beginning in establishing a dialogue between the lgbt community in northeast Baltimore and our elected state representatives," said Tim McCoy.

The next meeting of Equality 45 is scheduled for November 10. "It will focus on next steps...how to engage the elected officials further and to work with them to understand better the issues that are affecting our community, including civil marriage," said McCoy.

For more information about Equality 45 you may contact Tim McCoy at tmccoydc@yahoo.com or Brian Armstrong at BRA1978@comcast.net.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

LGBT Legal Clinic to Open in Baltimore




By Steve Charing



Noting a void in the availability of legal services for Baltimore’s lgbt community, especially for those folks who are disadvantaged, a group of area lawyers and law students are planning to start up a legal clinic here. It will mark the second such clinic in the U.S. with Philadelphia being the first. The clinic, which has been named the FreeState Law Project, is slated to open in September 2008.

Aaron Merki, a student at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore and a FreeState steering committee member, sees the clinic as a way of ending a pattern of neglect for the underprivileged. "If there is a neglected, forgotten community in Baltimore, it is this one; especially the hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless lgbt youth in Baltimore City and around the state," Merki told OUTloud. "Often they are sick, malnourished, abandoned by friends and family, and forced even to prostitute themselves in order to shower and eat."

Another law student at the University of Maryland and committee member, Sara Ryan, drew from her experiences at Equality Maryland to foster her interest in this project. "I saw first hand the need to provide services to low income lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender people in Baltimore," she explained. "I have seen all too often lgbt Marylanders denied access to shelters, jobs and other areas."

Matthew Feinberg, a rising law student at the University of Baltimore and another member of FreeState’s steering committee said the clinic would supply legal counseling and representation to lgbt individuals facing lgbt legal issues. Such issues include family law, tax, plaintiffs and defense work and possibly referrals.

"The work will be pro bono or almost pro bono, and will provide much needed legal representation to people who cannot afford it," he said. He added that they are looking for this clinic to be modeled after the successful one in Philadelphia.

Aside from these law students, several established local lawyers including Lisa Kershner, Karen Moore and Nevett Steele, Jr. also sit on FreeState’s steering committee. It is they who originated the idea of establishing a legal clinic in Baltimore.

"My experience in private practice over many years, led me to believe that there were huge unmet legal needs in the lgbt community that the private bar was not addressing, particularly the needs of youth, lgbt persons of color and the poorer members of our community," said Lisa Kershner an attorney at Paley, Rothman, Goldstein, Rosenberg, Eig & Cooper.

"The statistics on lgbt youth remain appalling; youth in our community continue to be at much greater risk for dropping out of school, running away from home, homelessness, substance abuse and suicide. Transgender persons also continue to face discrimination, hate crimes, and for the many who are homeless, are even being shut of shelters and left to fend for themselves on the street where they are at even greater risk for abuse and violence," she points out.

Ms. Kirshner added, "As a lgbt attorney who has enjoyed many benefits of the system, I want to contribute to establishing a first rate legal services program for the lgbt community in Maryland. It is a project whose time has come."

While they are doing a significant amount of the legwork to get the project up and running, the lawyers realize that students at the two schools would be enthusiastic about the project and better contacts for professors and deans at the law schools. The FreeState Justice Project is not formally linked to the two law schools, however.

A kick-off reception is scheduled for Wednesday, November 7 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Courtyard of the University of Maryland School of Law on 500 West Baltimore Street. For more information about the clinic and the reception, you may contact Matt Feinberg at matthewfeinberg@yahoo.com or Lisa Kirshner at lkershner@paleyrothman.com.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Cruising Towards Equality








By Steve Charing

After many years of discussion, my partner Bob and I finally took our first cruise. We decided at this point that we would eschew the gay cruises and go on a short non-gay one. This way we could determine whether or not cruising is for us.

We asked one of OUTloud’s loyal advertisers, Cruise Planners (see related article), to plan our cruise and book us, which they did efficiently and expertly. The outstanding cruise by Royal Caribbean included Nassau and Coco Cay in the Bahamas as well as Key West, with the ship departing out of Miami. It occurred September 24-28—just long enough to get a fair assessment.

We weren’t sure how gays or lesbians would be received or even noticed by the other 2,400 passengers on board. All we wanted to do is relax and enjoy ourselves and put on the shelf, albeit temporarily, the major disappointment from the Maryland Court of Appeals decision on marriage equality. The last thing on our agenda, though, was to make a statement of any kind. At least that was the plan.

Although we believe we aren’t "obviously gay" to most people, let’s be honest: two middle-aged guys traveling on a cruise together are gay. There is no getting around that. Business partners don’t take cruises with one another without any spouses. The same for two male neighbors or work colleagues. Two or more women on a cruise, however, wouldn’t even merit an inquisitive glance. But a pair of guys though? Definitely.

Most had to at least suspect we were gay. That’s fine with us. There were passengers who hailed from 53 foreign countries and most of the U.S. As such, there is always the possibility that there would be frowning towards male couples since broad acceptance isn’t there just yet.

Although we were seen together virtually everywhere, and we had asked straight people to snap pictures of us with our camera, there was no noticeable negative reaction.

Fortunately for us, there was a group of about 60 gay men and lesbians (mostly men) on board as passengers. We surmised they were gay because as they boarded the first day, they all wore rainbow leis. How perceptive are we!

I approached one of them later on and asked if they were part of a particular group, and he told me that a gay bar in Naples, Florida arranged for these folks to go on the cruise. He concluded Bob and I were gay because two middle aged men on a cruise together….

At least there were people we could relate to on board, which eased any tension incurred by trying to mix with an overwhelming herd of heterosexual passengers. Aside from those 60 and ourselves, we identified a potential 4 additional couples on the ship (passengers), so let’s say there were 70 gays and lesbians out of the 2,400. That comes to about 3 percent of the passengers, a very tiny minority. The crew and entertainers—that’s another story!

So it seemed like things would be more fun than we had anticipated with the presence of gay brothers and sisters on board a straight cruise. There was definitely a comfort zone. But we didn’t expect what would happen later that first night as the ship set sail.

It was 70’s Disco Night in the Spectrum club on the eighth deck. After dinner and a few losing rounds in the casino, Bob and I wandered into the Spectrum mainly to hear the music among the couple of hundred passengers sitting on cushioned chairs around tables. One nostalgic disco hit after another was played by the DJ as the couples danced to the blinking lights and musical beats of the disco era.

Then it happened. Maybe I am na├»ve, but whoa! A pair of guys from the Naples contingent jumped onto the dance floor and started shakin’ their booty’s to KC and the Sunshine Band’s "Shake Your Booty." Then another gay couple joined them. And another. All of a sudden, a gay contingent was dancing among the straight couples.

It was so euphoric. Bob and I wasted no time in getting on the floor and dancing to the Bee Gees’ "Stayin Alive" and several other classics that followed. Did the straight couples abandon the floor and the room in horror? Did they mock us gays while we danced together? Did we hear groans or catcalls from the spectators? No!

This courageous demonstration of pride by the gay couples and nonchalance on the part of straight crowd was a most welcome surprise. We never would have anticipated it.

The next night, prior to a superb performance by recording artist Lenny Welch in the ship’s main theater, a young gay couple who was not part of the Naples group, danced to a waltz amidst heterosexual couples’ on the floor and those watching from their seats. At the conclusion of the song, they embraced and kissed.

This is huge. The ship contained people from all over the country and the world with many I suspect of being conservative or even religious. But the benign reaction to all this same-sex dancing was incredible, chilling even. I could not imagine that this would have occurred twenty years ago.

Maybe this happens on all cruises. Maybe it was just this one. Who knows? But it’s not a stretch to think that this acceptance—both national and international—will ultimately lead to equality, that we are indeed like everybody else. Perhaps cruises will lead the way.

****
Booking the Cruise


An OUTloud advertiser, Cruise Planners, identified, planned and booked the cruise referred to in my column. They were patient beyond belief and answered a plethora of questions, which is common among first-time cruisers.

Paula Belletiere and her son, Paul, operate a Cruise Planners franchise from Glen Burnie. They did a magnificent job of providing information, working within the customers’ budget, booking a great cruise at discount rates and handling related travel arrangements.

I truly recommend this company and will undoubtedly call on them for future cruises. They seem particularly adept at working with first-time cruisers. Currently, the Belletiere’s are in the midst of getting a group together for an Alaska cruise in July, which we are considering.

Cruise Planners benefits from their national network and coordinates with all the major cruise lines. They also book gay cruises. For more information, you can call either Paula or Paul Belletiere at 410-761-3554 or toll-free at 866-801-6829. Their e-mail address is pbelletiere@cruiseplanners.com. Also, check out their website . –SC