Sunday, November 18, 2007

Marching With a Message

By Steve Charing

As polls indicate, the movement towards lgbt equality is making progress. Folks across America are less likely to want to discriminate against gays and lesbians than ever before.

To be sure, we had endured a setback during the bludgeoning that gays and lesbians received by Republicans during the "gay marriage" fear mongering diatribes of the 2004 presidential campaign. We were also stifled in Maryland, albeit temporarily, by the Court of Appeals ruling that failed to legalize same-sex marriage.

But with the historic passage of ENDA—the Employment Non-Discrimination Act— by the House of Representatives and the fact that more and more corporations, localities and universities are providing domestic partner benefits and other similar recognition, we may have slowly turned the corner.

Much of this progress is attributable to educating a population who is ignorant of the issues or has a prejudicial attitude against lgbt people. Their comfort zones are rife with stereotypes, or they have a personal need to look down upon others as a way to gain self-esteem and stature, or they are beholden to archaic religious beliefs that are nourished by cherry picking Scripture as a convenience.

While the prospects of changing the hearts and minds of this recalcitrant population may appear daunting on the surface, the only way to achieve success is to do the hard work and educate, if necessary, one person at a time.

Some of this is accomplished through the ever-increasing number of lgbt folks who are coming out. Family members, neighbors, friends and co-workers who know of a lgbt person are far less likely to want this person harmed politically or otherwise. The more progressive mindset of America’s youth is also a big plus.

LGBT organizations that have proliferated over the past few decades have been helpful in this regard as many have "education" components. Their websites combined with the popularity of the Internet have also been effective tools.

Another good way is for organizations to have a visible presence in the community. As an example, we in the Columbia/Howard County chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), of which I am proud to be their media coordinator, are aggressively pursuing all avenues to meet with the community and discuss our issues.

At one time, PFLAG was seen as an organization that primarily supports parents and families of gay children. Over the years it has evolved to include lgbt members as well. The lgbt’ers are bolstering the organization’s efforts in carrying out the three main components of PFLAG: Support, Education and Advocacy.

Clearly, PFLAG is not JUST for parents anymore.

These lgbt members, including the chapter’s successful Rainbow Youth Alliance, have linked with the dedicated parents to create a strong organization and one that has been adept in gaining visibility with an eye towards delivering our message. Yes, PFLAG always marches with our brothers and sisters at Gay Pride parades, and have done so for 35 years.

But it has found traction in creating additional ways to get our message out to the straight community—the large portion of the population that is critical to our success in achieving equality.

In just the past month alone, the chapter has staffed booths in a neighborhood fair, at the Howard County government’s diversity fair and the heavily attended 50+ EXPO. Then a combination of three parents and two gay men presented our stories to over 20 employees of Landmark Publications—the company that publishes the Carroll County Times and the Community Times.

At this meeting the parents discussed their journey from first learning their child was gay to the point where they are giving support to other parents and advocating for equal rights. The gay men pointed out careless words used by the media, such as "sexual preference" instead of "sexual orientation." They spoke of how the mainstream media’s use of "gay agenda," "gay lifestyle" and "sanctity of marriage" can be misleading and harmful.

Two gay men and a lesbian from the chapter presented information about the chapter’s Rainbow Youth Alliance to a couple of dozen service organizations at a Youth Development Coalition meeting in Columbia. Through networking they discovered a lack of programs that deal specifically with lgbt students in the public school system, and hopefully this dialogue can increase awareness of these needs and address them accordingly.

In an effort to reach out to the African-American community, the chapter recently held a historic and well-received forum titled "Black and Gay." At this event six African-American gay men and a lesbian shared their experiences in battling racism and homophobia to succeed in their lives and be in a position to help others.
And the work of the chapter in fighting for civil rights and providing support was affirmed recently in a public ceremony as the chapter’s chairperson, Colette Roberts, received an award from the Howard County Human Rights Commission.

With these efforts and many more to come, PFLAG-Howard County is providing a model for other grass roots organizations to reach out to their communities and alleviate the fears about gays that still percolate. The value of putting faces on these issues cannot be understated. In the process, the chapter is seeking to attract enlightened straight allies to our causes, which hopefully will reap significant political benefits.

This organization is aggressively looking for opportunities to make our case—whether it is with government officials, members of the school board, colleges and the private sector. Already, much has been accomplished in Howard County thanks to the work of the chapter’s Steering and Advocacy committees.

PFLAG will always march in the parades. But with the focus on getting our message out, we hope to have more marchers, gay and straight, line up behind our banner as we march towards full equality. For more information about the chapter, visit their website.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Two 'Gay Marylands'

By Steve Charing

Former Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Elizabeth Birch, in addressing the 700 or so who attended the recent Equality Maryland Jazz Brunch fundraiser, unearthed a curious paradox. While offering a testimonial to the venerable gay rights advocate Victor Basile, who received the Pioneer for Equality award, Birch shared an anecdote disclosing how she used to make wealthy gay men feel guilty when pressing them for donations. She reminded them of their Armani suits, third houses and other luxuries.

To the many professionals, elected officials, business owners and otherwise well-healed members of the lgbt community and allies who were present at this upscale event, her story garnered chuckles. They knew all too well what Birch was saying and that it made sense.

To others in the community who cannot afford such affairs, much less own Armani suits, had they been present, they would be like, "Huh?"

That’s because there are actually two Gay Marylands—to paraphrase Democratic candidate John Edwards’ "Two Americas." There is one gay Maryland where mostly coupled men and women share a passion for equality and take action to try to make it happen. They are the targets of gay-related fundraisers because these folks believe in the movement and have the financial means to participate. As a result, they attend these functions and often write substantial checks to do so.

Not to generalize, but a significant number of gays and lesbians in this group are older and are settled with partners, many raising children. As such, they are seeking to gain rights to protect their assets and secure their future. They reside in suburban locales or in tony areas of the cities, as well as the "gay ghettos." They shrug off clubs and bars and seek alternative social outlets, usually with a small circle of tight-knit friends. They get involved in the political process and host and attend house parties to raise and contribute money for candidates and causes.

The other Gay Maryland—the overwhelmingly vast majority—consists of those thousands of folks who cram the streets during the Baltimore Pride block party or the parade in DC. They are typically younger, and a good number of them frequent clubs and bars. Most are single and looking, but there are couples as well. They are predominantly urbanites with some living in suburban and rural areas.

This category of gays and lesbians are more apt to be politically apathetic. Much of this could be traced to their domestic situation. Single people are not directly affected by the same-sex marriage debate and are likely to tune out. For various reasons, they do not and cannot contemplate same-sex marriage as a possibility for themselves.

There is also a good deal of bitterness among these folks. They are disgusted with government and their leaders, so it is not a stretch to conclude that this cynicism contributes to their indifference. Others are disinterested based on the norms of the younger generation who see political matters as an annoyance and an intrusion upon their lives.

I personally know a large number of people in this group, and they could care less about politics and trying to advance the cause. Many are clueless as to what is going on. Furthermore, they don’t want to be bothered by it. They seem to attend Pride events for the party aspects, not to celebrate gay history and the sacrifices previous generations made to help in the struggle for equality.

Among those in this segment of Gay Maryland, one can find a good bit of racial and financial diversity. There is a higher proportion of African-Americans and lesbians in this group than in the other Gay Maryland. Some are financially secure or at least comfortable; others are just trying to get by. Few, though, own a Lexus or a vacation home or fill their closets with designer clothes.

These two Gay Marylands aren’t divided cleanly, however. There are young folks, singles, African-Americans, lesbians and people of modest means in the first group. And I know of white, older, professional, financially well-off and coupled folks who fit the second group, so there are exceptions.

As a result of observations in my nearly three decades of covering the lgbt community, the tendency is that the first Gay Maryland is politically aware and active; the other is indifferent and inactive.

Jon Kaplan, who chaired the Jazz Brunch, pointed out at the Brunch that hundreds normally attend Lobby Day, the Equality Maryland organized-event in Annapolis in February that consists of a rally at Lawyers Mall and meetings with legislators. "Can you imagine what impact we would have if thousands attended," he asked rhetorically.

The "thousands" would have to come from the second gay Maryland, but how?

Dan Furmansky, the executive director of Equality Maryland recognizes this challenge and would be extremely happy if this segment of Gay Maryland increases its participation.

"Equality Maryland is holding town halls across the state and also holding low-dollar amount fundraisers like the recent social-centric Equality Beats," Furmansky told me. "We plan to reach out to this section of the lgbt community by having a greater presence at the bars and partnering with bar owners to find creative ways to get their patrons involved in the movement with the understanding that not everyone will be motivated to put down their drink and head to Annapolis."

That’s a daunting task given the degree of apathy that exists. But even these folks would benefit mightily if the two Gay Marylands would merge into one so that we can travel the road to equality together.
For Marylanders, there is a terrific, moderated newsgroup that focuses on political issues that concern the LGBT community in Maryland. The pertinent links to this group to subscribe and post messages, etc. are shown below: