Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Where's the Passion?




Small Lobby Day turnout signals possible declining interest

By Steve Charing



On a balmy February 2, a crowd estimated by the Washington Blade to be 250 assembled at Lawyers Mall in Annapolis for a rally during Equality Maryland’s annual Lobby Day event. This compares unfavorably to the previous years when, according to Equality Maryland’s figures, approximately 500 attended in 2008 and nearly 1,000 did so in 2007.

What’s going on?

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to the paltry attendance. For one thing, Equality Maryland’s legislative agenda is not as ambitious as in previous sessions.
Realizing that same-sex marriage cannot pass during this session, there will not be a full-throated push for the legislation.

Instead, the goal is to work with legislators to increase sponsorship of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act this year, according to statements made by new Equality Maryland Executive Director Kate Runyon. In addition, the organization will be pursuing once again passage of the Gender Identity and Expression Anti-Discrimination Act as well as other initiatives.

Another factor could be a general decline of interest. Following the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling, which upheld the state’s law that restricted marriage to be between one man and one woman, there was plenty of anger to go around and fire up the LGBT community as well as allies.

But lack of leadership from Governor Martin O’Malley on this issue and opposition by the powerful Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller may have dampened the spirits of many gay and lesbian couples. These couples may be of the mindset that it’s a lost cause for now.

Another factor for the disappointing crowd is the prevailing lack of interest in these issues and politics in general on the part of large segments of the LGBT community. There are approximately 15,000 same-sex couples throughout the state. Add to that the tens of thousands of unattached folks, family members and other straight allies. All told, this is a significant number of people to be reckoned with. And with the media present, it would have made a great picture of the mall jammed full of LGBT activists.

But they didn’t show up. As is the case in previous Lobby Day rallies, Baltimore City, which comprises the largest number of LGBT people in Maryland, was woefully underrepresented. The areas of Charles Village, Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon—strong gay population centers—never seem to turn out in large numbers. In fact, the majority of Lobby Day attendees hail from Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard Counties.

One would think that the devastating passage of Proposition 8 in California would spur on more people to rally and meet with their respective delegates and senators. Apparently that did not happen in Annapolis this year—at least not with the numbers that would impress those persuadable legislators.

Weather cannot be used as an excuse this time around; the temperature was in the 50’s—fully 30 degrees warmer than at last year’s bone-chilling Lobby Day.

Immediately following the Prop 8 debacle, nearly a thousand people, mostly from the Baltimore area, managed to gather outside City Hall on five days notice in November to express their displeasure at Prop 8 as part of a national Join the Impact movement. There was a lot of passion at that event.

True, it was a Saturday as opposed to Lobby Day being on a Monday—a work day for most—but still. It only took five days by the organizers using Internet social networking sites to pull off such a huge crowd. Did Equality Maryland tap into the Join the Impact network?

Equality Maryland is not solely to blame for the lack of turnout at Lobby Day. The director is new but capable. The organization dutifully publicized the event in area LGBT papers, but it’s not their fault if people aren’t reading them.

There seems to be a persistent lack of involvement and leadership from certain Baltimore-based LGBT organizations to get the people out. Imagine if even a small percentage of Pride-goers turned up at Annapolis. Imagine the impression that would make on legislators that this community is vast and they care. The lawmakers may pay more attention.

Clearly, Equality Maryland will have to recognize that there are varying degrees of interest within the community and that stronger efforts are needed to spark more enthusiasm. Attempts to obtain a comment from Equality Maryland’s Kate Runyon were unsuccessful.

Those who did attend enjoyed the speech made by Bishop Gene Robinson. But there was criticism levied at the speakers’ not being visible because there was no riser or stage. And the sound system was not up to par.

Logistical issues have plagued Lobby Day rallies in the past and may have tamped down attendance. These are technical glitches that can easily be fixed in the future.

Following the rally, the attendees split up to visit and meet with their respective legislators. Some of these delegates and senators were welcoming, supportive and courteous. Others were plainly rude or ignorant, or they simply declined to meet with their constituents.

When people tell their personal stories to lawmakers and relate how the lack of protections affect LGBT families, it can be productive in educating these officials.

And a large crowd on the mall will signal a strong determination to succeed. Let’s hope we can get that passion back.

3 comments:

D. C. LaRocca said...

I think the relative success of Join the Impact can be attributed largely to the still fuming anger over Proposition 8. Also it was a grassroots effort with an element of spontaneity.

It sure wasn't slick public relations! Their website was amateurish, big time. That said, there is a certain exuberance that kind of "let's roll" activism engenders that old fashioned politicking lacks.

There may be, as you say, a lost cause mindset. I can only speak for myself though.

After Proposition 8 I have started to question the efficacy of our leadership in general. Maybe I'm going through a mid-life crisis of sorts. The activism of the Woodstock era has a greater appeal that trying to talk sense into politicians.

When Barney Frank threw the transgendered under the bus regarding ENDA I lost my faith in our leadership, frankly. I prefer to spend my political capital a little more in their face, so to speak.

I think the road to getting the passion back starts with getting our unity back. As a transgendered I feel like the pirate on the ship who was taking a leak when the booty was divided. I fought the good fight in heels for crying out loud! I earned my share.

Beyond that I think we need to make political activism fun and exiting. We can start by making an event seem like an EVENT. Just the name; "Lobby Day," screams BORING. It doesn't even suggest what the event is all about. Give it a name and market that name. Turn it into a narrative that the whole world understands.

A good marketing strategy should be at the top of our list.

Steve Charing said...

I could not agree with you more, Dana, on everything you said, especially the marketing of Equality Maryland events.

"Lobby Day" is a term used by a vast number of groups who do just that: select a day during the General Assembly session to lobby their respective legislators on causes near and dear. The term is universal.

BUT, EQMD needs to make it more attractive in some way. We know the Baltimore LGBT community is party (with a small p)-oriented. Think Pride. Think how that event draws thousands to mainly party. If that's the mindset, and it has existed for many years, EQMD should think creatively in attracting more pople to their events using that template.

Rob Lance said...

Steve -

This is a VERY important piece. You've said what many of us have been thinking. Now I'll vent!

The first two Lobby Days were stimulating, exciting and energizing. The 2005 Jazz Brunch was electrifying. But after that, everything was boring. Equality Maryland lost their steam, dropped the ball, misplaced their focus, whatever. In fact, I skipped Lobby Day 2007 because I had become so disillusioned because EqMD had become all gimme and no give.

This year I attended Lobby Day and I thought the crowd was paltry and the logistics pathetic compared to those halycon first years.

Oh wow! For all the money EqMD begs, we get Dunkin Donuts coffee cartons and donut holes? The weather wasn't as wonderful as many make out - it was DAMN cold and windy during the rally. So there we were, freezing and unable to see the speakers. A platform would have worked wonders. So would lights as it got later. I bet I would have been a lot warmer if I could have actually SEEN Bishop Robinson speak.

Where is all the money donated to EqMD going? What's it being used for? I've heard rumors that a seat on the EqMD board might go for around $60K. Huh???? I didn't ask if that was one time or annually. I don't even want to know.

My advice to EqMD is to take the donated money and start using it to (1) organize lobbying efforts in districts respresented by those legislators who are against us and/or who refuse to meet with us due to their inbred homophobia (2) energize all those who are silent, most notably in Baltimore City and (3) make Lobby Day effective and special again.

EqMD needs to do what it's supposed to do: LOBBY. I think Del. Don Dwyer of district 31 is a lost cause, but perhaps Sen. Janet Greenip of district 33 would be a good target. Three women and one young gay man met with her. She overpowered them and told them that she's opposing us because she wants to lower the divorce rate in MD. Where is EqMD???? Go work on Greenip!

In Howard County there are Del. Gail Bates of district 9A and her lap dog Del. Warren Bates who won't even meet with their constituents during Lobby Day.
Why isn't EqMD working on them? They should at the very least be shamed into meeting with their constituents.

With all this money and money grubbing on the part of EqMD I would expect to see more results.

Case in point: today I received an email from Executive Director Kate Runyon who was "outraged" by revelation that the Maryland State Police had been spying on EqMD as a potential terrorist organization. The email had two "take action" links in it. But when you clicked on them, you were taken to the EqMD donation page. Not a word about the issue at hand.

Other advocacy sites will at least have a form letter pre-addressed for you to respond. Not EqMD!! Just the usual begging for $$$.

That looked bad, smelled bad and just adds to the feeling (at least with me) that EqMD is nothing more than a money collecting organization that is solely concerned with keeping itself staffed and in the news. I want to see more bang for the buck. Not my buck, because I stopped contributing to them long ago, but bucks they have. If I'm convinced, I'll start donating again.

Thanks for writing this, Steve. I think EqMD is potentially a great org. It just needs to refocus.

Rob