Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Exit Spring

By every measure, this spring has been one for the ages. You have the Arab Spring whereby several Middle East and North African countries challenged their authoritarian old guard governments in the quest for freedom.

You have the Tornado Spring in which there had been record devastation in the wake of countless climate change-induced tornadoes in the South and Midwest.

You have the Flood Spring where the mighty Mississippi wreaked havoc on neighboring towns.

You have the Osama bin Laden Spring when public enemy Number 1 was effectively put to death by our courageous SEALS 6 team.

You had the Donald Spring where the annoying egotism of Donald Trump somehow managed to dominate the political scene.

And you also have the Exit Spring. Clearly, the departure of Oprah heads the list followed not that closely by the Maria Shriver exit in the wake of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dalliances and the sad cancellation of TV’s Brothers & Sisters. And as in the case of every spring, you have the Washington Capitals exiting the playoffs in an early round.

Perhaps not as monumental but of concern to our local LGBT community, was its share of exits this spring. While the surprise resignation of long time executive director of the GLCCB, Craig Wiley, was significant especially with Pride right around the corner, the messy, soap opera-like dismissal/resignation of Equality Maryland’s executive director Morgan Meneses-Sheets is still sending tremors among us.

And if that’s not enough, I, too, will be heading to the exit door after 26 months as Baltimore OUTloud’s managing editor. This resignation was as sudden as it was regrettable, but it was prompted by an unsolvable personal dispute with one of the publication’s owners. He shall remain nameless, and I will not discuss the details here.

I have turned the reins over to a very capable person, Dana LaRocca, whose column, “City Desk…A View from Mount Vernon,” has been a welcome and popular addition to our independent, award-winning newspaper. The paper’s co-publishers agreed to my recommendation, and she is the new managing editor.

Dana, who is a very good friend of mine, brings to this position years of experience in journalism. She is savvy, smart, and knows our community as well as anyone. But even more important, she cares deeply about our community and its issues, and that type of dedication is needed to be successful. Dana has been a tremendous booster for the paper and strongly believes that by being independent, it provides a critical voice for our readers.

I urge all of our writers, readers and advertisers to support Dana and the paper as it will continue to play an important role in presenting news and issues that affect our lives as LGBT folks. I have been working with Dana during this transition period, and I figure to write this column in the future.

My experience as editor has been challenging, fulfilling and enjoyable, and I owe it largely to everyone who has supported the paper and worked towards its success. I begin with the staff, and I am grateful for the support I received from the dedicated Mary Taylor (Sales Manager/Production), Anja Saine (webmaster), Bill Andriette (production director), Bill’s back-up Maria Nicolosi, talented Carol Baker (graphic artist, who also recently left to pursue further education in her field), Joe Velasquez who had succeeded Carol, and former distributors Jay Loane and Michael Serio.

Then there are the writers whose efforts are crucial to any successful publication. I cannot adequately express my appreciation for the loyalty and excellence of Gregg Shapiro, Chuck Duncan, and Deb Draisin whose contributions to our Lively Arts section made it one of the best there is.

Others also played important roles in providing excellent material for our readers (in no particular order): Dr. Eva Hersh (deserves special kudos), Dana LaRocca, David Placher, Jay Loane, Josh Aterovis, Jonathan Hernandez, Marty Hoegg, Wayne Curtis, Gerry Fisher, Rev. Meredith Moise, Woody Derricks, Mark Patro, Shawn Bradley, Sandy Rawls, Larry Walker, Colin Riley, Jessica Lemmo, Jesse Benson, Terrence Brower, Jeffrey Clagett, Nicole Bettis, Vann Mills, Bill Palmer, Jeffrey Clouser, Sam Kunz and the always dependable Rodney Burger.

These individuals are like family and made my job easier. Some have moved on to other priorities in their lives; others hopefully will remain with us.

A special nod goes to Bruce Garrett, whose outstanding political cartoons appeared in every single issue except one over a two-year period, giving our paper the uniqueness among LGBT publications of having our own in-house cartoonist. Bruce also did excellent work for the paper in the area of photography as did Skip Koritzer, Justin Nixon and most recently Jay W.

This has been a significant journey for me, and I don’t regret one minute of it. My work as editor and reporter for the paper has taken me to places and people I never imagined meeting, and I feel enriched by the experience.

Aside from the OUTloud family, I had been privileged to make innumerable contacts in and around the Baltimore area. As an example, I recently had the pleasure of meeting Maggie Beetz, the charming new editor of Gay Life whom I consider a colleague and friend rather than a competitor.

Organization leaders, elected officials, business people, other media representatives, publicists, etc. have added to and strengthened my journalism world and my life. I thank them for their work and their valuable contributions as sources and newsmakers.

In wrapping up this Exit Spring, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Jim Becker, my dear friend of over three decades and co-publisher of Baltimore OUTloud, for the opportunity to serve the LGBT community in this capacity.

And above everything else, I thank my husband Bob Ford for his loyalty, patience and support. Investing this much time and effort into an endeavor such as this can truly test a relationship. But love, as they say, conquers all. Thank you, Bob, for the love, sacrifice and understanding throughout this period of our lives. I am once again all yours.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Puck Starts Here

Washington Capitals fans are in the all-too familiar position of witnessing our beloved team being eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. But unexpected news during this playoff season has diverted our attention away from the disappointment with the Caps to the quest for marriage equality, particularly in New York State.

Sean Avery, a left wing (hockey position) in his fifth season with the New York Rangers has come out for marriage equality. Avery, a straight, fashion-conscious 31 year-old, has partnered with the Human Rights Campaign to appear in a video for its “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality” campaign. It can be viewed here .

"Sean Avery knows what it means to be a leader - on and off the ice,” said HRC Senior New York Strategist Brian Ellner. “As the first professional athlete in the state to publically support marriage equality, his voice is sure to resonate. Like a majority of New Yorkers, he believes in the freedom of all loving, committed couples to marry."

Sean Avery, however, is one of the most reviled players in the National Hockey League by his peers. He is known as an agitator on the ice whose primary mission is to get under the skin of the opponents. Avery has made some off-color comments that netted him a lengthy suspension, and he has twice led the league in penalty minutes. Fans of other teams despise him even more.

So when a bespectacled Avery, a Canadian, states in the 30-second video, “I treat everyone the way I expect to be treated, and that applies to marriage,” eyebrows were raised. Cynics could rightfully ask, “What does he have to lose? He’s hated anyway.” In the video Avery adds, "Committed couples should be able to marry the person they love. Join me in supporting marriage equality."

In a phone interview with the New York Times, Avery explained, "The places I've played and lived the longest have been in West Hollywood, Calif., when I played for the Los Angeles Kings, and when I moved to New York, I lived in Chelsea for the first four years. I certainly have been surrounded by the gay community. And living in New York and when you live in L.A., you certainly have a lot of gay friends."

Sure, it would be great if some iconic, transcendent figure in the world of professional sports could be a spokesperson for LGBT equality rather than one with a negative image. Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Emmett Smith and Cal Ripken, Jr.—widely popular figures—would have more influence, to be sure, as they are heroes and role models. But we must take what we can get in this macho-obsessed, testosterone-laden industry, and Sean Avery should receive applause for this courageous step. [Note that Baltimore Ravens’ Brendan Ayanbadejo spoke out for marriage equality in the Huffington Post and is working with Equality Maryland to advance the cause.]

But in this case, it was the message (marriage equality) that resonated and not necessarily the messenger (Avery). When Todd Reynolds, vice-president of Uptown Hockey, a management group (agent), tweeted that he was “very sad to read Sean Avery's misguided support of same-gender ‘marriage’. Legal or not, it will always be wrong, hockey fans rallied to Avery’s defense in droves.

Reynolds went on to clarify in subsequent tweets that his comments did not reflect hatred, bigotry or intolerance towards gays; he just believes in the sanctity of marriage. The controversy continued, nonetheless. Canadian sports reporter, Damian Goddard, was fired for his tweet-based support of Reynolds.

I’ve always believed that if a current gay male professional athlete were to come out, hockey would be the most likely sport. There is a higher percentage of Europeans and Canadians in the National Hockey League than any of the other three major pro sports leagues in the U.S. As such, there would probably be less gay hang-ups among players with those backgrounds.

Then you also have the cities where NHL games are played: New York, Montreal, Washington, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, Atlanta, South Florida, LA, Chicago, etc.— hotbeds for LGBT folks. Public reaction and team management would likely be supportive.

I spoke with a former Washington Capitals player, who is Canadian, and asked him if the NHL would accept an openly gay player. He said that “the players would do the politically correct thing” at least in public. That’s promising.

When Brendan Burke, 21, a former hockey goalie and student manager of the Miami (Ohio) University ice hockey team and son of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke came out as gay in November 2009, there was also a flood of international support by news outlets and fans. Brendan advocated tolerance and spoke out against homophobia in professional sports.

His father, who was also the GM for the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team in Vancouver, issued a statement: “I had a million good reasons to love and admire Brendan. This news didn’t alter any of them… There are gay men in professional hockey. We would be fools to think otherwise. And it’s sad that they feel the need to conceal this. I understand why they do so, however… Since he wishes to blaze this trail, I stand beside him with an axe! I simply could not be more proud of Brendan than I am, and I love him as much as I admire him.” Tragically, young Brendan Burke was killed in a car accident two months later.

Brendan and Brian Burke, Sean Avery, Brendan Ayanbadejo (and most recently Donte Stallworth of the Ravens), the NBA’s Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and former NBA star Charles Barkley and others deserve a standing ‘O’ for what they have done for gay rights. And other allies like former U. of Maryland wrestler Hudson Taylor, whose organization Athlete Ally is challenging homophobia in sports, will help make gay athletes more likely to come out and advance equality in the process.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Equality Maryland at the Crossroads

April had not been a kind month for Equality Maryland, the state’s largest LGBT rights organization. The two signature legislative issues managed by Equality Maryland—marriage equality and gender identity protections—did not succeed in the 2011 General Assembly although the environment was ripe for passage for at least one.

Following each defeat (the bills were actually recommitted to committee instead of an up-and-down vote being taken in the second chamber) finger-pointing ran amok. Strategies and leadership were called into question, especially after the Civil Marriage Protection Act failed to advance in the House of Delegates although it sailed through the Senate.

Outside organizations (national partners, such as Human Rights Campaign, Gill Action and Freedom to Marry) were accused by many in the community of pushing the ultimate decision to recommit the bills, and Equality Maryland was blamed for allowing these organizations to maintain that degree of influence in what had been deemed by many as a local matter.

As to the gender identity bill, the trans-community was divided over the removal of “public accommodations” from the legislation to overcome a potential obstacle in the vote. The fury on both sides was intense and became personal. Many who were upset that the public accommodations component was stripped from the bill worked to defeat it. Although Delegate Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, the sponsor of the bill, had made that strategic decision, Equality Maryland drew much of the ire as they backed the delegate.

The controversial firing of the organization’s executive director Morgan Meneses-Sheets also in April by the Equality Maryland Board did not help repair the public relations stain that had begun to envelop the organization. This was amplified by the resignation by Matt Thorn, the newly appointed Director of Development (fundraising), in protest.

The Board’s clumsy denial that Meneses-Sheets was actually fired was not productive as she had stated that it was not her decision to leave. There needed to be clarity and consistency in what had transpired, not contradiction.

And the appearance of a “gag order” to prevent Meneses-Sheets from talking to the media also fosters suspicion. When an organization reaches out to a community and asks for donations and volunteers, there should be transparency and accountability. Shunning the media or keeping things secretive only serves to erode confidence.

Many assumed that the firing of Menses-Sheets resulted from the failure to enact one or both of these critical bills. People even drew the sports analogy that when a team fails to deliver, the ownership usually axes the coach or manager. So it didn’t come as a major surprise that this action was taken.

However, according to a credible source familiar with Equality Maryland who spoke to Baltimore OUTloud on the condition of anonymity, the decision to terminate Meneses-Sheets was made as early as January. Even if these bills had passed, the Board was still going to dismiss Meneses-Sheets following the 90-day General Assembly.

There had been pressure placed on the Board by a number of lawmakers to remove her. It was a “communications” problem that, in part, led to the decision. Legislators believed she was too public by disclosing sensitive strategy while the Board was upset that she did not consult with them before she took a variety of actions or made statements.

This same source indicated that the role of the national partners during the last legislative session was troubling. “HRC and Gill Action seemed to play off each other. HRC saw this as a fundraising opportunity and each organization wanted to claim credit had there been a victory.”

Equality Maryland’s use of national partners has been questioned given that many believe that only local advocates would be more effective. The collaboration with these organizations gave the appearance that they were actually running the show. That perception further weakened Equality Maryland’s standing with some parts of the community.

Moreover, there is speculation that a new advocacy group will emerge to lead the marriage fight and a different organization will step forward to advance gender identity protections.

As April was mercifully coming to a close, Equality Maryland stood at the crossroads between becoming an effective state-based force in advancing LGBT rights or being perceived as irrelevant.

Only a week following the departure of Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the Board announced the selection of Lynne Bowman, a founder of Equality Ohio, to serve as the Interim Executive Director. She also served as the Director of Programs and Services for the Equality Federation, the national association of state-based LGBT organizations and possesses over two decades of experience in holding myriad leadership positions.

From all that can be gathered by reading posts on blogs, this is a very popular choice. I had the opportunity to speak with Lynne Bowman on the phone, and she impressed me as determined, and knowledgeable.

Her first order of business is to “stabilize” the organization from within and repair the public relations mishaps that beset the organization particularly over the course of the past month. Bowman’s guiding hand will be required to reassure a skeptical LGBT community.

This is crucial for the survival of Equality Maryland. Unless confidence is restored, much needed fundraising would not be accomplished and its impact on legislation would be reduced.

I still maintain that Equality Maryland has the infrastructure in place and the necessary contacts to overcome the disappointments of 2011. With Lynne Bowman at the helm, at least for the next four months, and if the LGBT community and allies get behind the organization, the ship can be righted. This is imperative because as of now, Equality Maryland is at the crossroads.