Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Equality Wins!

Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, reverses Prop 8

On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down sodomy laws in Lawrence v Texas, June 26, 2013 turned out to be another seminal landmark in the history of LGBT rights.  By a 5-4 decision the Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA—the Defense of Marriage Act—on the grounds that it violated the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution.  
In the case, Windsor v the United States, DOMA was viewed by the majority of the Court, whose opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, as unconstitutional “as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”  Justice Scalia was among three justices authoring dissents.

“By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy. “By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage.”
The result is that same-sex couples who were married in states where such nuptials are legal, including Maryland, will be able to enjoy over a thousand Federal rights, benefits and entitlements that are accorded heterosexual couples. They include such Federal benefits as the right to file joint tax returns, federal pension survivors’, Social Security survivors’ benefits and many more.   Government agencies will be required to revamp their regulations to include legally married same-sex couples. 

With the Court’s decision to allow a lower court’s ruling to stand, which struck down Proposition 8 in California based on the equal protection clause, there are now 13 states plus D.C. where same-sex couples can marry. This represents jurisdictions covering over 93 million Americans.
DOMA was signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton in which the Federal government was barred from recognizing same-sex marriages even if they were legal in certain states.  At the time, no such marriages were legal.

The second landmark decision that struck down Proposition 8 was based on standing that upheld the U.S. District Court of California’s ruling, authored by Vaughn Walker.  “We have never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to,” read the majority opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry authored by Chief Justice John Roberts. “We decline to do so for the first time here.”
By taking this approach, the Supreme Court nullified Proposition 8 in California but provided no opinion on the rights of states to ban same-sex couples from being legally married.  Observers characterize the Court’s decision as “punting.”  During the oral arguments in March, Justice Kennedy cautioned that the Court was entering “unchartered waters,” which signaled a more likely narrow ruling as opposed to a sweeping broader one, unlike the DOMA ruling.

Hundreds of equality supporters as well as a lesser number of opponents gathered around the Supreme Court building in sweltering heat and humidity cheering the news amidst a sea of rainbow colored flags and signs.  People came from all over the U.S. with some spending the night before to witness history.

“Today the married lives of same-sex couples in Maryland were made whole,” Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, told me.   “We can now access the more than 1,000 protections the federal government provides to married couples. And with the ruling in the Perry case, marriage equality returns to California bringing us to 13 states and the District of Columbia that have marriage equality. We will continue our quest in the remaining 37 states until all loving and committed couples in the U.S. have access to marriage equality.”
HRC president Chad Griffin issued a statement that said in part, “Today’s historic decisions put two giant cracks in the dark wall of discrimination that separates committed gay and lesbian couples from full equality.”

Governor Martin O’Malley, who pushed marriage equality in Maryland, weighed in calling the rulings “a powerful step forward for those who live in states like Maryland.”

The White House issued the following statement: “I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.  This was discrimination enshrined in law.  It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people.  The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.  We are a people who declared that we are all created equal – and the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

“This ruling is a victory for couples who have long fought for equal treatment under the law; for children whose parents’ marriages will now be recognized, rightly, as legitimate; for families that, at long last, will get the respect and protection they deserve; and for friends and supporters who have wanted nothing more than to see their loved ones treated fairly and have worked hard to persuade their nation to change for the better.” 

“This is a historical day for all gay and lesbians couples,” said Annapolis resident Kim Hinken. “My wife, Adri and I are overjoyed at the repeal of DOMA. Finally, the country recognizes our vows to each other as they do any couple. The legal protections that this ruling allows us will assure that we are seen as a legally married couple in the U.S.”

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Future of Baltimore Pride

Jay W Photos
It had been an uncharacteristically busy run-up to Pride this year for the GLCCB, the organization that has run the annual event since 1977.  The iconic 33 year-old building on W. Chase Street had been sold at the end of May.  Potential new venues are being evaluated. The board of directors removed the interim label from Matt Thorn’s title and appointed him executive director. 
Then the Center got caught in the firestorm of words among business owners and the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association as to the management of the block party and its related problems of the past.  All these taking place in the two weeks leading up to the big weekend.

GLCCB executive director Matt Thorn, who among other positions in our community is also the Pride Committee chairman.  Undaunted, he managed to pull off Pride, and with the help of a cadre of volunteers, did so quite well. 
It wasn’t always a smooth ride in the past.  Invisible to the parade watchers, partiers and festival attendees were behind-the-scenes miscues at various points throughout Pride’s history that included wasteful spending, mounting debt, poor decision-making, a lack of transparency in the planning process, and allegations of theft.  These blemishes are more likely the result of organizational and financial instability that has beset the Center during its long history..

Some of these blunders, which had been concealed from the public by GLCCB leadership over the years, did manage to leak out.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that individuals and groups have floated the idea of wresting Pride away from the Center and running it independently (as done in D.C. and Philly) and presumably more efficiently.  Aside from Pride’s management, many people feel that the current location does not allow for expansion. 

“I think it's all about growth and Pride is a stunted child both because of where it is and because of the natural limitations placed on it by virtue of its oversight,” said a member of the community who asked not to be identified.

Thorn is aware of such criticisms.  “Pride has been a staple event of the GLCCB for many years. While not all of those years have been perfectly managed or executed, Baltimore Pride has consistently been an event enjoyed by thousands each and every year,” he told me.  “According to the large majority, Baltimore Pride 2013 was one of the best run and best executed Prides in recent history, [as evidenced by] statements from attendees, the MVBA and local businesses including Club Hippo, Grand Central and City Cafe. There is always going to be bumps with planning any event especially one of this magnitude but the GLCCB and I are committed to improving the event year after year.”

Mindful of the negativity stemming from past Prides, Thorn adds, “There is little that can be done with previous actions of previous administrations; its history cannot be rewritten.  We can only learn from those actions and what has taken place utilizing them as learning experiences to move forward allowing Baltimore Pride to be better and better.”
It is quite possible, even likely, that a well-managed and run private entity could do an effective job in organizing, planning and running Pride.  But Pride is the principal fundraising effort for the GLCCB; an attempt to deny the Center of those important dollars is ruinous.   

There are steps the GLCCB should take to mitigate the criticism directed at itself, and by extension, Pride.  In no particular order:

Improve the Center’s brand within the community.  The leadership should adhere to the strategic plan and follow the recommendations laid out by the company who developed the plan.  Transparency and community involvement with decision-making is crucial.  People will not respect, support or contribute to an organization that they do not trust.

Be mission-centric.  The relevancy of the GLCCB takes a hit after each Pride within the community because the Center seems dormant until the next cycle.  There are a number of issues the GLCCB can wrap their hands around to the betterment of our community, and there should be a concerted, well-publicized effort to do so.
Consider Pride alternatives.  Either outsource some of the Pride operations to a private entity without damaging the Center’s financial position or task the Pride function to a separate body within the community.  Thorn’s direction of this year’s Pride was admirable, but the executive director needs to concentrate on improving the GLCCB’s relations with the community, developing other revenue streams, and fulfilling the promise that the Center once had.

Become more diverse.  This is not as easy as it sounds but the GLCCB should establish a task force dedicated to encouraging women, African-Americans, transgender and other sexual minorities to get involved and convince them that a strong GLCCB benefits all.
Rally the community around the new home.   When the GLCCB settles into a new space later this year, the leadership should set up a series of open house events and fundraisers to rally the community.  It’s always exciting when a move takes place, so the Center should capitalize on that buzz.

The GLCCB is at the crossroads.  It needs to vigorously demonstrate its willingness to move forward and if and when confidence is restored, so will its stewardship of Pride. 
Matt Thorn is looking ahead.  “Plans are already under way for Baltimore Pride 2014 including extending the event from June 12 through June 22 and adding a multitude of events to the festivities,” he said.  “I understand some of the frustrations that people have and I encourage them to join us on July 22nd for our Baltimore Pride 2014 inaugural planning session.”

A good start.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Be Totally Proud but Not Totally Satisfied

Pride is such a great time of year—especially when there have been notable victories in our never ending struggle to achieve full equality.  Last year, we in Maryland celebrated the historic passage of marriage equality and we were in the midst of a referendum battle that created uncertainty but also a degree of activism on the part of the LGBT community that had not been seen in previous years. 

Every Pride, it seems, there is something different we can cheer about and reflect upon our improving fortunes, particularly in light of the struggles our predecessors had to endure at the time of Stonewall—the consensus onset of Gay Pride.
This time around we have myriad reasons to be proud.  Marriage equality was finally achieved in Maryland after many years of disappointments.  Having won last November at the ballot box makes the victory even more gratifying 

Starting New Year’s Day, marriage for same-sex couples became legal and hundreds of couples have since rejoiced.  At the Pride festival, there will be a mass wedding.  How sweet is that? Thousands more will be afforded the same standing as our heterosexual counterparts if we can get key portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA repealed. 

Two other states joined Maryland on Election Night while another beat back a hostile constitutional amendment.  Since then several others rapidly jumped on the bandwagon resulting in a total of 12 states plus DC that have legalized same-sex marriages and adding much momentum to the cause.  Plus a few foreign countries joined the party.  Moreover, some Republicans (gasp!) in Congress announced their support for marriage equality. 

On top of that, we eagerly anticipate a potentially historic Supreme Court ruling on Prop 8 in California and DOMA.  While most observers do not see sweeping, broad rulings from the Court on these cases, both decisions could (and should) be favorable.  We expect to find out by the end of Pride month.  What timing!
Then in the world of sports—a major component of our culture—we witnessed for the first time male athletes coming out in pro basketball and pro soccer while active as did a college basketball player.  There were athletes from various sports publicly declaring their acceptance of a gay teammate with a whopping 92 percent of players in the National Hockey League, according to a recent survey, asserting that a gay teammate would be welcome.  

These developments, one would think, should put an added spring in the steps of the parade marchers on Saturday and make the rainbows a little bit brighter throughout the weekend.  While we can bask in the glow of these victories and prospective ones to come, it goes without saying that there is so much, no, too much work to be done to be fully satisfied.
While basis protections for transgender individuals exist in Baltimore City and in Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties, there continues to be a barrier at the state level.  For the past few years, strong efforts to achieve non-discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on gender identity and expression remain elusive.

We also need to address the plight of those LGBT youth who have been discarded by non-accepting family members or as a consequence of poverty and become homeless.  There is a disproportionate amount of LGBT youth among the homeless in Baltimore and it is especially acute among trans youth.  As such, homelessness among our youth increases the chances for violence, poor health and crime—as perpetrators or victims.
And make no mistake, we can enjoy the benefits of marriage equality and other advances, but no matter the decisions by elected officials or votes at the ballot box, there are way too many people out there who do not like us.  It may not be visible or obvious to casual observers, but it is quite apparent when we learn about violence directed towards our community.

You can see evidence of this “anonymous” vitriol spewed on blogs and other Internet-based threads that discuss LGBT rights.  Hiding behind the security and obscurity of a keyboard, folks from all over the country lash into our community with alarming intensity and frequency.  Some of this is attributable to the culture they grew up in that breeds contempt for LGBT people; other causes are probably due to a backlash in the unprecedented rapidity of advances in LGBT rights.
As we have witnessed here, LGBT folks have been attacked, beaten or murdered simply because of who they are.  Law enforcement can do their job and they try, but we need to be vigilant and conscious of our surroundings.  There remains much hatred out there.

This continued disdain towards our community extends into bullying habits at schools.  While jurisdictions have adopted anti-bullying initiatives, the bullying against LGBT teens and pre-teens or those who are perceived to be LGBT, has not waned significantly.  Pressure needs to be applied to localities and school districts to help curtail these incidents.  Bullying contributes to low self-esteem and dropping out and worse, suicides among the kids.
There are also issues on the national stage that need to be legislated like job non-discrimination, immigration reform as it pertains to LGBT people, and HIV/AIDS funding.  Unfortunately the Republicans in the Congress have a stranglehold on any progressive legislation, and redistricting will keep them in place for an extended time.

So while I don’t want to cloudy up a sunny and bright Pride weekend especially in the aftermath of significant political victories, reality has a way of seeping into the mix.  We should all be proud of ourselves, our accomplishments, and the upward trends towards equality, but we should not rest on those laurels or be satisfied.  Understand that our work is far from finished.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

An Abundance of 'Nunsense' at Toby's Baltimore

Most of us probably do not know what actually goes on behind the stark, sturdy walls of a traditional convent.  We believe that such an edifice would reflect austerity, include much prayer as well as “proper” behavior among the nuns.  Not so with the Order of the Little Sisters of Dundalk—yes, Dundalk, Md.—whose loopy, hilarious antics take us on an irreverent, non-stop ride,  while good-naturedly spoofing Catholicism and nuns themselves in Nunsense, now playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Baltimore. 
Dan Goggin superbly penned the book, music and lyrics for this farce and as such, Nunsense, which debuted in 1985, became the second longest running off-Broadway show in history behind the Fantasticks.

The production at Toby’s is mostly a madcap combination of vaudeville and slapstick with an ample supply of puns and outstanding music that keeps the audience howling in laughter.  Add to the mix an amazingly talented ensemble under the direction of Mark Minnick and you have one terrific show.
To read the full review, visit Maryland Theater Guide.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Mark Patro: A Man of Pride and Passion

The battle for marriage equality in Maryland was moving into high gear by July 3rd of last year.  Polls indicated a tight contest on Question 6, creating much uncertainty and apprehension among the state’s thousands of same-sex couples and supporters who were hoping beyond hope that the bill that Governor O’Malley signed into law in March legalizing same-sex marriage would withstand a robust referendum attempt. 
While trying to combat the efforts from well-funded opponents seeking to overturn the law at the ballot box, most advocates knew it would be a struggle to prevail.  Every possible vote was needed to be harvested.  It would be particularly important to register college students, as they represent a large number of the state’s unregistered voters and, based on polling data, would more likely to be supportive.

Accordingly, on that July 3rd evening, a group of 20 folks from Baltimore and beyond gathered at the GLCCB’s edifice on Chase Street to be trained and certified as voter registration volunteers.  The instruction was to have taken place inside the building but someone didn’t get that memo; the doors were locked.  Undaunted, activist Mark Patro who was to deliver the training, held the session on the sidewalk outside the GLCCB on this particularly sultry, sweat-producing evening.  Despite that speed bump, the voter registration drive was well underway.

Mark didn’t stop there.   He bolstered the Question 6 effort by organizing Light Brigade Maryland—whereby groups of people held battery-charged lit panels that spelled out messages promoting marriage equality.  They visited over two dozen road overpasses, bridges and other venues around the state, but mostly in the Baltimore metropolitan area, to gain the attention of motorists and pedestrians.  It turned out to be a key component of the superior and creative messaging the pro-equality forces crafted during the campaign that helped sway people to vote our way.
This is what Mark Patro does.  Always forward thinking, always strategic, always creative, Mark finds a cause that is clearly progressive and manages to inspire others to reach a specific goal.  He is not a fiery, rah-rah type; in fact, he is rather soft-spoken.  But Mark possesses a lot of energy and passion, and people love to follow his brand of activism, of which he’s had considerable experience.

“My initial involvement in activism was with the impeachment of Richard Nixon; at seventeen I carried a petition for his removal from door to door in the Reisterstown suburb where I spent my teen years,” says Mark, a Towson University graduate and native of Baltimore who was educated in the Baltimore City and Baltimore County public school systems.

Mark decided to come out as gay in the late 1970's and was seeking “community” at the GLCCB. In the early 1980’s he volunteered as a photographer and worked on layout—a manual paste-up process—for the Community Center’s Gay Paper prior to the advent of computer-based page design programs. 
Light Brigade, formed by Mark Patro, in action
Mark explains that “during this period of time I got a closer look at organizing on the grassroots level when others, who were more involved than I, attempted to get an LGB housing and employment protections act through the Baltimore City Council. By the time this passed I was no longer involved with the Community Center.”

He continued his advocacy through intense letter writing to advance LGBT civil rights.  This, along with the efforts of many others, culminated with the passage of statewide protections in 2001 for gays and lesbians.
Things changed dramatically for Mark in 2005.  “I attended my first PFLAG meeting in Howard County, which was a 45 minute drive from my Baltimore County home,” he says.  “For a brief time I drove 30 minutes in the other direction to Churchville where there was a second PFLAG meeting group. While attending both meetings, I decided there was too big a gap between Columbia and Churchville and decided to start the PFLAG chapter in Lutherville.”

He remains as the president of that PFLAG chapter, and the name was changed from PFLAG-Baltimore County to PFLAG-Baltimore to reflect a broader reach.  “The PFLAG work that I’ve done is very near and dear to my heart; and the direct advocacy work that I learned how to do while working with PFLAG has become my new passion. I see my future more full of this kind of work on a broader range of issues,” Mark says.
Mark stepped up that political advocacy when passage of equal rights for same-sex couples was emerging as a top priority.  During the Maryland legislative session of 2009 he testified in favor of the Inheritance Equality bill written by Senator Rich Madaleno.  This bill passed and became law later that year.

Being one of only a handful of LGBT advocates in his northeast Baltimore County legislative district, he volunteered to become district coordinator for Equality Maryland’s annual Lobby Day. With several other dedicated district voters he made this trip for each of the last five years of that seven-year process.  
“I grew comfortable with talking to my senator and delegates to a point where I thought my conversations were sometimes having a positive impact,” Mark points out. “When the law finally passed [in 2012] and the opposition took the signed law to referendum I worked to ensure we would hold on to the right to marry.”

While the battles for marriage equality were being waged in Annapolis, Mark also turned his sights on extending protections in employment, housing and public accommodations based on gender identity and expression.  And for him, it was very significant.
“My proudest moment as an LGBT advocate happened in January 2011,” Mark explains. “This is when the Baltimore County Council passed by a 5-2 vote and amended language to the Baltimore County Code to protect people in Baltimore County on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. I was happy to work with a well-organized coalition of groups including PFLAG, Gender Rights Maryland, Equality Maryland, the Esimorp Network, The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and many clergy and citizen advocates. Councilman Tom Quirk led this effort and I, for one, will be eternally grateful.”

His work with PFLAG, the legislative conversations, and the referendum work resulted in an invitation in the fall of 2012 to join the Moving Maryland Forward Network (MMFN), and in January 2013, he was invited to join the board of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministries (UULM).
“As a member of PFLAG, MMFN & UULM in 2013, I am proud to have worked side by side with folks like Sharon Brackett, Matt Thorn, June Horner, Lea Gilmore, Charlie Cooper, Vinny DeMarco, Lisa Ward and Betty Crowley.”

Mark’s work seems just to be starting.  As stated earlier, his advocacy work brought on a desire to broaden the scope of issues.  “We may have passed a very strong Fire Arm Safety Act in Maryland this year but there is still work to do,” Mark reflects. “The gender identity/expression protections bill still needs to pass on the state level. I feel strongly that we need to understand and implement strong regulations, if not an outright ban on fracking.
“The simple things in our life, which are even more basic than our civil rights, are now being threatened. Labeling genetically modified food should be considered such a right. People need to be able to make a choice about what they eat and feed their children.  Fracking threatens our water supply and our ability to grow food.”

Pride…passion…and limitless issues to confront.  That’s Mark Patro.