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.

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