When we first learned that the Hippo planned to close later this year, many in the community attributed that development to a cultural transformation. Gay bars, according to these folks, aren’t as important as they once were, and with the growing acceptance of LGBT people by society as a whole, more gay people are finding their entertainment and social networking at straight establishments or online.This acceptance, although far from universal, has always been a goal of LGBT advocates who do not want to be considered second class citizens by the larger straight community. In effect, one could point to this shift as a success, and if the trend continues, we could be seeing the end of gay bars and similar businesses—the results of this success—though I maintain they are still needed and have a place in our society.
One such achievement that is causing financial problems for LGBT organizations is marriage equality. For over a decade, same-sex marriage proponents have made the quest for marriage equality the centerpiece of the movement, which would bestow the over 1,100 benefits, rights and responsibilities that are conferred upon heterosexual married couples.While not every gay and lesbian considered marriage to a same-sex partner something they personally coveted, they still had that option should such nuptials become legal. It was a worthy goal, to be sure, and those organizations at the forefront of the battles in the state legislatures and governors’ offices reaped the benefits of this movement that gathered steam after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2003.
Whether or not gay or lesbian individuals were partnered, many bought into the marriage equality movement, and combined with supportive allies, wrote out checks to those organizations leading the way. Locally, that organization had been Equality Maryland, which fought hard to push a bill through an overwhelmingly Democratic but politically timid legislature and an unyielding Governor Ehrlich followed by a vacillating Governor O’Malley who finally threw his support for the measure in 2011 after advocating for civil unions.Despite the uphill climb, Equality Maryland prevailed, and along with others, succeeded in persuading the legislature to pass the bill, which O’Malley signed into law in 2012. Equality Maryland joined other groups under the auspices of Marylanders for Marriage Equality to defeat a referendum put forth by marriage equality opponents including Maryland’s Catholic Archdiocese.
Just four days after the June 26 historic Supreme Court ruling that paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the chairs of Equality Maryland’s two boards released a statement warning of the organization’s potential demise.“Funding from individuals and major donor sources dropped significantly after securing marriage equality,” the statement read. “The Board believes passionately that Equality Maryland ought to continue to play a critical, central role in the coming years for our community, but is facing one of two possibilities for the future: drastically scaling down operations, with a reduced capacity to serve its many constituencies across the state, or suspending operations entirely.
“Unless and until we secure adequate revenue to sustain the organization, the important services, oversight and advocacy it has consistently provided to the Maryland LGBT community will cease to be.”Carrie Evans, its executive director, had been let go because of the financial crisis.
It was always my impression that Equality Maryland was never awash in cash. The organization nearly imploded a few years ago over financial matters and a lack of oversight by their board. Morgan Meneses-Sheets, the executive director at the time, was fired in an ugly controversial mess.Equality Maryland’s finances had historically been held close to the vest. Indeed, when the Washington Blade recently conducted a survey of national and local LGBT organizations concerning their financial status and the salaries of the respective executive directors, Equality Maryland did not respond to multiple requests to provide such information. I always believed that organizations that raise money from the community ought to be more transparent regarding how the funds are being spent, but that was not the case with this one.
Clearly, the success of marriage equality here and nationally has removed the largest and most appealing magnet from which to raise money, and organizations like Equality Maryland could fall victim. It would be a shame if that comes to pass.There is so much work ahead especially efforts to address bullying in schools, suicides among LGBT youth, homelessness whereby LGBT youth are disproportionately at risk, LGBT youth in the foster care and the juvenile justice system, the continuing fight to address discrimination and violence directed towards transgender individuals, banning conversion therapy, combating an increase in HIV infections in the African-American community in addition to the seemingly endless fight nationally to secure a Federal all-inclusive non-discrimination law.
Many of these issues require legislation, and Equality Maryland is in the best position to work its political acumen to achieve results. However, they are not sexy issues as marriage equality was and, therefore, not likely to build their fundraising efforts around them.Realizing that this was a real possibility, I strongly advocated for Equality Maryland to re-tool its mission and use its expertise to help launch local organizations in various parts of the state. These “Balkanized” iterations of Equality Maryland would be in the best position to deal with local brush fires in schools, businesses, law enforcement and other areas where neighbors could have more of an impact than a central organization.
It’s something that Equality Maryland should still consider if it’s not too late. Selling that idea to a public who helped financially to secure marriage equality is do-able. Unless that happens, Equality Maryland as well as all of us will have been victims of our own success.