Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A New Marriage in Maryland


Merger between FreeState Legal and Equality Maryland is a good match

For the past six months, the once prominent Equality Maryland organization was essentially moribund: cash-starved, no office, and no executive director.  Following decades of being the principal advocacy organization for LGBTQ Marylanders, Equality Maryland laid low hoping to eventually wake up from its tenuous existence.
That changed dramatically on January 6, 2016, when FreeState Legal, the Baltimore-based non-profit organization that serves the low-income LGBTQ community in Maryland through direct legal services, announced that it was merging with Equality Maryland. 

 “We are excited to better serve the LGBTQ community across all of Maryland,” said Patrick A. Paschall, Executive Director of FreeState Legal in a statement. “By combining FreeState Legal’s team of attorneys providing direct legal services with Equality Maryland’s longstanding history as the voice and political arm of the LGBTQ community, we are creating a comprehensive LGBTQ civil rights organization that will work throughout the state to end prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”   
When Equality Maryland was experiencing fundraising difficulties earlier last year, they attempted to effect a merger with FreeState Legal, but according to Paschall, the timing was not right for FreeState to undergo that change.  Now it can, and it’s a good fit.

FreeState Legal, which has existed since 2008, has been on the upswing in both effectiveness and reputation.  It recently moved to new headquarters located at 231 East Baltimore Street, but it is unclear if that move is related to the merger.
Equality Maryland brings to the table thousands of members statewide and a string of significant victories under its belt especially the passage of marriage equality and comprehensive protections based on gender identity.  Equality Maryland was a component of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition which withstood a referendum challenge to the newly passed law in 2012.

Patrick A. Paschall  Photo: Bob Ford
While these major accomplishments are noteworthy, there is much more work that needs to be done especially for people of color and low income LGBTQ individuals. 

Both Equality Maryland and FreeState Legal have enjoyed a working relationship in the past, so the merger should be a relatively seamless endeavor. One joint initiative that stands out is their work, as well as that of other partnering organizations, on the Youth Equality Alliance, which seeks to address the challenges of LGBTQ youth in Maryland education, foster care, and juvenile justice systems.
“Both FreeState Legal and Equality Maryland receive calls on a daily basis from LGBTQ Marylanders who continue to experience discrimination in housing, health care, employment, and public accommodations, discrimination or harassment in schools and foster care, or the risk of losing custody of their children,” said Jessica P. Weber, Board President of FreeState Legal.  

“Bringing together the expertise and experience of Equality Maryland and FreeState Legal will put us on the path to achieving the goal of full equality for all LGBT Marylanders,” said Lawrence S. Jacobs, Board Chair of Equality Maryland, Inc. in a statement.  

“This merger creates a statewide social justice organization that provides direct legal services to low-income LGBT Marylanders, implements and defends legislative protections against discrimination, engages in policy advocacy, organizes and empowers communities, educates and trains individuals and groups on LGBT cultural competence issues, and serves as a watchdog on behalf of Maryland’s entire LGBT community," he said.
The announcement on January 6 signals a 6-month-long process that will involve strategic planning and community input from all over the state to establish a combined mission and vision as well as a new name for the merged organization.  Paschall, who became FreeState Legal’s executive director last March, will remain as the executive director of the combined organization.  He said there will be no staff changes in the immediate future.

“For decades Equality Maryland has led the fight for LGBTQ equality in the state legislature,” said Paschall. “FreeState Legal could not be more excited to join forces with Equality Maryland, an organization that has such a deep history and strong track record of success serving Maryland’s LGBTQ community.”
May this marriage last.

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