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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A Model for Advocacy

How a local PFLAG chapter is working behind the scenes for YOU

By Steve Charing

While most members of the lgbt community are going about their normal business, a small but dedicated group of people is working to enrich the lives of all of us.

The Columbia/Howard County chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is well known for its marching in the Baltimore and D.C. Pride parades. And you may be familiar with its two support roles: to parents who have children that came out as lgbt or the kids themselves who may be experiencing alienation from family members, friends and/or classmates. Both of these components within this organization—the Parents Support Group and the youth group (Rainbow Youth Alliance)—have been extremely successful and have garnered many plaudits from those in and out of PFLAG.

However, a third arm of the chapter, the Advocacy Committee, is constantly striving to ensure equality for the entire lgbt community, in addition to supporting the parents and the children. The accomplishments of this group have been amazing during the relatively short time it has been in existence.

"We are determined to achieve equal rights for the lgbt community," said Dan McCarthy, a father of a gay son and co-chairman of the Advocacy Committee. "And marriage equality is one of our top priorities." He acknowledged that there are lgbt individuals who may not foresee marriage in their immediate future or may not want to marry, but "I want them to at least have the option. When marriage equality is achieved, all other rights for lgbt individuals will fall in place," he said.

The other co-chairman, Kevin Jordan, is a gay man with a partner of over 10 years. He is responsible for much of the grass roots effort and strategy needed to change the hearts and minds of "the movable middle," as he puts it—those who are not at the extremes of the political spectrum—and in arranging meetings with local officials in Howard and Carroll counties.

Jody Huckaby, the Executive Director of the 500 chapter national PFLAG organization, recognized the significance of the committee’s work and accomplishments. Following a visit to the Howard County chapter’s November meeting, he noted on the national PFLAG’s website that the Advocacy Committee’s members "in partnership with their local and statewide allies, participate in advocacy work to help protect the rights of their lgbt loved ones. Their education and advocacy activities keep them engaged and unified."

Using quiet diplomacy as a tactic, the chapter’s Advocacy Committee was instrumental in securing domestic partner benefits for Howard County government employees, Howard Community College, the county’s Board of Education and the Columbia Association. The significance of these victories cannot be understated given the anti-gay rhetoric that permeated during the 2004 presidential elections and in some quarters of the State House.

PFLAG-Howard County and its Advocacy Committee worked hard to help Equality Maryland, the state’s largest lgbt civil rights organization, achieve success during the last General Assembly. The Hate Crimes Bill and the Medical Decision-making Bill were the two major victories.

Alas, Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., in pandering to extremists on the religious right, vetoed the Medical Decision-making legislation that had been passed with bi-partisan support saying, "…the creation a new term of life partner will open the door to undermine the sanctity of traditional marriage."

At this past year’s Lobby Day, an event on Valentine’s Day in Annapolis organized by Equality Maryland to rally the community and discuss lgbt issues with legislators, PFLAG-Howard County mustered over 90 people to attend on a chilly, soggy day. That represented the highest total of any group participating.

"[The Advocacy Committee] members involve themselves with every level of politics in Howard County and have created a level of dialogue between legislators and constituents that is unprecedented," said Equality Maryland’s Executive Director Dan Furmansky. "If only every county in Maryland had a grassroots group with the strength of Howard County-PFLAG - we'd have all of our rights and protections and then some."

As we await the Baltimore Circuit Court’s ruling on the lawsuit, Deane and Polyak v. Conaway that is challenging the constitutionality of the state marriage law which restricts marriage to one man and one woman, the Advocacy Committee is attempting to thwart any anti-gay legislation that may arise from a backlash following the ruling. Although the judgment will be appealed regardless of the outcome, the committee is leaving nothing to chance.

Members of the committee have already met with County Councilman Christopher Merdon, a Republican candidate for County Executive, to discuss local issues. In addition, meetings were held with state Delegates Neil Quinter and Frank Turner, two Democrats from Howard County, as well as Republican state Senator Allen Kittleman. A meeting with Republican Senator Sandy Schrader is scheduled for December 6.

The primary objective of the meetings is to explain the lawsuit and to secure support in the event of a backlash instigated by extremists on the right. These efforts are critical, as already there is a movement underway by anti-gay Delegate Don Dwyer from Anne Arundel County to introduce an amendment to the state’s constitution that would ban same-sex couples from marrying. A similar effort failed during this past session.

Members of the advocacy group also made presentations to the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee and the Howard County Republican Central Committee to tell individual stories to add a personal touch concerning the issues facing the lgbt community. This approach has been instrumental in trying to educate skeptical politicians.

"Advocating even with our enemies is worth it," said Dan McCarthy. "We share the stories of our families and put our ordinary human faces on the debate. It gets very tough for them to be so virulent when they can see themselves in us. We always change their hearts first, then their minds follow."
The Advocacy Committee and the PFLAG chapter organized a debate in October between both sides of the marriage issue that received broad coverage in the media. Dan McCarthy and Anthony McCarthy impressed the 150 in attendance with their persuasive, well-reasoned arguments against opponents who had nothing to offer that was credible.

The Howard County chapter co-founder and chair Colette Roberts, who was honored at the Equality Maryland Jazz Brunch on November 20 for her efforts, is very proud of the work of the committee. "With the formation of this committee we have made great strides," she said. "Once parents and members of the lgbt community actually lobby and see a bill get passed they not only gain confidence for themselves but encourage others to also participate in the process."

And that’s how you get it done.

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