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Monday, June 6, 2011

Woes of State Gay-Marriage Groups Points to Lack of (or Too Much?) Direction

By Joel Siegel -

The past few months have been tumultuous for supporters of marriage rights for same-sex couples. Legislators in Minnesota have decided to let the voters in that state decide whether or not to ban gays and lesbians from getting married. A vote on a gay-marriage bill fell short in Maryland. Activists in Rhode Island were hopeful this would be the year a marriage bill would pass, but will now have to settle for civil unions instead. The heads of the leading groups in these states, Equality Maryland and Marriage Equality Rhode Island, departed among much turmoil.

Meanwhile, there’s a question of what impact the involvement of national organizations (such as Human Rights Campaign) have had on the fight for marriage equality? The answers vary wildly, depending on whom you speak with.

The turmoil affecting Equality Maryland involves major gay rights organizations, including HRC, Freedom to Marry, and the Gill Action Fund.

At the end of April, Equality Maryland’s Board of Directors fired their executive director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets. Soon after, Matthew Thorn, the group’s development director, resigned in protest. LGBT rights activists suffered two major defeats during the recently completed General Assembly session in Maryland: A bill to legalize same-sex marriage stalled in the House of Delegates after passing the Senate for the first time, and a measure to extend anti-discrimination protections to transgendered people was held up in the Senate after receiving House approval.

Lynne Bowman is now serving as interim executive director. Bowman previously headed up the statewide LGBT group Equality Ohio.

The troubled organization continues to experience severe financial difficulties, which could force the layoff of its four remaining staff members. Charles Butler, Equality Maryland’s former board president, claimed the organization had been "irreparably damaged" by Meneses-Sheets.

Butler had appealed to the LGBT community in Maryland to donate their money and time to save the organization, which may be forced to shut down entirely. Butler resigned from the board on June 1.

Meneses-Sheets dismissed Butler’s allegations and fired back at Equality Maryland’s board and the state’s eight-member LGBT Caucus. She gave a blunt statement to the Washington Blade. "The shit has hit the fan," Meneses-Sheets told the paper. The board "realizes there are major problems with the LGBT Caucus and that the national groups have their own agendas that have nothing to do with supporting Equality Maryland. They’ve gotten no money and they’re panicking."

Patrick Wojahn, Equality Maryland’s new board president defended HRC, calling it "an ally and supporter of ours throughout the legislative session this year and in past years. They have had staff on the ground working alongside Equality Maryland’s staff in advocating for marriage equality and for gender identity non-discrimination laws."

New York: the Importance of Cooperation
In New York, the fight to pass a same-sex marriage is moving ahead full-steam with the support of several organizations including HRC and Freedom to Marry. Other groups that have loaned their support include Empire State Pride Agenda, Log Cabin Republicans, and the League of Women Voters. Not incidentally, Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo was instrumental in bringing all of these groups together for a common purpose.

Cathy Marino-Thomas, board president of Marriage Equality New York, believes the involvement of HRC and other national groups is a boost, not an obstacle, to securing marriage rights for same-sex couples.

"A united front is always stronger than a divided front," Marino-Thomas told EDGE. "Everyone’s pooling their resources and doing what they do best. Freedom to Marry is a wonderful entity for messaging. HRC is an amazing organizing tool. Everyone is using their expertise."

Marino-Thomas said the national groups do not exert control over anything Marriage Equality New York does. "If you are a small organization and you stick to your beliefs, then nobody should have control over you," Marino-Thomas added.

Rhode Island: Settling for Civil Unions
In Rhode Island, where a civil unions bill was recently passed by state legislators, the controversy surrounding Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) continues to swirl. MERI has been plagued by the departures of several key staffers and board members. On April 25, Executive Director Kathy Kushnir announced she was resigning, followed a week later by spokesman Bill Fischer.

On April 27, openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) shocked the LGBT community when he threw his support behind a civil unions bill, noting there was no chance of passing a marriage equality bill due to a lack of support in the House. However, Reps. Peter Petrarca (D-Lincoln) and Patrick O’Neill (D-Pawtucket) said there were enough votes in the House to pass the bill.

MERI, meanwhile, experience a virtual takeover by national organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, which has continuously been doing lobbying work in the state, as well as by high-ranking officials in the state Democratic party.

The man at the center of the storm is Ray Sullivan, a former Democratic state representative, who was hired to serve as the campaign director of MERI in late February. Sullivan’s appointment was the handiwork of David Segal, a former Democratic state representative who ran against former (out-gay) Providence Mayor David Cicilline for Congress last year; and Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman Edwin Pacheco, according to one interested observer, who requested her name not be used because she of continued involvement.

"The votes were there in February to get (the marriage bill) out of committee, but Gordon refused to let the committee vote on it," said another observer.

MERI’s board of directors was "out of control," according to this source. There were secret meetings among the board members and other organizations, she added. In an e-mail response to EDGE, Pacheco dismissed the allegations as "ridiculous and absurd."

Not long after Sullivan was brought in, national and regional organizations including the Gill Foundation, HRC, the New England-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defends, Freedom to Marry, and neighboring MassEquality, all expressed their desire to be involved in the fight to win marriage rights for gays and lesbians in Rhode Island -- a fight that was ultimately lost, at least for now. Many expect Rhode Island, with the support of Independent Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, to press for marriage beyond civil unions, as is happening in New Jersey and as happened in Vermont.

Freedom to Marry’s Strategy
In California, Proposition 8’s passage in 2008 stunned Equality California. The battle to restore marriage rights continues. One of the pieces of legislation being supported by Equality California is the Domestic Partnership Equality Act, which will provide additional benefits for couples in domestic partnerships. The bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

Equality California lists several corporate and individual sponsors, including AT and T, Bank of America, Comcast, California Teachers Association, and United Healthcare Workers West. HRC, Freedom to Marry, Lambda Legal, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Marriage Equality USA, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) are all listed as resources on Equality California’s website.

Evan Wolfson, Executive Director of Freedom to Marry, said the organization has a "three-track" strategy, which includes winning marriage rights in more states, garnering more support for same-sex marriage, and to "create a public education climate which enables judges and politicians to do the right thing" - namely, ending discrimination against same-sex couples.

"We are working closely with national, state, and allied organizations and individuals in several tiers of states," Wolfson noted. "Each state is a little different and yet there are common things which need to be done and common challenges that they all face so each combination plays out differently."

Wolfson said the fight for marriage rights moved into smaller states this year, which resulted in the marriage equality organizations requiring greater assistance from the national organizations.

"They needed more help and have required the building of a coalition and campaign effort that goes way beyond what they were doing before," Wolfson noted. Freedom to Marry has worked to bring in volunteers to help win the fight for marriage equality in those states, Wolfson said.

"It’s important that we figure out the best way to coordinate our efforts that are bigger than any one organization but help us all work together and not at cross purposes, and bring in more resources and more allies," Wolfson said. "The challenge has been to improvise those coalitions and campaigns while under the gun with the battles at hand."

Wolfson urges same-sex marriage advocates not to be discouraged by the failure to pass marriage equality bills in Maryland and Rhode Island.

"It’s very difficult to win," Wolfson said. "People need to understand that it takes a lot of work and some luck to be able to tear down discrimination and stand up for the full inclusion of a minority. The fact that we were not able yet to win marriage in Maryland doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been progress made and it doesn’t mean we’re done. It just means we have to work a little harder and take a little more time and make the case and win."

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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