- Trouble under the rainbow (Photo: Associated Press)
Maryland's 2011 legislative session kicked off with high hopes for LGBT rights, with the introduction of a same-sex marriage bill to equalize unions in the state and an anti-discrimination initiative that would extend equal rights in housing, employment and public accommodations to trans people. But LGBT advocates in the state and around the country have splintered on how to succeed on both fronts.
A quick primer: After failing to lock in sufficient votes in the Maryland House of Delegates, some LGBT groups encouraged legislators to cancel the vote on the marriage issue, effectively killing the bill in the hopes of resurrecting the effort next year; other activists characterized the move as "strategic blunder of monstrous proportions.” And after legislators stripped the trans discrimination bill of its public accommodations language in an attempt to garner mainstream support of the legislation, LGBT groups split over whether to support the compromised language. ''Transsexual and transgender people should represent themselves, not gay and lesbian organizations,'' Trans Maryland announced in its bid to oppose the compromised trans bill. ''We are taking back our voice.''
Meanwhile, one gay and lesbian umbrella organization is urging certain members of the community to pipe down. Equality Maryland, The state's leading LGBT rights organization, has been credited with both pushing for the marriage bill's cancellation and supporting the downsized trans protections, and it's caught significant community criticism for those choices. This week, the organization delivered an online "FAQ" to supporters advising them to maintain a unified front or risk sabotaging LGBT rights initiatives in the state in the years to come.
"The bottom line is that this is an organizational page that is designed to reach out to our supporters and advance Equality Maryland's mission," the organization wrote on its Facebook page. "Many individuals have their own personal pages where they may say whatever they want, but Equality Maryland's page is a reflection of our priorities and our ongoing work."
The directive followed accusations that Equality Maryland had silenced dissenting voices on its official Facebook presence in recent weeks. Equality Maryland conceded that it deletes comments on the page if they are particularly damaging to its legislative allies—or racist. "Immediately after the [marriage] vote several supporters posted harsh and unfair criticisms of legislators who have worked very hard in the marriage battle. Many of these legislators are on Facebook and will continue to work with us—unless we destroy these relationships—so these comments were deleted," the post stated, adding: "Many people have pointed fingers at churches and in particular African-American churches. There were a number of comments that took this particular line of thinking too far and verged on or seemed racist. . . . These types of comments will continue to be deleted."
Then, Equality Maryland turned its attentions to the trans protections bill, claiming that it had deleted selected comments on that issue, too—but only because they constituted either overzealous "spamming" or threats. "[S]ome people who disagree with the strategy of this bill have also chosen harassment rather than constructive dialogue. A small number of transgender advocates—mostly from outside of Maryland—who do not agree with the current political strategy have engaged in cyber, email and phone based harassment of Equality Maryland staff and volunteers," the post read. "Some of the people also waged a phone based harassment campaign towards the sponsor of HB 235 that became so threatening and frightening that she ended up having to involve the police."
Trans activists who have spoken out against Equality Maryland's position on the trans discrimination bill are taking issue with the characterization of their dissent as "threatening"—and reiterating claims that Equality Maryland has also deleted reasonable comments that adhere to the organization's stated guidelines, but disagree with its policy positions. Equality Maryland is now inviting community members to use its Facebook page to conduct "an open constructive dialogue" that "helps to push us to do and be better and to ensure that different viewpoints are taken into consideration." But given the conspicuous deletions—and the authoritative FAQ—it remains to be seen whether Equality Maryland will remain a venue for the diversity of opinions on LGBT issues in the state.