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Columbus--One of the least commonly known but most influential organizations of the LGBT movement held its summer meeting in Columbus earlier this month.
This was the second time the 11-year-old Equality Federation had its annual conclave in Ohio. Ten years ago, a small group, including one of its founders, Mo Baxley of New Hampshire, gathered in some dormitory rooms at Ohio State University.
This year’s event was held at the Columbus Convention Center.
Throughout the four days from August 6 to 10, more than 120 LGBT activists from 34 state organizations and 21 allied groups were represented, making it the largest gathering of leaders of the LGBT movement.
“And there are funders in the room today,” said Baxley. “There weren’t any ten years ago.”
“Collectively, we represent 3 million people,” Baxley continued. “That’s exciting stuff.”
The federation provides resources for statewide organizations like Equality Ohio in fundraising, building capacity, peer support, data management, mentoring, and building professional relationships.
With its $1 million budget, the federation employs seven staffers.
Changed how the movement runs
Baxley said the existence of the federation has changed how the LGBT movement is organized.
“As long as the states were alone, the national organizations could strong-arm them,” Baxley said.
“People speak the truth when they say that the most important things happen at the state level, not the national level,” she added.
Equality Ohio, a federation member, hosted the other groups. Its director, Lynne Bowman, has been a federation board co-chair since last year, and was re-elected for 2008-2009 at the meeting.
Other officers elected were Equality Federation Instititue chair Howard Bayless of Birmingham, Alabama, Federation vice chair Deon Young of Center Advocates of Wisconsin, Institute chair Alexis Blizman of Equality New Mexico, Secretary Ross Levi of Empire State Pride Agenda of New York, and treasurer Paul Scott of Equality Texas.
Federation executive director Toni Broaddus delivered a state-of-the-federation speech. She told the group that state organizations have grown to the point where their median budget is $200,000 and the average number of employees is four.
Broaddus said that next year, new software will be launched to build voter databases in all states.
“The federation’s job is to help states find the resources to do their work and to make them more visible,” Broaddus said.
Broaddus said that during the year, state groups generated more than 30,000 voter contacts to members of Congress.
“We are at the intersection of state and national work,” Broaddus said.
The federation was one of the lead organizations working to keep gender identity in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act when it was before the U.S. House earlier this year.
“State leaders know it is tougher to add protection for transgender people later,” Broaddus said. “We knew we had to take a stand on ENDA and we took a stand.”
Project to increase diversity in leaders
Pipeline Project developer and keynote speaker Clarence Patton of New York gave the keynote speech.
“Unfortunately, nonprofits in the LGBT sector appear to have been underperformers in achieving diversity,” he said.
The Pipeline Project is currently conducting research and will be operational in 2009. It is funded by the Arcus Foundation.
Patton calls it “affirmative action for the gay industrial complex.”
The project’s mission is to work with LGBT organizations on issues of racial and ethnic diversity in leadership and membership.
“A recent publication by the Movement Advancement Project indicates that the leadership of the nation’s LGBT organizations is actually less diverse today than it was a decade ago,” said Patton.
“Only four percent of executive directors of LGBT organizations are people of color, one third less than in nonprofits in general,” Patton continued.
“For the LGBT advocacy and service sector to be behind the curve in this respect sends a negative message to the communities it serves, ally organizations and communities, donors, and perhaps most importantly its opponents,” Patton said.
Patton said that in 2004, the cultural right wing used this lack of diversity as an organizing tool to unite African-Americans and Latinos to support 13 state marriage ban amendments.
“They’re using it to kick our asses,” Patten added.
Patton said that lack of diversity also makes it more difficult to reach legislators of color or whose constituencies are of color.
“The LGBT advocacy and service sector’s apparent lack of diverse leadership, spokespeople and ground troops only served to reinforce the idea of an LGBT community monolith that was white, often middle aged, mostly male, and upper middle class or well off,” he said.
Tug at pocketbook, or heartstrings
Ohio state representative Dan Stewart of Columbus also spoke.
Stewart is the Democratic co-sponsor of the LGBT Equal Housing and Employment Act in the Ohio House. He also represents Columbus’ Short North neighborhood where the conference was held.
Stewart talked about his support for the bill, and that of his Republican co-sponsor Jon Peterson of Delaware.
It’s going to take time and effort, Stewart said.
“There are people who we won’t change their minds,” Stewart continued, “but we can change policies.”
Stewart said that from a legislator’s perspective, issues are pushed through “either by tugging at the pocketbook or the heart strings.”
“LGBT issues are both,” Stewart said. “The question asked is always: What does it do for us as a community?”
During the final day of the conference, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner addressed those assembled.
Notes from around the nation
During a “welcome circle,” each organization had one minute to present the positive things that they did over the year.
Equality Ohio program manager for education and outreach Kim Welter listed their Counter Ann Coulter event at Xavier University, passage of the Toledo domestic partner registry, passage of Dayton’s human rights ordinance, the introduction of the Equal Housing and Employment Act in the Ohio legislature, and the delivery of 10,000 “Fired” cards to legislators.
Noteworthy mentions from other states included passage of a “mutual commitment” registry in Salt Lake City, formation of a statewide group in Idaho, and the promise of full marriage legislation in New Jersey by next year.
• NGLTF has seven field organizers in California working to defeat an amendment to overturn marriage equality there. The federation is providing some of them with office space. There was widespread agreement that the California effort is the single biggest campaign the LGBT movement has ever had.
• Folks in Montgomery County, Maryland are working to defeat an anti-transgender rights ballot initiative that is very similar to the one passed in Cincinnati in 1993 and repealed in 2004. It would prohibit transgender people from seeking the protection of their government.
• The Rockaway Institute, another little-known but significant LGBT organization is launching a 4,000 couple study of the effect of marriage on the relationship of LGBT couples and their families and associates. It is the largest study of its kind ever conducted.
• Furniture designer Mitchell Gold has edited a book to be launched September 15 that includes coming out stories of LGBT luminaries. It is especially aimed at confronting religious bigotry that fuels homophobia, according to Gold.
It is also political, and no accident that it comes out in the middle of the presidential campaign.
“One of the pieces of the puzzle,” said Gold, “is that a lot of politicians do not understand full equality.”
“I don’t think John McCain, or Barack Obama for that matter, know what people feel or what harm they cause a 14-year-old when they don’t embrace marriage equality,” Gold said. “They need to know the ramifications of what they say.”
The meeting ended with the presentation of the “Feddie” awards to state organizations that submitted specific strategies and achievements over the past year.
Equality Ohio received Best Fundraising Effort award for the Coulter event, which raised $25,000 for progressive groups before the right-wing commenter spoke at Xavier. Others went to Empire State Pride Agenda, Equality Arizona, and Garden State Equality New Jersey.