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It’s been a busy a time in Maryland. And that suits Dan Furmansky just fine.
The 32-year-old executive director of Equality Maryland, the state’s most prominent group fighting for GLBT rights, took the helm just over two years ago, and since then has found himself deeply embroiled in the gay marriage fight. Although Gov. Robert Ehrlich managed to veto a bill that would have given same-sex couples more control over making medical decisions for their partners, the state has also seen a court ruling striking down a ban on same-sex marriage.
“There’s so many things that have happened to me over the past few years that have been remarkable,” says Furmansky, a bundle of energy as he prepares for this weekend’s 5th Annual Night Out for Equality. “My job is a huge headache in that I’ve sucked my whole life into it, but at the same time I can’t imagine any other job in the whole world that would be as rewarding as this.”
The Sunday night event, one of Equality Maryland’s two major fundraisers for the year, will feature comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer, and will honor three people — Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George’s County), Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) and Equality Maryland’s board president Lawrence S. Jacobs — who have made lasting and significant contributions to the state’s GLBT movement. Furmansky talked to Metro Weekly about Equality Maryland, the issues facing GLBT Marylanders, and how he hopes to create a strong and lasting activist movement.
METRO WEEKLY: What got you involved with the Equality Maryland?
DAN FURMANSKY: I had been working for the Human Rights Campaign for two years before joining Equality Maryland — I was a senior field organizer for the Western U.S. but I lived in Maryland. When the opportunity arose to put my name in for the job of executive director — then called Free State Justice, we changed the name in 2004 — I jumped at the opportunity. Who doesn’t want to shape a smaller movement, build a niche in a great state like Maryland, and manage all aspects of it? Not just one component, but really take on the legislative, the communications, the organizational development and growth, the grassroots. It’s safe to say that it’s been the challenge of a lifetime. And I’m only 32.
MW: Why the name change for the organization?
FURMANSKY: The conversations about changing the name had been going on before I got there. First, it was a better reflection of the mission. And Maryland’s actually the Old Line State, not the Free State. The “Free State” was an additional nickname that came about after Maryland’s Attorney General refused to enforce prohibition — most people who lived in Maryland know it was a slave state. So just the whole notion of “free state justice” doesn’t really have quite a ring to it.
Also, a lot of state [GLBT] groups had begun changing their names as well. We now have an Equality Federation, which is sort of the umbrella of all of the statewide LGBT groups. We’re all unique organizations but certainly our missions and our goals are the same.
MW: Looking at your experience with Equality Maryland and with HRC, what’s the biggest difference between moving between the statewide and national fields?
FURMANSKY: What I’ve tried to do since the day I took over the job was to really build a movement. Obviously, I wasn’t starting from scratch. There had been so many great activists [involved], but what I felt I needed to do was come in and find new activists and mobilize the old activists and build a movement. Obviously, when you’re working on a national scale, how do you build a movement?
Here, I know each legislative district, each county. I know things on a much more intimate scale. And that means I can afford to pay attention to each and every key legislative target and electoral target, and really provide a voice for the LGBT community in the state of Maryland — an aggressive voice and an intelligent voice.
My job is not to be the voice but just to be the mouthpiece for the activists across the state. I’ve really tried to cultivate individuals to be the voice of the movement, to testify and speak to the press. It’s elevating those people who should be advocating on our behalf. We all know the movement is about the stories. It’s Mary Cheney this week in the media — who knows who it’s going to be next week? And who knows whether or not Mary Cheney is the best representative, but my point is that people listen to individuals with stories and I want to be able to put the best faces forward in the hopes that it’s going to help increase understanding about LGBT people and our lives.
MW: It does seem that over the past couple of years Equality Maryland has found a higher profile in the media. Is that a reflection of the organization’s growth?
FURMANSKY: We’ve definitely grown dramatically in size. When I took over, I was the only full-time employee of the organization. Now we’re hiring our fifth full-time person, a political director. We employ three contract lobbyists, at least one of whom works almost year round. So just in sheer terms of what work we are able to do, that’s been magnified. And certainly our budgets are dramatically greater than they were when I took over. That’s certainly due in part to the fact that Maryland is a key state in the equal marriage rights struggle.
MW: I’m curious if there’s a split between Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs in Maryland. Most states have their regions who struggle against each other. How does that impact you?
FURMANSKY: That’s a great question. Baltimore is not that far away, but you ask people in D.C. who don’t have cars about Baltimore, you’d think it’s like driving to Toledo, Ohio. There’s a very strong LGBT community in Baltimore. They actually have two newspapers there. They have the GLBT Community Center of Baltimore and central Maryland. They also have an African-American LGBT community center called The Portal. The mayor has an LGBT Task Force. Baltimore has a very strong LGBT community.
There certainly is segmentation. I think that Montgomery County and Prince George’s County folks are D.C. centric and so a smaller number would go to events in Baltimore. Just like a smaller number of Baltimore people go to events in the D.C. suburbs. So we try to appeal to all audiences and have as many events as possible and as many town halls as possible. We do not one, but two, signature high-end fundraisers every year. We have the Jazz Brunch in Baltimore in the fall, and this weekend we’re doing Night Out for Equality [in Bethesda]. We try to imprint things uniquely, recognizing that geographically you’re just not going to get everybody to go to Baltimore or to Bethesda.
MW: Is it difficult to get people to work together, or does everyone tend to be on the same page?
FURMANSKY: I come from an organizer background, so what you’re talking about is kind of the art form of just organizing people. I’d like to think that when I talk about building a movement we’ve done that. We’ve given people buy-in to our agenda so that it’s also their agenda. We have a really good relationship with most of the local organizations that are out there.
We want to be the movement that is the voice of all these organizations and we’ve had a lot of success in getting everybody to buy into the way we’re representing and moving forward the ”gay agenda” in the state of Maryland. There’s always gay politics but we try to avoid that. We don’t want to be part of gay politics — we want to be part of politics in Annapolis.
MW: Tell me about the Night Out for Equality this weekend.
FURMANSKY: This is our fifth annual Night Out for Equality, where we give out awards to folks in the General Assembly and community leaders who really went above and beyond the call of duty as advocates for our community. This year we’re honoring Del. Doyle Niemann, who represents part of Prince George’s County, and who really made [a splash with] the press during the debate on in 2005 on the Medical Decision Making Act. He came out of the closet, if you will, not about himself but about his daughter — he talked about how he was casting this vote for his daughter who is in a relationship with another woman. It made a real impact. Since then he’s become a close ally of Equality Maryland.
Joan Carter Conway is a state senator from Baltimore City — she is a fiery individual. When we wanted to introduce a Senate bill [for the Medical Decision Making Act] we immediately went to her, and she was enthusiastic about sponsoring legislation and really put her all into moving it forward. She was very upset when Gov. [Robert] Ehrlich defeated the bill. After we at Equality Maryland had written off attempts to override the governor’s veto, she was still trying to make it happen, just to express her anger over the veto. She has also done a number of great things for us, such as helping us to change advance- directive forms — you can now have your health care agent visit you in the hospital, ride with you in an ambulance, or make post-mortem decisions, which is something that gay couples previously could not do.
And, finally, our board president Larry Jacobs is someone who has been working for the cause since long before I came on the scene. He was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that essentially nullified our state sodomy law and he served as the chair of the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission. He played an important role in passing safe-school regulations statewide. We have to credit a lot of our success with his leadership.
MW: You’ve also been working a lot with activists such as Gita Deane and Lisa Polyak, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking gay marriage rights in the state.
FURMANSKY: The greatest reward of my job is to battle side-by-side with good people like Lisa and Gita. I feel like we have an army of people from clergy to children of same-sex couples to other civil rights leaders who are being the voices and fighting the fight.
I decided early on in my tenure — it was a few months after the Massachusetts marriage decision — that we should have a town hall meeting on marriage in Baltimore. I wanted [to have] a couple on the panel who had an immigration story and somebody recommended Lisa and Gita. You fall in love with them because they’re just phenomenal people — great, loving, passionate individuals. And they have lovely daughters, who I’m crazy about, too. So after the town hall, I asked if they would come to Annapolis to testify. They did, and we just kept going from there until it came time to figure out who would be in the lawsuit.
MW: Since the constitutional amendment backlash that followed the Massachusetts ruling and what happened in San Francisco, was there concern on your part that choosing to pursue a lawsuit seeking equal marriage rights would provoke a similar backlash in Maryland, resulting in a state constitutional amendment?
FURMANSKY: I think concern is the wrong word. I think it’s anticipation. If we’re going to be aggressive and sue the state, we had to look at every single angle. And we did. This wasn’t something that happened in a vacuum. We put a lot of planning and thought into it. We brought in key opinion leaders from across the state. We talked to other organizations first. We really laid a lot of ground work and did some political analysis before launching into it. We knew that we would have to accompany the lawsuit with a campaign. What’s the point of winning the courts if you can’t win in the court of public opinion and prevent the positive ruling from being overturned?
We anticipated, of course, that it’s going to fuel a greater backlash, although people were trying to amend the state constitution before we had our good circuit court ruling this January. But certainly it adds fuel to the fire. You can’t aggressively pursue advances in civil rights for a community without it being a fight. If people were just ready to hand out equal rights and equal marriage rights, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
So we’re going to have to put our all into every angle, and that includes making sure that we have the votes to fend off constitutional amendments. But most importantly, it’s making sure that we’re building up the movement across the state. We have great lobbyists and I think that the work we’ve done in Annapolis is great. We have people who co-sponsored the amendment in 2005 whom we convinced not only to not co-sponsor the amendment again in 2006, but not to vote to bring it out of committee. That’s great. But more important is simply building that movement where there are individuals who are doing the work with their own legislators, who are turning into these fiery grass-roots activists. We want to have a movement where it’s not Equality Maryland’s win when couples start getting married in the state, but it’s everybody’s win.
MW: What’s your take on where the state is in terms of passing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage?
FURMANSKY: That’s a very tricky question to ask the executive director of a statewide LGBT advocacy organization because on the one hand, I don’t want to say to you, “I’m confident we’re going to kill that amendment and it’s never going to see the light of day.” Because this is a fight — people are going to have to fight. On the other hand, I don’t want to raise the worst alarmist bells and say, ”Holy cow, if people don’t march to Annapolis en masse on July 4th and declare ‘We must have our own liberty’, they’re going to change the constitution right away!”
So it’s a fine line, but I will say we’re really pleased that we decisively killed seven attempts to amend the constitution in 2006. We believe that when — positive thinking here — the circuit court ruling that it’s unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples is upheld, clearly there’s going to be a vote [in the legislature] and that’s what we’ve been working towards. A number of those legislators are undecided. We’ve got a big election in November. I think a number of those folks who want our endorsement will certainly flesh out their position further, but a number of legislators fall into the swing vote category. It’s really important for people to continue to be engaged with their legislators, even if they’ve voted with us before.
I certainly don’t see a groundswell of support in the state for changing the constitution to say that it applies to everybody but LGBT people and their families. There’s a definite majority who support legal protection for same-sex couples. A lot of people are still forming their opinion and learning more about equal marriage rights. We’re gaining ground all the time. We’ve really put out there that the clergy don’t speak with one voice on this issue –we’ve elevated the voices of clergy who are supportive. And we’ve elevated stories of harm [to couples without legal protections], like we hadn’t before. We’ll continue to do that.
Certainly, we have a high threshold of amending the constitution in Maryland: It’s three-fifths of both houses of the General Assembly. We don’t need to make sure that every last person in the state thinks that Johnny and Jimmy deserve to get a marriage license in order to achieve what we need to achieve. But we certainly want to make sure that our voices are as loud, and hopefully much louder, than the voices on the other side who are obsessed with this issue and clamoring for an amendment.
MW: You mentioned the three-fifths requirement of both houses. Does Maryland also benefit from being an East Coast state, and perhaps a better place for this kind of effort than a state in another region?
FURMANSKY: You called Maryland an East Coast state; some people would call it a Southern state. Depending on who you ask, it’s open to interpretation. It’s a surprisingly diverse state with people from different walks of life. I wouldn’t want to be doing the job I do in a lot of other states in the country. And bless the hearts of people who are working in those states. Of course, we have an anti-gay movement, we see them and hear them in the press, but especially with three openly gay legislators in the General Assembly and a lot of prominent people statewide, politically and in other areas, I don’t think that anti-gay rhetoric plays well in this state. Clearly the General Assembly is not an anti-gay body since they’ve been creating more protections for LGBT people over the past few years as opposed to less. This is state that grants second parent adoptions routinely. It’s a state that recognizes that children belong with the best caregivers, regardless of their sexual orientation. At the same time, they’re sticking their heads in the sand like ostriches when saying, ”You’re a family because we’ve granted you a second parent adoption, but the parents have to be legal strangers.” So there’s some hypocrisy that I believe is going to be reconciled. Maryland is going to be one of those states that’s going to go in the right direction, and it’s hopefully going to propel forth change in other states.
MW: Ten years ago, when you were 22, was gay marriage something that you saw as a possibility?
FURMANSKY: God, no. Did any of us? I came out in 1994. And there was no Ellen DeGeneres, no gay people on TV. I remember there was a scene of two men in bed on thirtysomething and that was Armageddon for advertisers. I definitely am inspired by all these kids I meet now — 16, 17, 18-years old, and many of them have been out for a few years. People are really coming out. It’s so beautiful to see people struggling less. I certainly know that it was a huge struggle for me to acknowledge and come to terms and embrace my sexual orientation. But you know, as far as the equal marriage dialogue goes, I don’t feel like it really electrified the nation or even the gay community until after Lawrence v. Texas came down and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court went all the way for us.
MW: Where were you when you came out?
FURMANSKY: I was at the University of Wisconsin. I came out between my sophomore and junior years in college. I refer to my sophomore year in college as my year of clinical depression. There was a lot of Joni Mitchell and pensive solitude. I had a girlfriend my freshman year. All I could think was I was acting in a play and I’m not that good of an actor. It was pretty depressing because I realized that whether or not I was gay I certainly wasn’t straight and I didn’t want to be hated. I think that’s what so many of us have problems with. We don’t want to be defined just by our sexual orientation alone, which is ironic coming from somebody who is gay for a living, so to speak. We don’t want to face the wrath of all these people who direct such negative energy towards people just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. You struggle against that. I certainly did. Then I came to a juncture where I said, “If I continue to be depressed I’m going to end up in a pine box.” So I would much rather have a full, happy, healthy life and flip the bird to all of these people who apparently are residing in my id. Or is that my superego? I can’t remember. In any case, I flipped them the bird and then some.
MW: Something I find interesting for the professional homosexuals and our coming out stories, is how do families deal with the coming out followed by the career choice? How was your family with that?
FURMANSKY: My parents, like most people, had to come to terms with it. When I was interviewing at HRC, they said, ”Aren’t you concerned about having a big gay stamp on your resume?” And I kind of said, ”If somebody doesn’t want me to work for them because I’ve worked in the gay rights movement, then I don’t want to work for them.” And since then, I’ve been on Bill O’Reilly and I get to pound the podium at rallies and I get to play a role in passing the Hate Crimes Penalties Act in Maryland. My parents are excited to see me use my full potential and to be a leader in that regard. They’re proud. They brag. They couldn’t be more supportive.
MW: Some people complain that we’re seeing the movement de-gay itself in some ways because you’re finding straight people increasingly taking jobs in gay businesses and organizations, and taking the top spots in places, such as the Whitman-Walker Clinic. Is that something that would concern you?
FURMANSKY: I don’t think LGBT people own the LGBT civil rights movement. Anybody who cares about fairness and justice cares about this. That’s why I’ve come to know so many straight folks, a lot of them clergy, a lot of them PFLAG parents, and some who just have gay friends and care passionately about the issue. It’s their struggle, too. You don’t need to be gay or lesbian or transgender to know that discriminating against gay, lesbian or transgender people is morally incorrect.
We’re just not large enough in numbers in this country to go it alone. We need to be making this everybody’s issue and it’s become that over the past few years. Equal marriage rights is a fascinating issue from a legal and legislative perspective. But it’s also fascinating in that this is the issue that has really catapulted the gay rights movement to the forefront of the national conversation. It’s getting everybody to talk about how we treat gay and lesbian people in our society.
MW: Are you the type of person who is Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, all the time?
FURMANSKY: I never thought I was a workaholic before I took this job, but apparently I am. I need to be on most of the time because when you’re building a movement, everybody has a role to play. Whether I just meet somebody in a legislative district and really want them to send a direct e-mail to their legislator, or maybe their brother is friends with the Senate president’s sister. It’s hard for me not to always work to find out what is this person’s role in the LGBT movement in Maryland. But I definitely take time off and try to breathe deeply. I’ve been a Marylander since I moved to the state, and I’ve always had Maryland pride. I feel very connected to the state, especially having built so many strong relationships with people. I don’t foresee going anywhere for a long time to come. Hopefully, the fruits of my labor will be laws that we can avail ourselves of for a long time to come.
Equality Maryland’s 5th Annual Night Out For Equality featuring special guest Suzanne Westenhoefer will be held this Sunday, May 21, at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel Grand Ballroom. For information on tickets and the organization, visit www.equalitymaryland.org.