The leading voices for Maryland’s LGBT community are getting a makeover after two of the state’s top organizations announced a merger, the intent being to create one statewide organization tasked with providing legal support and policy change advocacy for the LGBT community. On Wednesday, Equality Maryland and FreeState Legal, the legal services organization for low-income LGBT Marylanders, revealed details of the merger, which they expect to take about six months to fully implement.
The announcement comes six months after Equality Maryland first announced it would scale back operations as a result of declining revenue. At that time, members of the Board of Directors of Equality Maryland and the Equality Maryland Foundation said they had been in talks with FreeState Legal about a possible merger, but nothing was finalized.
Patrick Paschall, executive director of FreeState Legal, says the merger was something both organizations had wanted, but the organizations were not ready at the time to undertake the process of carrying it out.
“What’s changed between now and then is that I’m no longer a brand new executive director,” Paschall says. “We had also had some changes in staff, and we’ve now added some positions. We have the staff at FreeState Legal we want. It’s an exciting team now firing on all cylinders.”
The merger will be rolled out slowly, with some “cross-pollination” of the boards of both organizations to better share resources and talent. During that time, the boards will undertake a strategic planning process, take steps to implement those plans, and resolve any outstanding financial issues. Representatives from the two organizations will be holding listening sessions around the state to get feedback from LGBT community members about what the new organization’s major priorities should be. By June, the newly created organization will hold a celebration to mark the launch of a renamed organization with its own branding and clearly-defined mission.
“Bringing together the expertise and experience of Equality Maryland and FreeState Legal will put us on the path to achieving the goal of full equality for all LGBT Marylanders,” Lawrence Jacobs, board chair of Equality Maryland, said in a statement. “This merger creates a statewide social justice organization that provides direct legal services to low-income LGBT Marylanders, implements and defends legislative protections against discrimination, engages in policy advocacy, organizes and empowers communities, educates and trains individuals and groups on LGBT cultural competence issues, and serves as a watchdog on behalf of Maryland’s entire LGBT community.”
Paschall notes that a successful merger in Maryland can show other states how to make the best of their own resources. Following the legalization of marriage equality, several state LGBT organizations — New York’s Empire State Pride Agenda the most prominent — have announced decisions to disband or cut back on their operations.
“Following the legalization of marriage equality and the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer, we’re seeing some statewide LGBTQ organizations shut their doors,” says Paschall. “But here in Maryland, we’re doing the opposite. We’re doubling down on the work we need to do because we know that equality in the law doesn’t always, and certainly doesn’t automatically translate into lived equality.
“What that means is we still have to pass new laws, we still have to get policy implemented at the regulatory level and in our localities. We have to defend those legislative and policy victories in court, and we have to make sure that discriminators and potential victims are on notice around what protections LGBTQ folks have in our state. We’re excited to create that model, and lead the charge for the future of the LGBT movement by showing other states how their statewide LGBTQ organizations can hire attorney staff, continue doing political advocacy, and make sure we’re turning legislative victories into lived victories for LGBTQ folks.”
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