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Maryland LGBT youth at risk: report

Aaron Merki, FreeState Legal Project, gay news, Washington Blade

‘There is much work to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQ youth,’ said Aaron Merki, executive director of FreeState Legal Project. (Washington Blade file photo by Steve Charing)

The Youth Equality Alliance (YEA) issued a report on Aug. 12 titled “Living in the Margins: A Report on the Challenges of LGBTQ Youth in Maryland Education, Foster Care, and Juvenile Justice Systems.”

The report found that LGBTQ youth are at a heightened risk of entering the “school-to-jail pipeline.” Public institutions and systems—primarily the education, foster care, and juvenile justice systems—are among the toughest environments for LGBTQ youth. YEA’s report briefly outlines the challenges facing LGBTQ youth as they navigate these three systems, and proposes specific recommendations for addressing these challenges.

The bullying problem that often affects LGBTQ students begins a spiral that places these youth at risk. Often school personnel fail to address the needs of the bullied victims, and they are routinely suspended, expelled and criminalized, pushing them into the juvenile justice systems.

Statistics from GLSEN put the problems in perspective. For instance, 64 percent of LGBTQ students feel unsafe in their schools because of their sexual orientation, and 44 percent because of their gender expression. Approximately one in four LGBTQ youth are kicked out or run away from their living situations.

“This statistic is disproportionate and shocking,” said Ingrid Lofgren, a Skadden Fellow at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, at the unveiling ceremony of the YEA report held at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s main branch.

Jabari Lyles, who is with the Baltimore Area chapter of GLSEN and a member of YEA, added,  “People have to wonder what is going wrong when they hear that as many as one-third of LGBTQ youth never finish high school and up to 40 percent of our homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ.”

Dijohn Thomas, a Baltimore area youth advocate, pointed out at the Pratt Library presentation that while in school he was picked on for being gay by his principal and teachers.  “People fear what they don’t know,” he said. “They need education.” He added, “Foster homes are the worst place to be in. I was attacked, beaten up and things were stolen from me.”

The report presents an array of recommendations that would entail mainly policy, regulatory and legislative changes as well as mandatory training for direct service professionals and administrators and the conduct of needs assessments. YEA urges that the office of the governor, state government agency directors, legislators and political candidates read this report and decide what initiatives they will champion to improve the outcomes of these youth.

“When youth enter spaces in which they are to be supervised as well as protected by adults, they expect that professionals will be knowledgeable about individual youth rights and needs, as well as sensitive, respectful, and effective in their interactions with all youth,” Diana Philip, policy director for FreeState Legal Project, told the Blade. “LGBTQ youth in Maryland are no different.”

Formed in May 2013, YEA is a statewide coalition of various service providers, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and individual advocates that seeks to identify policy and regulatory solutions to problems faced by LGBTQ youth in Maryland. Members include ACLU of Maryland, The Public Justice Center, Equality Maryland, PFLAG, Planned Parenthood of Maryland, Homeless Persons Representation Project, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Star Track and the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.

“Although the Maryland LGBTQ community has recently secured several new rights, including marriage equality and the Fairness for All Marylanders Act, there is much work to be done to protect the rights of LGBTQ youth,” said Aaron Merki, executive director of FreeState Legal Project, one of the founding members of YEA, in announcing the report’s release.

The work to achieve the goals and adopt the recommendations in the report is expected to take several years. To view the full report, visit


Free tax services offered

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Aaron Merki, executive director of FreeState Legal, said the arrival of marriage equality helped trigger the new tax project. (Washington Blade file photo by Steve Charing)

Several organizations have partnered to provide free tax preparation services to low-income members of the LGBT community. FreeState Legal Project, Inc., which offers free legal services to the LGBT community; the Baltimore CASH Campaign, an organization that works to “increase the financial security of low-income individuals and families;” Chase Brexton Health Care; and PNC Bank, which is funding the project, are providing this service.

“We viewed the project as particularly important this year, following the achievement of marriage equality because LGBT families may now be subject to different rules and benefits under federal and state tax laws,” Aaron Merki, executive director of FreeState Legal told the Blade.

Free tax services are available every Thursday through April 4 from 3-6 p.m. at the First Floor Community Room, Chase Brexton Building, 1111 N. Charles St., Baltimore.

Those interested in signing up for free help filing 2013 taxes should contact FreeState at 410-625-5428 for an appointment.


Two LGBT orgs announce partnership

Baltimore, Maryland, gay news, Washington Blade, partnership

Baltimore skyline (Photo public domain)

The Baltimore Center for Black Equity and FreeState Legal Project, Inc. announced a strategic partnership to engage Black LGBTQ individuals in the Baltimore community. This partnership will include the Speak Fire! Dialogues, a series of panel discussions about issues relevant to the black LGBTQ community.

The first panel, “Celebrating Our Community: Building Brave Spaces for Black Transgender Folks,” will take place in November 2014.

Carlton Smith, the organization’s executive director, told the Blade, “The Baltimore Center for Black Equity is building partnerships between various communities to promote visibility and leadership in the Black LGBTQ community in Baltimore.”

Smith is a member of the planning committee that also includes local activists Rev. O.M. Moise of the Apostolic Catholic Church; Monica Yorkman, Founder of Sistas of the T; and Saida Agostini, Director of LGBTQ Resources at FreeState Legal Project, as well as the President of the Maryland and D.C. Chapter of Black Trans Men Incorporated.


Anti-gay slurs used during Md. stabbing

Howard County, Maryland, gay news, Washington Blade

Seal of Howard County, Md. (Image public domain)

The FreeState Legal Project expressed concern that an attack on a man in Ellicott City that allegedly included anti-gay slurs was not investigated as a hate crime. According to a report posted on, on April 21, a man was attacked and stabbed in the forearm in Ellicott City. The perpetrator allegedly “[used] slurs against homosexuals” during the attack. The assailant was charged with first-degree assault and reckless endangerment, but not with committing a hate crime.

In response to the incident, FreeState Legal Project sent a letter to the State’s Attorney’s Office requesting more information about the circumstances and the decision not to investigate it as a hate crime in spite of the alleged use of anti-gay slurs.

“Not every crime in which hate speech is used can properly be considered a hate crime, though use of such language constitutes strong evidence in such cases,” said Aaron Merki, FreeState Legal Project’s executive director. “We thought the incident in Ellicott City warranted further discussion to ensure that anti-LGBT bias isn’t going unnoticed.”

Sherry Llewellyn, spokesperson for the Howard County Police Department, told the Blade, “This was a case where intoxicated individuals were engaging in ‘trash talk,’ for lack of a better term, as the area bars were closing. In all of the back and forth name-calling, one of the slurs used was one that has connotations to homosexuality. However, there is absolutely no reference in the report to any of the parties involved being gay, or that anyone was actually specifically targeted for any reason. I’ve confirmed that information [on May 15] with the officers’ commander. The stabbing occurred when the exchange escalated to pushing and shoving and one of the parties had a knife and cut another subject on the arm.”

She added, “We take hate bias incidents and hate crimes very seriously in Howard County and, in fact, have a “multicultural liaison officer” assigned solely to address matters related to race, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity, and to work with groups that care about those issues.”


Seminar to explore legal issues of marriage

Clayton Zook, Tracy Staples, Wayne MacKenzie, gay news, Washington Blade, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, Maryland, Tilghman Island

(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Equality Maryland announced that the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore and Free State Legal Project will sponsor a seminar on June 8, “From Stonewall to Securing Marriage Rights: What Does It Mean for Us?” The seminar will cover the legal implications of marriage for same-sex couples whether already married or contemplating marriage. It will take place from 9 a.m. to noon at the Enoch Pratt Parish Hall, 514 N. Charles St. in Baltimore.

Attorneys Susan Francis and Susan Silber, who have written articles on same-sex marriage for the Blade, will cover an array of legal issues to prepare same-sex couples before and after they become married.

The event is free and open to the public. To ensure a seat, please contact, or call 410-685-2330. Participants are encouraged to submit questions in advance via email.


Police Advisory Council formed

Baltimore City Police, gay news, Washington Blade

Baltimore City Police vehicle (Photo by Artondra Hall)

A new 10-member advisory council was announced June 14 consisting of advocates within the LGBT community and members of the Baltimore City Police Department including Commissioner Anthony H. Batts. Its mission is to seek ways to improve the relationship between the LGBT community and the police.

“We will work hard with other committee members to collect best practices from around the country, to develop training curricula, and review hate crime investigation procedures, among other things,” Aaron Merki, executive director of Baltimore-based FreeState Legal and one of the council’s co-chairs told the Blade.


Coalition seeks trans rights

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Equality Maryland Executive Director Carrie Evans (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Seventeen local, state and national organizations have joined with individual activists to form the Maryland Coalition for Trans Equality, in a broad effort to fight for trans rights.

MCTE’s mission is to advance equal rights for transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming people in Maryland through leadership, collaborative decision-making processes and resources.

Over the spring and summer of 2012, MCTE held several listening sessions across the state. Through these sessions MCTE asked community members to share their vision of progress for trans people in the state. Attendees articulated a demand for a broader coalition to do this work. Acting on that directive, MCTE has brought together numerous organizations working for equality and justice in Maryland.

“Equality Maryland embraces doing this vital work in a coalition that has trans individuals at the center of decision-making,” said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland in a statement. “We witnessed the power of a coalition winning and preserving marriage equality and we are confident this model will succeed for trans equality.”

Other organizations in the coalition include ACLU of Maryland, Baltimore Black Pride, FreeState Legal Project, Maryland NOW (National Organization for Women), National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and PFLAG. For more information, visit


Out Law honors local ‘trailblazers’

Aaron Merki, FreeState Legal Project, gay news, Washington Blade

Aaron Merki serves as executive director of the FreeState Legal Project. (Photo by Steve Charing)

The University of Baltimore Law School’s only LGBT group, Out Law, presented its annual COBALT awards on April 25 at the Club Hippo before approximately 50 in attendance.  COBALT stands for Celebration of Our Baltimore Area LGBT Trailblazers.

Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the coalition that led the referendum battle in Maryland that culminated in a win for marriage equality at the ballot box last November, received the award that’s given to an organization. Jessica Emerson received the student award.

Aaron Merki, executive director of the FreeState Legal Project—an organization that provides legal services to low-income LGBT community members who cannot access existing service providers — was presented with the Mark Scurti Award.

Out Law is a law student organization that works to foster acceptance, promote education and awareness and advocate on the University of Baltimore Campus and in the community at large on legal issues facing members of the LGBT community, LGBT families and their allies.