LGBT Person of the Year: Equality Texas’ Dennis Coleman

In his first year as ED of the state’s LGBT lobby organization, Coleman led the way in getting anti-bullying bills passed. Now he’s setting his sights on marriage equality

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CAPITOL GAINS | Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman said two anti-bullying bills passed this year represent the first successful pro-equality legislation the state has seen since 2001.

JOHN WRIGHT  |  Senior Political Writer
wright@dallasvoice.com

Shortly after he took over as executive director of Equality Texas in July 2010, Dennis Coleman was faced with a tough decision.

Thanks to the economic recession and several months without an ED, the organization could barely pay its bills and was surviving from fundraiser to fundraiser.

In a move he now says should have come sooner, Coleman was forced to lay off three people — or half of Equality Texas’ staff.

“The unfortunate thing was that I had to come in as a new person and make that very hard decision,” Coleman said recently. “In order for the organization to breathe, it was going to have to happen, because there had been so much cutting already done, that there was nowhere to go except to the payroll. And it was not even an option of making the recommendation of reduced salaries. It had to be a complete cut of those positions. Those cuts were in our field and our political department, which was a very hard decision considering we were heading into the session.”

Those who were let go included Randall Terrell, the group’s chief lobbyist, and with the biennial Legislature set to convene in January, Coleman acknowledged that board members and donors were nervous.

Riding a Tea Party wave, Republicans had seized a supermajority in the Texas House in November elections, and there were fears that anti-gay legislation from past years could be revived.

But Coleman said in retrospect, the layoffs brought together Equality Texas’ board members and remaining staff in an unexpected way. Volunteer board members were motivated to not only raise money like never before — but also to roll up their sleeves and help with the day-to-day work of the organization, especially lobbying.

Still, no one harbored any illusions about passing pro-LGBT legislation in 2011. Coleman said with right-wing lawmakers apparently preoccupied by immigration and women’s rights, he was just hoping for an “opportunity to get my feet wet.”

“Little did we know what really awaited us, and I think once again credit goes to the staff that’s there right now, as well as the board members, how we were able to adjust and take advantage of the opportunities that were opening up before us,” he said.

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STEPS TO EQUALITY | Coleman, shown with Deputy Director Chuck Smith, said the group is now looking at ways to begin chipping away at Texas' 2005 marriage amendment.

Those opportunities took the form of anti-bullying legislation, which Equality Texas had backed repeatedly in previous sessions to no avail. But this time, in the wake of a series of highly publicized teen suicides across the nation, even conservative lawmakers wanted to get something done.

Under Coleman’s leadership, Equality Texas was able to seize upon the momentum, forging a coalition alongside groups including the Texas Freedom Network and the Anti-Defamation League.

Equality Texas also brought in advocates like gay Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns, by then a celebrity for his “It Gets Better” speech, and reached out to the parents of suicide victims — including gay 13-year-old Asher Brown of Houston.

Six months later, the result was passage of what Coleman called the first two pro-equality bills to become law in Texas since 2001, when Gov. Rick Perry signed hate crimes legislation.

While the anti-bullying bills don’t include specific protections for LGBT youth, Coleman said they would not have passed if they did.

“The final version is not the ideal policy, but at the same time, we were not excluded,” Coleman said. “I know that’s a difficult thing to try to explain to a community that not just feels but knows it’s targeted because of who they are. But it was important for us to get something passed to protect children. … That was one of the things that we had promised to the families, that we would get something passed.”

Meanwhile, Equality Texas also managed to fight off anti-gay legislation — including efforts to eliminate funding for LGBT resource centers on college campuses, and ban transgender marriage.

And today, as the group prepares to enter 2012, its finances are looking up. Coleman said the recently approved budget for next year includes funds to reinstate two positions that were eliminated in 2010.

For his role in turning around Equality Texas — the statewide LGBT equality group in the nation’s second-largest state — Coleman is Dallas Voice’s LGBT Person of the Year.

‘It’s been a great year’

Jeanne Rubin, an Equality Texas board member from Frisco, said it was only her first or second meeting in early 2010 when former Executive Director Paul Scott announced he was stepping down.

“It’s been a great year,” Rubin said this week. “We really have come full circle, and Dennis really had to hit the ground running. If we were going to get anything done, it had to be a nonpartisan effort, so we had to go out of our comfort circle. I think maybe partially because Dennis was new, he was really able to do that and forge those relationships with legislators.”

Anne Wynn, an Austin attorney who chairs the group’s board, was one of those who drew on her own lobbying experience to help out after the layoffs. During the session, Wynn, Coleman and Deputy Director Chuck Smith became “the three musketeers of Equality Texas,” she said.

“Since he got here, we have righted the ship, and he’s done a good job of helping us do that,” Wynn said of Coleman. “He’d never spent any time at the Capitol. I didn’t have any idea that we’d be able to pass not one but two anti-bullying bills. Dennis did a great job of meeting the legislators and their key staff people, and establishing relationships with them, so that we could help get those bills through the committees, and then back on the floors and eventually passed. For a person that was a complete novice about the legislative process, he really did a great job.”

Although Coleman was relatively new to the State Capitol, he had plenty of experience in the LGBT equality movement. Prior to joining Equality Texas, Coleman spent seven years as executive director of the South Central Region of Lambda Legal, based in Dallas.

Ken Upton, a senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal who worked closely with Coleman, recalled him as “very jocular.”

“He laughs, he smiles a lot, and I think that’s one of the things people like about him. He brings kind of a fun-ness to the job,” Upton said. “He’d walk into a room and talk to anybody. That really was his strength.”

Upton also noted that Coleman is one of the few local activists he’s met who’s originally from here.

Coleman, now 48, said he grew up in an upper middle class household in the heart of South Dallas. His parents were members of the Methodist church at Malcolm X and Martin Luther King boulevards, just west of Fair Park, and Coleman graduated from Bishop Dunn High School.

After studying communications at the University of Texas, Coleman first became an activist when he volunteered for the speaker’s bureau at Resource Center Dallas, educating people about HIV/AIDS in local churches.

From there he got involved with the Black Tie Dinner and served on the board of the LGBT fundraiser for four years. He then joined the Board of Governors of the Human Rights Campaign, which he eventually co-chaired.

“Like a lot of people, I started really on the ground,” Coleman said.

In 2003, Coleman left a career in sales and marketing at Sprint to join Lambda Legal.

He said he was happy there and had no intention of leaving, until being approached last year about the Equality Texas position.

His only reservation was the prospect of a permanent move to Austin, which wouldn’t have worked for him and his partner, fellow activist Gregory Pynes.

Coleman met Pynes when they were both volunteering for HRC. They’ve been together nine years and share a home off Garland Road near the Dallas Arboretum.

But Coleman was open to commuting from Dallas and living part-time in Austin — so he took the job.

From bullying to marriage equality

Since then, Coleman said he’s logged more than 30,000 miles on his car, driving back and forth from Big D to the capital — which he said makes a good time for conference calls.

When the Legislature isn’t in session, his focus is fundraising and education, and he’s traveling throughout the state, meaning he doesn’t need to be based in Austin.
Equality Texas recently completed its strategic plan for 2012, which focuses heavily on civic engagement, Coleman said.

The group is scrapping its State of the State conference — previously held in Austin in off legislative years — and replacing it with a series of 12 regional equality projects throughout Texas.

“We want to, instead of saying come to us, we want to go to you,” Coleman said. “We want to work with you in your own community.”

Utilizing college interns, a project called “Real Texas, Real Lives” will document the experiences of LGBT people and their allies.

The aim is to build political power and create more advocates like David and Amy Truong, Asher’s Brown’s parents.

“Here was this family who had never been to Austin, never lobbied before, never spoke publicly before, but saw this thing through,” Coleman said. “Sometimes Amy would beat me to some of the meetings I had set up. I wish everyone could experience that and see that if we just got people to do phone calls, what a difference that can make, or show up to hearings, what a difference that can really make.”

Coleman said Equality Texas’ relationships with the families of bullying victims likely was the group’s biggest contribution to the passage of the anti-bullying bills.

“No other group in the coalition had those relationships,” he said. “When it was time for the hearings, we had Montana Lance’s family, we had Jon Carmichael’s family, and we were working with them. No other organization was working with them, and when the session was about to end and there was not any traction, Equality Texas was the organization that at that moment could call those families and say, ‘Hey, we need you here in Austin to go with us, because we need this to move, and it can move with you.’”

In addition to passage of the anti-bullying bills, Coleman said committee hearings were held on 10 other pro-LGBT measures. And at most of those hearings, the group was able to call witnesses.

Coleman recalled one hearing on an employment nondiscrimination bill, in front of a committee made up of all Republicans.

“The conversation was not around sexual orientation, it was really around gender identity and expression,” he said. “We didn’t talk about gay. We talked about transitioning in the workplace. What an eye opener to me.”

He added that he believes the threat of anti-gay legislation in Texas is nearing its end.

“You’re going to have your Wayne Christians,” he said, referring to the author of the failed effort to de-fund LGBT resource centers. “But people are slowly moving away from using gay people as punching bags.”

Coleman said he now knows what it takes to get a bill passed, and with a large number of incumbents retiring, Equality Texas is re-energizing its PAC and focusing on voter registration.

One of the keys for the group will be the ability to hire staff to help out with development and field operations.

“Right now there are three of us trying to do the job I wouldn’t even say of six but of 10,” Coleman said. “In a state of this size, we need people on the ground. … I’m in the very cautious growth stage, but I know that we need to have people that can implement the field programs, as well as someone to help raise money. Right now I’m the sole fundraiser for the organization, and so we need someone who can definitely help us with our monthly donors, our capital club members, while I concentrate on engaging corporations with our work.”

In the 2013 session, Coleman said, Equality Texas’ two legislative priorities will be employment nondiscrimination and relationship recognition.

Armed with results from its 2010 Equality Poll showing broad support for relationship recognition, Coleman said the group’s strategy will include incremental gains, but with the ultimate goal of marriage equality.

He said legal experts are already looking at how to chip away at the 2005 constitutional amendment, which banned both same-sex marriage and civil unions.

“It is definitely a multi-year strategy, but I think that as our poll indicates, we have over 63 percent of voting Texans who would support civil unions, and we have almost 45 percent that would support marriage. That’s double what it was in 2005,” Coleman said.

“We’re talking to our colleagues in New York. We’re talking to our colleagues in California. We’re talking to folks at Freedom to Marry, about what does it look like here in Texas, and what have you seen? We’re going to be engaging our friends at Lambda Legal, who won Iowa. What does that look like and what should our steps be?”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

What’s Shakin’ – Stone Soup at F Bar, Washtonians support marriage equality

Stone Soup1. For people living with AIDS proper nutrition is more than just healthy living, it’s a vital part of the regimen that keeps them alive. Unfortunately the struggling economy and cuts to government HIV/AIDS nutrition programs mean that, for some, eating right, or just eating, is a challenge.  That’s where the AIDS Foundation Houston Stone Soup Food Assistance Program steps in.  Kelly McCann, CEO of of AFH, says that the program has recently seen a 40% increase in request for assistance and needs an additional $25,000 a month to meet demand. F Bar (202 Tuam) is doing its part to help out tonight, collecting monetary and food donations from the community. Donors will receive a VIP invitation to an appreaciation party on Nov 22, and be entered in a raffle to win fabulous prizes.
2. Washington may soon become the seventh state to have full marriage equality, if a recent poll by the University of Washington, Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexualityis accurate.  The poll asked 938 registered voters in the evergreen state if they would support a same-sex marriage law were it to appear on the 2012 ballot: 47% responded that yes, they would strongly support it, only 32% said they would strongly oppose.
3. Voter turnout in Harris County is slowly catching up with the last municipal election cycle in 2009, but continues to lag.  So far 28,679 people have cast their ballots, 81% of the 34,485 who had voted at this point in the process the last go around.  Early voting continues through November 3.  Election day is Nov 8. A list of all early voting locations and sample ballots  are available at harrisvotes.org.

—  admin

Organizers set goal of $500,000 for 20th annual LifeWalk

Organizers hoping for more than 10,000 walkers to gather in Lee Park to raise money for 10 AIDS service organizations in Dallas

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor nash@dallasvoice.com

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY LIFEWALK  |  AIDS Arms recently held a reception at ilume Galleries honoring past and present chairs of the agency’s annual LifeWalk funraiser as part of the buildup to the 20th annual LifeWalk taking place Sunday, Oct. 10, at 1 p.m. in Lee Park. During the event, an unnamed benefactor donated $5,000 to LifeWalk in honor of the past co-chairs. The event also featured eight local artists who had work on display in the gallery.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY LIFEWALK | AIDS Arms recently held a reception at ilume Galleries honoring past and present chairs of the agency’s annual LifeWalk funraiser as part of the buildup to the 20th annual LifeWalk taking place Sunday, Oct. 10, at 1 p.m. in Lee Park. During the event, an unnamed benefactor donated $5,000 to LifeWalk in honor of the past co-chairs. The event also featured eight local artists who had work on display in the gallery.

About 62 new teams have registered to participate in the 20th annual LifeWalk on Sunday, Oct. 10, according to AIDS Arms Executive Director Raeline Nobles.

“That’s the most new teams in one year that we have ever had,” Nobles said. “We have all our established teams coming back, plus the 62 new teams. That’s a little more than 200 teams total that will be walking.”

And that’s not counting the people who haven’t registered yet and will be walking as individuals instead of with a team.

“A lot of people never join a team. They just show up on Sunday, register on their own and walk. And those individuals usually bring someone with them — a partner or other family member or a friend or a pet. We never know until the day of the walk how many people will be participating,” Nobles said.

She said nearly 10,000 people participated in the 2009 LifeWalk, “and we assume we will meet that number again this year, if not exceed it. We hope we will exceed it, of course.”

The fundraising goal for the 20th LifeWalk is set at $500,000, which will be divided between AIDS Arms, which presents the event, and the 10 other beneficiaries.

“That’s huge, we know. Year before last, we raised $430,000, and last year we just about hit $400,000. The economic recession hit us hard last year, but we are hoping to really bounce back from that this year.”

The fundraising goal for the walk is based on the needs of the beneficiaries, Nobles said. “We tell the [LifeWalk] steering committee what we need, and the committee approves that as the goal. Then they [committee members] have to go out there and make it happen.”

The recession, Nobles said, has impacted AIDS service organizations in more ways than one. While donors have had to cut back on how much they are able to give, agencies are at the same time seeing more people who need help.

“What’s happening, across the board, is that there are just far too many clients needing help than we have the capacity to help,” Nobles said. “All of us [AIDS service organizations] are just way beyond our capacity. All of us need funding to expand that capacity and serve the fast-growing segment of people who are HIV-positive.”

And the proceeds from LifeWalk are especially helpful because the beneficiary agencies can use those funds however they want.

“Grant money is always extremely restricted money,” Nobles explained. “You can only spend grant money on the specific things that the funder has approved. And most often, those grant dollars don’t pay for the tools we need to do our jobs — things like computers, prevention supplies, testing supplies.

“Grant money usually doesn’t cover the costs of expanded media in new formats, those new ways to use new avenues to reach out with education and prevention efforts,” she continued. “For example, here at AIDS Arms, we love to do our ‘Lunch and Learn’ program. It’s where we invite clients to come in and we feed them, and as they have lunch we educate them on some aspect of living with AIDS. But all that goes by the wayside when there are no unrestricted funds available.”

And that’s why LifeWalk is so important. Because the funds it brings in are completely unrestricted.

Nobles said AIDS Arms officials hope to be able to use LifeWalk funds this year to bring in new equipment for the Peabody Clinic.

“We have a long list of equipment we need to diagnose, track and monitor the health of our clients,” she said.

“This time around, cardiovascular care is a huge need in our HIV patients, and we need equipment to be able to respond to that need in a better way. I don’t think the general public really understands that cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 health risk for a lot of HIV patients. That’s particularly true as the patient population ages.

And that makes the management of HIV disease that much more complicated. We have to stay on top of all of it.

You have to treat the whole person.”

Registration for LifeWalk opens at noon on Sunday, and the walk steps off at 1 p.m. Walkers will move up Turtle Creek Boulevard, go through the West Village and then circle through Uptown and back to Lee Park.

There will be activities and entertainment going on throughout the day in the park, including the Buster Brown Band, a DJ playing music, Voice of Pride winner Mel Arizpe, games for the children, food, beverages and more, Nobles said.

Also during the day, in honor of the 20th anniversary, past LifeWalk co-chairs will be recognized from the stage.

“It’s going to be very family friendly, and very dog friendly. There will be several vendors with booths, and there will be a health fair with free HIV testing available on-site all day,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Nobles acknowledged that the reason behind LifeWalk is very serious, and that there are likely to be some sad moments as organizers and participants remember friends and family members who have died.
But the fun side of the event is also important.

“Everyone knows that we do this for very serious reasons, that the epidemic is still killing people and that our dollars are going to help with serious needs,” Nobles said. “But people need to have some relief from that seriousness, too. People get burned out. It’s called ‘compassion fatigue.’ And they need to be able to celebrate life; we need to celebrate the memories of those we have lost and we need to celebrate the lives of those who are living with this disease.

“There are people who have lived with this since the day the epidemic began, and we need to celebrate their lives, their tenacity and their courage,” Nobles said. “And LifeWalk is a great way to do that, because you know that every dollar that comes into LifeWalk goes to programs that directly help clients. Close to 20,000 people depend on the AIDS services organizations in Dallas, and the money from LifeWalk goes to help them. You can make an investment in the future of a lot of people through LifeWalk.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 08, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas