Lambda Legal’s Coleman named ED of Equality Texas

DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

Dennis Coleman

Dennis Coleman

Dennis Coleman will become executive director of Equality Texas and the Equality Texas Foundation on July 17.

Coleman will replace Paul Scott, who stepped down earlier this year to become executive director of AIDS Services of Austin.

For almost seven years, Coleman has served as regional director of Lambda Legal’s South Central office in Dallas. Much of his work built on the success the office had in June 2003 with the Lawrence v. Texas case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state’s sodomy ban.

Coleman said he’ll get an apartment in Austin, but he and his partner Gregory Pynes will maintain their home in Dallas.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, is based in Austin. He said the job of executive director entails travel throughout the state and can be done from Dallas as well as Austin.

Coleman said in his position with Lambda Legal, he covered eight states. He said his office manager kept day-to-day operations going while he was on the road. He foresees a similar relationship with Smith.

Although during the upcoming legislative session, Coleman said, “I’m fully committed to being in Austin.”

Equality Texas board chair Rob Scamardo said the search committee was looking for someone familiar with Texas, Texas politics and knew the challenges of advancing LGBT equality in the state.

Scamardo said he believes they found the perfect candidate in Coleman.

“He’s so well known and well respected throughout North Texas,” Scamardo said. “He can build that network in Houston. We would like to see our membership grow. He will be able to most immediately have an effect in North Texas.”
Coleman agreed that membership is a priority in his new position. “That runs parallel to what I was trying to do with Lambda Legal,” he said.

He also wants to raise the profile of Equality Texas, and change the perception of the group. He said many see it as an Austin organization. A third goal is to get activists motivated on statewide issues.

Coleman began his work in the LGBT community as a member of the Resource Center Dallas Speaker’s Bureau in the early 1990s. He joined the Black Tie Dinner committee. When hired by Lambda Legal, he was national chair of the Human Rights Campaign’s Board of Governors.

Scamardo said State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston has talked to the organization about the importance of forging alliances with other minority groups. Scamardo said he looks forward to Coleman doing just that.

Toni Broaddus, executive director of the Equality Federation, made up of state equality organizations from around the country, agreed. Broaddus said she thinks that in addition to his experience, hiring an African-American executive director is a smart move for Equality Texas.

“The LGBT civil rights movement can’t succeed alone,” she said, “And part of the work we need to do is representing our entire community, and exploring the intersection between discrimination against LGBT people and discriminating against people of color.”

Coleman will not be the first person of color to lead the organization. Through the 1990s, Dianne Hardy Garcia, who is Hispanic, headed the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby, which later changed its name to Equality Texas.

“Diversity is one of the things we struggle with in the leadership of our state equality organizations,” Broaddus said. “It’s a struggle to bring people of color and transgender people into leadership positions. It’s great news that we’re adding another person of color.”

But those who’ve worked with Coleman said he is simply the best choice for the job.

“I think that he brings a wealth of experience as a Texan,” Lambda Legal senior staff attorney Ken Upton said. “What makes him right for the job is he knows what works and what doesn’t work in Texas.”

Upton said he thinks Coleman’s Lambda Legal experience will give his advocacy a different tone. He said he expects Coleman will call when the legislative approach isn’t working and a legal approach might fare better.

Scamardo said two of the biggest challenges facing the new Legislature next year will be budget shortfalls and redistricting. The perennial challenge for the community is preventing anti-LGBT legislation from getting out of committee to a floor vote. But there’s also the hope of passing a pro-equality bill for the first time since 2001.

“Our hope is that we can push our key agenda item — the safe schools initiative — early in the session,” Scamardo said. He thinks the anti-bullying law has a good chance to pass before things get too contentious later in the session.

In the last session, the bill had enough votes to pass in the House and had Republican sponsorship. Working on this will be a natural fit.

“We’ve always had a collaborative relationship with Equality Texas, especially with the safe schools issue,” Coleman said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 9, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens