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