Former executive director speaks out about leaving Equality Texas, citing family reasons and calling separation ‘mutually beneficial’

Dennis Coleman

ANNA WAUGH  |  Staff Writer

Speaking publicly about the matter for the first time, former Equality Texas executive director Dennis Coleman denied this week that he was forced to resign from the organization in August.
In a wide-ranging interview at Dallas Voice offices on Wednesday, Oct. 17, Coleman said family matters were behind his decision to step down from Equality Texas, which he led for almost two years.

Coleman said after losing a family member in May he began to struggle with how to balance commuting to Austin from Dallas for the job. Then, over the summer, he put both his grandmother and father in senior living facilities.

“I became the primary caretaker of not just my immediate family but other people. It was more about getting back here and taking care of family,” Coleman said.

Wade Hyde, a former Equality Texas board member from Dallas, previously told Dallas Voice that a hastily organized conference call among board members on Aug. 17 ended with the decision to give Coleman the choice to resign or be fired. Equality Texas announced Coleman’s resignation later that day. Hyde resigned from the board on Aug. 23, citing a lack of transparency.

Coleman said he could not speak to what happened on the conference call because he was not a part of it.

“That was not how we separated from one another,” Coleman said. “It was more of a personal matter as to why I was moving back here and I really wanted to wait until there was an opportune time to actually disclose that. Unfortunately things came out that I was not aware of and that were never brought to me. But at the end of day, we have no dispute. It was very mutually beneficial for everyone that this was a good time to make that separation.”

As for whether he was given the option of resigning or being fired, Coleman said he couldn’t “disclose what took place during that conversation.”

“We have agreed that we will not disparage one another and that overall what we do, we wish each other well,” he said. “Equality Texas and I do not have any disputes.”

Coleman refuted allegations that Equality Texas was not successful financially under his leadership. He noted that he was able to reinstate positions that had previously been eliminated due to budget constraints.

“I think that no one can dispute that the organization grew outside of Austin under my leadership,” he said. “Money was coming in and more and more corporations were being introduced to

Equality Texas than ever before.”

Coleman said he oversaw the passage of two anti-bullying bills, the rebranding of the organization and laid the groundwork for businesses and corporations to become the voices behind a statewide Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the next legislative session.

Dallas Voice named Coleman 2011 LGBT Person of the Year for his success in turning the organization around.

“I think that probably in the short time that I was there I probably did more for the organization than any executive director that was there,” Coleman said. “I would definitely say that I was successful and the organization was successful in the two years that I was there. I felt very comfortable in leaving the organization in a very sound place.”

Coleman said the average tenure for an executive director for a statewide LGBT equality organization is 18 months, giving some perspective to the demands of the position.
Even with the separation, he said he was disappointed in the public attention that was brought to his leaving Equality Texas and for news to come out that the board was divided.

“I didn’t like walking away,” he said. “I really did love what I did. It doesn’t mean that I’m not still going to be doing that in some way.”

Coleman said he’ll still visit Austin during the 2013 legislative session to keep an eye on the progress he helped start.

“There are still pieces of me, a great deal I think, that you will see in the legislative session that I had a hand in,” he said.

As for Coleman’s future, he said he’s still “weighing his options” and discussing his opportunities with family. He said he has been approached about opportunities including working with corporations on diversity, starting a nonprofit and even running for public office.

He said he wants his next career move to include part of the three things that are the most important to him: being active in the African-American community, LGBT advocacy and the city of Dallas.

“Whatever I do, it’s going to have, if not all of those three, it’s going to have some combination of those things that are important to me,” he said.

Equality Texas has launched a nationwide search for a new executive director. Chuck Smith, interim executive director, said he applied for the position after consideration but said he did not know the status of the search or when the position would be filled.

Equality Texas board Chairwoman Anne Wynne said the group hopes to announce a new executive director within 30 days. Fort Worth board member Lisa Thomas, who is the chair of the search committee, did not return calls.

Coleman said the Nov. 6 election will be a major factor in determining where LGBT issues fall on the legislative agenda during the upcoming session. He said the new executive director will face the same challenges of trying to explain Equality Texas’ successes and continue to advocate for LGBT-friendly legislators.

“I think Equality Texas is a great organization. I do think that there is a lot of work that needs to take place in the state of Texas,” he said, adding that donors will want to see the strategy of the new leadership. “They want to see an aggressive organization, they want to know what the strategy is, they want to know how they can participate.”

Coleman said his advice for the new executive director would be to have a plan in place and to go out and communicate that plan for future success to donors and supporters.

“Whoever comes into the organization is going to have to continue describing what that vision is. They have to continue to do that in order to shore up support around the state,” he said. “They need to immediately get on the road and they immediately need to be armed with the accomplishments of the organization. And so they have to get out there, and I would say definitely they need to get to Dallas and they need to get to Houston.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 19, 2012.