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Beset with financial woes, Equality Maryland may close

The organization at the forefront of the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland and pass a statewide transgender anti-discrimination law says financial difficulties may force it to cease operations.

The news, and a plea for donations, was laid out in an email from Equality Maryland Foundation Board Chair Isabella Firth Shycoff and Stephanie Bernstein, who chairs the board of the organization.

“We’re not fooling,” Firth Shycoff said in an interview. “This is no joke. We really are pretty much at the end.”

The decision would likely be made before the end of July, she said.

“We’re talking about a couple of weeks,” Firth Shycoff said of the pending decision. “We have some plans we can trigger to wind down. We really have tried everything to discover sustainable ways to continue our operations.”

Equality Maryland is actually two separate but related entities with a nonprofit advocacy arm and a 501(c)(4) organization that was essentially its campaign arm.

The group has two paid employees at its Baltimore office. A third, Executive Director Carrie Evans, left the organization after five years.

Firth Shycoff said the departure of Evans was directly related to the declining revenue.

In 2012, the organization was at the leading edge of not only advocating for passage of same-sex marriage in Maryland but also the effort to become the first state to successfully defeat a referendum challenge to the law. The group also successfully advocated for the passage of the state’s transgender anti-discrimination laws as well as for Gov. Larry Hogan to re-issue regulations that prohibit Medicaid providers from discriminating on the basis of gender identity.

The organization announced its dire financial condition and possible closing just days after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in every state.

“I think that’s completely fair,” Firth Shycoff said.

Firth Shycoff said the apex of the organization’s funding — which came from grants, fundraising and paid membership — tracked with the effort to pass the same-sex marriage law in Maryland and successfully defeat a subsequent referendum challenge.

But the organization may have ultimately fell victim to its own successes.

Revenues began to decline and a budget that was once about $230,000 in 2013 was “less” in 2015.

“A lot of people told me, ‘I thought we won,’“ Firth Shycoff said.

The organization’s deteriorating finances were a closely held secret until Tuesday when the group issued an email statement.

“Now that we are where we are, we see no downside in letting the community know where we are,” she said.

But Firth Shycoff said the group’s efforts are anything but over.

“Just because you change the law doesn’t mean you change the hearts and minds of people,” she said. “There’s still hate out there.”

Firth Shycoff said the board continues to believe that the organization “ought to continue to play a critical, central role” in other issues concerning the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community.

She said the board is evaluating how much the organization would need to continue its work in its current form and in a somewhat reduced form or to dissolve the both parts of the organization.

“Could we survive on $250,000 a year? Could we survive on $50,000? I don’t know. We’re really trying to assess that right now,” said Firth Shycoff.