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Gay-marriage coalition debates its next mission

MassEquality, the gay-marriage advocacy coalition, created one of the most effective political campaigns Massachusetts has ever seen, leading a battle that attracted national attention and culminated in a historic victory last June, when the Legislature defeated an amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

But four months later, the group is agonizing over a question born of its own success: What, if anything, should it do now?

The debate is creating tensions among onetime allies. Some gay leaders believe MassEquality should broaden its mission to include issues such as transgender rights and HIV/AIDS, while others disagree and say expanding Mass-Equality's agenda to other gay and lesbian causes could dilute its effectiveness, crowd out smaller groups that advocate for gay rights, and alienate some lawmakers and donors who supported same-sex marriage. They believe the group should stay focused on its original mission and perhaps share its expertise with gay-marriage advocates in other states.

Some involved with the group are raising concerns that the organization has been spending more than $100,000 a month since June without a clear mission. A confidential survey of Mass-Equality "stakeholders" leaked to the newspaper Bay Windows last week found little consensus about what the group's role should be. Susan Ryan-Vollmar, the newspaper's editor, argued in a column that some MassEquality board members have conflicts of interest because they do paid work for other gay advocacy groups that might view a larger MassEquality as competition, a situation she called troubling.

"This is a highly sensitive" discussion, said one person familiar with the group's internal discussions. "It's one that's very charged, and it's difficult. Everybody involved knew this was a conversation we were going to have to have at the end of what we all hoped would be a victory, and now we're having it."

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the group must keep its promise to help lawmakers in the 2008 elections who supported gay marriage. Thanks partly to the group's massive fund-raising and grass-roots efforts, not a single one of the 195 lawmakers who have run for reelection after voting in favor of gay marriage since the group's birth has lost a seat, said Marc Solomon, executive director of the organization.

"We told legislators we'd stick with them if they stuck with us," he said.

But, beyond that, the future is an open question.

MassEquality evolved from a group of gay organizations that had been working together on rights issues since 2001; the group began in earnest in late 2003, after the Supreme Judicial Court handed down its historic decision legalizing gay marriage, and advocates knew they would have to work together as never before to fight attempts to pass a constitutional ban.

The heat of battle encouraged cooperation, and many smaller groups set aside their own agendas to focus on marriage. Mass-Equality pulled in millions of dollars from local and national donors, established 11 affiliates across the state, and, at its height, employed 22 full-time and 35 part-time staff members.

"All the organizations worked together brilliantly," said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a leader of the Mass-Equality lobbying team. "All the groups set aside their differences to focus like a laser beam on defending marriage."

After the Legislature's June 14 vote, and the announcement by foes of same-sex marriage that they would shelve plans for another ballot petition, MassEquality's board decided to do some soul-searching about its future. It hired a consultant, conducted focus groups, interviewed donors and leaders, and held a public brainstorming session. The board decided to keep only its core staff - about eight full-time positions - while it deliberated its mission, said David Wilson, chairman of the MassEquality board.

Wilson said the group has discussed many options, from disbanding - which no one wants to do, he said - to working only on same-sex marriage, not just in Massachusetts but in other New England states, to taking on other issues of concern to gays and lesbians in Massachusetts. The board plans a final vote on the organization's future on Nov. 3.

Wilson said he personally would like to see MassEquality build on its success by taking on new issues.

"I believe that we should not let go of the power and the leverage we have built over the last three years, and we should use that to improve the lives of GLBT folks in this state," he said, referring to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.

Two groups of lawmakers echoed that sentiment in letters to the MassEquality board earlier this month, emphasizing that Mass-Equality had built up considerable credibility at the State House. "MassEquality is the known and respected 'brand' in the Legislature," wrote Jarrett Barrios, a former state senator from Cambridge, and Senators Edward M. Augustus Jr. of Worcester and Stanley C. Rosenbergof Amherst, both Democrats.

But other leaders in the community worry that MassEquality could compromise its relationship with some lawmakers if it embraced other issues.

"I think it's naive for us to wander around in other areas that may have different levels of controversy and may dilute our ability to support legislators who are with us" on marriage, said one significant MassEquality donor and fund-raiser. "The value of this organization is that it has meant what it has said, so it can't say, 'Well, we're supporting transgender rights, but - wink, nod - we will stay with you even if you don't."

The donor voiced the fear that MassEquality could alienate some of its more conservative donors, creating the chance that the gay community would have to build a new coalition should a threat to same-sex marriage resurface in Massachusetts.

Tom Lang, a North Shore activist, said he would like to see a statewide gay advocacy group, but one that is more attentive to the grassroots than MassEquality is now. "What issues are going to be addressed and who is going to choose what issues are important?" he said. "When something becomes a major lobby group . . . it's difficult for little people to have a voice."

Others worry that MassEquality might compete with the very advocacy organizations that built it.

"It doesn't make sense for it to replicate what other organizations are already doing," said one person involved in the talks who was torn over what direction the group should take. "An organization shouldn't look for a mission to continue its existence."

But many leaders of the small organizations that advocate for gay rights counter that they would appreciate MassEquality's help. Gunner Scott, who cochairs the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, which is working on a transgender bill now before the Legislature, said his small, all-volunteer group is ill-equipped to lead a major State House lobbying effort and would benefit dramatically from the staff and expertise of MassEquality.

Rebecca Haag, executive director of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, said her organization, too, would love to see a bigger, broader MassEquality.

"This is about expanding our political sophistication," she said.

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