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New Bill Would Mandate City LGBTQ Affairs Office

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A rainbow flag waves by Baltimore's Washington Monument. Councilman Kristerfer Burnett has introduced legislation to formalize the city Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett wants to make the city’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs a permanent part of the government by amending the city charter to mandate its existence. Otherwise, city leaders could axe the current office, which consists of one unfilled role, at any time.

“If we are a city that really does value equity and inclusion, we need to codify these offices into the city code so that it's the law of the land,” Burnett said. “The impetus was just to make sure that it is a part of the city government structure and not solely at the whim of whoever the mayor of Baltimore is at the time.”

Burnett’s bill moved out of the Rules and Legislative Oversight committee Thursday afternoon and is headed to the full council for a second reader vote at their next meeting. He anticipates that the entirely Democratic council will unanimously approve it. A staffer of Mayor Brandon Scott, who spoke on background, said the mayor would sign the legislation, should it appear on his desk.

Jabari Lyles, the former director of the Office of LGBTQ Affairs, helped Burnett write the legislation. He joined City Hall as Baltimore’s first LGBTQ Liason under former Mayor Catherine Pugh in 2018, and served under former Mayor Jack Young and Mayor Brandon Scott until he left city government several weeks ago to take a leadership role at Baltimore Safe Haven, a transgender advocacy group. He has not been replaced.

“In about two-and-a-half, three years, I worked under three different mayors, so each time we had to sort of reset. It was hard to build traction and commitment for this work,” he said. “I was really honored to start that conversation and give them a glimpse of what that looks like. But for me, my allegiance will always be to my community first. And so I had to go somewhere where I was making a deeper impact with a greater sense of urgency.”

Lyles said the city government is still in the process of learning how to best serve the LGBTQ community — and that leaders didn’t operate with enough urgency. He pointed to a memo he wrote that contained best practices for engaging with the LGBTQ community, such as discussing pronouns, that the administration did not send to city leaders. That’s “low-hanging fruit,” Lyles said.

“Whatever progress people think that we've made, I'm here to say it's not enough,” he said. “This year already has been one of the most dangerous years on record for state and federal legislation against the trans community. Each year for the past six years have been the deadliest year on record for murders against trans people. Our young people in school are not safe and affirmed.”

The director of the Office of LGBTQ Affairs leads the LGBTQ Commission, which Pugh created in 2018 to advise city leaders and agencies on issues, legislation and concerns that affect the community. While the commission can have up to 15 members, they are volunteers.

“Between one staff person and a group of volunteers, we knew that that wasn’t the appropriate level of resources and focus to really make progress for the LGBTQ community,” Lyles said.

Lyles said that in a deep-blue city like Baltimore, some residents and City Hall staffers think the hurdles the LGBTQ community face have been eradicated and that programming should start and stop with Pride.

“We wave our rainbow flags, we show a couple episodes of Pose and we've done our job,” he said. “But that's not even 10% of it.”

The bulk of his work in City Hall, Lyles said, involved dealing with trauma and pain familiar to many in the LGBTQ community: family rejection, harassment, substance issues and death. His one-person office also helped LGBTQ Baltimoreans, particularly trans people of color, navigate systemic barriers, such as obtaining steady work and safe housing.

Both Lyles and Burnett believe the bill is a first step. The real work, they said, will be lobbying for more staffers after its likely passage.

Though city voters granted councilmembers the ability to move money around in a mayor’s proposed budget in the 2020 election, that law does not go into effect until 2022, meaning funding new roles in the Office of LGBTQ Affairs is up to the mayor.

“The city council understands the need for this office, so the actual establishment of the office won't be an issue. The issue will be, how is the office staffed? What are the financial resources that will be allocated for the office so that it doesn't become something that's just symbolic,” Lyles said.

He said the legislation will be a true success if it ultimately leads to more thorough programming, such as the creation of a jobs-training program for trans people that was discussed during a hearing on the well-being of the Baltimore trans community last year but was never funded.

And it would be a huge victory if the bill leads to a bolstered office staff that represents the city’s existing, diverse LGBTQ community, he said, particularly youth and elders — “our elders who never thought they would see the day that an LGBTQ person is working in City Hall.”

Burnett said he’s had several conversations with leaders in the Scott administration about funding and restructuring the office.

“As we move into the coming budget cycle and the city's fiscal situation is improving and we receive more federal support, we can get serious about actually staffing this office,” he said. “One staffer is inadequate.”