‘Now we have a seat at the table’: A conversation with leaders of Maryland’s new LGBTQ commission

Published on: August 05, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

Q&A with the leaders of the newly-launched state Commission on LGBTQ affairs, Jeremy Browning who was just hired as executive director of the commission and Joe Toolan as the chairperson of the commission.

Maryland this year became one of only a handful of states to launch a commission focused on issues facing the LGBTQ community. The Maryland Commission on LGBTQ Affairs joins other panels concentrating on segments of the state’s diverse community, including those focused on African culture, Hispanic affairs, Caribbean affairs and more.

State lawmakers last year passed legislation creating the commission, which is charged with, among other things, assessing challenges facing the community, collecting relevant data, establishing best practices for inclusion and advising the government on policy issues.

The effort was led by Del. Lily Qi, a Montgomery County Democrat who said she felt there needed to be a home base for the state’s efforts to address the needs of LGBTQ Marylanders.

“This is the kind of state I want to see — one that is attractive to all people and inclusive of all people,” said Qi, whose son is gay. “We need to have this kind of dialogue that is ongoing.”

Qi’s bill received overwhelming support when it passed in 2021. On final votes, though, eight senators and 28 delegates — all Republicans — voted against establishing the commission. The bill became law without the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

Still, the commission’s leaders are heartened that the state has taken an official interest in the livelihoods of LGBTQ residents. The commission’s 15 members are appointed by the governor, and they selected Joe Toolan, 26, as the chairperson and approved the hiring of Jeremy Browning, 36, as executive director. Both Toolan and Browning have worked for environmental nonprofit organizations and have been deeply involved in the group Annapolis Pride.

The Baltimore Banner sat down with Toolan and Browning to discuss the launch of the new commission. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Baltimore Banner: How did you each become interested in joining this new Commission on LGBTQ Affairs for the state?

Joe Toolan: I found out about it through [Annapolis] Pride, actually. One of our local delegates had reached out saying that they were looking for people to be on the commission.

My background, being a queer person growing up in Maryland, I knew that there was work that needed to happen. And the idea of having a state commission to do that work was really awesome. There aren’t many states that do it. Five or six states have something similar and that’s it, across the whole country. So we’re really one of the first to have a commission to really listen to the community and try to create change at the government level.

I feel like I’m a change-maker. I like to push the envelope and so it was really exciting to have that opportunity.

Jeremy Browning: I remember when it was being formed, and I didn’t know that it actually came with a director. So when I found out that it came with a director position, I saw this as the opportunity to expand upon my volunteer work, so I applied for the position.

The commission has just gotten off the ground and has had a few meetings so far. What are the goals or hopes that each of you have for the commission as it’s getting started?

Toolan: As a commission, we’ve already started to plan out some goals on what we’re looking to influence. Right now, what that is looking like is probably a committee focused on health, in some aspect, for the LGBTQ community. And then also a youth and education committee. We’re finding that those are areas that we really think that we need to focus on as a commission.

What we’re hoping to do Iong term is really create systemic change and make sure that all LGBTQ+ folks are supported by the state. And a personal goal of mine is to make sure that if you’re in this state, no matter what part of the state you’re in, you know that there might be resources that you can be connected with and exist for you.

Browning: I hope that I can support Joe and the other commissioners and the commission as a whole to carry out their vision for Maryland. I think to do that, we need to collect data, we need to tell the story.

A lot of people don’t know the struggles that the LGBTQ community faces, so they might not know why we need some of these policies or why we need support. I hope I can work across the state and with our state agencies to gather that data, to help tell that story, and hopefully inspire our lawmakers to create inclusive policies that support all LGBTQ+ Marylanders.

I was kind of surprised to learn that we didn’t have this before in Maryland. Why is it important to have a state commission specifically looking at LGBTQ issues?

Toolan: I think that what we’re seeing a lot of is that there are a lot of needs in our community that just aren’t being met right now. Youth homelessness is a big challenge in our community. Education and school systems is a big challenge. Health care, especially as LGBTQ folks are getting older, is a big issue.

There was really not a good way to inform the state about what the issues are and how to create change. So I think this is filling a really important need for our state to support all Marylanders.

How do you see the commission working with some of the existing advocacy and nonprofit organizations, like FreeState Justice or Trans Maryland?

Toolan: It’s just coordinating on a lot of things. We have representation from Trans Maryland on the commission, and then with FreeState Justice. I’ve already started having conversations with them. They’re doing a lot of data collection, that is really important for us. They’re really willing to work with us and share that data and make sure that we’re informed in what we want to do.

I really see us acting as a connector between all of the groups, because there are so many groups in the state that are doing important work, and maybe they don’t talk all the time. But knowing that they have one person — Jeremy — to go to and coordinate with, I think it’s gonna make a really big difference in the collective impact. Network building is really helpful in creating change. And I think that that’s what we could potentially do here.

Browning: I think it’s an opportunity to promote community resources that exist, to act as a clearinghouse so there’s not a duplication of efforts and to prevent the duplication of efforts.

A lot of people don’t know that there are free legal services offered by FreeState Justice or other groups like Trans Maryland. I think putting all that in one place, you know, so that LGBTQ Marylanders can come to the website, see all the resources in one place, will be really helpful for the community.

What are some other areas that you hope the commission will explore and maybe educate the public on?

Toolan: One of the things that we’re seeing, especially with the climate of the world today, is just more divisiveness, in a lot of ways, between groups. What I’m really hoping that the commission can do is just help bring people together. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re all just people trying to live our lives. And I think that there’s a human aspect of it that sometimes is missing, especially in government levels, too. So I’m hoping that one of the bigger goals is just kind of humanizing all of the people in our state and advocating for anyone that needs that support.

Browning: I think it’s an opportunity to work with the other commissions and also track and evaluate how our government is doing and hold them accountable. And also, make sure that we have a lot of inclusive policies and make sure that they’re being implemented. And then, where there are gaps, we can advocate, present data, to encourage the governor’s office and the legislature to take action to fill some of those gaps.

How do you see that potential relationship between the commission and the General Assembly? Would the commission perhaps propose legislation or maybe offer feedback on legislation?

Toolan: The commission actually will not be able to introduce legislation. However, we definitely can provide feedback with different legislation happening. As individuals, the commissioners can still protest and testify on whatever is going on.

Having somebody who is a resource might help different advocacy groups within our community be able to know what’s happening at the state level and then advocate on their own, outside of the commission itself.

Browning: Also, collecting complaints, studying and establishing best practices. Part of the charter of the commission is to put together an annual report for the governor’s office, the legislature and the general public. I imagine in that report we would include our findings, the data. In the first year, I think it is just getting a baseline: Where are we? What data exists? And then where there’s not data, working with our state agencies and start collecting that.

What’s been the most exciting part of starting this journey of having this commission?

Toolan: For me, it’s been meeting more people throughout the state that are already really involved and ingrained in the community.

From just our first couple of meetings, I’ve met all of the commissioners — most of them I didn’t know yet — who all have this big breadth of knowledge about the issues in their different communities, because they’re from all over the state.

I’ve just learned so much personally from just having meetings with these other people about issues that affect different segments of our community in different parts of the state. And that’s been really amazing for me to see that.

Browning: I’m excited that this exists. I mean, it’s an opportunity to transform our state. You know, for lots of LGBTQ people, growing up in Maryland has not been easy. It’s still not easy. So it’s an opportunity to improve the quality of life for millions of people that call Maryland home.

What challenges do you expect the commission will face?

Toolan: For the commission, it’s hard because we’re people from all these different backgrounds, all these different experiences, coming together and trying to work together.

A big part that I’m working on right now is really bringing us together and building our relationships with each other, because most of us don’t know each other. It’s really hard, especially in the time of the pandemic, to just only see people on Zoom and work really efficiently.

Everybody brings really important points to the table. And so it’s going to be figuring out how we start navigating those challenges as a commission. It’s hard to say that one is more important than the other. It’s really just knowing that if we don’t tackle something today, we’ll tackle it in the future, and bringing people along in that kind of navigation. And so that for me is the biggest challenge I see with the commission itself.

Everybody comes to it with their own expertise and their own lived experience and their own priorities, and it’s a really broad community with broad needs. You’ve got to balance all that.

Toolan: And that’s part of my role too, as chair, is making sure that we’re still moving forward. Everyone needs to bring their point of view. We want to make sure everyone’s heard, but we also don’t want to get too stuck in the weeds. And that has been a little bit of a challenge, but it’s so amazing that we have all of these people coming together and having that discussion, because that doesn’t happen everywhere.

Browning: I think the biggest challenge is capacity. You know, it’s great that we have this commission and one paid staff member, but we’re taking on a lot of big, complex problems.

There are very few full-time or part-time positions across the state that focus on LGBTQ issues. And there are several small nonprofits that are very dependent on funding, and that comes and goes. So all of us doing this work, either paid or as a volunteer, struggle with capacity, because the needs outweigh the resources. We are always trying to do a lot with very little.

What else would you want the public to know about the commission?

Toolan: I think, especially for the LGBTQ community, knowing that — if they’re having issues, in any sense of the word — that now there’s a place that they can go to. And if they have issues with a state agency or any other group, there’s an avenue for them to bring that to somebody’s attention.

And then for the rest of the state, just knowing that the LGBTQ community is here. What we’re hoping to do is just make sure that everybody has the same access to resources that everyone else has. And so knowing that there’s a group here, and that’s our goal, and we’re just here to help people connect with the resources that they need, is really important, because I think that sometimes that human aspect gets lost a little bit.

Browning: I would like people to know that now we have a seat at the table. We have a place in state government. This is an opportunity to advise and make recommendations to the governor and the legislature. Not many states have that, so this is exciting.

Information about the Maryland Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, including upcoming meetings, is posted on the commission’s webpage. Browning can be reached at jeremy.browning@maryland.gov.

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