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FreeState Justice adds LGBTQ services aimed at making Maryland more ‘safe and inclusive’

Eli Washington, development director for FreeState Justice
Eli Washington, development director for FreeState Justice (Matthew Cobb)

Eli Washington says he learned from his time working in politics that money is power, so he set about boosting influence and protections for members of Maryland’s LGBTQ community as the first chief fundraiser for FreeState Justice.

Since January, Washington, 27, has worked with the Baltimore-based advocacy group to expand its reach. A $1.1 million capital campaign will allow the group to help more people like Merrick Moses.

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Moses, a 46-year-old transgender man from Druid Heights, said the organization fought to ensure his insurance would cover gender-affirming surgery. And also with FreeState Justice’s help, Moses now has a newly reprinted diploma from Morgan State University that reflects a legal name that matches his gender identity.

“It was so empowering but, most of all, I was glad I was able to take part in paving the way for trans folks,” said Moses, chairman of the board for the Pride Center of Maryland and a victim’s advocate for the State’s Attorney’s Office. "They really stand in the gap legally for many of us who can’t afford a lawyer or don’t want to go to people who may not understand our orientation or our gender identity.”

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FreeState Justice formed as a statewide nonprofit after the 2016 merger of Equality Maryland and FreeState Legal. It provides education and outreach, legal services and policy advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people living in Maryland.

Washington said raising more money for the group is a chance to address discrimination against the LGBTQ community — through access to employment and housing, as well as to make sure people like Moses can secure identification and documentation that matches who they are on the inside, not necessarily their gender assigned at birth.

“There are a lot of systemic and cultural barriers that exist living and owning your identity as a queer person,” said Washington, a gay Black man who grew up in Beaufort, South Carolina, as the son of a preacher.

“Growing to own and accept and take up space in my identity and in my voice — and wanting to help lay the groundwork for others to have the freedom and liberty — is something I became really passionate about.”

FreeState Justice, which has a $500,000 operating budget, has doubled its staff and increased the volume of services it provides in recent years. Washington said the group has reached about 80% of its two-year capital campaign goal since January with a year left in the challenge.

Washington, of Mount Vernon, joined FreeState Justice after working for political campaigns and organizations that serve disadvantaged communities. He most recently served as development manager for Prosperity Now.

He graduated in 2015 from Furman University, a predominately white institution in Greenville, South Carolina. Growing up, he said, he often felt “othered,” or alienated, by people who “wondered why I was there.” He felt anxious and fearful as a result.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t understand me and what I was going through,” Washington said.

FreeState Justice’s executive director Jeremy LaMaster said adding Washington’s development director position is part of a larger restructuring at FreeState. The organization now has about a half-dozen staff members with the addition of two staff attorneys and a legal director. Previously, it had three people who shared fundraising responsibilities.

LaMaster, who came on board in June, said the expanded staff will help free up the legal team for more immediate case work, such as expungement services and securing documentation for medical decision-making.

LaMaster said FreeState Justice also is working on cultural education and policy matters. One such area is protecting Maryland youth from being taken across state lines for “conversion therapy,” a discredited practice used in an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation. The use of the practice against minors is banned in Maryland but not across the country.

Washington’s work with the FreeState Justice team will help the organization meet its mission to make Maryland more “safe, affirming and inclusive," LaMaster said.

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The pursuit of “LGBTQ rights and equity is still very much not complete,” LaMaster said. “The bottom line is, there is still an immense amount of work. LGBTQ folks are disproportionately impacted by poverty, discrimination and negative health outcomes. Marriage equality was far from the last hurdle.”

This story is part of series that profiles newsmakers from diverse communities in the Baltimore region.

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