December 12, 2013

EqualityMaine names new director, eyes new goals

The gay and lesbian rights advocacy group is also shifting focus after leading the initiative to legalize same-sex marriage.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

Elise Johansen and her partner watched television coverage at their home Florida as Maine voters passed a law that legalized same-sex marriage in November 2012.

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Elise Johansen

Courtesy photo

After the vote, they immediately made plans to take a vacation to Maine. They got married in Belfast in April.

“As soon as we got back to Florida, though, we realized we wanted to be in Maine full time,” Johansen said. “Maine is one of those places that always felt like home. So we sold our house and moved.”

Now, Johansen is set to take over as executive director of the advocacy organization that led Maine’s same-sex marriage initiative. EqualityMaine, the state’s largest gay- and lesbian-rights advocacy organization, announced Wednesday that Johansen will succeed Betsy Smith, who stepped down in August after leading the organization for more than a decade.

Jane Clayton, president of EqualityMaine’s board of directors, said Johansen stood out among dozens of applicants.

“Elise has the experience, energy and skills to lead EqualityMaine as we work to ensure every member of Maine’s LGBT community is healthy, safe, and free from discrimination or harm,” Clayton said in a prepared statement. “With more than a decade of nonprofit leadership and service, and experience managing staff doing exactly the kind of community-based work that is at the core of EqualityMaine’s mission, Elise is the perfect person to serve as our next executive director.”

Johansen, 34, worked for 10 years as director of youth services for Gulfstream Goodwill Industries in Florida. More recently, she was director of the teen outreach program for Planned Parenthood of South Florida.

This summer, shortly before Smith stepped down, EqualityMaine announced a new strategic plan designed to build on the success of the same-sex marriage campaign. That plan focuses on empowering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents of rural Maine, improving the lives of LGBT youths and eliminating discrimination and bias against transgender and gender non-conforming people.

Johansen said she already has been asked what more EqualityMaine can do, now that same-sex marriage is legal.

“What we want is full, real equality,” she said. “Marriage is really just a piece of that.”

Johansen acknowledged that she has big shoes to fill. Smith was, in many ways, the face of EqualityMaine for many years.

“I’m really grateful for the legacy that Betsy left,” she said. “But there is still so much incredible work but so much left to be done and I’m excited to be a part of that.”

She will start her new job on Jan. 2.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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