Advocates for same-sex marriage in Maryland, including the seven gay and lesbian members of the state legislature, are optimistic that the legislature will pass a marriage equality bill in 2011 but they are less certain about the prospects for a transgender rights bill.
The gains in the number of supporters of a same-sex marriage bill in the November election and commitments by top leaders of the legislature to name marriage equality supporters to the committees that must clear them appear to have tipped the balance in favor of the bill passing, according to advocates and lawmakers.
“We remain cautiously optimistic that we’ve got the votes to push this bill through in this session, and that’s what we intend to do,” said Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County), a lesbian.
News surfaced last week that the main bottleneck in preventing the bill’s passage during the past few years – its blockage in the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee – would be lifted when the legislature convenes in January. Changes in the committee’s makeup due to the election and a decision by one marriage equality opponent to move to another committee make it nearly certain that the committee will vote to send the bill to the Senate floor.
Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee in the House of Delegates, which has been supportive of a marriage equality bill in the past, is also undergoing a major change in membership, and its composition won’t be disclosed until January.
But Mizeur told the Blade this week that Del. Mike Busch (D-Annapolis), who serves as Speaker of the House, has indicated to her and other gay and lesbian caucus members that he will make sure the committee’s pro-gay marriage majority is maintained.
“We didn’t meet with him as a full caucus,” Mizeur said. “But many of us individually have reached out to him. We kind of said it’s important that the Judiciary Committee’s open positions get assigned to people who are pro-marriage equality. And it’s been a very positive conversation.”
Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality Maryland, said the now expanded LGBT caucus in the legislature, which climbed from four to seven following the November election, will also play a key role in helping to pass a marriage bill in 2011.
“They will do much of the heavy lifting,” she said.
Meneses-Sheets noted that everything must come together in just 90 days, beginning in January, during the three-month-long 2011 session of the Maryland General Assembly.
“I do think we can make this happen,” she said.
With head counts showing that the bill should clear the House of Delegates, both in committee and on the floor, and general consensus that it will clear the Senate committee, Meneses-Sheets said the next hurdle would be to overcome a filibuster on the floor of the Senate.
She said Equality Maryland and other advocates for the bill believe they have the 29 votes needed to stop a filibuster in the 47-member Senate. Once that hurdle is cleared, just 24 votes are needed to pass the bill in a direct floor vote.
Gov. Martin O’Malley told the Blade in an exclusive 2007 interview that he would sign a marriage equality bill; he reiterated that pledge during his successful campaign for re-election last month.
Meneses-Sheets said advocates for a pending transgender rights bill believe they have the votes to pass that measure in the House of Delegate if not the Senate, too. But similar to the gay marriage bill in past years, the main hurdle for the transgender measure is getting it out of committee in both the House and Senate, she said.
The bill would add the terms gender identity and expression to the categories included in an existing state civil rights law.
The General Assembly added sexual orientation protection to the state’s civil rights statute in 2001 under the administration of former Gov. Parris Glendenning.
“[The transgender bill] is where the committee assignments are even more important because it goes to the [House] Committee on Health and Government Operations,” she said. “It’s typically been a tough committee for us. They don’t deal with a lot of social policy bills like this one. So in the past, we’ve been short a good number of votes in order to get it out.”
Montgomery County transgender advocate Dana Beyer, who ran unsuccessfully in November for a seat in the House of Delegates, said she is more optimistic over the transgender bill, saying she believes LGBT allies in the General Assembly’s two bodies will help move the bill out of the two committees.
“I feel whatever has happened with the marriage bill should happen with the gender identity and expression bill,” Beyer said. “Mike Miller [president of the Senate] said he wants a floor vote on marriage. I feel that will apply to gender identity, too.”
Beyer said she’s confident that both the marriage and transgender bills will pass in the General Assembly in 2011, leading to yet another big hurdle for both measures: She’s certain that opponents will gather the required number of signatures to bring both bills before the voters in 2012 in separate referendums.
“I think we’re going to find ourselves with two Proposition 8s,” she said, referring to the California ballot measure that overturned that state’s same-sex marriage law.
Under Maryland law, bills passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor are placed on hold if sufficient signatures are obtained to call a referendum on a measure.
A recent Washington Post poll showed that 46 percent of Maryland residents favor legalizing same-sex marriage, 44 percent oppose it and 10 percent had no opinion. Opponents of same-sex marriage, led by the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, point out that voters have banned or overturned same-sex marriage laws in every state that such laws have come up on the ballot, even in cases where public opinion polls showed support for gay marriage.
Mizeur and Meneses-Sheets said the four out gay or lesbian incumbents in the General Assembly have lobbied their fellow lawmakers for the marriage bill in a low-key way in colleague-to-colleague discussions.
Two sources familiar with the caucus, who spoke on condition that they not be identified, said some LGBT activists have expressed concern that the caucus has not been aggressive enough in lining up more co-sponsors for the marriage bill. In particular, they expressed concern that Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), the most senior LGBT caucus member and one of three delegates representing District 43 in Baltimore, has shied away from LGBT issues in her public statements and constituent mailings, including the same-sex marriage debate.
Noting that McIntosh is widely recognized as vying for the position of Speaker of the House when the post becomes vacant, one of the sources wondered whether she was backing away from speaking out publicly on the marriage bill to avoid generating opponents in a future quest for the speaker’s position.
“I absolutely disagree with that,” said Mizeur. “Maggie is as visible and vocal and supportive on our issues as any other member of the caucus.”
Mizeur added, “I do think that Maggie will make a great Speaker of the House and I would put money on the fact that she will be the next Speaker of the House. And she doesn’t play politics with the gay and lesbian community on changing who she is or how visible she would be on an issue in order to attain that goal.”
Voters in District 43, while re-electing McIntosh in November, also elected Mary Washington, the nation’s second black lesbian to win election to a state legislature and, like McIntosh, a supporter of the marriage equality bill.
But the district’s voters also have continued to elect same-sex marriage opponent Joan Carter Conway, also a Democrat, as their state senator. McIntosh has not stated publicly whether she has approached Conway to change her mind on the bill.
McIntosh and two other incumbent LGBT caucus members – Sen. Richard Madeleno and Del. Anne Kaiser, both Democrats from Montgomery County – did not return calls by press time.
The newly elected LGBT caucus members – Washington, and delegates-elect Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore) and Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery County) – have each said they would work hard to secure the votes needed to pass the marriage bill.