January 6, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Marriage, trans bills get boost in Md. House

The same-sex marriage and transgender non-discrimination bills pending in the Maryland legislature cleared another hurdle last week when the speaker of the House of Delegates appointed a majority of supporters of the two bills to the committees that must first approve them.

House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) had been expected to retain a majority on the House Judiciary Committee in favor of the marriage equality bill as he has in past years, and did so again on Dec. 29.

But officials with Equality Maryland, the statewide LGBT advocacy organization, were less certain about the makeup of the House Committee on Health and Government Operations. That panel has jurisdiction over a pending bill that would ban employment discrimination based on gender identity and expression, which would protect transgender people. In past years, the panel has not taken a vote on the transgender bill.

Equality Maryland Executive Director Morgan Meneses-Sheets said the group was delighted with Busch’s decision on Dec. 29 to also name at least 13 supporters of the transgender measure to the 23-member Health and Government Operations Committee. The action ensures that the bill will be reported out of committee for an up or down vote in the House of Delegates.

In early December, a majority of pro-marriage equality members were named to the Maryland Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, ensuring for the first time that a same-sex marriage measure would clear that key panel and reach the Senate floor for a vote. Up until now, the Judicial Proceedings Committee has blocked the marriage bill from coming to a floor vote.

“We want to move the marriage bill first in the Senate and the gender identity bill first in the House,” Meneses-Sheets said in discussing the timetable planned for the bills among a coalition of supporters.

She said further refinement of the timetable for moving both measures was to be discussed Wednesday in a conference call between Equality Maryland officials and all seven members of the legislature’s gay and lesbian caucus.

Similar to past years, Meneses-Sheets and others advocating for the two bills believe there appear to be enough votes to pass the marriage bill in the House. Supporters in the Senate believe they have the 24 votes needed to pass the marriage bill on an up or down vote but were less certain over whether they have the 29 votes needed to stop an expected filibuster by same-sex marriage opponents.

“The question is whether we can get cloture to break a filibuster,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County), who supports both the marriage equality and transgender non-discrimination bills.

“That’s the mystery at this point,” he said.

Raskin said he was not familiar enough with the positions of his colleagues on the transgender bill to predict its outcome other than to say he sees support growing for that measure.

Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Montgomery County), who is gay, said on Wednesday he’s more confident in the prospects for the marriage bill.

“I have never been so optimistic about getting this done,” he said. “Today at lunch I sat quietly by myself with a list of the members of the new Senate going over again and again in my head where the votes are, and I’m feeling really good right now both for the floor vote and the cloture vote.”

Madaleno is among seven out gays and lesbians now serving in the Maryland legislature — one in the Senate and six in the House — who said they will push hard from the inside to pass both the marriage and transgender rights bill.

Meneses-Sheets said Equality Maryland has scheduled a lobby day for Feb. 14 on Valentine’s Day, where the group hopes large numbers of LGBT Marylanders and their straight supporters will come to the state capital in Annapolis to push for both bills.

She said the group is inviting LGBT people to bring family members with them to the all-day lobbying event, with the intention that they visit the offices of members of the Senate and House of Delegates from all parts of the state.

“We’re so close that it will take just a handful of votes to push this through,” she said of the marriage bill. “The electorate is with us on this. The young voters are with us on this issue.”

Concerning the transgender bill, she said its prospects “look good on the floor of the House” but “there may be challenges” in the Senate.

Among the challenges, she noted, are arguments by opponents that a transgender non-discrimination measure would enable men dressed as women to harass women in women’s bathrooms in public places.

Transgender activists have disputed the so-called “bathroom” argument, which usually surfaces when transgender non-discrimination legislation is introduced.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, has said no reports of women being targeted in bathrooms have surfaced in any of the states, cities or counties where transgender non-discrimination laws have been adopted.

“It’s a myth,” she said.

“We need to persuade people that you should be judged on the merits when it comes to your job,” said Meneses-Sheets. “It’s an economic issue.”

She said Equality Maryland is bringing on three more full-time staff members to work on the two bills beginning Jan. 12, when the Maryland General Assembly opens its 2011 session.

The session lasts for just 90 days, a development that LGBT activists say gives them only until April 11 to secure the passage of the marriage and transgender rights measures.

“We have a lot of work to do in a short time,” said Meneses-Sheets.

Madaleno said that under the longstanding practice in the General Assembly, nearly all important or controversial bills don’t come to a final vote until the last two or three weeks of the session in April.

A late passage of both the marriage and transgender rights bill would make it more difficult for opponents to collect the required signatures for a referendum to kill the bills. Nearly all observers of the General Assembly expect opponents to take out petitions to call a referendum, which would stop the bills from taking effect until after voters decide on the issue — assuming the required number of petitions is obtained.

Under the state constitution, one-third of the required number of petition signatures must be obtained by the end of May and the remainder of the signatures needed must be collected by the end of June. The gathering of petitions cannot begin until both houses of the General Assembly passes a bill being challenged. That means it would be to the advantage of supporters of the two bills to wait until the end of the session to pass them.

The number of signatures needed is three percent of the qualified voters in the state based on the total number of votes cast in the most recent election for governor.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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