Watching the marriage equality debate unfold in the Maryland House of Delegates the past few weeks has resembled a slow-motion train wreck.
This issue of the Blade went to press Thursday morning, so it’s possible that the House got its act together and passed the bill since I wrote this. But that doesn’t change the fact that the process has been an embarrassing, amateurish mess.
We’ve watched as sponsors of the bill moved to obstruct its passage. Delegates who raked in gay money during their campaigns suddenly got cold feet and had to pray over the issue. The LGBT Caucus in the House — now seven members strong after Del. Peter Murphy came out in an exclusive Blade interview — seemed invisible compared to the leadership demonstrated by Sen. Rich Madaleno during the Senate debate and vote.
A couple of political careers likely imploded during this process, including those of Dels. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) and Sam Arora (D-Montgomery County). Carter and Del. Tiffany Alston stunned backers of the Civil Marriage Protection Act by staying away from a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee in which a vote on the marriage bill was scheduled to take place, and announced they would not vote on the measure until Democratic leaders paid more attention to other issues they feel are equally important. Both Carter and Alston are co-sponsors of the marriage bill. Where was House Speaker Michael Busch when we needed him to keep these selfish renegades in line?
And Arora, who campaigned as a supporter of marriage equality and accepted financial contributions from LGBT people across the state and beyond, also yanked his support, triggering a flood of angry responses on his Facebook page and calls for him to refund those donations. Arora represents liberal Montgomery County. And his betrayal represents the end of his young political career.
Meanwhile, in response to a Blade inquiry, Gov. Martin O’Malley reiterated his pledge to sign the bill — a promise he first made in a 2007 Blade interview. But then O’Malley, speaking to reporters last week, publicly endorsed a voter referendum on marriage.
“I hope the House comes together and passes this bill,” O’Malley said. “We should let the people decide.”
The first part of that statement is welcomed, but the second half is a dangerous endorsement of a process that will be expensive and divisive. We live in a representative Democracy. When the legislature votes, it is speaking on behalf of the people. Why is O’Malley embracing the idea of a referendum? This is recklessly off message for a supposedly supportive Democrat and yet another example of the two-steps-forward, two-steps-back dance we’ve seen in Annapolis.
As if the marriage debate weren’t sloppy enough, there’s the parallel consideration of a bill to bar discrimination in employment and housing based on gender identity, a long overdue expansion of a 2001 law that prohibited similar bias based on sexual orientation only.
But supporters of the bill were bracing for opposition from some transgender activists, who have expressed anger over a decision by the bill’s lead sponsor to remove a provision banning discrimination in public accommodations, such as hotels, restaurants, private health clubs and gyms. A few misguided trans bloggers — mostly from out of state — targeted the bill’s sponsor for criticism, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk. Pena-Melnyk is as strong an ally as LGBT Marylanders have in elected office; she has sponsored a transgender rights bill since 2007 and is more vocal and visible than any member of the LGBT Caucus on the issue. She does not deserve the wrath of activists or bloggers.
Luckily, veteran transgender advocate Dana Beyer, a former candidate for a House of Delegates seat from Montgomery County, stepped forward to support the bill. It was slated for a hearing this week and although it’s not a perfect measure, it would grant much needed protections to trans Marylanders in the areas of housing and employment. Studies show that up to 12 percent of transgender Marylanders have experienced homelessness and this bill would also cover shelters. Equality Maryland has pledged to return next year to add public accommodations.
I hope that by the time you read this, Maryland is just a governor’s signature away from enacting marriage equality. If not, the sloppy handling of the issue by the House leadership will be to blame.
Kevin Naff is editor of Washington Blade. He can be reached at email@example.com.