March 15, 2011 | by Kevin Naff
Behind Maryland’s marriage debacle

The debacle that unfolded in Annapolis last week can be traced to multiple causes with one common root: old-fashioned homophobia.

The Maryland House of Delegates abandoned a bill that would have granted marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples in the so-called Free State.

But an epic train wreck derailed the wedding plans of so many deserving couples that have waited so long for justice. In all their hateful gloating after the bill’s defeat, opponents like those at the National Organization for Marriage seem to forget that this isn’t about a bunch of gays wanting to throw a fabulous wedding reception. It’s about real people — committed couples and families facing discrimination and adversity because of our second-class status.

My heart broke last week for so many of those Marylanders I’ve come to know and respect during this process. Elderly couples together for 40 years now worried about having to return to the closet as they move to retirement communities. Gay and lesbian parents raising kids without the protections and respect afforded by marriage. The gay schoolteacher whose partner died suddenly and was sued by his ex’s parents because they wanted to exhume the body and move their son to the family plot against his directives. A gay man who legally adopted his partner because lawyers determined it was the only way to guarantee hostile family members couldn’t sue for half their estate in the event one of them died. Foreign-born partners facing deportation because U.S. laws don’t recognize our relationships as legitimate.

And there are more subtle ways this discrimination affects us. After 13 years together, my relationship with my partner isn’t viewed as equal to our straight counterparts. It is always something less than, even though we’ve seen our straight friends and family members marry, divorce and remarry. They immediately enjoy the legal benefits and instant respect afforded by that word, “marriage,” while we are referred to by the cold and clinical “partners.” It’s an empty, meaningless term. And it’s insulting. Our society has a term for our relationship — marriage — but lawmakers aren’t willing to take a stand and face down their ignorant (and often closeted) pastors. They run in fear of Fox News’s blowhards and NOM’s $1 million war chest. They are cowards and don’t deserve our support for re-election.

This is what gets lost in all the venom spewed by our opponents and all the halfhearted, hollow arguments made on our behalf by well-meaning Democrats afraid to fully embrace us and demand our full equality under the law. It’s about love and family and children and being able to properly care for our loved ones when times are tough.

But our allies sold us out. They are weak and afraid and driven by self-preservation. Lawmakers who campaigned on support for marriage equality and co-sponsored the bill pulled out and opposed it. The betrayals of Dels. Sam Arora (D-Montgomery County), Jill Carter (D-Baltimore), Tiffany Alston (D-Prince George’s) and Melvin Stukes (D-Baltimore) must not be forgotten. No LGBT money, votes or support for those backstabbing traitors.

Maryland has the largest caucus of openly LGBT state legislators in the country, yet they couldn’t sway one or two votes to bring the bill across the finish line. Maybe Sen. Rich Madaleno could host a Lobbying 101 seminar in the House. He was able to shepherd the bill, with support from key straight allies, through the more conservative Senate. He helped convert former opponents into supporters. And Madaleno’s presence in the chamber seemed to have a calming effect on even the most strident opponents of marriage equality, ensuring a professional and hate-free debate.

But seven openly gay and lesbian members in the more liberal House couldn’t replicate that success. The most senior out gay member, Del. Maggie McIntosh, didn’t even bother to deliver a floor speech for the bill. With the vote so close — perhaps as close as a single vote — didn’t it occur to her that junior members who were undecided might be swayed to support their senior colleague?

Freshmen Dels. Luke Clippinger and Mary Washington deserve our gratitude for their visibility and impassioned floor speeches. They were not intimidated by NOM and Del. Don Dwyer and put their own self-interests aside to do what’s right. Perhaps the most gratifying moment of the House debate came when Del. Peter Murphy stood up to correct a colleague who’d said the House had six openly gay members. Murphy bravely came out in an interview with me last week. A grandfather of two, Murphy represents conservative southern Maryland, yet found the courage to take a public stand when it counted the most. He stood on the House floor to correct the record — there are now seven, he said.

As Murphy stood up, McIntosh sat down — because she knew the fix was in. The Human Rights Campaign and Gill Action intervened and urged the LGBT Caucus and Equality Maryland to cancel the vote. They feared that a failure might jeopardize similar efforts in Rhode Island and New York. It’s more likely they’re worried about the demoralizing effect of a marriage defeat on wealthy gay donors. We wouldn’t want to upset them so close to 2012.

The people who actually live in Maryland deserved a vote. They’ve worked hard for years to get to this unique opportunity and it was snatched away prematurely. Some have speculated that there were 71 votes to pass the bill; now we will never know.

HRC and Gill argue that if lawmakers are forced to vote and then cast a vote against us, that it’s unlikely they will change their vote a year later. I would point them to Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who campaigned against same-sex marriage but who switched his view after hearing the sickening, bigoted testimony in the Senate committee hearing. Or to Sen. Allan Kittleman, the former Senate minority leader who gave up that post over his unexpected support for marriage equality.

The people at HRC and Gill are strategic and well intentioned, but this was a bad call. In a state dominated by Democrats, this vote should never have been in doubt. But it fell apart because support was soft. How will we know who really supports us and is deserving of our money and votes in the next election if we don’t take the vote? Canceling the vote only gives cover to cowards. The collective sigh of relief in the House last Friday was deafening. Even the LGBT Caucus didn’t speak up to oppose the motion to send the bill back to committee. Whew! Kick the can down the road, avoid a vote and let’s call it a day.

No one was more relieved than Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has been celebrated and feted by LGBT activists and donors from around the country, despite his outdated support for civil unions. In a 2007 interview, O’Malley told me he would sign a marriage bill if the legislature could pass it, knowing there was zero chance of that happening anytime soon. He reiterated that pledge this year to the LGBT media but was more circumspect about it when talking to the mainstream press. In the run up to the House vote, O’Malley reportedly helped lobby some delegates. Either he lied or he’s just ineffective.

Where was his public advocacy during the session? His wife found time to record a video for the “It Gets Better” campaign but Maryland’s first couple lost their voice when it came to marriage equality. We know the O’Malleys are privately supportive and have gay friends and family members, but their unwillingness to speak out undermined the effort to pass the bill.

So what now? One key lesson from this failure: Do not underestimate the influence of black pastors. Equality Maryland failed to solidify support among black lawmakers from Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. And when the preaching began on Sundays in February, several black delegates caved under the pressure. Equality Maryland must take a page from their counterparts in D.C., where the visibility of pro-gay black ministers and the involvement of black gay and lesbian couples were at the center of their successful strategy.

In addition to cultivating black support, advocates must grow a backbone and work to oust Dels. Arora, Carter, Alston and Stukes. Arora represents liberal Montgomery County. Surely we can find a marriage equality supporter there. Stukes and Carter are from Baltimore, which suffers from a dearth of LGBT activism. If a politician in D.C. had done what Carter and Stukes did, they’d be hammered and drummed out of office. But Baltimore lacks a vocal and visible activist presence. So it will fall to Equality Maryland to finally get tough with those who take our money and votes and then toss us under the bus.

Sadly, it really does come back to simple homophobia. Democrats who say they support us during their campaigns go soft because they, deep down, don’t really think our relationships are equal to their own marriages. Others cave to pressure from pastors because somewhere beneath the surface promises, they’re not so sure we’re not sinners destined for hell. The governor tells us in private that he supports us, but can’t find his voice in public because it might offend conservatives who hate us irrationally — and O’Malley might need some of those votes in a future run for Senate. And some members of the LGBT Caucus, too, lose their voice because they’re terrified of being known as the “gay delegate.” As if that’s a bad thing.

As a lifelong Marylander, I’m hurt, disappointed and disillusioned by what happened. I expect better results in a state with monopolistic Democratic control. Marriage equality isn’t some bizarre, threatening or abstract concept. It’s a reality in a growing list of countries around the world. It’s a reality in five U.S. states. I can hop on the MARC train and get married in neighboring D.C.

As Maryland’s Attorney General Douglas Gansler has said, marriage equality is inevitable in all 50 states. We know the work that lies ahead and so we must pick ourselves up and get on with it with a renewed sense of urgency and passion.

Kevin Naff is the editor and a co-owner of the Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest and most acclaimed LGBT news publication, founded in 1969.

8 Comments
  • You should be very careful in declaring who “sold you out”. You will still need Sam Arora and Jill P.Carter to vote for the bill. At no time did Carter sell you out. She steadfastly maintained she would vote for the bill. True, Arora flipped back and forth. Alston and Stukes changed their positions under pressure. But, be very clear that you still need their votes, and you should think twice about bashing them and potentially turning your “allies” against you. Some of the racial slurs puttered about regarding the African-American delegates is probably not helping your cause much either.

    • While I vaguely agree with what you’re saying, I didn’t see a single racial slur in that article. What are you even referring to? Christ, you disagree with someone and they even go near talking about a racial issue and suddenly they’re a racist. Civil discourse is dead in this country.

  • I like this piece better than the piece you did last week.

  • Click over to http://www.nomblog.com for a good laugh. They’ve posted about this article with a desperate spin and a baffling attempt to make LGBT people and our allies out to be the intolerant, bigoted and racist ones. They suggest that because some of those who gained LGBT support by running on a platform of equality then caved to the anti-gay activists in the 11th hour are black (like Alton), working to oust them in the next election is racist. Yup, you read that right. Evidently none of NOM’s efforts to oust elected officials or judges gave targeted black people (I’m not sure how this position reconciles with their attacks on Obama). Were their efforts to oust white judges in Iowa reverse racism? It’s really tough to follow NOM’s logic, probably because it’s non-existent. NOM has become increasingly irrational and desperate and observing the devolution of their arguments is a bit like watching Charlie Sheen. But I think this argument – gays are racist for opposing an elected representative who betrayed them if he or she happens to be black – might be in the top 10 of ridiculous things we’ve seen from them.

  • I couldn’t agree more with the statements in this story. The Democrats who betrayed us should be targeted for defeat in the next primary season and replaced with supportive Dems who will vote for marraige equality. If groups like Gill and HRC are going botch things this badly, and can’t figure out how to get this done, they should just get out of the way and let us boot the offending Dems and Republicans. As for NOM, Delegate Dwyer and the other anti-gay bigots, they are a dying breed who will live to see same-sex marriage pass in Maryland over their bigoted objections, because time and justice is on our side.

  • As a Marylander myself, I know Jill Carter didn’t betray or sell us out. Her power-play in committee notwithstanding, she helped get the bill out of committee and wasn’t planning to vote against it. Politics are politics. You can’t really criticize her for doing something all politicians do — use their vote as leverage in order to get support for other issues or bills. It may have upset some people that she did that, but ultimately, her support for marriage equality was solid. So Naff needs to get his facts straight.

  • Why did we need an official vote to know where legislators were going to fall? I think it is pretty damn clear and we know who we need to target (though those like Tiffany Alston are going to be heros in their district). In the end, we didn’t do the job we needed to and, sure, we can blame the LGBT Caucus, HRC, Gill, and Equality Maryland for their ineffectiveness. And also Democrats as a whole (don’t we perpetually want them to be something they are not nationally as a whole). That’s a glass half-empty view but it’s as valid as the glass half-full view that these groups were effective enough that we got here, a place we never would have imagined a year or two ago. But if we think the people running the show for us are incompetent or just not brilliant enough, what are we to do? Our community as a whole is pretty apathetic supporting these groups’ efforts, and there is no line-up of LGBT superstars waiting to work for EqMd for bubkus or volunteer as a board member or to run for state delegate. And our community isn’t donating enough so that we can pay the Exec. Dir. of EqMd $200k a year and get some total brilliant bad@ss or for them to hire an army. And the Board is full of just regular gay Marylanders not, to quote the Enron movie, the smartest guys in the room. Yet they all are giving so much of their time and clearly have the very best of intentions. They wanted to be the ones ushering in victory and have it on their watch afterall, so they tried damn hard. I think the vote (or non-vote rather) told us one thing: we have so much work left to do in the African-American community and churches. Or, to avoid them, on the legislators convincing them 100% that this is not actually about their constituents. That’s where novice Delegate Tiffany Alston shifted and the house of cards fell pretty quickly after that.

    Disappointing all around. We didn’t have what it took to push this over the finish line. Not sure that a harsh critique on those leading the way for us really gets us anywhere though.

  • Anyone who holds up equal rights for people in order to score political points deserves to go down, no question. Carter’s power play gave the anti-gay bigots more time to mobilize and helped to derail the legislation. If Carter is what counts as a solid ally for gay rights then I’d say that gays in Maryland are in deep trouble.

    Gay rights will not be passed until the gay community is able to be a presence that can’t be ignored and that starts by defeating as many of the anti-gay legislators and backstabbers like Arora, Martin and Stukes.

    The anti-gay groups are going to target Brochin and Kittleman, if they succeed in getting them defeated for anti-gay legislators while we defeat no one except maybe Arora…not an outcome I want to see happen.

    And we can laugh at NOM all we want, the fact remains, they won this round in Maryland and they won two years ago in Maine. They are serious and they are a threat and if we don’t treat them as such, we will continue to get these surprise set backs.

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