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.