Many of us are searching for answers following the Maryland Legislature’s breathtaking failure to pass marriage equality and its similar bungling of a bill to bar discrimination based on gender identity in the session that adjourns Monday.
Both initiatives had strong support and seemed destined to pass this year. But both were undermined by a combination of factors — soft Democratic support, anti-gay black pastors, inadequate lobbying. Unfortunately, this will end in the search for a convenient scapegoat, most likely Morgan Meneses-Sheets, executive director of Equality Maryland.
To be sure, Meneses-Sheets made some mistakes, but the blame for this failure does not fall on her shoulders alone and it would be a mistake to fire her and declare the problem solved.
There is no easy fix for what hampers Maryland’s efforts at achieving equal rights for its LGBT residents. The root cause of all the disarray and missed opportunities is the general apathy of Maryland’s LGBT community and the lack of activist and donor presence in the state.
Maryland remains the country’s wealthiest state, according to Census Bureau data released in December. Maryland’s median household income is about $70,000 — much more than the nationwide median of about $51,400 — and the state ranks #2 for the most millionaires in the country, about 150,000. That means more than 6 percent of the state’s population boasts liquid assets in excess of $1 million, according to a 2010 report by Phoenix Marketing International.
Yet, despite all that wealth, the state’s LGBT advocacy group is chronically underfunded. Equality Maryland is on its third executive director in nearly as many years, its staff is small and board turnover unacceptably high.
When the Senate committee assignments were abruptly shifted in January and suddenly enough votes existed to move the marriage bill to the floor, Equality Maryland faced an impossible task: lobby for passage of a controversial, hot button issue in a matter of weeks with a small staff and insufficient resources. Adding to the challenge was the fact that so many members of the House of Delegates were newly elected and had never before faced the onslaught of media attention, religion-based attacks and constituent response that so often accompany the debate over marriage equality. So Equality Maryland had the resources to count the votes, but it didn’t have the staffing required to maintain that support and hold nervous hands throughout the process.
In perhaps the most egregious case of betrayal in the House, Del. Melvin Stukes (D-Baltimore City) withdrew his sponsorship of the bill. Stukes told the Baltimore Sun he thought the bill would have given same-sex couples the right to obtain civil unions rather than marriage rights, an absurd claim for a sponsor to make. When he realized the measure would allow gays to marry he determined he made a mistake, he told the Sun.
“I’m very sorry that I got on the bill,” he said.
Stukes represents arguably the “gayest” neighborhood in Baltimore — Bolton Hill, home to many well-to-do gays living in expensive, historic townhomes.
Activists said privately that they were baffled over Stukes’ change of heart on the bill because the majority of his constituents would not object to his support for marriage equality. But the silence from those constituents is deafening — no protests, no calls for his resignation.
Imagine a similar scenario unfolding in D.C. If Council member Jack Evans, for example, had flip-flopped during D.C.’s marriage debate and opposed the bill, the outcry would have been earth shaking and his political career wouldn’t have survived. But in Maryland, in the gayest neighborhood in Baltimore, such behavior is tolerated and politicians know they can sell us out with impunity.
The general apathy that afflicts Maryland’s LGBT residents creates problems large and small. In D.C., for example, the Washington Nationals baseball team has hosted an appreciation night for gay fans for several years. A gay person throws out the first pitch, the Gay Men’s Chorus sings the National Anthem, LGBT fans are recognized on the JumboTron and the event draws between 2,000 and 3,000 fans to the ballpark. The Baltimore Orioles have never hosted a similar event. And remember that Baltimore is a larger city by population and geography than D.C. and its baseball team has been around a lot longer than the Nats.
If Maryland is to catch up to other “blue” states and enact marriage equality and bar discrimination based on gender identity, its LGBT residents will need to get visible, donate money, protest, lobby and demand equal rights. As long as residents quietly assume that someone else is doing the heavy lifting, the outcome in Annapolis will remain stubbornly the same.