April 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm EDT | by Kevin Naff
What’s wrong with Maryland’s gays?

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.

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.

  • Thought I read the same article in Baltimore Outloud but you weren’t the author. What’s up with that? Do you write under different names?

  • This article is right on and I’m glad people are starting to say this and call a spade a spade.

  • Instead of calling out the ED alone, we should be calling out the EQMD Board of Directors. Otherwise I agree with you.

  • Why would you want a gay marriage bill to pass in a state like Maryland where it will never go into effect because it would almost certainly be placed on the ballot and suspended, and would very likely be overturned by voters next year? Polling has shown lukewarm support for gay marriage, about 50 percent, which we know from recent history, indicates that the antigay side would win in a real vote. If you think the antigay side was organized, wellfunded, and zealous over the passage of the bill, you can imagine how much more organized and zealous they would have been when it was time to let the voters make the decision. Maryland is a Democratic state, but it is not the socially progressive state some erroneously think it is. It has a high percentage of conservative Catholics and megachurch conservative Christians, and Southern Maryland and western Maryland, have a very Southern. Montgomery County might have been the only jurisdiction that voters would have voted progay marriage, and that is debatable. It is not in our best interest to push for gay marriage in places where voters will likely decide it at through referendum. Voters have never passed a progay marriage measure, and Maryland would not have been the first to do so.

    • I think that feeds into the whole point of the story – that we cannot sit back and rely on EQMD because the job of getting gay marriage in MD (including surviving referendum) is huge. We expect EQMD to convince millions of Catholics and Black churchgoers? That’s like sending in a small group of high-trained marines to fight a war against China.

    • Javier you are correct on all points. But what is your suggestion–not to even try? If the LGBT community can come together (would be a first) and there is good leadership to execute a good game plan, it is do-able. Keep in mind Iowa is a much more conservative state than Maryland–social issues included.

  • Kevin nailed it. The political apathy among LGBT folks in Baltimore is widespread and dangerous. The largest LGBT organization in the city–the GLCCB, an institution that has existed for more than three decades–is in virtual hybernation until Gay Pride rolls around. And besides them, there is no organization or person(s) taking the lead in trying to galvanize the LGBT population to become more politically active so that demonstrations as described in this commentary could be a useful tool to hold politicians accountable. As an aside, there is an effort that is in the early stages to hold an “OUT With the O’s” event, so hopefully we can get off the schneid in that respect.

  • What’s wrong with the gays in Rehoboth? They have allowed their town’s powers-that-be to effectively turn RB into a homophobic little hick corner.
    Nay, what’s wrong with this generation of gays? They have effectively acquiesced to the straight world telling them what to do and how to be oh-so-freaking decent… by the straight world’s standards, of course.
    Hey, am I the only one who has a clear impression that he’s been witnessing a pronounced backsliding and shrinking or traditionally gay freedoms occuring right before his very eyes?

  • Why on earth would any sane person want to get sucked into the unsatisfying pile of crap that is Maryland’s identity politics?

    I was extremely active from 1995 to 2002 with the Lesbian Avengers, the ACLU, Free State and then the GLCCB (which was the last time the GLCCB did any political work). I was a named plaintiff in the sodomy lawsuit in Maryland, at the table for many city and state developments, and I’ve put myself out there to fight these battles. And, for this, I’m labelled all sorts of names because people don’t like how I express myself or get things done, or how I part my hair. This year, I’ve gotten involved, and it’s the same crap.

    The reason why people don’t get involved is because you all will never be satisfied with what people do. You are all a bunch of unpleasable, whiny critics.

    There, that felt good.

    That said, Kevin, HB 235 has a good chance – so maybe tell people to work that bill now, instead of whining about marriage.

  • Also…. many of us organize around different things rather than “identity” – for example, there are many gays and lesbians who identify as progressives and work extensively in progressive causes. Similarly, you have the Log Cabin Republicans. Identity politics depends on the identified persons having a common characteristic around which to organize as an oppressed person – and, to be honest, an upper class white gay man has less in common with a low-income lesbian of color than, say, Mitt Romney.

    I will be so glad when it’s April 12.

  • Javier has it exactly right. If EQMD lacked the resources and staff to shepherd this through a heavily Dem legislature, then how on Earth could it have ever expected to prevail in a complex and expensive referendum fight? It seems to me fairly incompetent of EQMD to decide to plow ahead, knowing that it lacked the ability to manage the legislative process or the ability to fight a referendum battle that would be larger in scale than that in Maine.

    What should have been done- and what can still be done – is to accept civil unions as an interim measure. Apparently, CUs would pass easily, garnering support from some Republicans and virtually all of the vile, backstabbing Democrats like Sam Arora, Tiffany Allston and Mel Stukes.

    CUs are unacceptable as an ultimate goal, but they are extremely useful as an interim measure in states where full marriage is not achievable right away. There is ample evidence that CUs act as a powerful agent to dissolve opposition to SSM, as people can see that the dire warnings of the anti-gay side are nonsense. And while this process is going on, gays in MD at least have the lion’s share of legal rights of marriage.

    In 4 or 5 years, if MD follows the usual pattern, we will see support for full SSM go from the current level of 48-51 percent to the mid- to high-50s, enough to proceed with confidence. And EQMD can use that time to get an infrastructure in place to prevail. It can also demonstrate to the Dems that it wields some actual political power by helping to oust Arora, Allston, and Stukes, in the manner that FightBack NY helped to oust 4 anti-equality NY state senators last year.

    Will they follow this course of action? Probably not. It makes too much sense. Instead, they’ll keep pushing for SSM this year, with the end result being a second defeat in the House or a narrow victory followed by a likely defeat at the ballot.

  • There are other explanations: 1) gay voters aren’t numerous enough to affect things; 2) voters, including gay voters, consider many other issues, like failing schools, rising inflation, and growing debt, to be much more important.

    • As to your first explanation, don’t count only the population of gay voters. Their family members,supportive co-workers, clients, friends, neighbors and any other allies constitute a viable coalition that bolster the numbers. As for explanation #2, if continued treatment as second-class citizens isn’t bothersome enough for gay folks to protest, then I doubt the other issues you named will also be considered important.

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