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Marylanders celebrate as House OKs marriage bill

Intense floor debate leads to dramatic victory; referendum on horizon

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The crowd gathered at the Maryland Capitol cheered ecstatically when the marriage bill passed. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A jubilant crowd erupted into cheers outside the House of Delegates chambers Friday night, as news broke that lawmakers had approved the Civil Marriage Protection Act in a close 72-67 vote.

The dramatic outcome — the bill passed by two votes, triggering a raucous cheer in the chambers — followed an emotional debate over the measure that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in the Free State. The bill now goes to the Senate, which passed a similar measure last year, and is expected to vote on the bill in the coming weeks.

MORE PHOTOS AND COVERAGE OF THE DEBATE LEADING UP TO THE WIN FROM THE BLADE.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has made the bill a priority and testified in favor of it at a House committee hearing. Assuming the Senate passes it as expected and O’Malley signs as promised, opponents would have until May 31 to collect 55,736 valid signatures to qualify a measure for the November ballot that would strike down the law.

“I didn’t do anything, we all did it,” Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore) said after the historic vote. “And now we’re sending this bill to Sen. Madaleno in the Senate, and we believe we’ll get this bill passed, and get it to the governor’s desk, and he’ll sign it right away.”

“As a big baseball fan, I’m guessing this is what it feels like to win the World Series,” Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Takoma Park), a lesbian, told the Blade.

Del. Clippinger's speech moved many in the chamber. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Clippinger became emotional as he rose to encourage his colleagues to support extending marriage rights to himself, the six other openly gay and lesbian delegates in the Maryland House, their colleague Sen. Richard Madaleno, and thousands of same-sex couples throughout Maryland.

“I ask you to vote ‘yes’ because the joy felt by two parents raising children shouldn’t be overshadowed by fear that the other parent might not be able to care for that child in a time of crisis,” Clippinger proclaimed to his fellow legislators. “But more, I’m here tonight to ask you to vote ‘yes,’ as I have before. Because I am here as a child of God, perfect in my imperfections. Because I am here — not less than any other person — but a full beneficiary to all of God’s infinite love, just as each and every person is. Because I am here as a Marylander.”

The final floor speech before the close vote was delivered by Del. Tiffany Alston, who angered many LGBT advocates in 2011 when she pulled her support for the bill. Alston spoke to the delegates about the difficulty she had coming to her decision to once again support gender neutral marriage in Maryland.

“I can say that my religion still tells me that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Alston said in a shaking voice, clearly emotional. “And I can tell you I still believe it’s OK for people of the same sex to get married. But what I know, is that as a state it’s time for us to move beyond this issue.”

“Today, I’m going to cast a green vote in support of the bill.” Alston adding, noting that she supports a referendum on the issue.

Upon her proclamation, many of the gay and lesbian lawmakers — including Clippinger, who had been a driving force behind the bill — became visibly emotional.

Tiffany Alston (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Alston offered one of two amendments that was accepted by the legislature earlier in the afternoon, which would ensure that the law could not take effect until all legal challenges to the law and any possible referendum were settled. However, according to the Maryland Constitution, a law cannot take effect until any referendum challenge has been settled in any case, meaning the Alston amendment merely restated existing state law.

Supporters of same-sex marriage were happy to back Alston’s amendment if it meant comfort to those lawmakers hesitant to support the bill before them because they feared a referendum would be blocked.

“It was something that could add a level of comfort for some people,” Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), a lesbian, told the Blade, after the amendment was accepted 81-52. “This is something that we could negotiate on.”

Mizeur told the Blade that the fate of Alston’s vote on the bill itself was in the balance up to the afternoon of the vote. Throughout the proceedings, Alston seemed emotional, often resting her head in her hands as she sat at her desk, and looking around the room at her colleagues as they delivered their speeches for and against the bill.

“We talked about it as a possibility yesterday, and we were putting things in play to see if it would work,” Mizeur said. “By this morning, I was told 50/50, and we didn’t exactly know for sure when we were heading into the floor. It was that close.”

Dels. Heather Mizeur and Luke Clippinger embraced following the vote. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The bill’s supporters were grateful for Alston’s vote, as her change of heart in March 2011 elicited a backlash from many in the LGBT community.

Another amendment that the delegates passed was a measure that would have changed the date that the law went into effect from October to January.

A rejected amendment would have changed “civil marriage” to “civil unions,” in the law, a change that at least four of those who eventually voted against the bill said would have helped persuade them to support the measure, including former National Football League quarterback, Del. Jay Walker, who cited his fellow former NFL player, gay defensive tackle Esera Tuaolo in his remarks.

Another rejected amendment would have changed the legal age of consent for same-sex marriage to 18, and a fourth would have allowed parents to opt their children out of same-sex marriage related curriculum that they found offensive, which lesbian Del. Anne Kaiser argued the law already allows.

During the floor speeches Friday night, Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore) gave a moving speech about making history in 2001 when she came out as a lesbian to her fellow lawmakers the same year that the House voted to enact a non-discrimination law covering gays and lesbians in employment.

“In 2001, I became legal,” McIntosh said of the vote, calling it a great moment in history.

Throughout the floor speeches, many of the opponents of the same-sex marriage bill began to move on from discussing the impending vote, to instead rallying for the expected ballot referendum, indicating that at least some of the opponents were expecting the bill to pass.

“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” Del. Emmett Burns told the legislature, referring to the referendum, and insisting the voters must have their say. “The battle is not over. Same-sex marriage no!”

Many of the opponents referred to a legal fight over an immigration-related referendum that opponents attempted to block in Maryland. A judge has recently allowed that referendum to move forward. Referendum supporters wanted to be assured that there would be no impediments to giving Maryland voters an opportunity to overturn marriage, should it pass the Senate.

In contrast to the opposition, many LGBT allies in the legislature stood up to encourage their colleagues to do what they believed was right, with Baltimore Del. Keiffer Mitchell, Jr. calling LGBT rights “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

“I will not vote to deny individuals access to the same legal rights and responsibilities that are given to me and my wife by the state,” said Del. John A. Olszewski, Jr., who said he supported religious provisions that allow faith communities to make their own decisions about which marriages to peform. “As I think about one day when my wife and I look back on our time with our kids when they’re reaching [the marrying age], I know that they’ll be thankful, and I’ll be thankful for what I’ve done today.”

Feelings of relief

Gay Dels. Peter Murphy and Luke Clippinger embrace following the vote. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bill co-sponsor Del. Nathaniel Oaks described a feeling of relief after the bill’s passage, and that sentiment was echoed by almost every other supporter.

“It’s like a big giant weight that’s been lifted, and now we move on,” Del. Mitchell told the Blade, calling the close vote “courageous.” “It’s great to be a part of this history.”

“Tonight can never be taken from us,” Del. Washington told the Blade after the vote.

Voting against the bill was Del. Sam Arora (D-Mont. Co.) who co-sponsored the failed bill of two years ago, and had in 2010 campaigned on a platform that he would support same-sex marriage.

“We feel betrayed,” said progressive activist Karl Frisch, who said that he supported his friend Sam Arora during his election, and said he speaks for many of Arora’s former friends. “This is about family and doing what’s right.”

Frisch told the Blade that a large group of national and local progressive leaders met via conference call Friday night to discuss replacing Del. Arora in his district with another Democrat.

“But it’s nothing personal, in the same way that Sam would claim it’s nothing personal, it’s just his faith,” Frisch said, telling the Blade that Arora took money from those he promised to support marriage equality. “It’s not personal, it’s just our lives. At the end of the day, I wonder how Sam squares his faith with lying and fraud.”

“I have a friend who bought a house in Maryland — not far from his district — and they regret not buying the house in his district so they would be able to vote against him in the next election,” Frisch said. “I hope he has trouble sleeping at night with the shame on his conscience.”

Another damper on last night’s celebrations was the looming prospect of referendum.

“We know there’s people probably out there right now with their petitions gathering signatures,” said Lisa Polyak, chair of the Equality Maryland board of directors. “We have a strategy that we’ve already been working on for months now about how we’re going to 50 plus 1, but we’ll worry about that tomorrow. Tonight we’re going to celebrate.”

Supporters jubilant, eyes on referendum

Maggie McIntosh lifts a bottle of Champagne after the vote. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

On the subject of a referendum threat, Clippinger said he is confident that same-sex couples in Maryland will see victory there too.

“We are going to win. The only people that are going to keep us from winning are those who doubt that we can.”

“Today, the House of Delegates voted for human dignity,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a statement. “Speaker Busch and his fellow delegates deserve a lot of credit for their hard work. At its heart, their vote was a vote for Maryland’s children.”

He continued, “There is still work to be done and marriage equality has not yet been achieved in Maryland. Wherever we happen to stand on the marriage equality issue, we can agree that all our children deserve the opportunity to live in a loving, caring, committed, and stable home, protected equally under the law.”

“We could not be more grateful to the delegates who today voted to make all Maryland families stronger,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “Today, we took a giant step toward marriage equality becoming law – and we are in this position due to the unwavering leadership and resolve of Governor O’Malley, Speaker Busch and our legislative allies.”

Dana Beyer, Gender Rights Maryland executive director, cheered the victory for gay and lesbian Marylanders, telling the Blade she felt “joy.”

“It changes the culture,” Beyer told the Blade. “That’s probably the most important thing. Now we have to do the heavy lifting and deal with the referendum, and that’s why I’m here to do that, and hopefully to get the gender identity bill through, now that this is off the table, so that we can have a duopoly this year.”

The clerk's vote tally just prior to the vote count annoucement. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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West Virginia

Eastern Panhandle Pride brings celebration to rural W.Va.

‘Martinsburg is an inclusive city’

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A scene from Eastern Panhandle Pride on June 4. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Smiling faces spilled into downtown Martinsburg, W.Va., on June 4, welcomed by booths swathed in rainbow colors lining the road.

The historic sight marked the first time that Martinsburg welcomed an official Pride celebration to its streets — but not all residents viewed the new event favorably. As the celebration came into full swing, two protesters marched straight to its center, carrying a sign with homophobic slurs and a seven-foot cross.

The protest quickly turned the heads of passersby. As more and more people approached the demonstration, a group of more than 30 attendees formed a circle around the protesters, separating them from the event. Some joined hands and, attempting to drown out the protesters’ hatred, chanted: “Love wins!”

When Joe Merceruio began working at Eastern Panhandle Pride nine years ago, he set out to help unite the community of West Virginia’s easternmost region, working with fellow organizers to create Pride celebrations in a Shepherdstown park.

But when assuming the role of president in 2019, he never anticipated that just three years later, the organization would be invited by the mayor of the panhandle’s largest city to throw a celebration in the Berkeley County, W.Va. seat. “We’ve never had a city reach out to us and ask us to do Pride, it was always the other way around,” he explained.

Born and raised in Martinsburg, Merceruio was moved by the way his community came together at this year’s Pride celebration. After two years of restricted celebrations due to public health concerns, seeing so many people celebrate in person, including many allies, was deeply meaningful, he noted.

Beth Roemer, who helped organize this year’s festivities, said she was especially proud of the way her community peacefully organized against the protesters — especially those young people she credited with leading the charge. The group was “surrounding them in a very passive way so that they couldn’t do any more damage,” she recalled.

Participating in Pride each year has shown Merceruio and Roemer alike the ways their community is changing, fueled by advocacy from LGBTQ individuals and allies within it.

Berkeley County is known for being more conservative, which meant that Roemer “wasn’t sure” exactly “how far we had come” in accepting the LGBTQ community. But her hopes for inclusivity were quickly realized when she saw how many people supported this year’s celebration.

“We had a local business downtown reach out to Joe and I, and he said he just never believed in a million years that we could have Pride downtown,” she added. “He was super happy.”

According to Merceruio, Pride offers an opportunity for community building especially important to rural West Virginians.

“I think you can let the stereotype of West Virginia interfere with the reality of the West Virginia that’s really out there,” he explained. “There is ignorance, there is hatred, but there’s also a tremendous amount of love and support.”

“It really gives people who want a community a chance to see that there is a community in Martinsburg,” Roemer said. At this year’s celebration, Roemer added that she met an 18-year-old woman who was able to attend Pride for the first time after her parents did not support her desire to go growing up. “She goes, ‘Now I have a community,’” Roemer recalled.

As an organization that serves a primarily rural region, Eastern Panhandle Pride operates differently from many Pride organizations in major cities. Merceruio noted that there are some challenges associated with organizing Pride in a rural area, like receiving less attention from sponsors and having to work harder to find and provide resources.

Still, Merceruio said rural Pride celebrations have a certain charm that major Pride celebrations cannot always replicate.

“I have people that have texted me and said, ‘We’re so excited to do this, our 11-year-old daughter has been waiting for this,’” he explained. “I think you get more of a family atmosphere in rural areas.”

Some of Merceruio’s favorite moments from this year’s Pride included this type of “personal interaction” with community members, he added. “I guess that’s a bit more of what you get from a smaller town for Pride.”

At this year’s Pride, Martinsburg Mayor Kevin Knowles spoke directly to attendees, welcoming the celebration to the city’s streets and reading a proclamation officially recognizing June 2022 as Pride month for the city.

“Martinsburg is an inclusive city. We include everybody, no matter where they come from or what they do,” Knowles said at the event. “The city of Martinsburg is moving forward.”

In the near future, Eastern Panhandle Pride hopes to continue to offer programming for the local LGBTQ community and its allies, and to further support community needs through advocacy. For Merceruio, this work is an important part of giving back to the place he calls home.

“I love being from West Virginia. Our culture and our society and our neighbors,” Merceruio said. “It’s got its problems, but it is awesome.”

See photos from the event here!

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Rehoboth Beach

Rehoboth’s anti-climactic election raises concerns over process

Incumbent Chrzanowski criticizes delay in candidate’s filing

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Edward Chrzanowski ran unopposed for re-election in Rehoboth Beach’s June election. (Photo via Facebook)

It was an anti-climactic election in Rehoboth Beach, Del., last month, when only two candidates emerged for two city commissioner seats.

Edward Chrzanowski ran unopposed for re-election and Francis “Bunky” Markert was named to fill the open commissioner seat being vacated by incumbent Susan Gay. While the uncontested races meant no official election was held in the beachside city this year, the proceedings were not devoid of controversy. In a conversation with the Blade, Chrzanowski voiced concerns with this year’s election proceedings.

At the beginning of the day on June 6 — the deadline to file for the election — Chrzanowski was the only candidate to formally enter the race for commissioner, motivated by his desire to see through ongoing infrastructure development plans, he said. At the time, Gay, the other incumbent commissioner whose term ended this year, had made no official statement regarding her candidacy, and no other candidates had filed for election.

But by the end of the day, Markert — who ran unsuccessfully for the position in 2014 — was nominated for election in a petition submitted by Jan Konesey, a circulator. The next day, Gay announced she would not seek reelection due to family health concerns. “I am not leaving Rehoboth Beach,” Gay said in the June 7 statement, but “I have decided not to seek re-election.”

With only two candidates in the running, Chrzanowski and Markert were exempt from participating in an official election. Chrzanowski, who is gay, noted he was “very glad” that he would not “have to campaign,” but criticized his colleague’s behavior surrounding registration for the election. In a conversation with the Blade, he alleged that Gay deliberately waited to announce whether she would seek reelection, which meant prospective opponents were unaware of the vacancy and therefore less likely to enter the race. He also suggested that Gay encouraged “one of her friends” — Markert — to file his candidacy in her place, without opposition.

“I’m very disappointed with what my colleague who decided not to run for reelection (did),” Chrzanowski said. “I announced my candidacy pretty early on to allow the public to absorb that. If someone wanted to run against me, I’d obviously give them the chance to do that.”

The idea of his colleagues “playing behind the scenes” left him feeling “disappointed,” he added. “Given the person that is running, or now will walk in as a commissioner, I would have much preferred there be an election and that person be challenged.”

But Gay and Markert both deny that they coordinated their decisions regarding the election.

Gay said she had initially planned to seek reelection, but a “change of plans” caused by family health circumstances made her feel she could not faithfully carry out the position for another consecutive term. “It was actually very last minute,” she said. “In fact, I had an (election) petition all set to go.”

“I realized that I could not devote the time that I needed” to the position, Gay explained. “I take the work very seriously. I wanted to be able to devote my full attention to it, and I just cannot right now.”

“It was a very, very, very difficult decision,” she added.

Markert said he presumed someone else would run in the election, so an uncontested race did not influence his candidacy.

In 2014, Markert was appointed to the city’s planning commission. He said his experience both as a resident of Rehoboth Beach and as a volunteer in local government led him to want to serve the city further by guiding its development as a commissioner, moving Rehoboth Beach forward while also preserving its unique character and qualities.

Gay said that waiting to the end of the allotted window to announce candidacy in the commissioner election was not unusual in city politics. In previous years, candidates often submitted their petitions on the very last day allowed, she explained.

“There’s a tradition here, and Ed should know this because he did it himself,” Gay said. “I went and ran three years ago. There were two candidates that announced in advance, and then the last four — Ed was one of them — turned in their petitions” on the latest day possible.

In an email to the Blade, Rehoboth Beach communications specialist Lynne Coan confirmed that in the 2019 election, when Chrzanowski and Gay were most recently elected, they both filed their petitions less than an hour before the deadline.

Gay added she was traveling when Markert’s petition was submitted, and was therefore not immediately aware he was an official candidate.

“Every year, we never know until the last minute who (the candidates are) going to be,” she said. “I don’t think anybody’s decision to run should be dependent on anybody else, and it certainly wasn’t for me. If people want to run they should step up.”

Regardless of the circumstances that brought them to their positions, Chrzanowski and Markert received approval from the city’s Board of Elections and are slated to serve as city commissioners. Reflecting on this year’s proceedings, each expressed mixed feelings about the lack of a formal election.

For Chrzanowski, who previously won a contested race for city commissioner, avoiding the “divisiveness” of a local election was advantageous. But he added that there was something lost without formal proceedings, which offer the public an opportunity to challenge candidate platforms and even enter the race should they feel their views are unrepresented.

For Markert, running uncontested removed significant monetary and time constraints. Still, a formal election would have helped him connect with the local community, and their support would have granted “ a certain level of legitimacy” to his representing them in city government.

“I would prefer to be up there, elected … (but) I’m a qualified candidate,” he explained. “In three years time, if I was to run again, and I plan to run again, maybe I’ll be able to be elected.”

According to Coan, the Board of Elections will meet on July 12 to finalize the 2022 election. Chrzanowski and Markert will begin their terms on Sept. 16.

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District of Columbia

D.C. house with rainbow Pride flag set on fire

Investigators seeking help from public in search for suspect

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A Pride flag remained displayed at the house in Shaw this past Sunday, one week after the fire in the rear of the house which fire officials have listed as arson. (Washington Blade photos by Lou Chibbaro Jr.)

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has classified as arson a June 19 fire at a two-story row house on the 1800 block of 8th Street, N.W. in the city’s Shaw neighborhood that had an LGBTQ rainbow Pride flag prominently displayed on the front of the house.

A Fire & EMS Department spokesperson said the fire was ignited in a detached wooden garage in the rear of the house accessible only through an alley, and fire investigators have yet to identify a suspect or a motive for what evidence shows was an intentionally set fire.

Although the front of the brick rowhouse where the Pride flag was displayed was not damaged, the fire in the garage spread to the rear of the house, destroying a wooden outdoor deck, and caused extensive damage to the kitchen, bathroom, and second floor bedroom. Fire investigators have sealed the house, requiring its three occupants to find a temporary residence as the investigation continues.

One of the three occupants of the house, who was the only one at home when the fire started at about 2 a.m., escaped without injury, according to sources who know the occupants.

“The Pride flag on the front of the house was present at the time of the fire,” Jennifer Donelan, director of communications for the Fire & EMS Department, told the Washington Blade. “We do not have any information, at this time, that suggests the arson was related to the presence of the flag, however we are still working on the case,” she said.

“We are aggressively working to identify a suspect and a motive,” Donelan said. “Until such time, we won’t be able to make a determination as to whether or not this was a hate crime.”

She said the Fire & EMS Department is seeking help from the public in its effort to identify one or more suspects responsible for the fire. Anyone with information that could be helpful to the investigation is asked to call fire investigators at 202-673-2776.

The fire at the D.C. house with the Pride flag took place less than a week after Baltimore police said a house in that city’s Waverly neighborhood on which “Pride décor” was displayed was set on fire on June 15, causing extensive damage to the house and nearby houses.

Baltimore police and fire department officials said a Pride flag on a house across the street from the house set on fire was also ablaze when firefighters arrived on the scene. Two men were hospitalized in critical condition and a woman was listed in serious condition because of the fire ignited in the house.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott released a statement saying fire department officials had yet to determine a motive for the fire.

“At this point, we cannot confirm that this was a hate crime,” Scott said. “However, my agencies will bring every appropriate resource to bear to get to the bottom of this tragic event,” he said. “I continue to stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ community.”

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