August 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Polyak discusses marriage referendum, future activism
Lisa Polyak, gay news, Washington Blade

Polyak was lead plaintiff in the Maryland marriage equality lawsuit (Deane and Polyak v. Conaway). (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The former chair of Equality Maryland’s Board of Directors stressed on Monday she remains optimistic that voters will uphold the state’s same-sex marriage law in November.

“The polling trend is definitely way more positive than it has been in the last couple of years, but we continue to see evidence of people feeling strongly in another way,” said Lisa Polyak, referring to the controversy over Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy’s comments against marriage rights for gays and lesbians. She also described Josh Levin of Marylanders for Marriage Equality as a “very effective campaign manager” who has begun to receive the resources she said he needs to defend the same-sex marriage law at the ballot. Polyak added she feels that both President Obama’s support of nuptials for gays and lesbians and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s resolution in support of the issue provided the campaign with additional momentum.

“If we win in November, it will be in large measure because of those two events,” she said. “The campaign, rightly, is coming in under that and doing their job efficiently and well.”

Polyak and her partner of more than 30 years, Gita Deane, have remained two of the most prominent figures in the fight for nuptials for gays and lesbians in Maryland since they became the lead plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage lawsuit that Equality Maryland and the American Civil Liberties Union filed in 2004. The Maryland Court of Appeals in 2007 ultimately upheld the constitutionality of the state’s ban on nuptials for gays and lesbians, but Polyak stressed to the Blade that she and Deane simply wanted to protect their children.

“The reason we got involved in the first place was because we’ve had all of these sorts of unexpected experiences trying to take care of our kids,” she said, pointing to obtaining health care and passports for the couple’s two daughters and entering the country with them were among the difficulties they faced. “Starry eyed, we thought well we’ll get involved with the marriage litigation because you know if we were married we wouldn’t have these problems, although of course we had no idea what was ahead.”

Polyak said that the children of she and her wife Deane, Maya, who is 16, and Devi, who is 13, “were fairly renascent” about their decision to challenge Maryland’s same-sex marriage ban.

“For the older one, we told her that we were going to be in the litigation and we told her why in terms that we thought were appropriate for her… [what] it boiled down to is that we wanted to be married and that we couldn’t be married right now because of the way that the law was and just that she was shocked. And she told us so,” she recalled. “She goes; what do you mean you’re not married? I thought you were my parents and why aren’t you married? So it began sort of not just being the public face, but also like having this conversation in an ongoing way with our kids every year of their growth about what they could understand.”

Court of Appeals decision was “awful”

“Ultimately, for me especially it was important for them to see that even when things don’t go the way you want the first time, you don’t give up,” said Polyak as she stressed the need for her and Deane to “hold ourselves together for our girls so that they didn’t think bad things were going to happen to them or to our family.”

More than four years after Maryland’s highest court ruled against them in Deane and Polyak v. Conway, state lawmakers approved a same-sex marriage bill. Governor Martin O’Malley signed it into law in March. “Of course happiness,” said Polyak when asked about her reaction. “More than that just relief at not having to visit it again next year, hopefully, with the referendum not withstanding because I think everybody who has worked on this, truthfully, is exhausted.”

The looming likelihood of a referendum on the same-sex marriage law once the governor signed it factored heavily into their decision to marry in D.C. last year. Attorney General Douglas Gansler said in Feb. 2010 that the state could recognize same-sex marriages that were legally performed in other jurisdictions. O’Malley subsequently ordered state agencies to recognize such unions.

“My partner Gita felt very strongly about us getting older, about our kids getting older and you know what would happen if we could’ve got married and we didn’t get married, what might that bring if something happened to one of us, and that has to do with our family situation basically,” said Polyak. “Again, looking again through the eyes of our girls, they knew that marriage was available in D.C. and of course Gita and I wanted to be married. For them it didn’t make sense about why weren’t we getting married, so we were very aware of our personal needs and then also the fact that we didn’t want people in Maryland to think that we were giving up. We weren’t telegraphing of course any kind of negativity about the ongoing legislation. We literally went down to D.C. on the down low and we got married with a very small group of people — like eight people who were close to us.”

Polyak spoke to the Blade less than a month after she stepped down.

She was appointed acting chair of Equality Maryland’s Board of Directors in June 2011 after attorney Chuck Butler resigned in the wake of former executive director Morgan Meneses-Sheets’ April 2011 departure from the organization. The board voted to appoint Polyak chair during Equality Maryland’s annual meeting in January.

“I don’t know about lessons learned, but I know for Patrick Wojahn, who was the other board chair, and myself, both he and I were plaintiffs in the marriage litigation, and then just through serendipity found ourselves as the board chairs of the respective boards at the time when Equality Maryland went through all those difficulties,” she said. “I think somehow for both of us we weren’t going to let it to fall apart. What Equality Maryland aspires to, which is the legal and the policy health of LGBT citizens I think is something both Patrick and I feel strongly in. And without really having a road map about how we were going to sort of keep things from falling completely apart, we just decided that we weren’t going to let it happen and we had three of the residual board members who worked with us all last summer. In retrospect I can’t believe that we did it, but i think it’s just like anything — if you really believe in something, you find a way.”

In spite of her departure from Equality Maryland, Polyak said she plans to continue to advocate on behalf of LGBT families and children. She remains the online moderator of Families with Pride, a group for LGBT parents in Baltimore. And it plans to hold a reunion in the coming weeks.

“Both my girls are getting ready to think about college. And so that’s always time consuming and lots of planning and I want to share in that time with them,” said Polyak. “I have to say both for Gita and for myself, our focus has always been about what is the lack of law, what the lack of protections do to children and so I’m fairly certain that ending Equality Maryland won’t be the end of my sort of advocacy for equality for our community.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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