Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Gay Political Apathy is Hurting Us

Mt. Vernon-Bolton Hill residents and other local lgbt need to step up

By Steve Charing

Senior Political Analyst

On the surface, one can easily label the Baltimore neighborhood of Mt. Vernon the gay capital of Maryland. It is the site of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB)—one of the longest-running centers of its kind in the country, if not the longest name. The largest lgbt multi-faceted health center in the state, Chase-Brexton Health Services, calls Mt. Vernon its home.

Mt. Vernon is also the venue for the two most popular gay bars in the state. Both Maryland lgbt newspapers—Baltimore OUTloud and Gay Life—are published in Mt. Vernon. Lambda Rising, the venerable lgbt bookstore, maintains its only Maryland store in Mt. Vernon. The state’s largest gay pride parade and street festival take place there as well. The adjoining neighborhood of Bolton Hill claims a large number of lgbt residents.

And when you factor in the other gay or gay-friendly eateries, drinkeries, bistros, boutiques, shops, antique stores, churches and some of the major cultural centers of the city, it seems to be a virtual slam-dunk that Mt. Vernon is the gay capital of Maryland.

Or is it?

To be truly a "capital" or a focal point in the lgbt movement, it also needs to be engaged politically. Areas that spawn activism like New York’s Greenwich Village, San Francisco’s Castro district and DC’s Dupont Circle would qualify. And if you go back to the sixties and seventies, Baltimore’s Charles Village and Waverly neighborhoods would also fit.

These places are the domains of lgbt leadership and advocacy. Politics—good, bad and ugly—would dominate the conversations. Grass-roots movements are born there. Fliers to rallies and meetings are handed out to passers-by. So are gay newspapers. These are genuine gay "capitals." Mt. Vernon in 2006, however, appears to be anything but.

Despite the large gay population within the Mt. Vernon-Bolton Hill area, a disappointing number showed up at last month’s Equality Maryland Lobby Day in Annapolis to attend the rally and visit with their local legislators. Based on pre-event registrations obtained from one of the organizers, Mt. Vernon and Bolton Hill’s participation paled compared with such city neighborhoods as Homeland, Roland Park, Tuscany, Canterbury, Mount Washington, Charles Village, Guilford, Northwood, Federal Hill, Canton, and Fells Point.

The rally crowd itself fell short of expectations. A goal of 2,000 had been established, but it barely reached last year’s total of several hundred. This occurred despite the anti-gay marriage rhetoric spewing from the mouths and press releases of Republican legislators and conservative or weak-kneed Democrats during the days just prior to the event. The motivation was there, but the anticipated large crowd wasn’t.

"There are many factors that contributed to attendance," said Meredith Moise, Field Coordinator for Equality Maryland. "Many folks were sidelined by the weather. Other people had difficulties with getting off of work, getting childcare or getting transportation to Annapolis. We are excited about those who attended the rally," she told OUTloud.

Indeed, those braving the chilly late Monday afternoon weather following a major snowstorm earlier in the weekend were largely suburban and white. A large chunk of the Lobby Day crowd came from Montgomery and Howard counties as well as from other suburban jurisdictions. Moreover, among those attending the rally was a sizable number of straight allies or parents of lgbt children.

The primary reason for the rally was to help those in the lgbt community to achieve equal rights and to prevent a discriminatory constitutional amendment from advancing to the floor of the General Assembly. But where were the masses of lgbt individuals? Aren’t they interested? Involved? Concerned?

Local gay activists are realizing a disturbing truth that too many members of the community are politically averse. This crosses gender and racial lines, urban and suburban.

"I see the apathy here," Craig Wiley, executive director for the GLCCB told OUTloud. "Sometimes people think that if the issue is too big, they don’t feel they can make a difference." He related the frustration of the Center’s renting a bus for last year’s rally but only a handful chose to get on board.

This year, the Center opted not to repeat the same error but did send out mass e-mail notices to those on their extensive mailing list with Equality Maryland’s Lobby Day information as an attachment. It obviously did not work.

Bar patrons can be just as frustrating when it comes to political apathy. A friend of mine who frequents the Quest reported that out of a dozen random people he spoke with, very few ever heard of Equality Maryland and fewer still knew of Lobby Day. He said no one picked up any of the gay papers on their way out that night, which would have informed them that the Governor and state legislators are trying to make them second-class citizens. This pattern is noticeable at other bars and clubs as well.

Political avoidance is not necessarily confined to Mt. Vernon or Baltimore City for that matter. In Howard County, where a gay men’s dinner group has been operating for over a decade, there is a need to motivate and mobilize. The group communicates information to a couple of hundred members through a newsgroup.
When I asked the current proprietor of the newsgroup, to publicize the formation of a Howard/Carroll County political investment organization (
www.lgbtcaucus.com ), he said he would post it. Then he decided not to fulfill his promise ostensibly because he did not want to include anything political. However, he recently allowed the posting from a 22 year-old man announcing his arrival to the area. You can clearly see where his priorities lie.

Of course, political apathy is not necessarily a gay affliction. Look at the low level of participation from eligible voters during elections. But the general population has the right to marry. They have the right to make medical decisions for their spouses. They can openly serve in the military. They are not vilified as a group on the floors of state legislatures and Congress, nor are they chided by the President. They cannot be fired from their jobs for being straight. But lgbt individuals can.

Events like Lobby Day should have drawn thousands. We were under attack by religious zealots, hateful or insecure legislators and a governor who is aligned with the religious right. It was critical that we demonstrate against their demagoguery and their actions that are harmful to lgbt families. The media and officials needed to be impressed by the forcefulness of the lgbt effort. The opposition has no problem mobilizing the masses to sling hatred towards us, but we cannot seem to effectively respond.

"Apathy is one of our greatest enemies," said Jay Smith Brown, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lgbt civil rights organization. "Political issues are always personal. You need to find out the area that make individuals most passionate and reach out to them," he told OUTloud last June.

Our community needs to re-establish its priorities, read our newspapers and get more passionate about our struggle to achieve equality. And it wouldn’t hurt if it started from Maryland’s so-called gay "capital."

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Lobby Day Was Just the Beginning

More lgbt involvement needed to achieve equality

By Steve Charing

Senior Political Analyst

Nearly a thousand lgbt folks and their supporters participated in a process that makes our democracy so great. One day removed from a massive snowstorm, these crusaders trekked to Annapolis on February 13 to be part of Equality Maryland’s third Lobby Day.

On a chilly afternoon, they attended a rally in Lawyer’s Mall, which is adjacent to the State House. The event featured several prominent speakers, including U.S. Senate candidate and former Congressman and President of the NAACP Kweisi Mfume. They also trudged through the slush-filled Annapolis sidewalks and streets to visit office buildings housing the state’s senators and delegates.

The crowd came prepared to denounce the attempts by many members of the state’s General Assembly for pushing a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. These efforts came on the heels of the court ruling last month, which concluded the existing Maryland statute defining marriage as only between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. Baltimore Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock stayed the ruling pending appeal.

The hour-long rally was intended to stir the crowd and galvanize the efforts to persuade the local legislators in private meetings that a proposed constitutional amendment is unfair and a misuse of the document. A good line-up of speakers made brief presentations to the shivering rally-goers and members of the media in attendance.

Lisa Polyak spoke following introductory remarks by Equality Maryland’s executive director Dan Furmansky. She along with her partner Gita Deane were two of the nineteen plaintiffs in the lawsuit that has sparked the current debate.

Other speakers in support of lgbt equality ranged from a representative of the National Coalition of American Nuns/New Ways Ministry to the President of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO. But the main message was delivered by Kweisi Mfume, who invoked the memory of Coretta Scott King and her life-long struggle to achieve equality and human justice for all. Mr. Mfume related how at her memorial service people carried signs read, "Rest in Hell" to protest her actions for equal rights. He said we obviously still have a long way to go.

Mr. Mfume told the excited crowd that he opposes discrimination in any form and that there should be equality for all citizens. "Make room at the welcome table for everybody," he implored. While he stopped short of explicitly advocating at the rally same-sex marriage (clearly for political considerations), he vehemently opposes a constitutional amendment, which would prohibit it. "If legislators don’t want to expand rights, then they should come out and explain why," Mfume told the cheering throng.

After the rally, Mfume reiterated this message when he said to me, "Let me make this very clear: I oppose a constitutional amendment [banning same-sex marriage] at the federal or at the state level."

Mr. Mfume is a rare candidate for a major office to be up front about marriage equality. He recently told the Washington Blade he supports equal marriage rights for gay couples. "As someone who was raised to believe in traditional marriage, it does not mean others cannot have different beliefs. I recognize [civil union] laws don't cover all the benefits and all the rights that could and should be accrued to same sex couples," he said.

Before, during and following the rally, participants had dispersed to meet with their representatives that had been scheduled in advance. Some had small meetings and others were larger.
For example, Senator Schrader (R-Howard County) was stunned to see as many as 49 constituents from District 13 packing her office. This effort was led by the organizing and mobilization by PFLAG-Howard County. Several among us related their personal stories and conveyed their perspectives on how a constitutional amendment would be harmful to ourselves and families and why marriage equality is so important.

Following the presentations, Senator Schrader did not commit as to how she would vote if any of two current bills supporting an amendment find their way to the floor. Most observers are pessimistic that she would buck her GOP Party leadership by voting against it, but many of us came away from the meeting thinking that she would be somewhat bothered by having to toe the Party line. I believe we made a good impression.

Other delegations weren’t as successful, as several conservative legislators from District 5 in Carroll County stood up their constituents even though pre-arranged appointments were made, or they simply ducked them. These legislators are too closed-minded, and it is virtually impossible to change their homophobic views.

But we must still try.

We are finding out more and more that when legislators who are relatively unfamiliar with lgbt individuals and can actually put a human face on the prevailing issues as a result of meetings, there is a shift by varying degrees to their openness on these issues. Hearing our stories and concerns helps removes some barriers.

A sizable crowd at this event was essential to impress the legislators and the media. But a greater proportion of the participants came mainly from Maryland’s suburbs like Montgomery and Howard counties. The event’s organizers and other observers noted a disturbing low turnout from Baltimore City in general, especially the Mt. Vernon area. This validates an ongoing theory among gay activists that too many lgbt city residents are apathetic. I plan to examine this issue in a future column.

Even if you didn’t attend the rally and meetings, there is still an ample opportunity to make your voice heard. The proposed amendments are not going to protect marriage; they are homophobic and discriminatory. And you don’t have to be in a long-term relationship to be stung by this anti-gay legislation.

Please go to the Equality Maryland website at http://www.equalitymaryland.org/ and look up your district and your state senator and delegate(s). Call their offices, write them, e-mail them and let them know you are a citizen of this state, you pay your taxes, and you do not want discrimination written into the constitution. The bills you want them to oppose are House Bill 1393 and Senate Bill 690.

Call Governor Ehrlich, too. His number is 1-800-811-8336. He thinks the people are behind the amendment. Tell him that the constitutional amendment harms lgbt families and that he’s wrong for supporting it.

Do on the phone what the Howard County folks did with their Senator in person: overwhelm!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Death of a Civil Rights Icon

She was a major advocate for lgbt equality

By Steve Charing

Ironically, on the day Judge Samuel Alito was confirmed as justice to the Supreme Court, the civil rights movement lost one of its shining jewels. Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., passed away on January 31 at the age of 78. She had suffered a severe stroke and heart attack in 2005.

You won’t see it in many of the obituaries that simultaneously expresses sadness for the loss and exults her life’s work in the civil rights movement, but Coretta Scott King was an enormous beacon in the quest for equality for lesbians and gays.

"Once in a lifetime God grants us with the ability to witness an extraordinary life dedicated to justice," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. "With Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., God smiled on us and fortunately granted us two." He added, "She saw justice as a birthright and lent her voice as a relentless advocate for all fair-minded Americans, gay or straight, black or white."

Through the years, Mrs. King stood for lgbt rights when other leaders chose to side step the issue. She took the bold stance in equating the struggle for lgbt rights with the civil rights movement for African-Americans. In 1998, Mrs. King said, "I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. ... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’"

"I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people," she implored." Mrs. King resolutely supported ENDA, a federal bill prohibiting anti-gay discrimination.

Mrs. King was a mighty advocate for same-sex marriage and railed against constitutional amendments that would ban such marriages. "Gay and lesbian people have families, and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union," she said in 2004. "A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages."

Her passing is a loss for all humankind, but she left a legacy of being such a strong, graceful force for justice and equality. She will be dearly missed.