Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Decision Day Dawning

With a lot going on elsewhere, LGBT Maryland is quiet… but not for long

By Steve Charing
Senior Political Analyst

Our recent days have been dominated by the news of the Imus idiocy, the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech, the continued prosecution of the screwy war in Iraq, and even the elimination of the oft-chastised Sanjaya from American Idol. That is a full plate to digest in such a short time.

For the lgbt community in Maryland, things are relatively tranquil though. The late emergence of Spring-like weather has re-awakened the normally ebullient mood of the community at this time of year. People are out and about and modeling their new spring threads. They are regaining the appetite to socialize, working on their yards, riding their bikes, and eager to welcome the long-awaited arrival of summer and all that it brings.

Yes, things are normal around here and peaceful. We escaped the state’s 2007 General Assembly without hearing much of the homophobic diatribes from Delegate Donald H. Dwyer, Jr. and others who typically condemn homosexuality and gay folks’ desire for same-sex marriage. Some gains for the lgbt community were realized in this past session, but none were particularly headline grabbing, at least in the mainstream media.

But this serenity may soon end with a thud.

While it may not reach the font level of the Sun’s tabloid imitation by its screaming headline, "MASSACRE" in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, an imminent ruling from Maryland’s Court of Appeals—the state’s highest court—may shake some trees around here.

The case that gay activists in Maryland and around the county are keenly watching may soon reach its denouement. The Court of Appeals heard oral arguments this past December from the original plaintiffs—nine lgbt couples and a gay widower—and from the State. (Two of the plaintiffs, Gita Deane and Lisa Polyak are pictured to the right.) The State had appealed a January 2006 Baltimore Circuit Court ruling by Judge M. Brooke Murdock that Maryland’s 1973 marriage law is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs successfully argued that as written, the law violates the Maryland constitution’s guarantees of equality and due process.

While no one knows with any degree of certainty when the high court’s ruling will be handed down, many expect it to be right around the corner if past history of the appeals process is any indication.

Ken Choe, one of the Maryland ACLU attorneys involved in the lawsuit that has been also backed by Equality Maryland, said during a conference call press briefing that he does not know when the decision will be handed down. But he stated that whatever the outcome, it is final and not subject to further judicial appeal (i.e. the Supreme Court).

Observers expect the high court’s decision to take on one of three possibilities: unequivocally extending marriage rights to all gay and lesbian couples; upholding the Maryland statute (and thus overturning the lower court’s ruling) that defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman; or a combination of the above (similar to New Jersey) and throwing it back to the legislature to provide some protections like civil unions but not the full weight that marriage would bring.

Ken Choe is optimistic that the arguments were made sufficiently for the Court to rule favorably on same-sex marriage. "I strongly believe we have met both the strict scrutiny and rational basis of review," he said during the briefing. In other words, Choe is confident the case was presented to meet all judicial tests that would sustain the argument that excluding same couples from marrying violates the state’s constitution. If the Court rules accordingly, it would render Maryland as the only other state besides Massachusetts to extend marriage benefits (statewide only) to same-sex couples.

But then the headlines will scream out, newscasts will lead with that story instead of the usual murder or car accidents and kick off a maelstrom that will dominate the political theater through late 2008.

Demagogues from both sides of the aisle, especially homophobic Republicans, conservative Democrats and politically squeamish moderates, will predictably react to the mantra, "Marriage should be defined as only between one man and one woman." No doubt there will be pressure to convene a special session of the General Assembly, which will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment to "protect the institution of marriage." Never mind that Massachusetts, the one state with same-sex marriage on the books, has the lowest divorce rate in the country. That fact by itself ought to stifle such rhetoric.

It won’t.

"Gay marriage" remains a very politically charged issue, and with the big election year of 2008 looming, politicians are going to position themselves on this issue that will yield maximum benefits for them. For a constitutional amendment to pass in Maryland, it would need the support of 60 percent in each chamber. The Governor, regardless of the fact he does not support such an amendment, has no authority to veto the measure, but he sure can use the bully pulpit to sway politicians and the electorate—not a trivial contribution to be sure.

Should the amendment bill receive the necessary backing, it will go on the 2008 ballot as a referendum, thus uncharacteristically putting minority rights up for a popular vote. And it would mark the first time the constitution is being used in discriminatory fashion to restrict rights of individuals or a group instead of expanding them.

With all this potential enmity that could result from a favorable Court ruling, the preparation to fight back the rhetoric and venom and to educate the public on the fairness and justice aspects of the issue is essential. In anticipation of "Decision Day," Equality Maryland—the state’s principal lgbt civil rights organization—is strategizing for the potential battles ahead. A less favorable ruling will trigger a different set of battles. Visit their website at http://www.equalitymaryland.org/ to see how you can join in this fight for justice and equality.

Things are quiet right now. It doesn’t figure to last.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Not so Good-Natured

Letter Sent to TIME

I must take issue with John Poniewozik's characterization of the expression, "That's so gay!" as good-natured and not homophobic ("Who Can Say What?", April 23). To hundreds of thousands of teens in middle schools and in high schools around the country, that seemingly harmless phrase is considered very hurtful and has led to myriad problems for those on the receiving end of such a remark. To them it means "stupid" or "worthless." And it is used all too frequently. According to a 2005 study of high school students conducted by GLSEN--the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network--over three-fourths had heard that epithet along with "faggot" and "dyke" in the corridors and classrooms of our nation's schools. This isn't good-natured, and it is certainly not useful in creating a successful learning environment for all of our kids.

Steve Charing
Media Relations
PFLAG-Howard County (MD)

Monday, April 09, 2007

No More Smoking in Baltimore's Bars

Smoking ban sparks opposition, but it offers a fresh new beginning

By Steve Charing

Tom Mathison is the passionate owner of The Quest—a popular seven year-old neighborhood pub on Fleet Street in the Highlandtown area of Baltimore. It boasts so many loyal, regular patrons—from the very young to the very senior—that they all seem to know each other.

As is the case with all bars and restaurants in Baltimore and throughout the state, The Quest will be facing a ban on smoking early next year. Some of the patrons at The Quest welcome the ban—even smokers. They enjoy the fun too much at the bar, especially during happy hour, to bale just because of the need to light up. But the owner, a smoker, has different views and is vehemently opposed to the looming ban.

"They’re chipping away at small business more and more," Mathison protested. "We have a war in Iraq, illegal immigration—more important issues—but they have to do this. They should put this before the voters."

But if it had been voted on, no doubt a statewide ban would have been resoundingly supported by the citizens of Maryland. According to a recent Gonzalez poll, 72 percent of Marylanders back the legislation. And that is why the ban passed easily during this year’s General Assembly session after several years of failed attempts.

The effort to ban smoking here had been buoyed by a report last year from the U.S. Surgeon General stating that the public health hazards of secondhand smoke are "indisputable." And according to the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, an advocacy group, "Secondhand smoke exposure is the third leading cause of preventable death, killing 1,000 Marylanders every year."

In addition, similar bans in several states including California, Massachusetts, Ohio and New York, plus neighboring Delaware and Washington, D.C., along with the backing of Governor O’Malley, made it more politically acceptable to defy the well-organized opposition, led primarily by the Restaurant Association of Maryland. The lobbying organization insisted the ban would keep smokers away from these establishments and force small pubs and taverns out of business.

Baltimore City passed a smoking ban late February, which also provided impetus to the state legislation. The city, whose ban takes effect next January 1, joined Charles, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s and Talbot counties that have prohibited smoking in restaurants and bars.

The Quest’s Tom Mathison, who generously holds benefits to support the lgbt community, doesn’t see the issue in terms of health; he sees it as a matter of choice. "What ever happened to freedom of choice," he asked. "What’s next?" He believes that owners should have the choice to allow smoking or not, and if the non-smokers do not want to come to a smoky gay bar, it is their choice not to. And the same applies to employees: they don’t have to work there. Currently three of The Quest’s four employees smoke.

The Quest, just like other affected establishments, faces the prospects of patrons standing outside in the cold and rain to smoke between drinks. "I can’t see the older customers doing that," said Mathison disconsolately. "This is going to hurt."

More than most gay bars in the city, The Quest depends heavily on locals or regulars for their clientele. Being situated distantly from Baltimore’s epicenter of gay bustle, The Quest lacks the proximity to other similar bars that exists in Mt. Vernon. Those are clustered closely enough to bar hop with ease, and patrons are drawn to Mt. Vernon in greater numbers to avail themselves of the myriad clubs, eateries, shops and cultural opportunities that the district offers.

Perhaps that difference in geography with its resulting drawing power explains the disparate reaction of two of Mt. Vernon’s bar owners from that of Tom Mathison, who must retain his customer base to stay in business.

Jay Lamont, owner of Jays on Read and a smoker himself, is not concerned about the smoking ban. "I plan to survey my customers to see if they want the ban put in place sooner," he said. Lamont indicated that many of his clientele support the ban and realizes there are a lot of potential customers ready to return to the bar scene once the ban is in effect.

Chuck Bowers, the longtime owner of the venerable Hippo and a non-smoker, is a bit more guarded with his assessment of the ban. Asked how he sees the impact of the ban on his business, Bowers replied, "It’s too soon to tell," but he added that customers were already enthusiastically welcoming an era of a smoke-free environment. He is also considering imposing the restrictions sooner than the January 1 target date.

Bowers’ main concern, however, is that if patrons decide to step out of the bar to smoke there would be issues regarding the city’s existing loitering ordinance that prohibits congregating within 100 feet of a bar. That’s going to have to be addressed, he said.

As a non-smoker myself, I strongly believe that the ban could not have come too soon. I have frequented gay bars for well over three decades and have returned home with my clothes reeking of cigarette smoke and imagining what that must be doing to my lungs. I had helplessly watched my mother succumb to lung cancer, and I don’t wish that horror on anybody.

Less importantly, I received my share of cigarette burns to my arms and shirts from cavalier, unapologetic smokers blithely holding their cigarettes out as I try to navigate around a crowded bar.

Yes, it was my choice to patronize these bars—or was it? After being stuck in the closet for years, I decided I needed to seek gay-friendly establishments where I can freely and safely meet friends, old and new, while enjoying cocktails. I cannot understand why my partner and I as well as other non-smokers should be denied the opportunity to socialize where we are best accepted just to avoid the consequences of others smoking. So in a way it was a choice but in other ways it wasn’t.

But choices are not something all bar owners or customers have in the wake of health crises. Recall how during the peak of the AIDS epidemic certain gay bars’ back rooms, as well as bath houses (where anonymous risky sex took place) were shut down even though the clientele had the choice of entering or not prior to the ban.

Once the ban is implemented I know that many people—especially baby boomers—will re-introduce themselves to the bar scene they had abandoned years back. This will bring in new customers, and those remaining smokers may finally see this as an opportunity to cut back or quit. As for bar owners, there has been scant evidence to suggest that the bans in other states and localities have resulted in adverse effects on the bar business.

The ban here was inevitable. It is a breath of fresh air—for customers and bar employees—and for the bar owners, it presents an opportunity for a fresh new beginning.