Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Winning Strategy: Chipping Away at Barriers




By Steve Charing


A rule change in a state insurance law that affects domestic partners may seem like a small victory in the scheme of things. But it is a concrete example of how lobbying legislators on issues important to the LGBT community can bring about the word that’s once again in vogue: change.

One day after the 2008 Maryland General Assembly began, the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review, voted 12-4 to approve the definition of "domestic partner" that would clarify a bill mandating that insurance companies provide domestic partnership coverage for employers who request it.

While the regulation covers unmarried relationships regardless of sexual orientation, and that it is not intended to be a bridge to the legalization of same-sex marriage, many political observers saw this hearing as a window to how the hot-button issue of marriage equality will be debated.

Not surprisingly, four conservative Republicans on the panel viewed this action as the beginning of the end of marriage as an institution and by extension, civilization. "A domestic partnership is a gay marriage, that's what it is," balked GOP Del. Michael Smigiel, Jr., who represents an Eastern Shore district.

The four Republicans who opposed the regulatory action were expected. What was not, however, was the fact that Minority Whip Senator Allan H. Kittleman (pictured), who represents portions of Howard and Carroll counties, voted with the Democratic majority.

This is significant.

Sen. Kittleman by virtue of his leadership position in the Senate, would normally be counted on to side with his troops. But he broke the paradigm that assumes all Republican legislators reflexively oppose any measure that even sniffs of gay marriage.

To be sure, this regulatory change has no bearing on same-sex marriage, but the opposition clearly saw it as such. And there is no reason to believe that Sen. Kittleman will back the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which, prior to her recent death, had been sponsored by Sen. Gwendolyn Britt along with Delegates Victor Ramirez and Benjamin Barnes. (The sudden death of Sen. Britt, a solid supporter of LGBT rights, is a sad loss for the pro-equality movement.)

Gay rights groups—most prominently PFLAG-Howard County—had lobbied Senator Kittleman over the past few years since he replaced his late father Robert Kittleman who was a proponent of civil rights in the state Senate. As a member of the chapter’s Advocacy Committee, I attended some of those meetings.

Sen. Allan Kittleman showed interest in hearing first-hand stories from members of the lgbt community who reside in his district. He listened intently how each family has been impacted by the inability to legally marry in the state.

These efforts, I am sure, led to Sen. Kittleman’s being the sole Republican on the committee to support the motion made by openly gay Senator Rich Madaleno (Montgomery County) to adopt the definition of "domestic partner."

When the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act is introduced in the appropriate committees, it is unlikely to achieve success right away. This is despite the fact that the measure stipulates that religious institutions will not be forced to preside over any same-sex marriage ceremonies if that is their preference.

The braying from House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller—both Democrats—on how they will not support same-sex marriage is a strong indicator that it won’t progress too far this session.

But if members of our community and especially allies meet, write, and phone their representatives and urge them to vote for or co-sponsor the bill, there will, over time, be increasing support.

A great way to help this effort is to participate in the Equality Maryland-sponsored Lobby Day activities in Annapolis on February 11. Not only is the push for marriage equality a priority of the organization’s legislative agenda, but also gender identity protections and other legal initiatives to help benefit the LGBT community will be advanced.

I encourage you to visit Equality Maryland's website to see how you can participate. Following a rally, meetings will be set up with your district legislators so you can tell your personal story and thank them for past support, if applicable—a strategy that is clearly effective.

"We'll need an unprecedented showing of support for our legislative agenda from all of you – straight and gay, black and white, rural and urban, young and old," urged Mary Zicari, the Field Organizer for Equality Maryland in an e-mail announcement..

It does work. As a result of tenacious lobbying by PFLAG-Howard County—from participation at Lobby Days and setting up other meetings with the legislators—all three delegates from District 13 (Howard County) agreed to co-sponsor the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. They are Dels. Guy Guzzone, Shane Pendergras and Frank Turner.

Each of them had previous trepidation about same-sex marriage, which was a barrier to overcome. Now they are co-sponsoring the bill.

"This should give us hope that with persistence we really can move these legislators in the right direction," said Dan McCarthy, co-chair of PFLAG-Howard County’s Advocacy Committee.

It will take time, but it’s up to all of us to chip away at these barriers to make it happen.

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