Tuesday, May 06, 2008

With Involvement We Gain Influence

By Steve Charing

Following the completion of the 2008 Maryland General Assembly there were activists and members of the gay press who were critical of the results. While two domestic partnership measures passed both chambers, two other initiatives that formed the cornerstone of Equality Maryland’s legislative agenda failed.

A bill that would legalize civil marriage for lgbt couples and one that would extend legal protections to transgendered individuals both died in committee without a vote. There is no question that few realistically expected the marriage bill to succeed given the clear opposition from the leaders of the Senate and House. The failure to pass a transgender bill, however, was a travesty.

There was a good deal of finger-pointing and second-guessing, and many were miffed that even a civil unions measure—a controversial concept in its own right—did not make it to the floor. Some railed against our state leaders; some blamed Democratic lawmakers; some took umbrage with Equality Maryland’s strategy; and others pointed to the lgbt community’s insufficient level of involvement during the session.

"There are about 15,600 same-sex couples living in Maryland, yet only about 500 people showed up for Equality Maryland’s lobby day in February," wrote Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff in an editorial that presented several factors for the session’s failures. "Gays have grown complacent and apathetic, always assuming that someone else is doing the heavy lifting. As the results of this session prove, lawmakers won’t do the right thing until enough voters demand it…Maryland’s gay residents must look in the mirror to see the real face of blame."

Naff is right on target, and I said so in a Maryland lgbt political newsgroup discussion board that sparked comments from some who deny the existence of widespread apathy or don’t view apathy and complacency as seriously damaging to our cause.

But it is. For a variety of reasons, not all members of the lgbt community consider marriage equality, or transgender rights for that matter, critical. But lawmakers need to see a united community and in big numbers for them to take politically risky positions.

Let’s face it, you cannot eliminate apathy and complacency. And you cannot preach to folks to be more politically inclined. Nonetheless, there are ways to increase political involvement, and it begins in the neighborhood.

When Delegate Talmadge Branch of the 45th District in Northeast Baltimore denied the existence of gays and lesbians in his district, it triggered a call to action. Inspired by that snub, lgbt citizens came together and with the help from Equality Maryland, formed a group called Equality 45.

They appeared at the last Pride festival, complete with a map of the district and colored stars, which pride-goers used to indicate their residence on the map. It caught on fast. It became cool to fight back, and others who may not have been previously active politically joined the movement to establish visibility within the district.

It has paid off. The members of Equality 45 participated in the past two Lobby Days in Annapolis, conducted ongoing dialogues with their legislators and held a successful town hall meeting in October whereby several of the elected officials appeared.

"We're now discussing our next goals," said Susan Francis, Development Director for Equality Maryland who helped form the group. "We're talking about doing another town hall, as well as doing a financial planning workshop for our lgbt neighbors. We're also looking for opportunities to volunteer in our neighborhood and to make sure we're active participants in our local community, and we'll be tabling at Baltimore Pride again."

Susan added that there is now a fledgling group in District 43 in North Baltimore, with whom they are planning to share a table at next month’s Pride.

Having a strong local advocacy group taking up our causes is a proven path to success as demonstrated by the experience in Howard County’s District 13 (Columbia-Clarksville). The Columbia/Howard County chapter of PFLAG has been the focal point for lgbt advocacy in the district as well as neighboring districts. Just a couple of years ago, District 13’s delegates and senator were squeamish concerning marriage equality. All were Democrats and generally supportive of other lgbt issues, but saw "marriage" as problematic.

With continuing dialogues, sharing our personal stories, delivering a substantial turnout for Lobby Day, and earning the lawmakers’ trust and respect, all three delegates co-sponsored this year’s Religious Freedom and Marriage Protection Act—a major accomplishment while the senator supported the two gay-friendly bills mentioned earlier. This transformation would not have occurred had it not been for the determined effort by the chapter’s members.

The experience in both District 45 and District 13 should be a model for other districts, particularly in Baltimore City where a number of Democratic lawmakers are supportive of most lgbt issues but remain hesitant about marriage equality. That shouldn’t be allowed to stand.

Sometimes it takes a kick in the butt to get people motivated. During a legislative hearing on the marriage bill, Delegate Frank Conaway, Jr. of District 40 had made homophobic comments. Equality Maryland whipped out an e-mail to lgbt constituents in the district to prod a protest, which several carried out. Later, Del. Conaway apologized, but it was clear that the power of activism cannot be understated.

This district is ripe for a grass roots lgbt advocacy organization. It includes such lgbt- populous areas as Hampden, Remington, Mount Vernon and Charles Village. In fact, according to the 2000 census, ZIP code 21218, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Abell, Guilford and Charles Village, contains the most same-sex couples than any ZIP code in the state.

"It's definitely an idea worth pursuing," said Abigail Cohen, the district’s Lobby Day coordinator. "We had a large turnout from District 40 for Lobby Day, and there were a lot of people who were very disturbed by Del. Conaway's remarks at the hearing and want to take further action. We had met with Del. Conaway on Lobby Day and he was cordial, so his later remarks came as a shock."

It shouldn’t have. According to the Baltimore Messenger, Del. Conaway had said in September that allowing civil marriage for gays and lesbians will open the floodgates to the state having to recognize other unconventional relationships, such as polygamy.

Imagine the level of influence a well-organized group in District 40 would possess. The many lgbt citizens should join forces with The P.O.R.T.A.L—an African-American lgbt center and service provider—that is also located in the district, to flex their muscles. Elected officials, such as Del. Conaway would likely pay attention.

This is how you combat apathy. You get your friends and neighbors to mobilize, join hands and fight for what’s right. It does work.


John Clark said...

Steve, that would be an old district map. I live in the 47th; it ain't been in Bawlmer since the last re-districting moved it to here in PG. Now I grew up next to it in AA Co, but that was a long time ago.

Aside from the map, this is a good start to talk about next steps. It seems the first step for all of us is to canvass Montgomery Co. if the referendum to overturn the law that will protect transgendered people is cleared for a vote. This will give us a great opportunity to organize the community at the grass roots. We must protect this law to have any chance of getting Inclusive-ENDA through Annapolis next year.

Steve Charing said...


The map is the most recent I can find. If you have a more recent version, please send it to me. Nonetheless, the presentation of Districts 40 and 45--the focus of the article--is accurate I believe.