Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Take a Deep Breath…the Smoking Ban is Here

By Steve Charing

As this edition of OUTloud "hits the streets," a new page in Baltimore lgbt social culture is about to turn. Starting February 1, the ban on indoor smoking is in effect in all bars, clubs and restaurants in Baltimore and all over the state. For smokers and non-smokers alike, the era of returning home from these establishments with your shirt smelling like it had been used to wipe ashtrays is over.

But this law was not put into effect because of laundry issues and the amount of smoke that settles into your clothes. It was enacted during the 2007 General Assembly because of the amount of smoke that permeates the lungs of everyone around a smoker, and was backed by nearly three-quarters of Marylanders, based on a Gonzalez Poll.

The effort to ban smoking here had been buoyed by a report in 2006 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."

This past April I used this space to discuss the possible implications of the ban on the local bar owners and the community. In short, some owners were accepting of the ban and were even eager to have it implemented because they saw it as a way to improve the environment for their customers and employees. On the other hand, one bar owner insisted that he would lose business as a result of the ban and plans to appeal.

I had speculated that smokers will learn to cope and will continue to enjoy the bar culture, which they seek. I also believed (and still do) that many people who eschewed the bar scene in part because of the smoky conditions may now return or try them out for the first time.

In Baltimore several owners of gay bars are making renovations to their establishments to accommodate their smoking patrons. Some of these include a smoking deck at Grand Central, a covered outdoor patio at the Baltimore Eagle and a structure of some sort outside the rear door of The Quest. Others who cannot make such changes will have to address the litter, loitering and noise caused by those who step outside the bar to light up
I randomly surveyed several bar owners and managers in neighboring locales like Washington D.C. and Delaware who have had to deal with smoking bans for over a year. The results were mixed but clearly not as apocalyptic as some fear.

"The smoking ban did not affect business too much," said Perry Morehouse, a manager of the popular club Omega on DC’s P Street. "It led to a better working environment. But the only problem is with people congregating outside."

John Berdini, the owner of Cloud 9 in Rehoboth Beach told me that littering from outside smokers is a problem even though he installed ashtrays. "In the long run, however, the ban was a good idea," he said. "I’m glad the state made the decision for me because there were too many conflicts between the avid smokers and passionate anti-smoking customers." He added that the ban had an effect on business to some degree but it also brought in new customers.

Sayed, a manager of the 1409 Playbill CafĂ©, a theater restaurant and bar in DC, said he was not losing customers but revenue. "When people go out smoking, they are not drinking. I’m losing about a drink per person." Sayed also acknowledged there were new customers since the ban went into effect but it didn’t make up for the lost revenue.

Phone calls and e-mails to Joey Oldaker, general manager of another P Street club, Apex, were not returned. But according to the results of an informal survey conducted by the Washington Blade shortly after the implementation of the ban, Oldaker had stated that his club lost customers and revenue as a result and had to raise prices slightly to accommodate that. "Our biggest concern is the people who go outside to smoke," Oldaker said in the Blade story published last May. "We're nearly surrounded by condos and the noise created by the people outside smoking could create problems."

In that same article the DC Eagle’s Bill Capello reported losses in revenue and customers and had planned to appeal based on hardship while the 17th Street bar DIK reported a gain in both revenue and customers. The Fireplace, too, saw an increase in customers.

I contacted a manager at the DC Eagle, Ted Clements, to determine if the financial conditions have improved since last Spring. "We have a patio where smokers can smoke. It’s just a matter of getting people to know that," he says. "There is still some loss of revenue from customers not crossing the river, but personally, as a non-smoker, I am not feeling the bad effects from sinus problems since the ban."

What bar owners and managers neglect to account for is the loss of customers prior to the ban due to respiratory illnesses or death. Again, the thrust of this law was aimed at improving the health of the customers and employees of the bars by protecting them from secondhand smoke. A smoker can demand personal freedom and such, but a non-smoker also has the right to avoid toxic fumes.

This is definitely going to require an adjustment period that will take some time. But overall the bars and their owners will be better off, as well as their non-smoking employees and customers.

The lgbt community has enough divisions already: men and women, gay and transgendered, white and black, young and old, rich and poor, politically active and apathetic—I could go on ad nauseum. Smokers and non-smokers have also divided the community. Hopefully, adapting to this new law will at least help remove this chasm.

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.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What We Should Expect in 2008

By Steve Charing

Happy New Year! Last issue I offered a reality check and discussed what not to expect in 2008 in the political arena and elsewhere. Now I’d like to focus on what the lgbt community could anticipate this coming year at both the local and national levels.

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE WILL DRAW EARLY FIRE IN ANNAPOLIS. With the budget mess largely addressed at the recent special session of Maryland’s General Assembly, other matters—some as contentious—will get aired when the new session opens January 9.

The first salvo is expected to take place the day after the opening bell. According to Lisa Rein of the Annapolis Notebook, a House-Senate committee will hold a hearing on a proposed regulation defining domestic partnerships in state law. This debate is being conducted because of language in a health insurance law whereby insurance companies are required to offer benefits to domestic partners if their employers ask for it. The term "Domestic partnership" was not defined.

During this hearing, the nefarious anti-gay forces will crawl from under their sleazy rocks to denounce any semblance of same-sex partnership recognition. They will predict the destruction of the institution of marriage, ignoring its existing 50 percent failure rate.

We will hear that attack over and over from Delegate Don Dwyer and his legion of homophobes. And they will try, unsuccessfully I predict, to get a constitutional amendment on the books to ban same-sex marriage.

Nonetheless, expect to see during the session the introduction of the pro-equality Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act that would allow same-sex couples to be legally married in Maryland. Unfortunately, 2008 will not be the year this bill will be passed. There are far too many hurdles.

As part of their make-up, all Republican legislators will oppose it automatically. That’s a given. Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, a Democrat, has repeatedly stated his opposition to same-sex marriage and civil unions. That alone will kill any chances of passage this year. There are also other weak-kneed Democrats who will not support same-sex marriage and will use the abhorrent Court of Appeals 4-3 ruling in September as cover. A compromise, however, is a distinct possibility.

In time we will win full marriage rights. It’s an education and lobbying effort, and that must be pushed relentlessly. One Republican legislator, who requested not to be identified, told a group of us that in his heart he is with us, but he cannot buck his Party.

As long as the Republican playbook contains anti-gay positions, they will always attempt to thwart our progress. We must educate the public on the fairness issue and make it so that opposing our rights is bad politics. We must step up the message in 2008.

As part of Equality Maryland’s legislative agenda, there will be another attempt this year to end discrimination based on gender identity and expression. As you may recall, that effort failed last year despite broad support. Thank the Senate leadership for that.

Other less heralded, but still significant lgbt issues will be considered at the General Assembly, and I anticipate there will be some positive results. Check Equality Maryland’s website to learn how you can help and to participate in Lobby Day on February 11.

PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS AND GAY MARRIAGE—PART II. After the 2004 anti-gay marriage attacks by the Republicans, I think the electorate has recognized that the more pressing issues deserve the thoughtful attention of the candidates and should be the focus. The instability of Pakistan and other Middle East unrest, Iraq, national security, illegal immigration, healthcare and to some extent, the worsening economy should be enough for the candidates to chew on.

Nonetheless, look for gay marriage to surface during the 2008 presidential campaign, but definitely not as much as in 2004. Like I said, though, anti-gay positions are always part of the GOP playbook, so don’t be surprised if gay marriage rears its head at some point.

This is especially true if the California Supreme Court rules in the spring or summer in favor of same-sex marriage. Remember those dreaded "activist judges"?

No matter who the Democrats ultimately nominate, that person will be opposed to same-sex marriage, thus stifling any charges by the Republican nominee. But a Democrat will support partnership recognition in other forms. There will also be fewer states placing constitutional amendments that would ban same-sex marriage on the ballot than in 2004.

The GOP (historically winning) formula of "fear and smear" will still be out there despite the absence of Karl Rove. They will truly attempt to demonize the Democratic nominee and sling the mud for the smear part of the equation. Then there will the "fear factor" that entails illegal immigrants, Islamo-Fascism (whatever that is), higher taxes, and of course, the trusty destruction of the family (code for anti-gay). That leads me to…

MIGHT THERE BE ANOTHER LARRY CRAIG MOMENT IN 2008? Following the likes of Mark Foley, Ted Haggarty and the "I’m not gay, never was gay" toe-tapping Larry Craig, don’t be surprised to see another closeted, homophobic Republican to be caught with his pants down or fingers on the mouse.

There are quite a few closeted Republicans who have gone on record opposing gay rights who draw whispers and outright charges from bloggers and others that they are actually gay. Don’t be shocked if another one’s behavior outs himself or gets outed during this amazing year that has only just begun.