Monday, December 28, 2009

2010: A Rebound Year?

2009 was a roller coaster ride for the lgbt community—both nationally and locally. We began the year optimistically with a new president being inaugurated who had declared himself to be a fierce advocate for LGBT rights.

Later, hope turned into anger by many because of the slow pace of ending discrimination in the military, in the workplace and partnership recognition. Tens of thousands took to the streets of DC to express their impatience and frustration.

We did witness some important victories, however, in New England, Iowa and Washington D.C. that offered us hope here in Maryland with respect to marriage equality. The election of a lesbian mayor in Houston confirmed that competence will win out regardless of sexual orientation. The signing into law of a Federal hate crimes bill—the first significant piece of federal legislation that protects the lgbt community—was monumental.

But there were also those bitter disappointments in Maine and New York. The outcome in Maine clearly proved we are not ready to win marriage equality at the ballot box.

And the news of high-profile murders and suicides linked to anti-gay hate and bullying tempered any victories. It demonstrates that there still are some who hate us; we clearly have a way to go.

Maryland didn’t shine either. While some welcome inheritance tax relief for same-sex couples was achieved during the 2009 General Assembly, more significant legislation to protect transgendered individuals and a bill to legalize same-sex marriage never saw the light of day.

We witnessed the demise of esteemed long-time LGBT institutions like the Washington Blade and Lambda Rising bookstore towards the end of the year. And, sadly, it is possible that others may follow.

As up and down as 2009 was, the energy and passion, particularly from lgbt youth and allies, could help make 2010 historic. We are confident that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has a good chance of passage in 2010 and that concrete steps towards repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" are a real possibility.

Although we do not expect to see marriage equality legislated during Maryland’s 2010 General Assembly, we are calling for our readers and the community as a whole to press lawmakers to ensure that a bill that adds gender identity and expression to the state’s nondiscrimination law and the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act escape the shadows of a committee and make it to the floor so that a full, vigorous debate can take place.

That process can begin during Lobby Day on February 8 when there will be an opportunity to tell your personal stories directly to lawmakers. And it can continue by inundating the responsible committee members’ offices with, letters, phone calls and e-mails.

We also call on Equality Maryland, the state’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, to hold substantive meetings with the Governor and legislative leaders prior to the session to help pave the way for these initiatives.

The fact that 2010 is an election year should not stymie these efforts. When IS the right time?

We should also keep the pressure on Congress and the President to make good on promises yet at the same time recognize that our LGBT-related priorities must compete with the economy and national security.

So, it will be up to all of us to help make 2010 a rebound year that could steady the wild ride of 2009. Have a happy, healthy and safe 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NY Defeat on Marriage Offers Another Lesson

By Steve Charing

As we lose at the ballot box and in state legislatures, we pick up some valuable lessons in our quest for marriage equality in Maryland.

Legislators in Maine earlier in the year approved same-sex marriage and the governor signed it into law, only to have it undone by referendum. That vote in November stripped marriage equality from the state’s LGBT couples. From this we learned that winning marriage equality at the ballot box is a long way off, if it ever happens, and it should be avoided at all costs.

Even with fewer resources (as was the case in Maine) our opponents seem to effectively launch smear campaigns against LGBT couples. Through the use of advertisements, letter writing and e-mail blasts, they lie with impunity concerning our relationships. They rally religious institutions to preach against us. They scare neighbors. They scare educators. Ultimately they scare the voters who buy into this hooey. And since there are far more straight people than LGBT folks and allies, we would be well served to avoid allowing minority rights to be put to a popular vote. The numbers aren’t there yet for us.

Where do we go? Ballot initiatives are out of the question. The judiciary, sensitive to the fictitious label of “activist judges,” is resistant to accepting individual lawsuits plus the legal machinations of these can take eons.

We move on to state legislatures, which, in theory, reflect the attitudes and positions of the electorate. Lawmakers are political animals and are sensitive to the movement of the political winds.

When we were losing the image war in 2004 over gay marriage, politicians—including most Democrats—jumped out of the way as if a wayward bus was driving on the sidewalk. We lost every ballot measure that election and gave politicians the cover to avoid the subject.

Things started to improve slightly as the experience in Massachusetts—the first state to legalize same-sex marriage—proved that the predicted destruction of civilization failed to materialize.

In New York, it seemed that we were on the precipice of adding another state to the five whom have seen the light. The state’s Assembly voted several times in favor of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. But a handful of Democrats in the state Senate changed their minds and voted against the bill. By a vote of 24-38, the Senate killed the measure that Gov. Paterson was eager to sign into law.

Of course, no Republican voted for marriage equality and proponents of same-sex marriage had counted on the eight Dems who bailed. This defeat occurred despite a recent Marist College poll showed that 51 percent of New York voters support legalizing same-sex marriage while 42 percent opposed it.

Following the vote on December 2, Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire Pride Agenda who pushed for the bill said they now have a road map for 2010. “We certainly know who are our friends. We certainly go to bed tonight knowing where our support is, and that’s a victory,” he said.

And that’s our lesson.

In Maryland we have been completely stymied by the fact that the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act and its predecessor bill has yet to make it through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. This, despite the fact we have a Democratic governor, Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate and an overwhelming majority of Democrats in each chamber. That committee has also been responsible for applying a stranglehold on transgender protection legislation.

By keeping the marriage bill as well as the transgender measure bottled up in committee, we are deprived of an up-and-down vote to determine who our friends—and our enemies—really are.
Those close to the legislative process believe that Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller wants to keep it that way because he is loathe to see such a potentially contentious and divisive bill make it to the floor.

But we need to help shake it loose during the 2010 General Assembly, which will begin next month. As a community, we must support Equality Maryland’s efforts to free the bill from being held hostage by the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

We will be told that it is an election year and little will happen on the marriage front because of it. That song is getting old. Because it IS an election year, there is all the more reason to put pressure on the lawmakers, especially Democrats, as they will be trolling for contributions and ultimately votes later in the year.

Check out Equality Maryland's website to obtain contact information on the committees’ chairmen and members. We must barrage these people with phone calls and e-mails to make things happen.

Don’t depend on Equality Maryland to do all the heavy lifting.Grass roots organizing will be essential to accomplish our mission. At the very least, we must push for these bills to leave the shadows of the committee and make its way on the floors of the Senate and House so that the spotlight can shine on the legislators who must go on record with a vote.

That should be our immediate strategy and a lesson well learned from N.Y.