Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down

By Steve Charing

There is so much stuff going on in the political arena I feel like I’m all thumbs. Clearly there are good things happening, but others not so good. What else is new? To highlight some of these, I will give my thumbs up or down on the latest news affecting our community.

Thumbs Up: Let’s start with Sen. James Brochin (Baltimore County) of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. He heard testimony from over a hundred supporters and opponents of the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act on February 8. Although he had been opposed to marriage for same-sex couples and preferred civil unions, he did an about face and came out for full marriage equality. Why? Because the arguments presented by the opponents were mean-spirited, hateful and b.s. He had enough. They are their own worst enemy.

Thumbs Down: The Senate through the amendment process on February 23 stripped the words “Religious Freedom” from the name of the bill to the “Civil Marriage Protection Act.” This was as a result of a suggestion from Senator Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), a consistent opponent of marriage equality. The consequence of this change is that when the inevitable referendum takes place, the revised name of the bill will hide the fact that the bill contains religious protections, which would have perhaps mitigated some opponents’ ire.

Thumbs Up: Lobby Day on February 14 went well, benefitting from unseasonably mild weather and the buzz over the real possibility of significant legislation being passed this year. A large enthusiastic crowd attended the rally, which was well organized, and coupled with the face-to-face lobbying, hopefully effective.

Thumbs Down: Although there was a good group of speakers including lead sponsors of the two signature legislative initiatives and former Equality Maryland head Dan Furmansky, there was no strong headliner to draw even more people and really stoke the crowd. In the past Judy Shepard and Bishop Eugene Robinson were welcome additions to the Lobby Day podium.

Attorney General Gansler spoke, but conspicuously absent was Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown who many are penciling in as Gansler’s primary opponent in the 2014 gubernatorial race. Brown had recently offered his public support for the marriage bill. And Gov. O’Malley would have also been an ideal headliner. What a statement that would have made. Did Equality Maryland invite these officials?

Thumbs Up: The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 7-4 on February 17 to move the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act forward. It marked the first time the bill made it out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a debate and vote unless there is a filibuster. The November elections and a restructuring of the committee to include more supporters greatly improved the chances. If it passes in the Senate, it moves to the House, which is expected to go our way.

Thumbs Down: The controversy surrounding the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act (see front page story) has drawn passion from both sides—those who oppose the current legislation because it does not include “public accommodations” and those who want to get something passed this year even without that provision. Some have even suggested that more emphasis has been placed on the marriage bill at the expense of the gender identity measure and others reject that notion wholeheartedly. Regardless of how one stands, the discourse, for the most part, has been ugly and personal at a time our community needs to unite—all of us—LGB and T.

Thumbs Up: The B’more Proud LGBTIA Leadership Summit held on February 12 at Hopkins was a huge success (see front page story). Logistically, it could not have run better, so kudos to the committee and organizers for doing a great job.

But more importantly, it was gratifying to see nearly 300 college students from the Baltimore-DC area come together and get involved. As polls continue to show, the younger generation will help win LGBT equality as they replace the older and more conservative voters. Observing the passion and interest and their eagerness to learn about important issues justifies my optimism.

Thumbs Up: A not well-known fact is the advocacy work of the Columbia/Howard County chapter of PFLAG. What do the following three senators in Howard County have in common? Sen. Jim Robey (a former cop), Sen. Ed Kasemeyer (who besides Howard he represents a blue collar conservative constituency in Baltimore County) and Sen. Allan Kittleman (a Republican) all opposed marriage equality at some point. Now all three are planning to vote for the bill on the Senate floor.

Representatives from the PFLAG chapter doggedly met with these senators as well as county delegates (except for anti-gay Gail Bates and Warren Miller who refused meetings) over the years. Chapter members told their stories in an effort to convince concerned legislators. It has paid off, and now all three are on board.

Thumbs Down: While this is not local and not directly affecting the LGBT community, a thumbs down to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for his union-busting tactics. It’s a cynical attempt to weaken unions so they cannot help Democrats in future elections. Keep in mind unions have traditionally been a reliable supporter of LGBT rights.

Thumbs Down: Entertainer Justin Bieber for his comment in Rolling Stone about his views on being gay. “It's everyone's own decision to do that,” declaring that it is a choice. Um, no! Better that he listen to Lady Gaga who said, “There are some people in this world that believe being gay is a choice. It’s not a choice, we’re born this way.”

But the Biebs earned a Thumbs Up when he went on to say, “It doesn't affect me and shouldn't affect anyone else.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Confusing Marriage, Matrimony Muddles Same-Sex Debate

Letter Published in the Feb. 17 Edition of Howard County Times:

I want to thank Doug Miller’s support for marriage equality and join in his well-deserved praise for the courage exhibited by Sen. Allan H. Kittleman as he declared that same-sex couples should be treated equal to those of opposite-sex married couples ( “Kittleman isn’t on the wrong side of the aisle, but on the right side of history,” February 10).

Equality is one of the cornerstones of our nation (‘all men are created equal’); it is not a Republican or Democratic concept, but sadly with respect to marriage for same-sex couples, it largely is. Sen. Kittleman clearly put his principles and his natural instincts for civil rights before party politics.

However I disagree with Mr. Miller’s assertion that “marriage itself is an institution of religion, an article of faith. As such, it should be hands-off as far as the government is concerned.” I believe that many opponents of marriage equality, and even supporters such as Mr. Miller and Sen. Kittleman conflate the terms “marriage” and “matrimony.”

The fact is that marriage is sanctioned by government by the execution of a signed marriage license. The benefits, rights and responsibilities conferred upon married couples stem from the state government. What needs to be acknowledged is that a significant number of people choose to marry in courthouses, town clerk’s offices and at city halls whose ceremonies are officiated by a secular justice of the peace in most of these cases.

Religious institutions—churches, synagogues and mosques—also conduct these ceremonies, but the term used for the faith-based services should be matrimony, not marriage. For example, atheists are permitted to marry, and accordingly, are recognized by society and the state government as married even though the union wasn’t blessed and officiated by a member of the clergy.

Those advocating for marriage for same-sex couples support a bill currently being considered in the Maryland legislature that provides the right for religious institutions to refuse to marry same-sex couples. What marriage equality advocates are seeking is civil marriage—a standing whereby society recognizes the couple as married and one which entitles the couples to the benefits and rights provided by the state that opposite-sex married couples routinely receive.

As Sen. Kittleman said, “Our government is not a theocracy.” And that is my point.

Steve Charing

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Honoring Black History Month

By Steve Charing

Black History Month affords an opportunity for African-Americans to reflect upon one’s identity, heritage, culture and those whose contributions and achievements throughout history had paved the way for progress. It is a source of pride as well as introspection. And we all should participate—black, white and rainbow—for the contributions of African-Americans are an indelible part of the American fabric that formed our nation.

The fight for black civil rights had been an excruciating struggle. Marked by the de-humanizing effects of the Constitution’s considering blacks to be three-fifths of a person, slavery, the horrific Jim Crow bloodshed and lynchings, segregation, disenfranchisement and discrimination, the process to right these wrongs has been slow, agonizing and painful. These horrors will always remain in our history. And they should never be forgotten or minimized.

Laws have been put in place to eliminate the injustices on a legal level. Yet racism does and will persist, and the battle to eliminate it could take many decades.

We in the LGBT community have our civil rights battles, too. While our history has not been characterized by the suffering that numerous African-Americans had experienced, we are still searching for the same equality, justice and non-discrimination principles upon which our nation was founded.

LGBT folks have also been victims of hateful violence for being who we are. We could not serve openly in the armed forces to defend and die for our country, and until the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is certified, we still cannot. We can be fired from our jobs just for being who we are regardless of job proficiency.

Same-sex couples put their lives on the line if they choose to hold hands in public and such action is witnessed by a homophobic person or group. With few exceptions, these couples cannot marry in the U.S. Moreover, our government passed a law that forbids the recognition of marriage between same-sex couples at the federal level.

With these grievances, LGBT people can and should relate to the treatment blacks have experienced over the years. We can only hope that African-Americans see our struggles in the same context. And we should all pause and acknowledge that LGBT African-Americans have seen violence and discrimination for being in both groups.

For the most part, an alliance between gays and blacks has not been forged, and the relationship has been blemished by suspicion, misinformation, distrust and even resentment. Many African-Americans rebuke the notion that gays and lesbians advocating marriage equality and other measures do not constitute a civil rights movement.

But they are wrong.

The late Coretta Scott King spoke for her husband when she said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Representative John Lewis, who fought alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the black civil rights battles said, "I've heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry."

And civil rights leader Julian Bond pointed out, "That's why when I am asked, 'Are gay rights civil rights?' my answer is always, 'Of course they are.'"

Too many black ministers excoriate gay people from their pulpits when talking about “gay marriage.” They use Scripture in the same manner that white southern preachers did to promote slavery, segregation and disenfranchisement. History has not yet taught them that discrimination is wrong. They are shrouded in the darkness of prejudice themselves and cherry-pick the Old Testament as justification but failing to acknowledge that Jesus Christ never once condemned homosexuality.

What may not be apparent is the fact that gays and lesbians, including whites, were integral participants in the black civil rights movement. Though many were closeted at the time, others were openly gay, such as Bayard Rustin (pictured), an African-American, who was the lead organizer the March on Washington in 1963.

Gays and lesbians walked arm-in-arm with blacks during those iconic marches of the 60’s. They joined forces, even risked their lives, to help blacks achieve the right to vote without undue barriers. This was acknowledged by Mrs. King and is part of black history as well as LGBT history. It should not be overlooked.

The uneasiness between the two groups is a point of concern. Following the Proposition 8 ballot initiative in 2008, fingers were pointed by gay activists towards the African-American community for voting to uphold Prop 8. While a majority of black voters supported Prop. 8 and thereby denying marriage equality to same-sex couples in California, a review of post-election data concludes that various other factors contributed to the defeat at the polls, such as the generation gap.

And if and when Maryland voters face a similar initiative in 2012, you can be sure that the nefarious opponents of equality will attempt to drive a wedge between the African-American and LGBT communities by accusing gays of hijacking the civil rights movement as our own to the consternation of many African-Americans.

African-Americans should rightly be proud of their history and contributions while contemplating the painful past on the road to equality and justice. We all should. We celebrate the achievements of numerous black men and women with the culmination being the election of the first ever African-American to be President of the United States.

And African-Americans would be honoring their heritage and journey—not just in February but year-round—if they remain cognizant of the trailblazing civil rights leaders of yesterday and today who believed in the principle that all men are created equal and that discrimination is wrong. Period.