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Monday, February 20, 2012

And Now the Hard Part

Three gay Baltimore delegates Luke Clippinger, Maggie McIntosh and Mary Washington joined some folks from Equality Maryland on a “bar crawl” the night after the House of Delegates made Maryland history by passing the Civil Marriage Protection bill by a vote of 72-67. They were clinking glasses and celebrating a well-earned victory emanating from the hard work and courage from so many people.

The entourage visited such watering holes as the Laughing Pint, Grand Central and Club Hippo. And to cap it off, the trio stood up at the latter’s karaoke and sang “Chapel of Love,” which is becoming an unofficial anthem of the marriage equality movement. You may recall that lovable 1964 pop standard made famous by the Dixie Cups: “Goin’ to the chapel/And we're gonna get ma-a-arried…”

By the time this publication hits the streets, marriage for same-sex couples in Maryland will be closer to reality. By then the Senate should have passed the measure as they did during the 2011 General Assembly, and one of the heroes of this endeavor, Governor Martin O’Malley, will sign it into law.

This had been, of course, a monumental struggle. It took an incredible amount of effort by the Governor to complete a difficult journey where he started off several years ago by supporting only civil unions and came around to make marriage equality a major part of his legislative agenda. He pushed every button at his disposal, tirelessly attempting to persuade wavering delegates. He put his political prestige on the line to help make it happen.

While some cynics question O’Malley’s motives, such as the speculation that he is planning a presidential run in 2016 and needs to catch up to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to compete for gay money, who cares?

Does it really matter that Del. Tiffany Alston (D-Prince George’s) who was a “No” vote almost up until the actual floor debate decided to support the bill merely to rid the legislature of this chronic issue and felt best that the people decide? The result is what matters, and hopefully thousands of Maryland gay and lesbian couples will be able to reap the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as the rest of the state’s married couples.

This legislative victory had many other heroes—too many to mention—but surely a measure of gratitude should go to our gay caucus in the House and Senate, the two Republicans in the House (Delegates Costa and Kach) and Sen. Kittleman in the Senate who set party dogma aside to do what’s right for Maryland’s citizens. And, of course, House Speaker Michael Busch.

And we should thank all those organizations, volunteers, religious leaders, as well as the community at large who pushed hard for passage. For those activists who refused to settle for civil unions legislation, this was vindication.

Now comes the hard part.

While the legislative path was not an easy one to travel despite the happy ending, we are far from out of the woods. Opponents, including major religious groups with oodles of money that will be donated from all over the nation, are chomping at the bit to deny Maryland’s gay and lesbian couples the right to marry in the Free State. They should feel good about themselves; they have a 31-0 record on state ballots so far in preventing the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples.

As a solid “blue” state, Maryland would appear to be in a good position to break that streak. However, there is widespread apprehension that the organization that took over the fight, Marylanders for Marriage Equality, has focused on the legislative battles but has not done much planning to fight the inevitable referendum.

This belief has been disputed by the organization’s spokesman, but a feeling of unease hovers like a cloud over marriage equality advocates. Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, told me that this concern is the reason his organization didn’t join the coalition.

Last September I opined in this paper as well as in the Washington Blade that the planning for the referendum should begin at that time. As I wrote then, “The main focus of the plan should be to bring in money—lots of it—and in a down economy to boot. Just to raise funds to counter the advertisements by opponents in the high-priced media markets of Baltimore and Washington will be daunting in itself. The need for printed material, phone banking and other related expenses will cost a bundle as well.”

With an expected higher than normal turnout of church-going African-American voters who generally do not favor marriage equality, the Dream Act being on the ballot, the likelihood of older voters significantly outnumbering younger pro-marriage equality voters, and what appears to be a significant money deficit at this time, the task is intimidating to say the least.

Yet, if the community pulls together to accomplish the goal of defeating a Prop 8-like referendum, the impossible may actually be plausible. Gays, lesbians and allies who can afford it will need to finance this expensive battle. HRC, one of the coalition organizations within Marylanders for Marriage Equality, will need to raise money from outside Maryland to compete with the opponents. All coalition organizations will need to provide resources and boots on the ground to fight the effort to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.

And supportive legislators should, if possible, go into their respective districts to campaign against the referendum with direct voter contact. Town hall meetings would be an efficient method to educate a public, which will be besieged by lies and propaganda from the other side.

Although it would have been preferable for the strategy sessions to have begun, say back in September, it is still not too late. This is an historic fight, and if done right, we all could be singing “Chapel of Love” next year.

Photo: Tim Walstrum

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