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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Upcoming Primaries: A Way to Get Our Voices Heard

By Steve Charing
Senior Political Analyst

Rich Madaleno, an openly gay state Delegate (Montgomery County) now running for state Senate, told the Washington Blade, "I’m surprised [by] the number of gay people whose doors I knock on. I introduce myself as ‘The gay guy who’s been representing you for the last four years,’ and they’re like, ‘Really? Wow.’"

That is a sad commentary on the lack of interest in politics by a large segment of the lgbt community (as well as much of the general population). Too many are happy in their comfort zone of apathy and just enjoying their own little world. Madaleno’s "surprise" at the reaction of his gay constituents is, by itself, a revelation; he should have been more aware of the widespread apathy—an ongoing impediment to activism.

But for those of us who seek to make things better, if not for ourselves, but for the younger generation of lgbt people, engagement in the political process is key. And the upcoming primary elections on September 12 will afford us a good opportunity to make our voices heard.

Not only is it important to participate as a civic duty and to try to improve the plight of lgbt folks, but this year will feature as many as eight openly lgbt candidates for the Maryland General Assembly. Electing individuals friendly to our cause as well as their being strong on other weighty issues is vital to our drive for equality.

This 2006 election year brings significant statewide and local races. The primaries serve to winnow out candidates of the same party to determine who will be bumping heads in the general elections in November. Often, these primary elections feature multiple candidates from an individual party whose differences on policy may be scant or nuanced. Usually at the end, it boils down to personal popularity, name recognition, electability, likability and other factors.

For example, the race for the oddly shaped 3rd Congressional District—a seat vacated by Ben Cardin who is running for U.S. Senate—is distinguished by an unusually crowded pool competing from both parties. But the Democrats are fielding an excellent group led by Paula Hollinger, John Sarbanes, Andy Barth and Dr. Peter Bielenson.

The top job in Maryland—Governor—will not be battled out in the primaries, as neither candidate, Democrat Mayor Martin O’Malley nor Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr., faces any opposition from within their own ranks.

The outcome in the General Assembly is vital to maintain if not an absolute pro-lgbt posture, at least one that prevents a hostile environment for pro-lgbt causes, such as marriage equality, adoptions and partnership benefits. The record clearly shows that lgbt causes fair better with Democrats than Republicans, but not all Democrats have been on our side or helpful. Hardly any Republicans are, however.

One needs to pay attention to the candidates’ record and positions. As a guide, check out Equality Maryland’s website at www.EqualityMaryland.org for their endorsements at the state level.

The Senate contest to fill retiring Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes’ seat is going to be one that is closely watched nationally. Indeed, NBC’s Meet the Press will be televising a debate between the two emerging rivals on October 29. Maryland, a "blue state" must retain the Democratic Senate seat, or any hopes of recapturing the Senate will be dashed.

Why is that important? If the Democrats wrest control of either the Senate or House of Representatives or both, they will be in a position to determine what legislation makes it to the floor for votes. They will also control committees, which influences legislation.

That will virtually guarantee that a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, for example, will never see the light of day under Democratic leadership. Moreover, progressive pro-lgbt bills like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal of the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" military travesty have a better chance of advancing in a Democrat-controlled Congress.

While several Senate candidates with solid pro-gay stances are competing in the primaries, Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Benjamin Cardin are the presumed frontrunners to face Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele in November.

Mr. Mfume has pledged to oppose any attempts to amending the U.S. or Maryland Constitution that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman. Rep. Ben Cardin, while not overtly supporting same-sex marriage, still has a rather high pro-gay score of 77 during the 108th Congress as assessed by the Human Rights Campaign—the nation’s largest lgbt advocacy group.
Although some gays prefer Mfume because he would seem like a more actively supportive advocate in Congress, others see Cardin as the best chance to defeat the anti-gay Michael Steele head-to-head.

The primary elections will also feature contests for state Comptroller, Attorney General, all Congressional seats, the entire General Assembly, local judges, boards of education, sheriffs, etc.
To be sure, gay issues are under the radar in Maryland this election cycle as other matters have a higher priority for voters. Nonetheless, the Maryland Appeals Court will eventually hand down its decision on the Deane and Polyak v. Conaway lawsuit that has challenged the constitutionality of the state’s marriage laws.

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled favorably for the plaintiffs. If the Appeals Court upholds the ruling, we can expect a backlash from conservative lawmakers and a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman will undoubtedly be sought. That is a compelling reason to participate in both the primary and general elections to ensure that lgbt or lgbt-friendly officials are elected.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Military Ban Must be Repealed

The homophobic ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy has been an abject failure: it doesn’t work, and it compromises national security

By Steve Charing
Senior Political Analyst

While the push for same-sex marriage has taken center stage in the lgbt community’s fight for equality, a slightly less controversial effort to repeal the Pentagon’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) policy has been gaining traction.

Indeed, The Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1059), introduced in March 2005 by Congressman Marty Meehan (D-MA) now has about 120 supporters, including 5 Republican legislators. "When this issue comes up, members who believe that gays shouldn't be in the military are now more hesitant to voice their opinion," Maryland Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, a Vietnam War veteran, recently told the Washington Post. "Many of us who feel the other way have come out of the closet, so to speak."

Moreover, recent polling suggests that 80 percent of the American public support gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

This insidious policy, implemented in 1993 as a compromise law between President Clinton’s intended executive order to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military and Congress’ desire to maintain the status quo with the strong backing of the military’s brass, has been a dismal calamity and needs to be overturned.

In essence, lgbt members of the armed forces may serve just so long as the person does not admit to being gay, discuss it with anybody in the service, engage in a sexual activity or appear in gay establishments. In other words, lgbt military personnel cannot act on their orientation and must keep it a secret.

For their part the military is supposedly not permitted to ask if the person is gay at the time of enlistment or pursue information about the sexual orientation of a servicemember. And there is not supposed to be harassment targeting these individuals.

Under the rules prior to DADT, military personnel were totally forbidden to serve if they were gay. As a result, many thousands of capable men and women were drummed out of the military for being gay frequently following witchhunts.

The current policy has seen little improvement over the prior ghastly regulations. A University of California study concluded that the Department of Defense has discharged more than 11,000 servicemembers since 1993 under DADT at a cost of $363 million. According to the Government Accountability Office, more than 800 of those service members were trained in skills deemed ‘mission-critical’ by the Pentagon. And others discharged included much-needed Arabic linguists—crucial personnel in the war on terrorism.

The rationale for barring lgbt people from the military was that it would compromise unit cohesion. But as Dr. Galen Grant, a retired Army Captain and licensed clinical psychologist and now a representative of the Military Community Services Network said, "The DADT policy has the opposite effect on unit cohesion. If you cannot talk to someone about your sexual orientation, how can you trust that person in battle?"

The resistance stems more from the institutionalized homophobia within the military (e.g. perpetuating the irrational fear of straight soldiers being accosted by gay men in the showers) than by individual servicemembers themselves. Yet, DADT has created a pervasive unsafe environment for lgbt service personnel. Several beatings and murders of servicemembers have taken place since the onset of the policy for being perceived as gay.

Other civilized countries do not seem to have the same hang-ups as the U.S. Over 24 industrial nations (including Great Britain, France, Australia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Canada, Germany and Israel) allow open service, and 13 have battled along side the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq without any gay-related problems.

People choose to serve in the Armed Forces for myriad reasons. Most are patriotic, or want to continue a family tradition and/or they may find military service to be a path towards obtaining an education or establishing a career where they may not otherwise have the opportunity. Many seek upward mobility from their current economic situation. Those in the lgbt community who sign up believe they can handle the DADT policy and continue to serve.

It’s not that easy.

Merely discussing one’s sexual orientation with another servicemember could lead to a discharge process though the level of enforcement varies with each commanding officer. And, of course, enjoying a same-sex relationship can be perilous if found out. Even corresponding with gay people out of the service could be grounds for suspicion and investigation.

Other servicemembers, gay and straight, have attempted to use DADT to deliberately get discharged to avoid deployment to Iraq. It seems that being blown up from roadside bombs in Baghdad is not appealing. Typically, military commanders disallow that tactic; they ship the soldiers off to Iraq, and if and when they return from the tour, the discharge process is then initiated after they served their country in combat. Nice.

Until there is a repeal of DADT, being kicked out is not the only problem facing lgbt servicemembers. They lack the same care and support as other servicemembers receive. Returning gay servicemembers from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq risk disclosure of their sexual orientation by participating in post-deployment peer counseling or other mental health programs offered by the military.

Recognizing these and other inequities, the aforementioned Military Community Services Network (www.mcsn.org) was formed in 2004. The Arlington-based organization is attempting to fill a void for gay servicemembers and veterans as well as their partners and families by providing a wide range of services from mental health services and peer counseling to financial and childcare related assistance. These services cannot otherwise be obtained lest the active members violate DADT.

One of MCSN’s goals is to educate the public about DADT and its impact on the lgbt community. In addition it gives training to other supportive organizations (representatives recently visited PFLAG-Howard County) as well as offering lgbt military sensitivity and peer mentor training.
While MCSN provides social and economic services, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (
www.sldn.org) offers legal services, especially to those servicemembers contesting discharges under DADT.

These organizations would like nothing better than to go out of business because of the repeal of the DADT policy. Our country has lost the talents and skills of thousands of patriotic Americans for simply being who they are.

Congress must be pressured to act to repeal this grotesque policy. Straight veterans who knew of lgbt servicemembers need to step forward and argue that no problems surfaced because their colleagues were gay.

The country did not collapse when it integrated African-Americans and women into the armed forces; it was better for it. It is time the U.S. military joins the other civilized nations in the 21st century and drop the homophobia if for nothing else, national security.