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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reality Check: What Not to Expect in 2008

By Steve Charing

‘Tis the season that most people are brimming with optimism and high hopes that the coming year will be an improvement over the current one on various levels. While no one is suggesting that will not be the case in 2008, there are areas that require a reality check to tamp down false optimism. Conversely, those who maintain a "doom and gloom" mindset may be in for a pleasant surprise in 2008. Here are a few issues that call for a reality check:

THE SMOKING BAN WILL NOT DOOM GAY BARS. Come February 2008 much-needed relief for non-smoking bar patrons in the form of a statewide smoking ban in indoor public establishments will be a welcome arrival. While some bar owners in Baltimore have bemoaned the ban as the first step towards bankruptcy, their pessimism seems unjustified.

As I see it, smokers will, by and large, continue to patronize bars and clubs, as they don’t want to forgo the culture of the bar scene and the social outlet they provide. These folks will find a way to cope, as they have learned to make do in restaurants and in the workplace.

At the same time, people who have for years eschewed the bars, in large part because of the smoky environment, should return. And potentially new younger patrons who have avoided that atmosphere may give bars a look since there will be a healthier environment.

The result of the ban should be a net gain for the owners, and definitely for the customers and employees as well.

DON’T GET SIZED FOR A WEDDING RING YET. Despite the courageous and determined efforts of Equality Maryland and others who are seeking the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland, don’t expect to throw a bouquet 2008. This hot button issue is one that Democrats would prefer to avoid and Republicans want to exploit.

Naturally, Republican state legislators oppose marriage equality; it is in their DNA. But Democrats, who command a huge majority in the General Assembly, are split according to a report by The Gazette.

"It will be an issue, but I think it's an issue whose time has not yet come," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. "For a law like that to move forward, there needs to be a strong body of public opinion, and I don't think it's there yet in a state of moderate temperament like Maryland."

But 2008 should be a year in which we must continue the push to educate the public on marriage equality, separate the issue from religious dogma, and keep the pressure on skittish legislators to do the right thing. In time it will pass but not this coming year.

Take heart, however, that the Dwyer-led threatened constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage won’t make it to the floor for a vote.

WAIT ‘TIL 2009 FOR FEDERAL GAINS IN GAY LGBT RIGHTS. Don’t expect to see Federal hate crimes and employment nondiscrimination legislation to be enacted in 2008. Nor will any possible repeal of the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy take place. Although public opinion is trending towards acceptance of these measures and more members of Congress are supportive, Mr. Bush and his ilk will not allow them to pass on his watch.

It’s also an election year. A better chance for passage will occur in 2009 should Americans elect a more gay-friendly president and the Democratic majority in each chamber increases.

THE GAY MARRIAGE DEBATE WILL NOT DOMINATE LIKE IN 2004. Presidential candidates from both parties will trip over themselves to boast about their devout faith. And neither party will nominate a candidate who will support same-sex marriage since there aren’t any. (Sorry, Dennis. We love you, but you’re not going to be nominated.)

Aside from Iraq, the predominate issue of the upcoming election campaign will be Immigration. This is tricky for Democrats who hope to reel in the Hispanic vote in greater numbers by advocating a more humanitarian approach with dealing with the issue. At the same time, the voters see illegal immigration as a problem. Republicans foam at the mouth like a rabid dog at the mere mention of illegal immigrants.

PULL THE LEVERS ELSEWHERE. If you are like me and enjoy playing the slot machines, don’t expect to see slots pass by referendum in 2008. Our legislators abdicated their duty by throwing the issue out to the voters.

Most Marylanders do not play slots, and there is a concerted, organized effort that crosses party lines to defeat it. Very few sympathize with the racetrack owners, so there won’t be a successful lobbying effort. States that had placed slots on the ballot have seen it lose on four out of five occasions.

People will continue to drive or take buses to neighboring states to enjoy this pastime. The downside of the defeat: taxes will have to increase again to make up for the lost revenue.

NO RELIEF FOR LOCAL SPORTS FANS. And in the world of sports, do not expect to see any relief in the Orioles this coming year. In fact, last place is almost a cinch. The Ravens are unlikely to improve upon the 4-12 season they will have had in 2007. Thank Goodness for Hopkins lacrosse.

Cheers! Despite all this, may 2008 bring good news to write about.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Separating State from the Church

For gays, keeping Huckabee out of the White House is a must.

by Steve Charing

THIS COUNTRY, AND specifically the LGBT community, does not need an Ayatollah sitting in the White House. And that's exactly what we would get if the current flavor-of-the-week, Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas should, in comeback fashion, meander his way through the primaries to win the GOP nomination and then upset the Democratic candidate in November of 2008.

We have already experienced a devastating seven years with George W. Bush at the helm, who some have dubbed the "minister-in-chief. While the federal government is technically secular, this president has seen to it that administration policies and personnel meet with the approval of the Christian conservatives who, in no small way, helped to elect him twice and embraced him as one of their own.

You can point to the disproportionate number of Department of Justice employees who have graduated from none other than Rev. Pat Robertson's law school as an example of this influence. Then there was the inappropriate White House-backed intervention in a personal family matter in the Terri Schiavo case. Add that to the successful appointments of two very conservative Supreme Court justices as well as other anti-gay administration appointees who were the darlings of the religious right.

Not to be forgotten and just as egregious for gays was the cynical use of faith-based dollars and other incentives to influence church leaders, including African-American ministers, to rail against "gay marriage" during the 2004 campaign, especially in the battleground state of Ohio to help bolster Republican turnout.

After this Bush presidency you would think the electorate would yearn for a return to secular and competent governance. But on the strength of a friendly persona that contrasts with an immigrant-hating, terrorism-obsessed angry field of GOP competitors and a well-timed but not necessarily funny quip during the recent CNN-YouTube Republican debate, Huckabee, an ordained minister, is seeing his stock rapidly rise.

This is scary, particularly for gays.

HUCKABEE ONCE ADVOCATED for the isolation of people with AIDS from the general population. "If the federal government is truly serious about doing something about the AIDS virus," he wrote, "we need to take steps to isolate the carriers of this plague."

Although he recently backtracked somewhat from that earlier stance saying that there was uncertainty with respect to the transmission of the virus, his pronouncement occurred in 1992, not 1982. By that point in time there was a much better understanding of how HIV was transmitted, that is it cannot be spread by casual contact, but that didn't alter his archaic, bigoted stance.

And why would it? "I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk," Huckabee wrote then.

The religious right has yet to coalesce behind a particular candidate for a variety of reasons. But they are taking a second look at Huckabee and are impressed by his virulent anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage positions. They are beginning to view him as one of their own and with good reason.

TO THIS POWERFUL voting bloc that is crucial in the GOP primaries, John McCain cannot be trusted. Flip-flopping Mitt Romney is a Mormon, which many Christian conservatives regard as a cult. Fred Thompson has had a checkered past with respect to the issue of abortion. And Mr. 9/11, Rudy Giuliani, is way too immoral because of his moderate positions on choice and civil unions, not to mention his two divorces.

They're a sullen bunch, but the sunny Huckabee (read: Reaganesque) with his clergy status and his unabashed Christian dogma is catching on with evangelicals in Iowa, and fast.

Here is a man who admitted on national television during one of the earlier debates that he does not believe in evolution and, therefore, by extension, science. That has to be discouraging to those who have witnessed a president since 2001 who has placed little value in science.
And since Huckabee eschews science by believing in Creationism, how is this going to help solve the global warming crisis that is looming? Or energy independence? Is he simply going to pray for these critical problems to be solved?

The next president will have the opportunity to potentially appoint two, perhaps three justices to the Supreme Court. With a possible Huckabee presidency, you can expect such nominees to be anti-choice and anti-gay. For it would be those positions that will have helped to elect Mike Huckabee.

We cannot afford to have an Ayotollah leading our country—again.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

PFLAG Supports Families, Not Rape

Letter Published in the December 6, 2007 edition of the Baltimore Examiner

I decry The Examiner for publishing the vitriolic letter by Ed Connor on the Dec. 4, “Examiner Spreads PFLAG Propaganda.” PFLAG and Colette Roberts in particular work hard trying to keep families together by supporting parents and families of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered children. It is completely false that PFLAG promotes an agenda or indoctrinates children. Where does Mr. Connor get this? And to equate homosexuality to murder and rape? Clearly this man harbors extreme, irrational views and has cloistered himself in a hateful, bigoted world of yesteryear’s thinking.

Steve Charing
PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County

Monday, December 03, 2007

Why Should Iowa Matter to Gays?

By Steve Charing

The distant state of Iowa will have a profound effect on who will be our next president. For gays and lesbians the 2008 general election will present an opportunity to elect someone to the White House who is not only gay-friendly, but also possessing the will to enact change.

And hopefully a victory will translate into much-needed influence on Capitol Hill for repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT), nondiscrimination in employment (ENDA) and hate crimes legislation among other issues.

The Iowa caucuses on January 3 will be huge for both political parties but more critical for the Democratic candidates. The key state for the GOP will be South Carolina.

Even though Iowa, a small agricultural, mostly rural state, does not have the election-tipping number of electoral votes (7) that presidential candidates covet during the general campaign, it is ground zero for the nominating process simply because it’s first on the calendar. And being first sets the psychological tone as to who is perceived to be a winner and hence, electable.

During the 2004 election cycle, Gov. Howard Dean was heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination until his fall from grace in Iowa (remember the scream?). Sen. John Kerry’s surprisingly strong showing there led the Party to believe that his decorated military service would prove him electable against the hawkish Republican incumbent. Alas, Mr. Kerry and his campaign advisors fooled us all.

The Democrats face a similar scenario in Iowa with Sen. Hillary Clinton solidly ahead in the national polls, and an Iowa victory will ostensibly seal the deal.

But not so fast.

Sen. Barack Obama has gained some palpable momentum heading into Iowa on the wings of a more aggressive campaign. Currently, he leads both Clinton and Sen. John Edwards in the Iowa polls although it is within the margin of error. But an Obama victory there followed by a strong showing in New Hampshire only a few days later could substantially change the dynamic, and the "invincible" label will be peeled off Mrs. Clinton.

Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, as a gay man, I will support that candidate over any Republican in the field. The GOP offers a group of goofy contenders who basically trip over themselves to show how much they oppose same-sex marriage and the repeal of DADT.

Only Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel favor same-sex marriage, but they aren’t given any chance of capturing the nomination. The other Democratic candidates support civil unions or similar arrangements so that gay and lesbian couples can reap many of the benefits that are accorded heterosexual married couples.

That may fall short of our goals, but it is a monumental improvement over anything the Republican candidates have to offer. Notwithstanding same-sex marriage, all the Democratic candidates maintain gay-supportive stances in varying degrees and have disclosed their positions publicly.

But the key issue in the Democratic primaries and caucuses remains electability.

Should any one of the Republican candidates win the presidency, our hopes for any progress will be dashed for at least another four years. Not only would that person have an anti-gay mindset and would be beholden to the religious right for helping him get elected, he will also be in a position to potentially appoint two more justices to the Supreme Court, who, as expected would be conservative and anti-gay. It would seem like the Second Coming of George W. Bush.

John Edwards might do well in Iowa, but he lacks the fundraising capacity to remain competitive elsewhere. Assuming the two leading Democratic candidates remaining are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I must support Mr. Obama. Keeping in mind the dangers of a Republican win, Hillary, in my view, is not electable.

She has more baggage than a Heathrow Airport luggage carrousel and is not likable—big time hurdles in trying to win an election. The Republicans’ hatred of her husband; her sometimes abrasive personality, her ever-changing policy positions that do not seem to be borne from conviction, and her perceived "liberal" stances are problematic except for those on the left. Hillary is polarizing, as polls already indicate that half the country wouldn’t vote for her under any circumstances. In polispeak, she has too many negatives.

Although the GOP is dispirited, and rightly so, from the incompetent and devastating two terms of the Bush presidency, nothing will fuse them together better than a run at Hillary. They have already amassed an arsenal of smear attacks to do her in.

The far more likable Obama faces the uphill struggle of being an African-American seeking the top job and having limited Washington experience. But I think he can beat any GOP nominee in this weak field, especially if he can knock off Hillary and her mighty political apparatus. He is fresh, he is seeking to effect needed change, and he could garner a majority of the ever-important independent and moderate vote.

Yes, Obama demonstrated insensitivity to the LGBT community when he allowed the so-called ex-gay and now anti-gay gospel singer Donnie McClurkin to join him on a campaign tour in South Carolina. He did express his disagreement with the views of McClurkin as it pertains to gays and lesbians. And I also understand Obama’s need to share a stage with a popular gospel singer to appeal to gospel-loving African-Americans whose votes he must court and are crucial.

But overall, I do like his positions on gay-related issues as well as the other important issues of our time. I believe Obama is sincere with his religious rationale for not supporting same-sex "marriage," but he has been clear in advocating all the benefits that could be available through civil marriage. Moreover, he not only supports a repeal DADT, but he has been explicit as to what means he will undertake to oversee its demise.

The Republicans already have an appalling record on equality for gays and lesbians and ending discrimination. They have demonstrated that they cannot be counted on to help our cause. Instead, they created a wedge issue like "gay marriage" to bludgeon gays and lesbians and set us back.

While nowhere near perfect, the Democrats provide our best hope. The Democratic nominee must come to terms with the major issues facing the country and articulate solutions. At the same time he or she must be able to duck the mud the GOP is known for slinging. Such a candidate must be strong and electable.

While nothing is definite, I believe the results of the Iowa caucuses will give us a pretty good idea as to who that candidate might be. And personally, I hope it’s Barack Obama. We need to nominate an electable Democrat because we simply cannot afford the risk of another Republican in the White House—for the sake of the lgbt community and the country at large.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Steve Smith: Hitting the Right Notes at Karaoke

by Steve Charing

There are no American Idol-style judges. Nobody gets booted off the show. No one is forced to embarrass him or herself unless it’s by choice. Yet Friday night Karaoke at the Hippo has become a fun tradition for several years.

Led by the self-described “Barbra Streisand stalker,” Steve Smith of Arbutus, this good-old-fashioned Karaoke party has enjoyed a successful run. The dim lighting in the Club Hippo’s Video Bar plus the small stage that stands in front of spread out cocktail tables provide a nostalgic cabaret atmosphere.

Over the years, there have been great and not-so great performers. But no matter the level of talent, everybody comes to Karaoke to have a good time, unwinding from a week of work. They come to sing and/or hear others entertain while sipping cocktails. They sing along to the lyrics of songs that are displayed all over the walls and screens that encircle the room. It’s high energy and good times. And the emcee, Steve Smith, is as integral a reason for the success as anything else.

“He’s makes [Karaoke] a lot of fun,” says Alan from Baltimore who has been a regular for at least two years and enjoys the atmosphere. “Steve is very funny behind the mic and keeps the show moving at a good pace.” Adds Gary of Baltimore who is a long-time regular at Karaoke, “I like the way he makes the show for the crowd. He does it for them, not just for him.”

Indeed, Steve separates himself from others who have performed similar roles in Karaoke. While many Karaoke emcees are in full drag or dominate the stage during the performances by cutting in to sing along with the performer or otherwise focus the attention on themselves, Steve has the knack of letting the vocalist singularly relish the spotlight.

Steve, who is by day a bartender at Outback Steakhouse, simply introduces each singer and applauds upon the song’s conclusion regardless of the quality of the rendition. His wit plays well during the transitional moments between numbers, which keeps the energy level up and the pace steady. “He is friendly and wants to keep the regulars happy,” says Rachel from Towson who has been a patron of Karaoke at the Hippo for six months and a frequent singer on the stage.

Although the show is billed as “Carol and Friends,” referring to another one of Steve’s heroines, Carol Burnett, he does not do the show in drag. He does, however, dress up as Carol, in particular the character Eunice, on Halloween.

Steve will sing a couple of numbers himself as part of the show. Though no one will mistake him for Josh Groban, Steve is a serviceable vocalist who radiates warmth and passion as he performs.

He was never trained classically, but all of his music education came from the television, radio and his record player. While his brother was listening to Kiss, Zeppelin and the Stones, his sister was listening to Barry Manilow and the Beatles. But it was his parents’ collection that held his interest. “Dionne Warwick, Vikki Carr, and of course, Streisand. These women sang! I wanted to do that,” he explains.

“There is a lot of angst growing up gay,” says Steve. “But when I heard these bombastic voices that could turn to a gentle caressing whisper, none of the angst was there. Then the first time I tried to sing with them, I didn't know or care if it was good or bad, but it was the most comfortable liberating thing I had ever done. There was something therapeutic about releasing all my emotions through song.”

He never really sang too much around people when he was younger. Steve says he was very shy and continues to be so to a degree, but he felt liberated by Karaoke.

“The first time I sang Karaoke was the same place I work for now,” Steve says. “Many years ago when Mary Costello was the hostess, I got up the nerve and did it. It was really bad, but it felt really good. It was a new beginning of sorts. I was at the end of a painful separation and trying to get my bearings again. Although singing didn't fix all my problems, the joy I got from it put them more into perspective.”

He has been running Karaoke at the Hippo for just over two years. Hippo owner Chuck Bowers told OUTloud that he “considers ‘Carol’ (Steve) to be an asset to the community with his energy, personality and talent.”

Born and raised in South Baltimore, Steve’s childhood was fun and filled with the normal activities, such as sports and games. “I found myself to be the happiest however, when I was doing something musical,” he says. “My family loved music—all kinds. My grandmother and uncle were a nightclub act: he played the sax and she sang in a beautiful soprano voice. As a matter of fact my grandmother introduced the great song ‘My Buddy’ to Baltimore radio. She sang on radio many times.”

Steve adds, “My mother and father were jitterbug champions and my mother was a dancer on the Buddy Deane show, she sang with the Maryland State Choir. Music was always there.”

He carries this background and desire to entertain to the stage. He is humble and grateful that Hippo owner Chuck Bowers afforded him the opportunity to do his thing.

“My show is at times a reflection of myself,” Steve points out. “Sometimes disheveled, but with a single purpose of creating fun and happiness through music. You don't have to be a great singer to sing at my show. You can be horrible, and I'll still applaud you. My show is fun and all-inclusive.

“Come enjoy the cathartic experience of singing your song,” he implores. “Whatever song it is, sing it strong, proud and loud! Music is everyone's gift to enjoy!”

And Steve Smith, er Carol, will make it fun.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Marching With a Message

By Steve Charing

As polls indicate, the movement towards lgbt equality is making progress. Folks across America are less likely to want to discriminate against gays and lesbians than ever before.

To be sure, we had endured a setback during the bludgeoning that gays and lesbians received by Republicans during the "gay marriage" fear mongering diatribes of the 2004 presidential campaign. We were also stifled in Maryland, albeit temporarily, by the Court of Appeals ruling that failed to legalize same-sex marriage.

But with the historic passage of ENDA—the Employment Non-Discrimination Act— by the House of Representatives and the fact that more and more corporations, localities and universities are providing domestic partner benefits and other similar recognition, we may have slowly turned the corner.

Much of this progress is attributable to educating a population who is ignorant of the issues or has a prejudicial attitude against lgbt people. Their comfort zones are rife with stereotypes, or they have a personal need to look down upon others as a way to gain self-esteem and stature, or they are beholden to archaic religious beliefs that are nourished by cherry picking Scripture as a convenience.

While the prospects of changing the hearts and minds of this recalcitrant population may appear daunting on the surface, the only way to achieve success is to do the hard work and educate, if necessary, one person at a time.

Some of this is accomplished through the ever-increasing number of lgbt folks who are coming out. Family members, neighbors, friends and co-workers who know of a lgbt person are far less likely to want this person harmed politically or otherwise. The more progressive mindset of America’s youth is also a big plus.

LGBT organizations that have proliferated over the past few decades have been helpful in this regard as many have "education" components. Their websites combined with the popularity of the Internet have also been effective tools.

Another good way is for organizations to have a visible presence in the community. As an example, we in the Columbia/Howard County chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), of which I am proud to be their media coordinator, are aggressively pursuing all avenues to meet with the community and discuss our issues.

At one time, PFLAG was seen as an organization that primarily supports parents and families of gay children. Over the years it has evolved to include lgbt members as well. The lgbt’ers are bolstering the organization’s efforts in carrying out the three main components of PFLAG: Support, Education and Advocacy.

Clearly, PFLAG is not JUST for parents anymore.

These lgbt members, including the chapter’s successful Rainbow Youth Alliance, have linked with the dedicated parents to create a strong organization and one that has been adept in gaining visibility with an eye towards delivering our message. Yes, PFLAG always marches with our brothers and sisters at Gay Pride parades, and have done so for 35 years.

But it has found traction in creating additional ways to get our message out to the straight community—the large portion of the population that is critical to our success in achieving equality.

In just the past month alone, the chapter has staffed booths in a neighborhood fair, at the Howard County government’s diversity fair and the heavily attended 50+ EXPO. Then a combination of three parents and two gay men presented our stories to over 20 employees of Landmark Publications—the company that publishes the Carroll County Times and the Community Times.

At this meeting the parents discussed their journey from first learning their child was gay to the point where they are giving support to other parents and advocating for equal rights. The gay men pointed out careless words used by the media, such as "sexual preference" instead of "sexual orientation." They spoke of how the mainstream media’s use of "gay agenda," "gay lifestyle" and "sanctity of marriage" can be misleading and harmful.

Two gay men and a lesbian from the chapter presented information about the chapter’s Rainbow Youth Alliance to a couple of dozen service organizations at a Youth Development Coalition meeting in Columbia. Through networking they discovered a lack of programs that deal specifically with lgbt students in the public school system, and hopefully this dialogue can increase awareness of these needs and address them accordingly.

In an effort to reach out to the African-American community, the chapter recently held a historic and well-received forum titled "Black and Gay." At this event six African-American gay men and a lesbian shared their experiences in battling racism and homophobia to succeed in their lives and be in a position to help others.
And the work of the chapter in fighting for civil rights and providing support was affirmed recently in a public ceremony as the chapter’s chairperson, Colette Roberts, received an award from the Howard County Human Rights Commission.

With these efforts and many more to come, PFLAG-Howard County is providing a model for other grass roots organizations to reach out to their communities and alleviate the fears about gays that still percolate. The value of putting faces on these issues cannot be understated. In the process, the chapter is seeking to attract enlightened straight allies to our causes, which hopefully will reap significant political benefits.

This organization is aggressively looking for opportunities to make our case—whether it is with government officials, members of the school board, colleges and the private sector. Already, much has been accomplished in Howard County thanks to the work of the chapter’s Steering and Advocacy committees.

PFLAG will always march in the parades. But with the focus on getting our message out, we hope to have more marchers, gay and straight, line up behind our banner as we march towards full equality. For more information about the chapter, visit their website.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Two 'Gay Marylands'

By Steve Charing

Former Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Elizabeth Birch, in addressing the 700 or so who attended the recent Equality Maryland Jazz Brunch fundraiser, unearthed a curious paradox. While offering a testimonial to the venerable gay rights advocate Victor Basile, who received the Pioneer for Equality award, Birch shared an anecdote disclosing how she used to make wealthy gay men feel guilty when pressing them for donations. She reminded them of their Armani suits, third houses and other luxuries.

To the many professionals, elected officials, business owners and otherwise well-healed members of the lgbt community and allies who were present at this upscale event, her story garnered chuckles. They knew all too well what Birch was saying and that it made sense.

To others in the community who cannot afford such affairs, much less own Armani suits, had they been present, they would be like, "Huh?"

That’s because there are actually two Gay Marylands—to paraphrase Democratic candidate John Edwards’ "Two Americas." There is one gay Maryland where mostly coupled men and women share a passion for equality and take action to try to make it happen. They are the targets of gay-related fundraisers because these folks believe in the movement and have the financial means to participate. As a result, they attend these functions and often write substantial checks to do so.

Not to generalize, but a significant number of gays and lesbians in this group are older and are settled with partners, many raising children. As such, they are seeking to gain rights to protect their assets and secure their future. They reside in suburban locales or in tony areas of the cities, as well as the "gay ghettos." They shrug off clubs and bars and seek alternative social outlets, usually with a small circle of tight-knit friends. They get involved in the political process and host and attend house parties to raise and contribute money for candidates and causes.

The other Gay Maryland—the overwhelmingly vast majority—consists of those thousands of folks who cram the streets during the Baltimore Pride block party or the parade in DC. They are typically younger, and a good number of them frequent clubs and bars. Most are single and looking, but there are couples as well. They are predominantly urbanites with some living in suburban and rural areas.

This category of gays and lesbians are more apt to be politically apathetic. Much of this could be traced to their domestic situation. Single people are not directly affected by the same-sex marriage debate and are likely to tune out. For various reasons, they do not and cannot contemplate same-sex marriage as a possibility for themselves.

There is also a good deal of bitterness among these folks. They are disgusted with government and their leaders, so it is not a stretch to conclude that this cynicism contributes to their indifference. Others are disinterested based on the norms of the younger generation who see political matters as an annoyance and an intrusion upon their lives.

I personally know a large number of people in this group, and they could care less about politics and trying to advance the cause. Many are clueless as to what is going on. Furthermore, they don’t want to be bothered by it. They seem to attend Pride events for the party aspects, not to celebrate gay history and the sacrifices previous generations made to help in the struggle for equality.

Among those in this segment of Gay Maryland, one can find a good bit of racial and financial diversity. There is a higher proportion of African-Americans and lesbians in this group than in the other Gay Maryland. Some are financially secure or at least comfortable; others are just trying to get by. Few, though, own a Lexus or a vacation home or fill their closets with designer clothes.

These two Gay Marylands aren’t divided cleanly, however. There are young folks, singles, African-Americans, lesbians and people of modest means in the first group. And I know of white, older, professional, financially well-off and coupled folks who fit the second group, so there are exceptions.

As a result of observations in my nearly three decades of covering the lgbt community, the tendency is that the first Gay Maryland is politically aware and active; the other is indifferent and inactive.

Jon Kaplan, who chaired the Jazz Brunch, pointed out at the Brunch that hundreds normally attend Lobby Day, the Equality Maryland organized-event in Annapolis in February that consists of a rally at Lawyers Mall and meetings with legislators. "Can you imagine what impact we would have if thousands attended," he asked rhetorically.

The "thousands" would have to come from the second gay Maryland, but how?

Dan Furmansky, the executive director of Equality Maryland recognizes this challenge and would be extremely happy if this segment of Gay Maryland increases its participation.

"Equality Maryland is holding town halls across the state and also holding low-dollar amount fundraisers like the recent social-centric Equality Beats," Furmansky told me. "We plan to reach out to this section of the lgbt community by having a greater presence at the bars and partnering with bar owners to find creative ways to get their patrons involved in the movement with the understanding that not everyone will be motivated to put down their drink and head to Annapolis."

That’s a daunting task given the degree of apathy that exists. But even these folks would benefit mightily if the two Gay Marylands would merge into one so that we can travel the road to equality together.
For Marylanders, there is a terrific, moderated newsgroup that focuses on political issues that concern the LGBT community in Maryland. The pertinent links to this group to subscribe and post messages, etc. are shown below:

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

‘All or Nothing’ Strategies Divide Community

By Steve Charing

Two parallel events are occurring whereby activists are working towards lofty goals. One is an all-inclusive (gay, lesbian, transgender and gender identity protections) ENDA—the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The other is a plan to seek full marriage equality during Maryland’s 2008 General Assembly.

ENDA (exclusive of transgender protections) had been proposed since 1974. The new ENDA battle has traveled a convoluted road in Congress so far. A bill that would include transgendered persons as well as gays and lesbians was introduced in April with lead sponsor openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) that would, if signed into law, prevent discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Then the crushing political reality set in: the Democrats in the House apparently did not have sufficient votes to pass an all-inclusive ENDA; that is, expanding the bill to cover gender identity would not pass. Some thirty votes were lacking. Rep. Frank, in consultation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, pulled the bill and pared it so that it would sexual orientation only.

The removal of gender identity from the original bill did not resonate well with many gay, lesbian and transgender rights organizations at the state and federal levels. In fact, over 300 such organizations, led by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, signed on to a letter to Ms. Pelosi (who favors an all-inclusive bill) that vigorously opposed the bill as it stands because it "leaves part of our community without protections and basic security."

The truncated bill passed committee and at press time a floor vote was scheduled for an amendment introduced by the other openly gay member of the House, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) that would re-write gender identity protections back into the bill.

Equality Maryland, the state’s principal lgbt civil rights organization is among those who staunchly support an all-inclusive ENDA. At a recent gathering of local activists, executive director Dan Furmansky said, "Protections for transgendered people and gender identity are inexorably linked to lesbian and gay rights." He argued that delaying transgender legislation historically does not equate to fast action in the near term.

Indeed, Furmansky’s point is bolstered by the fact that a bill to safeguard transgendered people from discrimination failed during last year’s General Assembly despite indications that it had received broad support. While gays and lesbians earned protections as a result of Maryland’s enactment of the Non-Discrimination Act of 2001, transgendered people, who need the most protections, were omitted. They continue to lack them nearly seven years later.

Many lawmakers as well as their constituents are not familiar with transgendered individuals and are reticent about extending protections. They are fearful of the unknown, especially the political consequences. This complicates all-inclusive legislative strategies.

While these organizations seek to install transgender protections in ENDA, the rank-and-file appears divided. Bloggers and others decry the fact that if ENDA fails because of gender identity being added, the majority of the lgbt community would be left out in the cold and would lose long-sought anti-discrimination protections in the workplace.

Gay Democratic activist Peter Rosenstein, a member of the Gertrude Stein Club who opposed an "all or nothing" strategy on ENDA, was quoted in the Washington Blade that he did not believe the rank-and-file membership or constituents of the statewide and national groups support their leaders’ "all or nothing" position. "I’m not aware of a single one of these groups polling their members or taking a survey of their members," Rosenstein said.

Some gay activists don’t believe that gay and lesbian fortunes should be tied to the plight of the transgender community. "Other than sharing this minority status, I don't fully understand why transgender is part of a struggle that is being fought to specifically end discrimination based on sexual orientation," said Rob Lance of Columbia. "I see these two issues as apples and oranges: sexual orientation vs. gender identity." But Lance is opposed to discrimination against any group.

While I have always advocated full protections for transgendered people, I, too, never saw it as a matter of sexual orientation or rationalized the connection to lesbian and gay rights.

The upshot of this controversy is that ENDA, in any form, will not be enacted this year or next. Even if the bill passes the House (that would be historic to say the least) with or without gender identity, it is unlikely to pass the Senate, and if it did, President Bush will probably veto it. The Senate cannot muster enough votes to override the veto.

Therefore, the argument that lesbians and gays would be harmed if an all-inclusive ENDA went down to defeat does not wash. The best approach is to find a way to include transgender protections in the bill and begin a process of educating the public starting at the state level and hope that a Democratic victory in 2008 will translate into widening majorities in both the House and Senate and a more receptive president in 2009.

For those who are fearful that an all-inclusive bill would further delay protections based on sexual orientation, keep in mind that over 300 lgbt groups are opposed to excluding gender identity. That’s a lot of lobbying power. No bill will advance as long as there is pressure from these groups to keep the bill all-inclusive. So, it’s in everybody’s interest to get it right.

The other controversial issue confronting lesbians and gays in Maryland is the push for full marriage equality during the 2008 General Assembly. Equality Maryland will try hard to shepherd the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, which promises to be an uphill struggle to say the least. They will not only be challenged to obtain sufficient votes on this hot-button issue, but will be forced to stave off a threatened constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

Recognizing the political hurdles that are presented, gay activists as well as some local groups in Maryland are questioning the strategy of pursuing what is perceived to be an "all or nothing" approach. That is, Equality Maryland is advocating full marriage rights instead of seeking perhaps a more politically acceptable civil union type arrangement.

One activist told me that Equality Maryland is moving without the general backing of the gay and lesbian community. She urged a community-wide town hall meeting where all voices can be heard—not just from Equality Maryland’s leadership—to discuss the implications of the current strategy and what might be the best approach.

In fact, Equality Maryland is scheduling Town Halls starting off in Baltimore on November 5 at First and Franklin Church and in Takoma Park on November 8.

Of course, the concern is that if the so-called "all or nothing" effort fails, gays and lesbians would be deprived of any partnership rights that are offered to same-sex couples in Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Connecticut through civil unions.

Dan Furmansky understood these concerns and explained to groups and individuals that marriage equality must be sought but that the organization will also "do what we can to assure that protections are afforded to our community as swiftly as possible."

As Furmansky stated to me in an exclusive interview for Baltimore OUTloud, "Starting out the legislative process to win marriage by asking for [civil unions] that is intended to deliberately withhold marriage from same-sex couples does not make sense, either politically or philosophically."

Clearly the ENDA and the Maryland same-sex marriage efforts will present dicey moments for the community. As in physics, strong actions usually result in strong reactions. But no civil rights battles have been waged without controversy or second-guessing by others who are not directly leading the fight. To succeed, activists must overcome opponents of gay rights as well as opposition from those for whom the struggle will ultimately benefit.

No one ever said it would be easy.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Raising LGBT Visibility in Northeast Baltimore

By Steve Charing

Cindy Grim lives with her partner Barbara Stratton and their two young boys Charlie, age 7 and Ridgeway, 10 months, in the Gardenville neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. The two moms had explained to Charlie that there are all types of families including single-parent families, families with two moms and families with two dads.

Seven year-old Charlie understood. But not everyone else has that understanding. Accordingly, it became the mission of Cindy and Barbara, as well as other lgbt couples in the area, to help educate the public and elected officials that can only visualize families in the mode of "Ozzie and Harriet."

"Our family is no less of a family as anyone’s," Cindy said, clutching on to Ridgeway, to an applauding gathering of lgbt neighbors and activists from legislative District 45 at a town hall on October 13.

What led to this eventual town hall meeting was that one of the delegates in District 45, Talmadge Branch, had an Ahmadinegad moment a couple of years ago and reportedly denied the existence of gays and lesbians in the district.

This nonsense motivated Susan Francis, who is now the Development Director at Equality Maryland, and a few other people to organize and spread the word that in fact, lgbt people do live in the district, have families and are viable members of the community. There are two gay bars in the district—Thirsty’s II and the Blue Parrot.

Del. Branch’s alleged comment plus the desire to maintain a dialogue with district legislators throughout the year on issues that concern the lgbt community resulted in the formation of Equality 45 by a handful of Baltimore City Lobby Day participants.

To raise the visibility of lgbt folks in the district, Equality 45 maintained a booth at this past Pride festival in Druid Hill Park that featured a map of District 45. The group’s members were encouraging pride-goers who lived in the district to paste a colored star on the map where their home is located. At the end of the day, it was clear that there was a sizable lgbt population within the district, and the members of the fledgling group were determined to see that these numbers from the star-studded map translated into political influence in Annapolis.

Equality 45 took the next step and organized the town hall event on October 13 that would serve as a platform to thank those legislators who had supported the lgbt community in the past. They would also feature actual lgbt couples—some with children—who would explain why they need the same protections that routinely accrue to heterosexual couples.

About 60 people from Lauraville to Rosemont and from Beverly Hills to Overlea attended the October 13 event at Jerusalem Lutheran Church at the corner of Moravia and Belair Roads. It featured comments from several lesbian and gay District 45 activists, Equality Maryland’s executive director Dan Furmansky and two legislators from District 45—Delegate Cheryl Glenn and Senator Nathaniel J. McFadden.

One invited lawmaker, Delegate Hattie Harrison could not make it but dispatched a representative Ava Scott to attend Equality 45’s town hall. Delegate Talmadge Branch, who now apparently realizes there are gays and lesbians in the district, could not attend as well. All but Del. Glenn, who was just elected in 2006, have supportive lgbt legislative records according to Equality Maryland’s website.

Dan Furmansky kicked off the program by outlining Equality Maryland’s legislative agenda for 2008 and emphasized the goal of achieving same-sex marriage via the General Assembly. Furmansky applauded the formation of Equality 45 and indicated to OUTloud that his organization would "absolutely" help other districts organize similar town hall events

In addition to Cindy Grim, other speakers, such as Pam Watkins and Louise Harmony, discussed how they are just like everybody else and want similar rights. All the speakers from Equality 45 told their personal stories and explained why marriage equality is important to them.

Then it was the legislators’ turn. Delegate Cheryl Glenn disappointed the audience by candidly stating that she opposed same-sex marriage based on her religious beliefs. She is supportive in other areas of concern for lgbt people and backs the community’s right to fight for same-sex marriage. But her faith keeps her from envisioning a married couple that does not consist of one man and one woman. Del. Glenn maintains that she represents everybody in the district and acknowledges the issue is important to gays and lesbians. She is willing, unlike homophobic elected officials, to maintain an ongoing dialogue.

On the other hand, Senator Nathaniel J. McFadden pleasantly surprised the audience when he stated that the issue of same-sex marriage should not be tied directly to the religious aspects of marriage. Raised as a Southern Baptist, Sen. McFadden said his position "evolved" and had heard the same arguments before in places where blacks could not marry whites.
"Discrimination in any form is unacceptable," he declared to the cheering audience.

Susan Francis was the principal organizer of the town hall, but other key people like Brian Armstrong and Tim McCoy—both co-chairs of Equality 45—as well as several other core members had significant roles in this event.

According to members of the Equality 45 steering committee, this town hall will lay the foundation to future individual meetings with the legislators on lgbt-related matters. "The District 45 Town Hall was a successful beginning in establishing a dialogue between the lgbt community in northeast Baltimore and our elected state representatives," said Tim McCoy.

The next meeting of Equality 45 is scheduled for November 10. "It will focus on next steps...how to engage the elected officials further and to work with them to understand better the issues that are affecting our community, including civil marriage," said McCoy.

For more information about Equality 45 you may contact Tim McCoy at tmccoydc@yahoo.com or Brian Armstrong at BRA1978@comcast.net.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

LGBT Legal Clinic to Open in Baltimore

By Steve Charing

Noting a void in the availability of legal services for Baltimore’s lgbt community, especially for those folks who are disadvantaged, a group of area lawyers and law students are planning to start up a legal clinic here. It will mark the second such clinic in the U.S. with Philadelphia being the first. The clinic, which has been named the FreeState Law Project, is slated to open in September 2008.

Aaron Merki, a student at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore and a FreeState steering committee member, sees the clinic as a way of ending a pattern of neglect for the underprivileged. "If there is a neglected, forgotten community in Baltimore, it is this one; especially the hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless lgbt youth in Baltimore City and around the state," Merki told OUTloud. "Often they are sick, malnourished, abandoned by friends and family, and forced even to prostitute themselves in order to shower and eat."

Another law student at the University of Maryland and committee member, Sara Ryan, drew from her experiences at Equality Maryland to foster her interest in this project. "I saw first hand the need to provide services to low income lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender people in Baltimore," she explained. "I have seen all too often lgbt Marylanders denied access to shelters, jobs and other areas."

Matthew Feinberg, a rising law student at the University of Baltimore and another member of FreeState’s steering committee said the clinic would supply legal counseling and representation to lgbt individuals facing lgbt legal issues. Such issues include family law, tax, plaintiffs and defense work and possibly referrals.

"The work will be pro bono or almost pro bono, and will provide much needed legal representation to people who cannot afford it," he said. He added that they are looking for this clinic to be modeled after the successful one in Philadelphia.

Aside from these law students, several established local lawyers including Lisa Kershner, Karen Moore and Nevett Steele, Jr. also sit on FreeState’s steering committee. It is they who originated the idea of establishing a legal clinic in Baltimore.

"My experience in private practice over many years, led me to believe that there were huge unmet legal needs in the lgbt community that the private bar was not addressing, particularly the needs of youth, lgbt persons of color and the poorer members of our community," said Lisa Kershner an attorney at Paley, Rothman, Goldstein, Rosenberg, Eig & Cooper.

"The statistics on lgbt youth remain appalling; youth in our community continue to be at much greater risk for dropping out of school, running away from home, homelessness, substance abuse and suicide. Transgender persons also continue to face discrimination, hate crimes, and for the many who are homeless, are even being shut of shelters and left to fend for themselves on the street where they are at even greater risk for abuse and violence," she points out.

Ms. Kirshner added, "As a lgbt attorney who has enjoyed many benefits of the system, I want to contribute to establishing a first rate legal services program for the lgbt community in Maryland. It is a project whose time has come."

While they are doing a significant amount of the legwork to get the project up and running, the lawyers realize that students at the two schools would be enthusiastic about the project and better contacts for professors and deans at the law schools. The FreeState Justice Project is not formally linked to the two law schools, however.

A kick-off reception is scheduled for Wednesday, November 7 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Courtyard of the University of Maryland School of Law on 500 West Baltimore Street. For more information about the clinic and the reception, you may contact Matt Feinberg at matthewfeinberg@yahoo.com or Lisa Kirshner at lkershner@paleyrothman.com.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Cruising Towards Equality

By Steve Charing

After many years of discussion, my partner Bob and I finally took our first cruise. We decided at this point that we would eschew the gay cruises and go on a short non-gay one. This way we could determine whether or not cruising is for us.

We asked one of OUTloud’s loyal advertisers, Cruise Planners (see related article), to plan our cruise and book us, which they did efficiently and expertly. The outstanding cruise by Royal Caribbean included Nassau and Coco Cay in the Bahamas as well as Key West, with the ship departing out of Miami. It occurred September 24-28—just long enough to get a fair assessment.

We weren’t sure how gays or lesbians would be received or even noticed by the other 2,400 passengers on board. All we wanted to do is relax and enjoy ourselves and put on the shelf, albeit temporarily, the major disappointment from the Maryland Court of Appeals decision on marriage equality. The last thing on our agenda, though, was to make a statement of any kind. At least that was the plan.

Although we believe we aren’t "obviously gay" to most people, let’s be honest: two middle-aged guys traveling on a cruise together are gay. There is no getting around that. Business partners don’t take cruises with one another without any spouses. The same for two male neighbors or work colleagues. Two or more women on a cruise, however, wouldn’t even merit an inquisitive glance. But a pair of guys though? Definitely.

Most had to at least suspect we were gay. That’s fine with us. There were passengers who hailed from 53 foreign countries and most of the U.S. As such, there is always the possibility that there would be frowning towards male couples since broad acceptance isn’t there just yet.

Although we were seen together virtually everywhere, and we had asked straight people to snap pictures of us with our camera, there was no noticeable negative reaction.

Fortunately for us, there was a group of about 60 gay men and lesbians (mostly men) on board as passengers. We surmised they were gay because as they boarded the first day, they all wore rainbow leis. How perceptive are we!

I approached one of them later on and asked if they were part of a particular group, and he told me that a gay bar in Naples, Florida arranged for these folks to go on the cruise. He concluded Bob and I were gay because two middle aged men on a cruise together….

At least there were people we could relate to on board, which eased any tension incurred by trying to mix with an overwhelming herd of heterosexual passengers. Aside from those 60 and ourselves, we identified a potential 4 additional couples on the ship (passengers), so let’s say there were 70 gays and lesbians out of the 2,400. That comes to about 3 percent of the passengers, a very tiny minority. The crew and entertainers—that’s another story!

So it seemed like things would be more fun than we had anticipated with the presence of gay brothers and sisters on board a straight cruise. There was definitely a comfort zone. But we didn’t expect what would happen later that first night as the ship set sail.

It was 70’s Disco Night in the Spectrum club on the eighth deck. After dinner and a few losing rounds in the casino, Bob and I wandered into the Spectrum mainly to hear the music among the couple of hundred passengers sitting on cushioned chairs around tables. One nostalgic disco hit after another was played by the DJ as the couples danced to the blinking lights and musical beats of the disco era.

Then it happened. Maybe I am na├»ve, but whoa! A pair of guys from the Naples contingent jumped onto the dance floor and started shakin’ their booty’s to KC and the Sunshine Band’s "Shake Your Booty." Then another gay couple joined them. And another. All of a sudden, a gay contingent was dancing among the straight couples.

It was so euphoric. Bob and I wasted no time in getting on the floor and dancing to the Bee Gees’ "Stayin Alive" and several other classics that followed. Did the straight couples abandon the floor and the room in horror? Did they mock us gays while we danced together? Did we hear groans or catcalls from the spectators? No!

This courageous demonstration of pride by the gay couples and nonchalance on the part of straight crowd was a most welcome surprise. We never would have anticipated it.

The next night, prior to a superb performance by recording artist Lenny Welch in the ship’s main theater, a young gay couple who was not part of the Naples group, danced to a waltz amidst heterosexual couples’ on the floor and those watching from their seats. At the conclusion of the song, they embraced and kissed.

This is huge. The ship contained people from all over the country and the world with many I suspect of being conservative or even religious. But the benign reaction to all this same-sex dancing was incredible, chilling even. I could not imagine that this would have occurred twenty years ago.

Maybe this happens on all cruises. Maybe it was just this one. Who knows? But it’s not a stretch to think that this acceptance—both national and international—will ultimately lead to equality, that we are indeed like everybody else. Perhaps cruises will lead the way.

Booking the Cruise

An OUTloud advertiser, Cruise Planners, identified, planned and booked the cruise referred to in my column. They were patient beyond belief and answered a plethora of questions, which is common among first-time cruisers.

Paula Belletiere and her son, Paul, operate a Cruise Planners franchise from Glen Burnie. They did a magnificent job of providing information, working within the customers’ budget, booking a great cruise at discount rates and handling related travel arrangements.

I truly recommend this company and will undoubtedly call on them for future cruises. They seem particularly adept at working with first-time cruisers. Currently, the Belletiere’s are in the midst of getting a group together for an Alaska cruise in July, which we are considering.

Cruise Planners benefits from their national network and coordinates with all the major cruise lines. They also book gay cruises. For more information, you can call either Paula or Paul Belletiere at 410-761-3554 or toll-free at 866-801-6829. Their e-mail address is pbelletiere@cruiseplanners.com. Also, check out their website . –SC

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Do We Really Have that Much Political Clout?

By Steve Charing

As the Maryland Court of Appeals squashed any immediate hopes for same-sex marriage here, the reasoning they used have caused legal experts and gay activists to scratch their heads.
Personally, I cannot fathom how such well-educated and respected individuals can be so ignorant, but they sure demonstrated that in the majority opinion.

To be fair, these arguments weren’t totally the Court’s fault; they were included in the state’s briefs and echoed at the proceeding last December when the oral arguments were presented that at times led to quiet sneers by the dismayed lgbt contingent in the courtroom. But the four judges who constituted the fateful majority bought them, with minimal questioning, and that is astounding.

One of these was that marriage should only be between a man and a woman for procreation purposes. They conveniently skipped over the fact that elderly people who decide to marry as well as couples who cannot have children either by choice or for biological reasons hold valid marriage licenses.

Then there is also the near-comical argument that marriage is a good option for those who "accidentally" procreate. Accidents do happen in the home, without question. People fall off ladders, trip down stairs, etc. They even accidentally set off fires. But one person landing on top of another by accident and penetrating to the point of conception is an accident that may not appear in many home safety brochures.

But the one argument that is most troublesome is the assumption that the gay and lesbian community has sufficient political power to remedy any ills, and therefore, is not a suspect class.
But are we that powerful? Let’s take a look.

If we are so powerful, why did we have to sue to be able to legally marry and receive the benefits, rights and responsibilities that heterosexual couples take for granted?

If we are so powerful, how was it that former Governor Ehrlich was able to veto a fair-minded medical decision-making legislation without much protest from our legislative representatives who had voted for it?

If we are so powerful, how did Governor O’Malley backtrack so easily on his original support for same-sex marriage and smacked us in the face by bringing up religion knowing that the plaintiffs were seeking civil marriage rights?

If we are so powerful, how is it that non-citizens, felons, drug abusers and sub-intelligent individuals are allowed to serve openly in the military, but gays and lesbians may not?

If we are so powerful why is it that criminals, drug abusers and adulterers may participate with aplomb in the world of sports and make tons of money from it, but an openly gay athlete would likely be shunned by teammates, fans and potential corporate sponsors?

If we are so powerful, why can murderers, rapists, arsonists, child molesters, drug dealers and bank robbers get to marry anyone they choose, but gays and lesbians can only do so in one state out of fifty?

If we are so powerful, how come only one state out of all those that tried managed to defeat a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage?

If we are so powerful, why can’t a Federal law outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation sail through Congress without a threat of a presidential veto?

And, if we are so powerful, why cannot a gay man or a lesbian hold his or her partner’s hand while walking down the street without fear of someone pounding the back of the head with a baseball bat?

As you can see, the justices on the Court of Appeals failed to ask the state’s attorney these very questions.

There is no doubt we have made substantial progress. But to say we have political clout that obviates the need for protection from discrimination is patently off the mark.

Friday, September 21, 2007

High Court Ruling is a Detour on the Road to Equality

By Steve Charing
Senior Political Analyst

September 18, 2007 marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history book for Maryland’s gay and lesbian community. On that fateful day, the Maryland Court of Appeals by a razor-thin 4-3 margin upheld the state’s 34 year-old marriage law that defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

A lawsuit that was initiated three years ago by 19 plaintiffs challenging this statute primarily on the basis of the equal protection clause in the state's constitution and gender discrimination was successful in a lower court proceeding. But the state took it to the Court of Appeals, and oral arguments were presented by the Attorney General’s office and Maryland’s ACLU. The latter, along with Equality Maryland, shepherded the case through the courts and the court of public opinion. The panel deliberated for nearly ten months.

Using what many gay activists and legal experts saw as dubious findings, such as the state’s interest to promote procreation and that gays already have political power, the Court knocked down any hope that the judiciary would help bring justice and equality to gays and lesbians. Instead, pro-marriage advocates saw the ball thrown back to the unpredictable, highly politicized state legislature, where it faces an uncertain future.

Anger and Frustration
The ruling left a bitter taste in the mouths of the nine gay and lesbian couples and a widower who initiated the lawsuit. They were demonstrably saddened at rally appearances and at a press conference following the Court’s announcement.

It was also acrid to the broader community who was confident that this blue state would join Massachusetts as the only ones in the nation to allow same-sex unions. If marriage was not going to be legalized, then many hoped that a lesser arrangement like civil unions would be mandated by the Court. Neither happened.

While nobody can and should fault the hard work on the part of the ACLU in the presentation of the case and Equality Maryland for its efforts in securing a diverse representation of the community for the lawsuit, exasperation has been leveled at some of our elected leaders who agreed with the decision.

The most notable target was Governor Martin O’Malley, who during his election, received vast support—in both effort and dollars—from the LGBT community. Glenn Dehn, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was miffed that Governor O’Malley responded to the ruling on local television by saying no one should redefine the sacraments.

"He should know better that this wasn’t about religious sacraments," Dehn, trembling in anger, told me at the rally outside the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore in Mount Vernon. "It was about civil marriage, and he knew that." His partner of nearly thirty years, Charles Blackburn agreed and was equally agitated by the remark.

Revelations that appeared in the Washington Blade indicated O’Malley had once supported civil marriage. But he had reportedly backtracked from e-mails with another plaintiff, Lisa Polyak, assuring support for marriage equality and changing his views several times since 2004.

Predictable Rhetoric
Everyone expected the number one homophobe in the House of Delegates, Donald H. Dwyer, Jr. (R-Anne Arundel), to celebrate the decision. He vowed to extinguish any possibility of state recognition of gay and lesbian couples by once again introducing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Dwyer is concerned that another "activist" judge may hear a future case arguing from a different perspective and rule that same-sex marriage be made legal. An amendment would be an insurance policy for Dwyer and his ilk. (The Appeals Court ruling on this case cannot be reintroduced in the future using the same basis for the lawsuit; it would require a different rationale.)

Of course, other conservative homophobic Republicans in the legislature want to nail the marriage coffin shut as well. Anthony J. O’Donnell, House Republican leader from Southern Maryland, chimed in on the need for a constitutional amendment. "In order to prevent an activist judge from taking a provision of the law to make a far-reaching decision that was never intended, we need to clarify the law," he was quoted as saying in the Baltimore Sun.

What can we expect from the Democrats?
There are no known Republican legislators who can be counted on to support same-sex marriage. The challenge pro-marriage equality activists face, however, will be the Democrats, who hold a seemingly decisive majority in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Although O’Malley hinted in an interview that civil unions might be a possible option, his lack of support for same-sex marriage underscores the challenges gay activists will face as they take the battle to the legislature. Without the Democratic governor’s leadership and backing on marriage equality or similar support from Senate Leader Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (who also opposes civil unions), it is extremely difficult for legislators to stick their necks out on this issue.

Nonetheless, other Democrats immediately stepped up to the plate. Senator Gwendolyn T. Britt and Delegate Victor R. Ramirez, both of Prince George’s County, plan to sponsor marriage equality bills in 2008. Northeast Baltimore County Delegate Todd Schuler appeared at the Baltimore rally to announce that he wants to be the first to support such a bill, which has been named the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act.

Long time supporter of the lgbt community and an unabashed advocate for same-sex marriage, Delegate Elizabeth Bobo (D-Columbia), took a wider view and was unhappy about the Court’s decision. "I’m concerned, and everybody should be concerned," she told me the day after the ruling. "It’s not just about gays and lesbians. When anyone’s rights are eroded, everybody’s rights are eroded."

Will the legislation come to the floor?
A number of observers including politicians and those in the media believe that neither the pro-marriage bill nor the constitutional amendment will gather enough steam during the 2008 session to make it to the floor for a vote. Legislative committees—the graveyard for unpopular bills—will decide their fate. These pundits point to the bruising budget battle that must be resolved during the upcoming General Assembly as a basis for deferring this contentious issue to a future legislative session.

The Democratic leadership, although not in our camp, has no appetite for a constitutional amendment to be on the table during an election year. And for the same reason, few legislators would be expected, at this time, to vote for a marriage bill. The Court issued their ruling, and there is no ostensible emergency. This matter can wait, they will say.

But pro-marriage advocates, especially those in same-sex relationships, certainly disagree. Their lives and those of their families are being adversely affected each day by the lack of protections that are afforded heterosexual couples.

The challenges ahead
Pressure will be on Equality Maryland, the state’s largest gay rights advocacy group to deliver over these next few years. The organization has aggressively raised money and increased its staff since the lawsuit was initiated to position itself for the long fight ahead.

It must deal with a divided gay and lesbian community where many are not fully committed to marriage for an assortment of reasons. In addition, more than a few are angry over the risky strategy to shoot for marriage while the more attainable accommodation of civil unions was ignored. They maintain that civil unions are better than nothing at all.

Civil unions or as some call "marriage light" may be the only practical short-term compromise that can be reached between anti-gay Republicans and election-conscious queasy Democrats.
But Equality Maryland is adamant about seeking full marriage equality. "[We] will move full steam ahead by taking our case to the General Assembly and asking our elected officials to extend marriage to same-sex couples," according to an e-mail statement following the ruling.

Unless the state’s leadership stands unequivocally behind marriage equality, it will be unlikely that a legislative remedy will be enacted in the near future. Recall how the last General Assembly failed to enact discrimination protection for transgendered individuals despite broad support. Realistically speaking, what are the odds for anything resembling marriage being enacted in the near term? It’s a major challenge, but nothing is impossible.

For politicians to vote our way, they will have to go against the wishes of the majority of voters who still, by a diminishing margin, oppose same-sex marriage according to polls. Advocates must separate civil marriage from religious marriage as a prerequisite to convincing the electorate to get on board. The proposed bill will attempt to do just that. The mantra, "Civil Marriage is a Civil Right" must continue. Putting human faces on this campaign is also vital.
The trend has been slowly inching in our direction, however. For the 19 plaintiffs and others in long-term same-sex relationships, it’s painfully too slow and as we’ve seen, disappointing. But the road to equal rights is always long and uphill and yes, it is sometimes impeded by detours.