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Thursday, April 07, 2011

A Blueprint for Marriage Equality in 2012

Winning Over the Legislature

By Steve Charing

Following the near-miss of achieving marriage equality in the 2011 Maryland General Assembly, many gays and lesbians were left heartbroken, angry and frustrated. It was a disappointment, to be sure, but there is no reason why we cannot succeed in 2012 if the entire LGBT community and allies get on board. We have the benefit of a year’s time to regroup, collect our thoughts and execute a winning game plan.

Keep in mind, however, that although House Speaker Michael Busch indicated he would bring up the Civil Marriage Protection Act in 2012, there is no guarantee that he will. Therefore, it is imperative that he be convinced there are sufficient votes for passage.

The following represents my ideas on how we can secure the necessary votes in the House of Delegates and hold on to the Senate’s support.

Keep it local

While national groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign and Gill Action were gracious to help Equality Maryland with the efforts in the legislature in 2011, I would prefer that their resources, reach and fundraising capabilities be applied to a referendum battle should one transpire. For our work in the legislature, it is best that Equality Maryland, with the support of the LGBT community and a professional lobbying firm, convince wavering and/or persuadable lawmakers to gain the necessary votes.

The national groups, many believe, played an influential role in the controversial decision this year to commit the marriage bill to committee, which left a bitter taste in the mouths of pro-marriage activists. This unfortunately eroded the confidence in Equality Maryland, and that damage needs to be repaired.

We must encourage Equality Maryland to lead the fight as they are in the best position to understand the idiosyncrasies of the individual legislators and their constituents. And as a community, we must stand behind the organization and offer support as needed.

Winning over non-supportive African-Americans

Maryland is a state with one of the highest percentage of African-Americans in the country. And during the 2012 election with President Obama will be on the ballot, a greater turnout of these voters is expected—a situation that is crucial during a referendum.

Clearly, the failure to move the marriage bill through the House this session was in part due to the opposition of several Democratic delegates who were influenced by church-going African-American constituents. This group has been traditionally opposed to marriage for same-sex couples. Securing the votes from those delegates would likely have been the difference between winning and losing.

Therefore, a major educational effort needs to be undertaken. Allies, such as the Maryland Black Family Alliance who have done great work on our behalf, would be helpful in that regard.

Equality Maryland should also solicit the assistance of supportive delegates and senators especially in predominantly African-American districts in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. Perhaps town hall meetings held jointly by these elected officials and Equality Maryland could go a long way in allaying fears about marriage equality.

Of course, this could present a challenge in obtaining the assistance of these politicians, but you can be sure that homophobic delegates Emmett Burns and Don Dwyer will be working with NOM and other anti-gay organizations to ensure a defeat.

Also, our efforts to line up votes should focus on Democrats. Virtually all Republican lawmakers in this state are against marriage equality. Sen. Allan Kittleman is an exception as he is the only member of the GOP caucus capable of thinking for himself to support what he knows is right. Let’s not waste time and resources beating a dead elephant.

Words are important

There is no question in my mind that marriage for same-sex couples is a civil right. But many African-Americans don’t buy into that concept, and it may be hurting us.

Although leading civil rights icons, such as Rep. John Lewis, Julian Bond and the late Coretta Scott King have equated marriage equality as a civil right, it appears that a large number of African-Americans brush off that idea and listen more to their pastors.

I believe we should frame this struggle as one of “equal rights” where we won’t have to engage in a distracting side argument on the definition of “civil rights”. But we should not retreat on the word “marriage”. Naming it anything else opens up the separate but equal doctrine, which is unacceptable in this movement.

Ideas are important too

Equality Maryland and its board members should welcome strategic ideas from the broader community. Large open meetings would likely be unruly, difficult to manage and nonproductive. Instead, Equality Maryland should schedule smaller meetings in the months ahead with community leaders in business and media as well as other local advocacy organizations that have succeeded in advancing equality at the grass roots level. There should be a free exchange of ideas to determine the most effective way of reaching out to targeted constituency groups and to help formulate a broad strategy for raising large sums of needed money to succeed in a referendum battle.

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