Gay Marriage, Take Two
A year after a same-sex marriage bill died in the state legislature, advocates try again.
Last year, when state legislators tried to make Maryland the sixth state to legalize gay marriage, their once rock-solid coalition fell apart one Sunday at a time.
“We found Mondays to be bad days for our vote count,” says Delegate Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, one of a handful of openly gay legislators. “Each passing Sunday, many local pastors spent entire services devoted to preaching against marriage equality and any politician willing to support it, and, each week, we’d get a couple people who lost their courage.”
In the end, reservations from religious communities derailed passage of the Civil Marriage Protection Act in 2011. But gay-marriage advocates are gearing up for another push in the 2012 legislative session—and this time, they say, they have a revised game plan to make sure it passes.
Of course, last year, all the stars seemed aligned as well. For years, polls had shown a shift in attitudes about the issue nationally, as the public grew more comfortable with the idea of gay people getting married. Locally, Democrats had gained two seats in the state Senate, and some major committee assignments had been reshuffled, with same-sex marriage supporters getting key appointments. Change seemed to be on their side.
The Civil Marriage Protection Act was proposed to repeal the 38-year-old law limiting marriage to male-female relationships. It passed the Senate in two days. Republican Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County made headlines when he broke with his party to vote in favor of the bill and later resigned as minority leader for fear he was not adequately representing the views of his party. With a 25-21 vote, it moved to what is typically the more liberal of the two chambers, the House of Delegates.
But support began to fracture in the House. The first visible sign of trouble came when the bill was before the Judiciary Committee. Two Democratic delegates on the committee who had vowed to vote in favor of the bill staged what The Baltimore Sun described as a “walkout,” effectively leaving the legislation stranded in committee until certain demands were met.
One of those delegates, Jill Carter of Baltimore City, said that other issues were far more pertinent to Marylanders, including education funding in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, where budget cuts were expected to be severe. “I’m trying to leverage the vote to get something for my constituents,” she was quoted as saying.
Jill Carter eventually reaffirmed her support for the bill, but believes the issue was pushed too swiftly. She says she was used as a scapegoat by some in Annapolis.
“It was easier to let me be a scapegoat than to take responsibility for their own failings as leaders,” Carter says, citing Governor Martin O’Malley’s and Speaker Michael Busch’s limited roles in promoting the bill last session. She claims the story that she walked out—first reported by The Sun— was inaccurate, but she stands by her statements about priorities. “The majority of my constituents are concerned with education first,” Carter says. “I thought it was a good opportunity to raise other issues.”
Soon after Carter’s waffle, other delegates who had vowed their support jumped ship, particularly those representing religious African-American communities in areas like Prince George’s County and Baltimore City.
Delegate Tiffany Alston, a first-term Democrat from Prince George’s County and the other delegate who reportedly walked out of the committee hearing with Carter, eventually voted against the bill she cosponsored, citing negative reaction from her constituents. (Alston’s future in Annapolis seems uncertain at this point: In September, she was indicted on felony charges for allegedly stealing campaign funds. She denies wrongdoing, but it is hard not to see the irony: She has been accused of using the stolen funds to pay for, among other things, her own wedding.)
Democrat Melvin Stukes of Baltimore City also withdrew his support, claiming he thought the bill would only allow civil unions. But as The Sun reported at the time, his change of heart came not long after Lenny Clay, a community leader and longtime Baltimore barbershop owner, called Stukes and told him he should burn his Bible if he decided to support the bill. The Maryland Democratic Party, which often votes as a unified force, became divided along religious lines.
Eventually, it became clear the votes simply weren’t there. Rather than hold a vote, House leaders moved to withdraw the bill, sending it back to committee and allowing delegates more time to think about the issue. At the time, Democratic leaders speculated they were only one or two votes shy of those necessary to send it to the governor’s desk, where it would have been signed into law. One year later, supporters say, it will be.
Carrie Evans, who was recently named Executive director of Equality Maryland—the leading gay-rights organization in the state and the bill’s primary backer—says she wasn’t completely surprised that the Civil Marriage Protection Act failed in 2011.
“When you start seeing our great allies like Jill Carter doing stuff like that, something’s going on,” she says. “That’s the little piece of light some people are going to see to be able to rip it open and back away from this.”
Last April, after the legislation failed to pass, Equality Maryland was looking for a new direction. After a series of staff changes, they hired Evans, who had served as the group’s director of policy and planning from 2007 to 2009, to lead them. Trained as a sociologist, as well as an attorney and a veteran of social justice causes, she left in 2009 to take what office manager Kim Miller calls her “sabbatical.”
“Social justice can take a lot out of you,” Evans says. “It was time for me to go and rest.”
But now, Evans says, her resting period is over. She left her job as a policy analyst for Baltimore City’s Housing Department, although she does still plan to teach a class this spring on women in law at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. At 41 years of age, the issue of marriage equality strikes close to home for Evans. She and her wife, Pam, have been together for 13 years and were married in Canada in 2009. She says she is ready to lead an organization poised to make history in the Free State. “Everyone is watching,” Evans says.
When the General Assembly convenes for the 90-day session on January 11, several key factors will have changed since last year. The same-sex marriage bill that will be presented is similar in many respects, but it provides further protections to prevent churches from being forced to perform gay weddings. Also, there will be fewer new legislators, who are likely to balk at the first sign of acrimony.
Moreover, supporters and opponents alike have had a year to organize and strategize. Equality Maryland, which went into this fight largely alone last session, has become part of a broader coalition that includes such organizations as the NAACP, Catholics for Equality, and the Human Rights Campaign. The Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition has already churned out several ads featuring, among others, former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, and the actress Mo’Nique, in an apparent attempt to target the African-American community.
Supporters of the bill have also gained a vocal ally in Governor O’Malley. During last year’s debate, O’Malley, who is Catholic, kept a low profile, stating simply that he would sign a bill if it came to his desk. But after the successful passage of gay-marriage legislation in New York with the backing of Governor Andrew Cuomo, O’Malley changed his strategy. In July, he announced that gay-marriage legislation would have the full backing of the governor’s office and he would lend his name as a sponsor. “Marylanders of all walks of life want their children to live in a loving, stable, committed home protected under the law,” he said at a press conference.
Gay-marriage advocates have powerful forces on their side and have been waging grassroots campaigns in key districts for months. But they also face the very real prospect of any legislative victory being petitioned for referendum. Opponents would need only a little more than 55,000 signatures to put the law on the 2012 ballot, and groups like the National Organization for Marriage have vowed to lend their resources, much as they did in California. A referendum would result in a massive election campaign, costing both sides millions of dollars. But it is an outcome many are preparing for. Evans says Equality Maryland’s campaign plan has been in the works for months. Even a victory in the legislature for gay marriage may not mean ultimate victory.
While gay-marriage supporters have been feverishly preparing to push the bill through, opponents have been preparing to stop it.
One of the loudest voices of opposition is Delegate Don Dwyer, a Republican from Anne Arundel County who serves on the Judiciary Committee with Carter and Alston. Dwyer has fought against gay marriage most of his political life. Having served in the House for nearly a decade, he doesn’t mince words, and his tactics have been known to turn off some who may otherwise support him.
Dwyer made national headlines in March 2010 when he tried to bring impeachment charges against Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler after Gansler issued a legal opinion saying the state should recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Dwyer was unsuccessful, but he ruffled feathers again last February when he circulated a pamphlet to members of the legislature that included explicit descriptions of how to safely perform various gay sex acts, claiming that the pamphlet was distributed to middle- and high-school students in Massachusetts—a state which has allowed gay couples to marry since 2004—and published by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Dwyer warned that the pamphlet was a sign of things to come in Maryland if gay marriage was legalized.
But the story behind the pamphlet is more complicated than Dwyer admitted. The pamphlet was written by a Massachusetts-based AIDS awareness organization, and, while the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is thanked in the text’s acknowledgments, it’s not clear what assistance they provided. Also, contrary to Dwyer’s claims, the booklet was never distributed to public-school children en masse. According to news reports in Massachusetts, its presence at a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network conference at a high school in April 2005 is what created a firestorm, ultimately leading then-governor Mitt Romney to issue a statement denying any state funds went into its production. The pamphlet’s distributors asserted it was intended for adults and that its presence at the event was a mistake.
Nevertheless, the pamphlet, Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century, seems to have made an impression. Dwyer says he was threatened with charges of distributing pornography by the State Ethics Commission. “I was kind of hoping they would [charge me], but they never did,” he says. He believes he won some votes with the infamous pamphlet.
Dwyer also slams Governor O’Malley, saying his support for the bill will amount to dirty tricks. While the Maryland Catholic Conference called O’Malley’s decision “regrettable” and warned of the moral and social impacts of redefining marriage, Dwyer was less diplomatic. “It means there will be bribes and there will be threats,” he says, suggesting that O’Malley will use underhanded tactics to push legislators to vote for the bill. There will, no doubt, be arm-twisting at the hands of Joseph Bryce, a highly respected and effective lobbyist who has served as chief legislative officer for two governors. O’Malley has put Bryce in charge of coordinating the new Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition and shoring up the necessary votes for passage.
Dwyer and other opponents of gay marriage insist their stance comes down to children. “The issue is all about what’s taught in public schools in regards to homosexuality,” Dwyer says. Marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman, he argues, and attempts to legalize gay marriage are really attempts to normalize an abnormal lifestyle.
Dwyer and other Republicans have been joined by some unlikely allies in their opposition. Whereas battles in the General Assembly often divide along party lines, Democrats with strong religious convictions or districts with large churchgoing populations have been adamant, and perhaps more importantly, organized, in their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Democratic Delegate Emmett Burns of Baltimore County, who is African-American and a minister, has criticized the gay-rights movement for comparing itself to the civil-rights movement. “Gays and lesbians have never been discriminated against like I’ve been discriminated against as a black man,” Burns has said. Burns cofounded Progressive Clergy and Laity in Action, aimed at swaying undecided legislators to vote against the gay-marriage bill.
Delegate Jill Carter, whose father, Walter Carter, was a key figure in Baltimore’s civil-rights movement, agrees with Burns that linking the two movements is wrong. “There’s no comparison between that struggle and this struggle,” she says, citing the long history of slavery and a fight for equality that persists to this day.
While gay activists admit the two movements are unique, they insist that there are correlations between the black and gay experiences in America. “We get into dangerous territory as oppressed groups when we start to say, ‘Your oppression isn’t like my oppression,'” warns Evans. “Those same people who feel a bit offended [by the comparison], I think also fail to acknowledge the oppression that LGBT people have faced.”
Evans is quick to point out where Maryland’s gay-marriage bill first began: with Prince George’s County Senator and civil- rights activist Gwendolyn Britt. Her civil- rights career began at the age of 18 when she and several other black students walked into a segregated Montgomery County amusement park and attempted to ride the merry-go-round, sparking a fevered backlash from white patrons. Had she not passed away in January 2008 at the age of 66, she would have been the first person to introduce same-sex marriage legislation in the state.
One thing seems certain: The gay-marriage bill will draw fierce debate in the 2012 legislative session. Indeed, Michael Busch called the debate over same-sex marriage last session “the most passionate” he had seen in his eight years as House Speaker.
One of the most memorable speeches during that session came from Mizeur, whose emotional plea that her colleagues vote for love left the chamber in silence. Speaking just after Thanksgiving, Mizeur, who is a practicing Catholic, echoes what she said on the House floor last March. “Marriage is about love,” she says. “It’s about a vow of commitment forever. It’s about sharing each other’s joys, dividing up responsibilities and shouldering each others’ pain.”
And even if this second fight for marriage equality proves unsuccessful, either in the legislature or at the ballot box, Mizeur says that what she shares with her wife, Deborah, and what countless other gay couples share across this state, will remain true. Says Mizeur, “No one can take our love away.”