In 2008, City Councilmember Bill Henry (D-4th District) introduced a resolution urging the Baltimore City delegation to the Maryland General Assembly to show support for statewide marriage-equality legislation. The bill passed with a handful of sponsors, but only after a contentious Council meeting in which city residents spoke out strongly against marriage equality and letters were read aloud from bill opponents who requested their opinions be entered into the record.
Much has changed in the past four years. On Jan. 23, the City Council passed resolution 11-0002R, Request for State Action—Equal Access to Marriage, which was sponsored by 10 of 15 councilmembers, again requesting that the city’s delegation stand with the statewide marriage-equality bill that is expected to drop in the capital this week. At a Jan. 18 hearing, no letters were read into the record; nobody showed up to oppose it.
The seeming change in attitude toward the passing of marriage-equality legislation is what proponents of the bill are hoping will be the case statewide. Last year, House Bill 175, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, passed the Maryland Senate but, surprisingly to many, fell short in the House. Advocates are hoping that increased visibility from supporters this year—including big names such as Gov. Martin O’Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake—will ensure the bill becomes law.
It is fortuitous timing, then, that Baltimore will for the first time this week play host to the 24th annual National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change (creatingchange.org), the largest LGBT conference in the nation. The conference is estimated to bring 3,000 attendees who will participate in workshops, panels, and receptions in order to develop skills they can bring back to their own communities; Rawlings-Blake is expected to attend the welcome reception and NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous will be giving the keynote speech.
“Baltimore was a happy alignment of a community that wanted us to be here, a great hotel space, and proximity to headquarters in Washington, D.C.,” conference director Sue Hyde says. “When we are looking at sites for Creating Change, we usually look at a few different cities, we reach out to folks in the LGBT community to ask the question, would you like us to come to your city? Folks here were very enthusiastic about it coming.”
There are a lot of folks who are enthusiastic about the likelihood of the marriage-equality bill passing as well. Last year’s bill contained language to establish “that a marriage between two individuals who are not otherwise prohibited from marrying is valid in the State.” It also contained a religious exemption ensuring that no religious organization or entity could be forced to perform marriages with which the entity disagrees “in violation of the constitutional right to free exercise of religion.” This year’s bill is expected to contain similar language, says state Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-43rd District), one of seven openly gay members of the House, and “it will come in this year with an even stronger religious exemption,” in hopes of finding common ground with the religious contingency that forms the primary opposition to the bill.
McIntosh says much of the advocacy for last year’s bill happened quietly, “from colleague to colleague and constituent to elected official.” The opposition, on the other hand, began to take out ads on TV, target constituents with mailings, and generally make a lot more noise. “I think there was a miscalculation that if it got out of the Senate it would easily pass the House,” McIntosh says. “So boom, out of the Senate it comes, and everybody just thought, OK, line up the votes, get it out on the floor, and get it passed. Don’t make a big deal of it—let’s just get it done.”
Supporters of the bill seem to be taking a noisier approach themselves this year. The recently formed Marylanders for Marriage Equality merges the NAACP’s Baltimore Chapter, the health care workers’ union 1199 SEIU, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Progressive Maryland, Equality Maryland, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (which runs Creating Change) as a united front to advocate for marriage equality in the state. The Creating Change conference will, for the first time ever, include a lobbying day in Washington, doable because of Baltimore’s proximity to the capital. And at a union rally on Jan. 16, U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-4th District) spoke out strongly in favor of marriage equality, emphasizing the difference between religious sacrament and a state marriage license.
“I never dreamed that I would be in the legislature at a time when marriage was being considered,” McIntosh says. “I thought it was a long way away, but it’s not. I think it’s a matter of either this year or a few years away. And yeah, we have conservative parts of the state, but Maryland has tended to be progressive, Maryland has tended to offer rights rather than take them away.”
Getting less attention so far is the Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Bill, a bill designed to provide equal treatment for the transgender community, a version of which was also introduced last year and passed the House but failed in the Senate. The bill created hot debate within the LGBT community, largely concerning protections in public accommodations—i.e., restrooms (“Transgender Gap,” Feature, June 15, 2011). Some feel that the public-accommodations allowance is the thing that most makes such a bill difficult to pass, and the community should strive to pass a less complete bill, rather than nothing at all. This year’s bill, expected to drop in the next few weeks, will include protection in public accommodations.
Last year the main proponent of the bill was Equality Maryland; this year, a new organization, Gender Rights Maryland, has formed, the sole purpose of which is to see the trans-rights bill become law.
“We formed largely out of the fact that we nearly passed some legislation last year, and we saw that there was a need for a voice of trans people speaking for themselves,” GRM Board Chair Sharon Brackett says. “We felt it was important for us to really make sure that people understand that this is a basic civil rights bill. This is not a gay rights bill. We really represent the complete populace, meaning we have straight people, we have gay people, we have lesbians, we have asexual people. . . . The notion that we’re part of the gay community is really a bit of a misnomer. We’re a different animal. As I often tell people, being gay is about who you love, being trans is about who you are.”
Brackett feels hopeful that attitudes toward the trans community are changing in a way that will make the legislation pass. She points to the December 2011 decision in the case of Glenn v. Brumby, in which a transwoman sued her employer after he fired her when she announced that she would be transitioning from male to female. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal cases originating in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, ruled that trans discrimination is sex discrimination, which is illegal under the 14th Amendment.
“So in many ways the bill that we’re trying to put forward is an opportunity for Maryland to simply codify that it’s progressive,” Brackett says. “Maryland really doesn’t want to be behind Alabama on civil rights legislation. Essentially, we are, and we need to catch up. I don’t think any Maryland legislator would be comfortable with that.”
She also points to the case of Chrissy Polis, a transwoman who was beaten outside a public bathroom in a McDonald’s in April 2011, which prompted O’Malley to release a statement announcing his commitment to passing legislation to end discrimination against the trans community. O’Malley will be introducing both the marriage-equality bill and the trans-rights bill in his legislative package, but the City Council has yet to acknowledge the bill. Neither Henry nor Kraft had heard of it, though Henry added that “there are many of us on the Council who believe in freedom and equality” and that should the bill be brought to the Council’s attention in the future it would likely see support.
Within the gay and trans communities, support for the two bills seems to be mutual. McIntosh says she supports the gender identity bill; Brackett echoes the sentiment for marriage equality. “The reality is that marriage equality is an important trans right that we support,” Brackett says. “We’re not leading the effort on that bill but we’re supportive of it. When a trans person gets married, there’s going to be somebody who has a question about that marriage.”
Creating Change’s Sue Hyde, who has been the director of the conference since 1994, has noticed, among other trends, an increasing presence from the trans community at the conference. “We’ve seen the emergence of a very strong youth and campus contingent attending,” Hyde says. “A very strong representation by transgender people, relating to the transgender community and issues. . . . We’re looking forward to a very exciting event. It is always our goal that our community leaders and organizers go home better equipped to do their work.”
McIntosh is optimistic about the marriage-equality bill’s chances in Maryland this year, noting that as a younger generation grows into voting age, opposition to marriage equality becomes less intense. She cites a recent meeting with a Catholic leader (whom McIntosh declines to name) who acknowledged that the law will change, it’s only a matter of when. “People, actually even people who oppose it right now, have a sense that it will happen,” she says. “And it will come back year after year.”