On a warm spring evening, Carrie Hiers and Tonya Cook sit on overstuffed couches in their cozy Northeast Baltimore living room and plan their wedding. There will a rainbow balloon arch, bubbles, and a giant spread of rainbow cupcakes.
Technically, it'll be the second wedding for Hiers and Cook but their first legal one. And they won't be alone.
On Sunday, June 16, they will join couples from all over the state and beyond-some coming from as far away as Georgia-in Druid Hill Park for a mass same-sex wedding ceremony called "WeDo Baltimore," officiated by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, as part of the Baltimore Pride 2013 festivities.
Surrounded by pictures from the couple's 2010 commitment ceremony, Hiers, who is organizing the event, says legalizing same-sex marriage means "the world will recognize what we've already known," that her family and her love are just as legitimate as anyone else's. This is cause for celebration even if, as Hiers notes with the determination of a longtime activist and organizer, "We still have battles to fight. We're not done."
Proposition 6 wasn't supposed to pass. Maryland wasn't ready for it, they said. The big national backers of marriage equality campaigns across the country decided that Maryland was not a smart place to direct their campaign dollars, choosing to spend in Minnesota, Maine, and Washington instead. That didn't stop Marylanders for Marriage Equality from raising almost $6 million in support of Prop 6, largely from small donors, at an average of $400 apiece. Individuals came to the campaign from all directions.
Hiers got involved for personal reasons but also as part of her work with her SEIU 1199, the United Healthcare Workers East. Asked how same-sex marriage came to be an issue for the union, Hiers replies simply, "We're a union, we talk about people's rights, this is just about rights." For attorney and organizer Carrie Evans, the fight for LGBT rights has been hers for years. In 2011 she became executive director of Equality Maryland and continues to lead the battle for equality and rights, of which marriage is only one. Thousands of Marylanders joined the fight for myriad reasons; for many, it is deeply personal, springing from a desire to have their unions recognized as equal in the eyes of the state and society, where for others it is a logical addition to a general struggle for justice.
This broad coalition got out the vote on Nov. 6, and that night anxious organizers and voters waited as the numbers rolled in. Hiers and her "sweetie" Cook never thought it would pass so soon. Even when they had a commitment ceremony, they promised to legally marry should Maryland recognize the right for same sex couples. They waited up to see the results, busying themselves with homework at home, one eye on the news, and as the wire-to-wire victory for the proposition emerged, both were surprised: "Are they ready," Hiers wondered, "or just tired of hearing us fuss?"
For Evans, it was a long night of celebration, of standing with hundreds of volunteers and organizers and activists who had labored so long and hard for this night, who overcame long odds and showed those national groups that they were wrong; Maryland was more than ready for this. The next days were a tired blur as Evans and others took to the media circuits to review what happened, how, and what it would mean for the future of LGBT Marylanders.
That night was a victory, but as Baltimoreans rally for their first Gay Pride celebration after the big win, questions remain: What has this victory meant for the immediate realities of LGBT people? And what is next? Evans was asked right after the win if she planned to take some time off, relax a little-she'd won, right? But Evans knew the battles were not over, that enforcing marriage equality would be yet another full-time job. Because marriage is both a state and national right, winning the right to marry in Maryland puts same-sex couples in some tricky legal binds, and it certainly does not mean same-sex couples are equal to their heterosexual counterparts.
For example, although any entity receiving public funds must extend family health and retirement benefits to same-sex married couples in Maryland, the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) means those marriages are not recognized for federal tax purposes. The result is a hefty tax bill on those added health benefits because they are considered income for same-sex couples. For binational couples, the hope of marriage as a path to citizenship for an immigrating spouse is unrealized because immigration is a federal issue, and the feds cannot recognize the legality of same-sex marriages-DOMA strikes again.
Even on the state level, significant issues remain. Equality Maryland receives daily calls from people whose employers are refusing to honor the new law, including regular calls from employers like Baltimore County Schools who should surely know better. Others call about delays in receiving benefits. Few paid attention when Maryland's attorney general issued a statement requiring employers to extend marriage benefits to those married in other states and sought coverage only when Maryland legalized same-sex marriage, but now their "qualifying event" had expired, requiring couples to wait up to a full year for the next round of open enrollment to apply for benefits for their same-sex spouses. Others call only to discover that private employers are governed by federal law that does not recognize same-sex marriages and are thus not required to abide by Maryland's new law.
And sometimes "equality" can have side effects activists did not intend. State of Maryland employees who received their benefits enrollment packets for the 2013-2014 fiscal year were informed that as of Jan. 1, 2014, domestic partnership benefits will no longer be honored after a six-month grace period and benefits will extend only to those who are married. This places couples who do not want to marry in a real bind if they would like benefits to continue to extend to their partners and their children, particularly if they have not formalized second-parent adoption.
There are real reasons couples might not want to marry. Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) points out, for example, that a same-sex couple that marries can disqualify themselves for international adoptions. Marriage can "out" a non-citizen partner to immigration officials and risk his or her deportation. Marrying in Maryland and then moving to another state can force individuals to "out" themselves to new employers when they must report their marriage on employment forms. Reasons not to marry are as complicated as the reasons to do so, and requiring marriage on the current uneven playing field is a scary proposition. As Evans points out, given DOMA and the fact that most states still do not recognize same-sex marriage rights, marriage equality remains anything but equal. Until it is, domestic partnership remains a vital package of rights for those who cannot simply marry.
Enforcing Maryland's Proposition 6 remains a complicated and ongoing job, as enforcing rights always is. The struggle to protect long-won rights such as the right to vote, equal accessibility, equal pay, nondiscrimination in housing-you name it, formal rights do not lead to equality and justice in everyday life. This is, perhaps, the limit of formal equality as the sign of freedom. The struggle simply does not end, and the rhetoric surrounding Prop 6's victory has meant an unfortunate contracting of financial and volunteer support for LGBT rights. The team at Equality Maryland spends a lot of time these days reminding donors that fights remain, to enforce marriage equality but also to address the myriad other issues facing sexual and gender minorities in Maryland and nationwide: employment discrimination, housing discrimination, lack of safe public accommodation, and freedom from a fear of violence, especially for transgender people, and the struggle for basic rights such as health care, housing, and subsistence that affect a growing number of Marylanders.
One of the limitations of the recent single-issue focus on marriage equality is that many see its passage, along with the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, as the final victories for LGBT freedom, and they are anything but.
But Hiers says that while legalizing same-sex marriage is not a final victory, it's a major one, and it's worth celebrating.
The public wedding, co-sponsored by Alpha Eta Omega Sorority, Strapped up Baltimore, SEIU Eastern Regions National Lavender Caucus, Alpha Alpha DMV of Beta Phi Omega Sorority, the GLCCB ("We stand on their shoulders," Hiers says), Unity Fellowship of Baltimore, Baltimore Black Pride, Incorporated, and SEIU 1199 UHWE, will bring couples together before the mayor and five representatives from various churches to mark the occasion.
Hiers and her fellow organizers are creating a festive atmosphere with the rainbow balloon arch, bubbles, a hospitality tent "for the girlie girls," makeup done by Jen Revels of C'est Moi J'Unique, and a cupcake cake provided by Shaun Price of OOOH So Sweet Cakery.
It's a celebration of love in the midst ongoing struggle, because this was one hard-fought, hard-won battle, and for many Marylanders, it matters. As Brian Norman, who recently wed his longtime partner, Greg Nicholl, on top of the American Visionary Art Museum, at Mr. Rain's Fun House, pointed out, this is about equal rights and, in Baltimore, that also means the right to stand in front of a giant whirligig with your closest friends and family, grandparents included, and celebrate. That's what Sunday will be for, and everyone is invited. Be there, Sunday, June 16 at 2:30 p.m. at Druid Hill Park.