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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Maryland Marriage Equality: Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

It's become a depressingly familiar scenario. After years of hard work, the LGBT community's on the verge of victory in a state on Marriage Equality, and the National Organization for Marriage rides in on a load of cash from their notoriously unspecified donors and plays on religious fears and bigotry to poison the well and block any further progress on our rights.

Then there's the almost unbearable round of un-christian-like gloating from the usual suspects - NOM, the FRC, and the GOP, about how christianity won out again and the will of the people has been done.

Iy happened again in Maryland this week, when what many thought would be easy passage for the bill in the Assembly turned into a grueling two week spectacle, as our "friends" decided political expedience and church loyalty were more important than equal rights.

We heard the usual excuses:
1) It has nothing to do with bigotry - I just believe marriage is between a man and a woman: implicit in this belief is the idea that gay and lesbian couples are not good enough for marriage - that allowing them to marry would somehow taint the institution. A favorite variation of this is the "redefining marriage". Marriage has been redefined for the better many times, from making women equals instead of property to allowing interracial couples to marry. So again, there's an unstated assumption that this particular "redefinition" has negative consequences - again, wrapped up in a deep-seated fear of gays and lesbians.

2) Gay rights are not civil rights: I grew up with a strong admiration from the black civil rights movement - for the mostly peaceful way it was carried out, and for Martin Luther King and all that he accomplished. I see the gay rights movement as following in those footsteps - a repressed population fighting for its rights against the larger society - and think we can learn many lessons from one another. Instead, we're derided for using the term "civil rights" as it the African American Community had a trademark on the term. I understand that this is a sensitive area, and that we should stop saying things like "Gay is the New Black" - Black is still here, and Black is the New Black. I get that we need to make the effort to build bridges between the two communities. But to hear that someone is voting to block marriage equality because they are offended by us calling it a civil right? That's just petty.

3) Allowing gays and lesbians to marry will destroy religious freedoms: Only if those religious freedoms include bigotry against gays and lesbians using federal dollars, and quite possibly not even then - look at Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church. If that kind of nasty, bigoted hate speech is ok by the US Constitution, imagine what you'd have to say to get yourself in trouble?

4) Why not just accept civil unions - after all, they give all the same rights: Actually, in many cases, they don't. And even when they do, at the state level, they're blocked from Federal recognition (just like gay marriages) by the Defense of Marriage Act. In addition, the states which have implemented civil unions have found that many people see them as lesser than marriage, and stories of gay and lesbian couples being denied hospital visitation rights and other rights commonly granted to married couples are common. Just as drinking at a separate fountain was found to be discriminatory, even if the water tasted the same, so do civil unions implicitly confer second class citizenship upon the LGBT community.

5) It's the "will of the people": Actually, it's not. Recent polling in Maryland showed 50% support for marriage equality, with only 41% opposed. It's the will of a small group of religious people, supported by organizations who make their livings demonizing gays and lesbians for profit.

I get that the GOP is against us. They've made no bones about it, and even the "gay" organizations on the right side of the aisle generally seem more interested in the usual GOP priorities than in gay rights.

But it kills me every time the Democrats stab us in the back. Here's what two African American delegates in Maryland had to says about their decisions to vote against us:

Del. Cheryl Glenn, an African-American Democrat from Baltimore, said, "The black churches have never asked us for anything, and they are asking us now, 'Don't do this.'"

Del. Jay Walker, a black Democrat from Prince George's, told lawmakers his constituents and the churches in his district were united in their belief that marriage should remain as it is. "I cannot vote against my base," he said, invoking a term usually used in political -- not policy -- discussions.

We're part of your base. Every political district in America has gays and lesbians and our friends and families. And we're the ones, as a result of your actions, who have to go another year (or three or five) unable to secure basic rights for our own families, while your other constituents walk away from this fight with nothing changed, back to their day-to-day lives.

But let's not put all the blame on the African American Community. Yes, some black churches are at the forefront of the call to block marriage equality in Maryland, just as they were in DC and California. But look at Sam Arora, a white democrat who ran his campaign on marriage equality, who was a co-sponsor of the bill until two weeks ago, who accepted thousands of dollars from our community to finance his campaign. Then, without warning, he turned his back on us, citing previously unexpressed deeply held religious beliefs, and removing his name from the bill.

And let's not forget the Mormon and Catholic churches, which in recent years have joined forces to keep the LGBT community down, whenever and however they can.

In all, ten democrats buckled to religious pressure and threatened to kill the bill. Instead, it was sent back to committee and we were promised another try next year. A presidential election year. When, historically, no one wants to stick out their necks for gay rights. Indeed, some are saying we may now have to wait until after 2014, when Maryland legislators are up for re-election.

The anti gay folks have their own party, the GOP, who almost invariably stands in lock-step against us. Is it too much to ask that our own party stand up for the rights of their own constituents, and not constantly turn around and stab us in the backs in the name of political expediency and religious pressure?

Our gay and lesbian friends in Maryland must surely think so. 


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