Betting the Farm on Gay Marriage

Fifteen years ago, a University of Maryland law student named John Pucker worked diligently to promote marriage equality for gay folks. At that time, working to defeat anti-gay marriage bills took up most of the time Pucker’s Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Coalition (with its fantastic acronym “SSMAC”) dedicated to the cause. As a result of the heads up defensive advocacy of SSMAC and many elected officials, most notably then-Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, Maryland remains on the list of states that did not adopt an outright ban on permitting a gay couple to marry in Maryland.

Of course, everyone remembers the heartbreak of the American Civil Liberties Union’s losing effort to win marriage rights through litigation. We also remember the herculean efforts of advocates earlier this year to win those rights legislatively, passing a bill in the Senate on the backs of Senators Rich Madaleno and Jamie Raskin only to see it fall to a crushing defeat in the House of Delegates, despite the equally heroic efforts of Baltimore’s Maggie McIntosh, Keiffer Mitchell and Mary Washington, among others. Now, on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, Maryland stands poised to take center stage on marriage equality – with Governor Martin O’Malley promising to include such legislation in the package he moves through the General Assembly next year. Marylanders for Marriage Equality, described in its press release as “a united and diverse coalition made up of labor, religious, civil rights, and LGBT groups,” including Progressive Maryland and Equality Maryland, will provide support.

Political insiders are jubilant, as they know that O’Malley’s shoulder to the wheel will give them the five or so delegates they need for victory. O’Malley, a smart politician with an eye on the White House in 2016, knows full well that we will ultimately win the battle for marriage equality. He must embrace a core Democratic issue if he wants to be a presidential candidate. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is already ahead on this front, having just, virtually single-handedly, secured marriage rights for gay couples in my home state.

It’s impressive that O’Malley decided to come out for marriage equality in such a front-and-center way at all. During the failed 2011 marriage campaign, O’Malley’s advocacy occurred mostly in private. Many of us cringed when he made an equivocal statement that voters should decide the issue at referendum.

O’Malley’s hesitancy to fully embrace marriage equality until now does not shock – the governor’s religious beliefs do not embrace same-sex relationships as equal to heterosexual unions. Although he has been responsive when he needed as Mayor of Baltimore City and as governor, gay and lesbian issues have never been fully in his wheelhouse.

So why now? In addition to the obvious answer – gay votes and dollars needed to run for president – we must credit the governor’s wife, the Honorable Katie Curran O’Malley, who has quietly lobbied for marriage equality in her own right. As detailed in the Washington Post, Judge O’Malley lobbied privately in support of the legislation.

O’Malley’s support of marriage equality gives us hope that we will see some sort of relationship recognition legislation in 2012. However, caution is warranted, for at least two reasons. Equality Maryland, which primarily moved the legislation in 2011, continues its freefall, leaving many in the community wondering if it will have a fully functioning board and staff ready to work on day one of the legislative session next January, if not before. Perhaps more troubling are the recent reports that Progressive Maryland – the umbrella organization for the 2012 marriage campaign – is experiencing its own implosion, with PM missing payroll several times over the summer due to decreasing contributions.

With these known weaknesses, Maryland’s gays and lesbians need to be realistic. We rely solely on the Governor to carry the five votes we need over the goal line. Do not be shocked if what is carried over that goal line is a civil unions compromise. And yes, I know, it might not be “fair” or what you want, but the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately decide this issue – and we cannot afford to not have Maryland in the “yes” column when that court hears a marriage equality case. The more states that allow some sort of relationship recognition, the more likely the Court will find a national policy favoring such relationship recognition for all. And remember, marriage is not the only “to do” on the list; Maryland still has yet to find a workable compromise to afford rational discrimination protections for people of trans* experience.

There is much work to be done for progressives. If what we get is civil unions, the governor – and our community – would be wise to call is a win and move on. Let’s make John Pucker proud!

Friday, 12 August 2011

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