Rights panel elects leader Lesbian activist confirmed by split vote in Howard

December 18, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Gay rights activist Jan Nyquist, who was confirmed as a member of the county Human Rights Commission by a split vote last July, was elected chairwoman of the panel last night -- again by a split vote.

Ms. Nyquist was elected by a 5-3 majority, with one commissioner abstaining. Two commissioners were absent.

Ms. Nyquist was the choice of a three-member nominating committee that also recommended Commissioner Harold L. Williams as vice chairman. He was elected unanimously.

Some members asked Mr. Williams to run as a compromise candidate for chairman between Ms. Nyquist and Commissioner Robert Birdsong Jr., but he refused, saying he had just taken a new job.

Many commissioners saw the election of either Ms. Nyquist or Mr. Birdsong -- who was nominated from the floor by acting chairwoman Lucie R. Pelgrim -- as perpetuating verbal infighting on the commission.

The infighting began in July when former chairman Roger W. Jones asked the commission to support a motion calling on the panel to endorse the appointment of gay and lesbian members.

Three commissioners, including Mr. Birdsong, refused, saying the motion was unnecessary since the commission had already voted unanimously to support the candidacy of gay rights activist Robert Healy. Mr. Healy had sought but failed to win nomination by County Executive Charles I. Ecker. Mr. Ecker nominated Ms. Nyquist instead.

Mr. Birdsong thought the disagreement was over procedure.

But Mr. Jones saw it as more than that. He said the failure to support his motion indicated a lack of support for gay and lesbian rights. And he called on the commissioners who voted against the motion to resign. When they did not, Mr. Jones resigned as chairman but remained a member of the commission.

Meanwhile, he and Mr. Birdsong circulated letters among commission members in which they publicly castigated one another. Last night, Mr. Jones opposed Mr. Birdsong's nomination as chairman in strong terms. Mr. Birdsong responded by saying Mr. Jones had characterized him unfairly.

Newly appointed commissioner Veronica B. Mariani suggested a middle ground.

"We have some very sincere, very caring people on this commission," she said. "Maybe too caring. We don't disagree on principles but on the means we seek to achieve justice. Jan is an excellent leader, and Mr. Birdsong wants to heal.

"But maybe before going for the best, maybe we should take a compromise candidate temporarily. I'm afraid it will be an 'us-them, we won!' situation. My only problem is, I have nobody to nominate as the compromise candidate."

When it was suggested that Ms. Mariani herself accept the position, she begged off.

"I could not be as strongly pro-active as I want to be," she said.

After debating whether to wait a month or vote in secret, the commissioners decided to vote now and in public.

Afterward, they talked about growth and healing within and without the commission.

"What I have learned in the past six years is that service is the true happiness of the heart," said Ms. Pelgrim, who will be leaving the commission in February. "The longer you serve, the happier you are."

Despite having had one of the most difficult chairmanships the past six month of any presiding officer on a county commission, Ms. Pelgrim thanked the commissioners for lessons she said they had taught her.

"I wish you peace," she said. "Peace in your heart. Peace in your family. Peace for the people of Howard County."

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