Governor's gay rights bills raise hopes of Md. activists

But opponents coalesce into odd alliances in bid to reject legislation again

February 07, 1999|By Matthew Mosk | Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

Standing in his boss' wood-paneled Cumberland office, Michael Engler could hardly believe what he was hearing. He was being fired.

"He told me I couldn't be effective in my job because I was gay," said Engler, who had been heading the subsidiary of a large Maryland investment firm. "That was it. I was out."

Boiling, Engler figured the logical next call was to his lawyer. But he was wrong.

Maryland is one of the majority of states that offer no special protection for gay men and lesbians against discrimination, a fact that for the better part of a decade has fueled a simmering debate between conservative groups and advocates for the state's homosexual community.

In Annapolis, that debate has been divisive and unproductive. Since 1991, campaigns to add homosexuals to the ranks of those shielded from bias have died quietly in committee.

But this year might be different. A pair of bills addressing discrimination and violence against homosexuals have been hand-delivered to legislators by the office of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, moving the issue to a prime place on his agenda.

During his State of the State address last month, Glendening declared its passage a major goal for this year's General Assembly session. He offered a personal appeal that drew on the hardships faced by his gay brother, a member of the Air Force who died of AIDS six years ago.

"I felt now was the time, coming in with a mandate from the voters, to take a stronger stand on an issue I felt strongly about," Glendening said in an interview last week.

The governor's involvement, coupled with the national attention that followed the beating death last year of a gay Wyoming college student, has galvanized supporters and opponents of the two bills.

In Baltimore, longtime gay rights activists are finding it tough to keep the brakes on their hopes.

"When the governor got involved this year, our feeling was that the people in Annapolis were finally recognizing that this is the right thing to do," said Catherine M. Brennan, a lawyer with Free State Justice Campaign, an organization lobbying for the two bills. "There was an immediate sense that this year would be different."

For the groups lining up against the measures, Glendening's interest has turned confidence to caution.

"When the governor decides he wants a bill to pass, he has a lot of tools and incentives at his disposal," said Champe C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and an opponent of the measures. "That's going to make things difficult."

The issue of gay rights -- as with other deeply personal matters that fuse with politics -- has forged some odd alliances in Annapolis.

There are business groups that fear exposure to a new generation of costly discrimination lawsuits. There are ultraconservative groups, which are part of a national effort that has campaigned against similar measures in other states. And there are religious activists, whose ranks span the political spectrum.

Joined in unbending opposition to the bills, for example, are Jim Rogers of Elkton, who has lobbied legislators on a host of conservative issues, and the former NAACP director for the mid-Atlantic region, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat.

Rogers said plainly the legislation is "wrong."

"And we'll stand against it as long as we have life and breath," he added.

Burns, a pastor at Rising Sun First Baptist Church in Woodlawn, said, "If I want to hire someone who is gay or not hire them, I ought to have that right without being sued because of it."

He added: "And I don't want to improve the chances for someone who is of gay persuasion to ply their behavior."

To leaders of Maryland's gay community, these are bruising words. Several attending a meeting last week in the parish hall of Baltimore's First Unitarian Universalist Church -- which has a number of openly gay members -- said these sentiments illustrate precisely why added protections are warranted.

One of the bills they are supporting would strictly prohibit such practices as denying work to someone based on their sexual preference or refusing to sell a home to a same-sex couple. They are protections that exist in Baltimore and in Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

`Directly into the closet'

Michael Engler, now 45 and running his own investment firm in Baltimore, said he believes the rest of the state needs to catch up.

When he was dismissed from his Cumberland job in 1989, Engler said, he remained jobless for 18 months because his former employer refused to provide a reference. His story, which he has recounted to Assembly members at committee hearings in previous years, resonates within the gay community.

"When I went to work, my earrings came out, my tie went on and I went directly into the closet," said Gary Ivanish, 37, a former bank employee who abandoned the corporate world and invests from his Baltimore County home. "There are a whole world of pressures that come from fear you'll be found out and fired."

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