Hixson savors bittersweet victory

Gay rights bill signing product of long fight that hit close to home

May 15, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When Gov. Parris N. Glendening signs a landmark gay rights bill into law today, the occasion will be exciting yet bittersweet for one Montgomery County legislator.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson has been introducing essentially the same anti-discrimination bill every year since 1993, and the ceremony will mark one of the most significant milestones in her 25-year legislative career.

But missing from the crowd celebrating the end of her long struggle will be her son, Richard Hixson, a gay man who died in December at the age of 40.

He lived long enough to see his mother win House approval of the bill in 1999, but wasn't there for the Senate breakthrough that led to the success of her cause.

Hixson said she's sure her son would be proud of her but that he was not the reason she adopted the gay rights cause. The veteran liberal, who has three other grown children, isn't even sure whether she knew of her son's orientation when she first introduced the bill.

"I saw it as a human rights issue rather than homosexual or gay rights," she said. "It was philosophical, frankly, more than anything."

The legislation adds gays and lesbians to the groups protected by state law banning discrimination in housing and employment. Eleven other states have such protections.

The bill the governor will sign is not the one with Hixson's name on it as prime sponsor. Although the Hixson bill was approved by the House, only the administration bill introduced in the Senate passed both chambers.

But the governor is planning to see that Hixson, 68, gets her proper share of the credit. "She helped open the door to a meaningful public dialogue by championing this issue long before it was popular," said Glendening, who threw his strong support behind the bill in 1999 and again this year. "It took courage on her part."

Hixson was not the first Maryland lawmaker to sponsor such legislation. The issue was broached in 1978 and 1992. But it was Hixson who stepped in in 1993 and adopted gay rights as her issue. She has been pushing it ever since, steadily building support for the legislation until she found a powerful ally in Glendening in 1999.

She said many of her colleagues wondered why she bothered. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, with responsibility for all the tax and education bills that come to the House of Delegates, she certainly had enough to do without taking on a hot-button social issue. "They thought I was one of those crazy liberals from Montgomery County, trying to change the world and forcing something on people that nobody wanted," Hixson said.

But many thousands of gay and lesbian Marylanders wanted the legislation very much. And they admire Hixson for her "determination and courage," said Blake Humphreys, managing director of Free State Justice, a gay rights organization.

Humphreys said Hixson played an important role in the House passage of the bill. "She was doing the same thing she's done for the last 10 years -- just going to her colleagues and educating them about discrimination," he said.

Unfailingly polite but briskly businesslike, Hixson brings a steely determination to her legislative efforts. She runs her committee with the no-nonsense efficiency of a private school headmistress, keeping witnesses on a timer and cutting off the verbose with a firm "Could you summarize?"

Glendening said he has come to respect Hixson's command of her committee, recalling that she shepherded his proposed $1-a-pack tobacco tax increase through the House in 1999 -- setting the stage for a compromise at 36 cents in the Senate.

Hixson, a Washington lobbyist when the legislature is out of session, is one of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.'s most faithful allies. Some of his key lieutenants often test the limits of his patience, but she seldom does. He says he frequently fields complaints from delegates about their committee chairmen, but few come from members of Ways and Means.

Taylor opposed the anti-discrimination bill when it was first proposed, but by 1999 he had changed his mind. He gives Hixson much of the credit for turning a small minority of supporters into a clear majority that passed this year's House bill 88-50.

The Cumberland Democrat said Hixson is a decisive legislator who uses political ingenuity to advance her priorities. He noted her handling of a tax amnesty bill that was a crucial part of Glendening's budget plans for next year.

Hixson's staunch support for the gay rights bill has brought her threatening calls.

Her legislative victory also has been clouded by allegations that her longtime companion, Howard Cook, misused county credit cards. Cook was recently removed as head of Montgomery County's Department of Liquor Control, and his firing led to a rift between Hixson and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan -- a topic she declined to discuss in a recent interview.

One thing that has not been a problem for Hixson is her constituents' reaction to her long fight for gay and lesbian rights. She represents a 70 percent Democratic district that includes Takoma Park and parts of Silver Spring -- one of the most liberal areas in the state.

"They don't understand why it took so long," Hixson said.

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