Candidates speak out, listen at gay-lesbian group's forum

Concerns of constituents rarely heard, leader says

October 09, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

If Leslie J. Cale is elected Howard County court clerk she said last night that, "I'd love to be the first clerk to marry a same-sex couple."

If Steven H. Adler, a Republican, is elected Howard County executive, he said, "I would support benefits for same-sex partners."

County Council candidate Diane Wilson, a Republican, got a round of approving laughter when she revealed she has a campaign volunteer who is openly gay -- and he stood up at the meeting wearing her campaign T-shirt.

And both candidates for state's attorney -- Democrat Timothy J. McCrone and Republican Robert R. Tousey promised a gay and lesbian group they would vigorously prosecute anyone who commits hate crimes against gays.

Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays sponsored the forum for those seeking county offices at Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia.

Colette Roberts, who co-founded the Howard chapter in 1995, said the group decided to hold the forum "because we feel we are a unique constituency. No one else at any other forum ever mentions the word gay or issues that affect the gay community."

There are no specific issues mobilizing the gay community in Howard County right now, she said, and Howard County has had anti-discrimination laws protecting gays for 25 years, yet, the gay community in Columbia is quiet and almost hidden, she said.

"This is why we have tried to be very visible." The group sponsored a forum four years ago, but including General Assembly candidates made the program too congested and gave candidates too little time to speak, she said.

Even without them, 16 County Council, executive, state's attorney, school board and court clerk candidates attended, with only Howard County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, and incumbent Republican Court Clerk Margaret D. Rappaport unable to attend, though each sent substitutes.

Sang Oh, a Robey aide who attended for him, said the executive has discussed same-sex benefits for Howard employees, and the administration is studying the cost, but Roberts said even her volunteer group has not pushed for that.

Candidates from both parties expressed unreserved support for equal treatment for gays and lesbians, though most did not support a separate meeting place for them that was requested during the event.

The candidates mentioned cost and the appropriateness of excluding other members of the public from such a center, but Roberts said after the meeting that is a sign that many do not understand the fear gay people have for their safety. "Safety is a concern they don't get," she said. Baltimore has such a meeting place.

McCrone said he has attended several PFLAG meetings in recent months to learn more, and was "very touched" at hearing one high school student talk about contemplating suicide because of constant harassment, while another said she was beaten up at school.

Barry Tevelow, a school board candidate, said he would hold school officials accountable for such incidents, and they would stop "very quickly" if he is elected.

Several people, including Courtney Watson, the other school board candidate, told personal stories about having friends, colleagues or relatives who are gay and learning firsthand what peril they feel.

County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said gays would be welcome to meet at a new county community center to be built in the new Western Regional Park in Glenwood, where a groundbreaking is scheduled for Friday.

"My dad [state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman] was involved in the civil rights movement, and he taught me the need for equal rights and opportunities."

His Democratic opponent, attorney Stephen Musselman, said, "I believe in gay and lesbian adoption and civil unions.

"I think you want to know where our hearts are," Cale, a Democrat, told the crowd at one point. When she was 12 growing up in Columbia, "I was attacked for having a black boyfriend," she said. "I understand what it's like to be attacked because of who you're standing with."

Brian Harlin, a Republican running for an east Columbia County Council seat, said he has employees who are openly gay, and has changed over the years from early beliefs he learned from a father with very old-fashioned views. "I've learned to be more accepting," he said.

Robert Kittleman, a Republican who attended the session but was not part of the panel, said intolerance is not a trait of one or another political party, despite the conservative religious views of some right-wing Republicans.

"Howard County is a whole lot different than Southern Maryland, Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, or even Carroll County," which he now partly represents, he said.

"It's not about party, it's geographic," he said, noting that some Democratic-dominated parts of Baltimore County are more conservative on the issue than Howard Republicans are.

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