Gay rights at standstill

Governor's inaction during Assembly disappoints activists

May 04, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

Gay and lesbian activists thought they had a friend in Martin O'Malley.

As a progressive mayor in Baltimore, O'Malley attended gay pride parades and signed into law a measure to protect transgender people from discrimination. When he ran for governor, he said he supported civil unions and wanted to extend benefits to same-sex partners of state employees, as he had done for city workers.

But two years into O'Malley's first term in Annapolis, neither has happened. He largely stayed out of the debate over legal recognition for same-sex unions that fizzled in the General Assembly, and aides say his financially strapped administration probably won't grant benefits for at least another year.

The lack of momentum for gay rights in the State House is the latest disappointment for activists after a lawsuit to force the legalization of same-sex marriage failed in state courts. While O'Malley's allies say he has done as much as he can in the face of significant hurdles, activists say they feel sidelined.

"There's just not a lot to be enthusiastic about, because the governor hasn't done much to help us move forward," said Dan Furmansky, director of Equality Maryland, a leading gay rights group. "Why did the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community work so hard to elect this person? What do we have to show for it at this point?"

The fits and starts of gay rights in Maryland reflect what has happened nationally. Four years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriage, no other state has followed suit, and only a handful offer civil unions, an institution that dissatisfies many activists who consider it separate but unequal.

O'Malley plans to sign two bills this month that would grant same-sex couples some rights of married couples, including the ability to visit each other in the hospital and an exemption from certain property taxes.

Spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor would revisit proposals concerning other benefits and protections, and that he is willing to work with the legislature on civil unions.

"We didn't accomplish everything that we wanted to do," Abbruzzese said. "And there's a conversation that needs to continue on civil unions, but the reality is, a marriage bill will not pass through the Maryland General Assembly."

O'Malley has reached out to the gay community during his political career, drawing volunteers and campaign dollars.

As mayor, O'Malley implemented a law that bars discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation based on gender identity, and he formed a gay and lesbian task force to be a liaison with City Hall.

O'Malley might have been stymied in forwarding gay rights as governor by budget battles that forced him to expend political capital to get tax increases and spending cuts approved.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat whose gay brother died of AIDS after an Air Force career during which he remained closeted, said that budget problems also consumed his early years before he could focus on progressive measures, such as a statewide prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"What you're seeing now is a political reality," Glendening said.

But Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley, a Republican representing Carroll and Frederick counties, said inaction on gay rights measures in Maryland reflects the public's greater interest in other issues such as the flagging economy and education. He opposes same-sex unions as institutions that undermine traditional marriage.

"You have this group that's shrieking from rooftops that they need these rights, and everyone else is just trying to maintain their households," Brinkley said. "It just doesn't resonate. I don't see fire hoses and dogs being turned on gay activists. That, to me, is not a civil rights problem."

The push for health and other benefits for domestic partners of government workers has been under way in Maryland for more than 15 years. Baltimore adopted the policy in 1993 under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Some officials at the University of Maryland, College Park resolved to do the same for faculty and staff members the next year - a fight that continues.

Robyn S. Zeiger, a professor at the university, said she and her partner of 25 years have paid escalating amounts for her to be privately insured. "I'm really tired of hearing it's about the budget because civil rights transcend money, and I hope O'Malley does the right thing," Zeiger said.

Providing the benefits to all state employees would cost about $3 million a year, according to legislative analysts.

Abbruzzese said action by the governor to grant the benefits would have been unnecessary had legislation recognizing same-sex unions passed during the session. He said it is too late now for money to be set aside for the benefits in the next fiscal year.

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