Speaking to us – journalists from 19 different countries – in the very fine buildings of Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, were Luke Clippinger and Kieffer J Mitchell, Jr, legislators who had sponsored the bill legalising same-sex marriage. The bill passed in February 2012 (by just one vote) and was signed into law a week later. It will take effect 1 January 2013.
This success was seven years in the making. While there was no constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the state, there was a law against it, and this needed to be repealed.
It came close in 2011, when the Senate passed the necessary bill, but it failed in the lower house.
“A new, and more concerted, effort had to be made,” said Clippinger. “Unions, the NAACP (The US’ oldest civil rights organisation), the American Civil Liberties Union and several gay and lesbian organisations all came together to put in place a common front.”
Still, it was uphill all the way.
“There are very deep religious beliefs that the African-American community has about same-sex marriage,” said Mitchell. “When I tried to explain to my residents why I supported the bill, [from them] it was religion, the church.” Maryland’s population is 30 percent African-American, but in Baltimore, the state’s largest city, it is 64 percent, according to the 2010 census.
And during the period when the bill was being considered in committee, as Mitchell recalled, “every church sermon was about it. ‘Call your representative, tell him it is wrong. Tell him this is not what the Bible says.’”
The irony was that Maryland itself had been founded (in the Seventeenth Century) as a colony and haven for Catholics who were being persecuted in England. See The Settlement of Maryland.
Furthermore, as an African-American himself, “How can I, as someone who had benefitted from the civil rights movement, and who now enjoy a greater equality, deny these rights to LGBT persons?” said Mitchell. “It’s a civil rights issue.”
And yet, the churches mounted a shrill campaign. They’re going after your children, they’re going to teach them to be gay, screeched the rhetoric. One of the most frustrating things about opponents’ campaign “was the amount of misinformation out there,” he recalled.
But “despite the backlash,” he felt that supporting the bill “was the right thing to do.”
Immediately after the legislature approved the bill, opponents began organising a referendum for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, thereby reversing the new law. To put it onto the November 2012 ballot, they needed to collect about 56,00o signatures from Maryland voters. To date, they have collected about 116,000 signatures and are likely to qualify, but the final validation of signatures by the State Board of Elections is still pending.
The total number of registered voters in Maryland is about 3.5 million.
Then, President Obama expressed his support of same-sex marriage, and as an African-said American himself, his words made a huge difference. “Within four weeks,” said Clippinger, “there was a 40-percentage point shift in support from African-American men.” Among African-American women, the percentage supporting increased by 12 percentage points, but the prior base was higher.
Overall among all voters, the latest opinion poll showed 57% support for same-sex marriage versus 37% against.
Nevertheless, much can change between now and November.
But it’s also a generational thing. Said Mitchell: “In my youth, if I saw a same-sex couple holding hands or whatever, I might have asked, ‘What’s this about?’ But my two kids – 10 years old and 8 years old – they asked me, ‘What’s the big deal?’”
* * * * *
However, marriage is hardly the only issue that concerns gay and transgender people. Nor is law-making all there is to it.
In Philadelphia (in the state of Pennsylvania) city leaders are justly proud of their efforts to make their city a more inclusive place. City departments ally with civil society to fight discrimination, such as in employment, housing and policing.
David Rosenblum, the Legal Director of the Mazzoni Center, explained that while proving employment discrimination is not easy, his organisation is not without its successes either. The Mazzoni Center provides direct legal services to low-income LGBT Pennsylvanians over a range of issues. “Although the burden of proof lies with the employee, quite often, employers give crap reasons why the employee was terminated, and these can be refuted.” He also mentioned that cases don’t all have to go to trial. Employers will often want to settle.
Rue Landau, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations and the Fair Housing Commission, chipped in: “While settlements may not admit fault, they can include policy changes on the part of the employer.” These undertakings can then be monitored for compliance.
“As for housing cases,” she continued, “if someone alleges discrimination, we can send out testers.” Testers are decoy tenants from different demographic groups, approaching the same landlord to rent the same property. “We’ll watch what happens.”
Landau is the first openly-lesbian person to hold her post.
“I am now 54 years old, and I have been HIV-positive for 30 years. I thought I’d be dead by now,” she said. But due to the healthcare services available in the city and leaders’ attitudes in general, she feels she is able to play her part and contribute back.
She can see that city departments have changed over time, but acknowledges that the problem may lie as much in the LGBT communities. “It’s a challenge to let transgenders know that the police department is now in 2012; things have changed. But it’s hard, it’s still a question of trust.”
Gloria Casarez, Director of LGBT Affairs for the City of Philadelphia, spoke about how all police cadets must go through LGBT sensitivity training. However, after the cadets graduate and are posted to police districts, the operating culture in those districts may undo all the training. Older officers revert to their prejudices and set the tone for their areas. “It’s still a real challenge for everyone,” she admits.
On Stephen T Johnson Sr’s (right) shoulders would fall the task of monitoring police behaviour. He is the Philadelphia Police Department’s representative on the Police LGBT Liaison Committee. “Any type of malfeasance or transgression will be dealt with very harshly,” he said. “For example, officers may be passed over for promotion.
“We have to teach officers that people are all the same; we have to instill respect.”
How successful has it been?
“Right now, it’s worked for the most part.”
* * * * *
Dealing with an even wider range of issues is the Center for American Progress (CAP), whose LGBT wing is headed by Jeff Krehely. The Center is a think tank with a progressive liberal bent, with a blog at Think Progress.
Among the topics it researches are:
- Healthcare: There are higher rates of uninsured among LGBT, which then causes a cascade of effects – higher rate of emergency room use, lower access to medication, higher cancer and diabetes rates;
- LGBT aging issues: Do nursing home staff know about LGBT people and their unique needs?
- LGBT youth homelessness: it has lots of bad long-term consequences for affected kids;
- School bullying and harassment, including being targeted in university dorms;
- Higher rates of substance abuse – which is a coping mechanism for social isolation or the stress of discrimination;
- Immigration, poverty, and so on.
To illustrate the seriousness of the issues, Krehely (left) recalled a case of an elderly gay man in a nursing home, whose only friends who visited were other gay men. The home however disapproved and essentially stopped his friends from visiting, moving the patient into the mental ward. “The patient eventually killed himself,” he said.
The CAP however, is not just a research institute, “we also engage in advocacy, which amplifies the work we do,” said Krehely.
As does the United States on the international stage. In a speech in December 2011 marking the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the Obama administration’s commitment to defend the human rights of LGBT people as part of the United States’ comprehensive human rights policy, declaring that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
A subsequent article (‘The truth is not evolving’ says State Dept official) will look into this.