Tending the Grassroots

Anti-gay vetoes from Governor Ehrlich aside, the state of Maryland continues to progress

When the capital-area LGBT community looks for its boogeymen, attention often turns to the Virginia General Assembly, making itself more and more infamous by the day with seemingly unlimited imagination for crafting gay-oppressive legislation. Maryland, on the other hand, is often characterized as the progressive, northern neighbor, better associated with John Waters than politics. Those who weren’t paying too much attention to Maryland’s gay politics got a rude kick in the pants on May 20 when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed the Medical Decision Making Act. The act would have, among other things, created a statewide registry to allow unmarried couples to be recognized as one another’s ”next of kin” regarding medical and post-mortem decisions. Another bill, intended to eliminate a property tax levied on unmarried couples, was similarly doomed. Suddenly, Maryland was looking a lot less friendly.

”He vetoed this [Medical Decision Making Act] the same day he vetoed a minimum-wage bill,” says Dan Furmansky, who for the past year and a half as been leading the cause of gay advocacy as executive director of Equality Maryland. ”It was in the New York Times, the Boston Globe…. He’s been criticized widely because of this.

”This was not a dialogue about marriage,” Furmansky continues, “but whether you will let us visit our partners in the hospital. He chose to listen to his ultra-religious cronies in the General Assembly. I think he’s going to pay for that in November 2006.”

As Furmansky looks to the future, this is also a good time to look at the Maryland’s past. After all, it’s been a busy year. But the legislative season has ended, and Equality Maryland is getting ready to celebrate with its fourth annual Out for Equality reception on Sunday, June 5.

This time last year, Maryland was marking progress in spite of the governor. Howard County, for example, had just extended domestic partner benefits to county employees. The county’s chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) led that effort.

”We worked very closely with the County Council and the County Executive,” says Colette Roberts, head of the chapter. ”It took a few months, but it went very smoothly. We stayed on top of it. We worked really hard.”

Gay victories have also been claimed in Hyattsville and Mt. Rainier, on school boards and elsewhere.

Furmansky says grassroots efforts like these have been fueling progress in the state, rather than bonhomie from the governor’s office. ”It’s a fascinating state,” he observes. ”There are so many different states wrapped up in one state. Baltimore is an enclave for the gay community. So is the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Outside the corridor, it’s a completely different story. The Eastern shore and Western Maryland couldn’t be further apart if they were across the country from each other.

”It was important to us that we reach out to people across the state…. That’s been really important to us, and largely possible by town-hall meetings across the state. They were widely attended and widely covered.”

Furmansky points to town-hall meeting sites over the year, including La Plata, Hagerstown and Churchville. ”It was great to spread the dialogue beyond the conventional places.”

Since December, Equality Maryland has also had some additional help in expanding that dialogue. Meredith Moise is the organization’s second full-time employee, after Furmansky.

”She’ll be spearheading our outreach to the religious community and communities of color,” says Furmansky. ”In the larger LGBT community, for far too long we’ve ignored the African-American straight community, and the African-American LGBT community…. We’ve got another town-hall meeting in Bowie June 14, specifically to address issues of the African-American community.”

While Furmansky helms Equality Maryland out across the state, Ehrlich’s veto power has not negated all progress made in Annapolis this year.

”It’s kind of the opposite [of Virginia],” observes Del. Adam Ebbin, the only openly gay member of that Virginia body. ”You’ve got great proactive things in the Maryland General Assembly, and you’ve got a governor who is an obstacle to fairness. We don’t have an anti-gay governor targeting us, or vetoing pro-gay legislation, but our General Assembly has initiated some things that would be awful if adopted.

”I think Maryland should be commended and hopeful that they were able to pass these bills. Eventually, there will be a new governor, or the governor will wake up. It’s possible they could override his veto. It’s encouraging to see so much progress being made in Maryland, even if it’s distressing to see the governor threaten it all with his unfair vetoes.”

Furmansky points out that regardless of how the legislative session has ended, it provided an invaluable learning curve for moving forward.

”This was an important year for taking the temperature of the Senate in Maryland,” he explains. ”The last time any pro-gay measure made it to the Senate floor was 2001, so it was important to gauge the Senate. And we had to take a look at the governor’s character on these issues.”

While Furmansky and Equality Maryland got their chance to sort legislative friends from foes, those who put faith in Equality Maryland also got a chance to get a better look at Furmansky in action. That means people like Roberts.

”We can’t legally lobby,” says Roberts, referring to PFLAG’s tax status. ”Equality Maryland is our lobby, and I think they’re doing amazing work. Dan is brilliant. He’s very sharp.”Roberts’s job-rating for Ehrlich was not so glowing: ”His brain’s been taken over by right-wing extremists…. It’s just been very upsetting. A governor who claims to be a moderate has shown his true colors.”

Out for Equality, honoring Maryland Del. Anne Kaiser, Sen. John Gianetti, Del. John A. Hurson and Owen Smith, will be held Sunday, June 5, from 6-9 p.m. at the reception hall at Congregation Adat Shalom, 7727 Persimmon Tree Lane, Bethesda. For more information, visit www.equalitymaryland.org, or call 301-587-7500

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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