This week, the gay and lesbian delegates in Maryland’s State House heard testimony from podiatrists, studied urban and rural poverty rubrics, debated septic-tank regulations and wrangled over community college budgets.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest legislative battles of their lives — a historic bill legalizing same-sex marriage that would have a profound impact on each of them personally — loomed in the hallways, in the news and on their minds.
“I still have a job to do — two jobs — and I have to pay attention to everything all around me, not just” the same-sex marriage bill, Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery) told me after I tore her away from the podiatrists’ testimony on a bill to allow them to perform ankle surgery.
“But this one, yeah, it’s personal,” the schoolteacher and union official said. “I want to be able to marry Marcia,” her partner of 28 years. “I don’t have butterflies in my stomach over this. I have sparrows.”
As the House prepares to debate legalizing same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian delegates were still talking to their colleagues in the blue-carpeted hallways, chasing them down the marble staircases, making phone calls, even stopping to pray with those who are torn on the issue.
It is going to be a close vote. The bill needs the votes of 71 of the 141 delegates to pass, and some are still unsure how to vote. Their constituents are torn, too. A recent Washington Post poll found that 50 percent of Maryland residents support the right to same-sex marriage.
“I really, honestly don’t know which way it’ll go,” Cullison said, trying to calm those beating sparrow wings.
With that narrow margin in mind, the delegates were doing everything they could think of to convince fellow legislators that a very basic ritual — partnering with another human for life — should be available to them, too.
But there was something uncomfortable about having to rely on others to give them the right to marry, about having to look colleagues in the eye and say: “Come on, don’t you think I should be able to see my spouse in the hospital if she’s gravely ill, too? Just like you can?”
It was a very public plea for acceptance, with rejection a real possibility. That’s what happened last year, when the bill was narrowly defeated, leaving gays and lesbians all over the state heartbroken.
The seven openly gay House members and one state senator have been meeting for months to talk about how to reverse that defeat, how to make a very personal argument to their peers.
Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) divided members into three buckets: solidly yes, solidly no and, most important, on the fence but leaning toward no.
“Those are the ones I’ve been talking to,” she told me Wednesday after a morning spent in deep conversations with at least four members who were still unsure about how they’d vote.
Last year, when the bill was rejected, some of the folks who voted no came to her and sort of apologized. Now, a year later, she is pressing them to make good on their regrets.
Del. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), the only openly gay African American member of the legislature, has been working a different angle. She’s offering not so much an emotional appeal as a logical one.
“I want to talk about equal treatment under the law,” she explained. She’s a little tired of African Americans who dismiss the issue as one that matters only to a bunch of well-to-do gay white men.
Rich gay white folks, she argued, can hire expensive lawyers to write complex legal contracts to protect partners when it comes to benefits, medical issues and so forth. Marriage is nice, yes, but they don’t need necessarily need it to protect themselves.
When you look at the socioeconomics of it, Washington said, it’s black gays and lesbians who are more likely to be struggling with finances and unable to afford a lawyer to help them secure their lifetime partner’s pension, get access to medical insurance or untangle housing issues.
“I try to tell them that this is also about protecting our families, our poor and working- class people,” she said.
In their appeals, the gay delegates try to make their peers see that the country is changing. Voting no won’t stop gays and lesbians from living their lives and being open about who they are.
That’s the point that Mizeur often makes. Denying the right to marry will not keep gay and lesbian couples from loving each other, from moving in together, from starting families or joining the PTA.
It will only hurt these couples in the most dire and dark times, when it comes to sickness and health, life and death.
This vote should be an easy one for Maryland. Around the corner, there are mounting budget shortfalls, poverty, unemployment, energy bills and even questions about who can perform ankle surgery. Those are the tough decisions, not this one.
Dvorak will respond to your comments about this column at noon on Friday at washingtonpost.com/dvorak. You also can read previous columns there.