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A Father's Vote for Gay Rights

Md. Delegate Helps Pass Partnership Registry

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page A01

Cassi Niemann didn't know exactly what legislative district her father represented or the precise jargon to describe what he was doing in Annapolis last week.

But in the posting on her personal blog Saturday, the 25-year-old daughter of Maryland Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's) made clear that she knew he had done something important. Something controversial. And he had done it for her.

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What Niemann did was speak out on the House floor in support of the Medical Decision Making Act, one of two gay rights bills passed in the final days of the Maryland General Assembly's 2005 session, which ended late Monday.

"I am casting this vote for my daughter, who I love dearly, who is 25 and is in a committed relationship with another woman," Niemann said. "Now, should we deny her the rights that we would expect, that I would expect for my wife and I? No. I'm casting my vote for her."

If the governor signs it, as he has suggested recently he might do, the act would add Maryland to the list of six states that grant medical decision-making rights or more expansive privileges to same-sex couples. The measure also creates a registry to provide them, and other unmarried couples, official partnership status. A second bill, adding penalties for hate crimes against gay and transgender people, would place Maryland with eight states and the District providing such protections.

Passage of the Medical Decision Making Act came after procedural wrangling Monday that left it in jeopardy until after 11 p.m. as Senate opponents threatened a filibuster. The bill's critics decried it as a denigration of traditional marriage. They called for a last-minute amendment clarifying that nothing in it would supersede a state law that defines marriage as between a man and woman -- a move that proved popular, even among supporters who did not want the bill to be misconstrued.

Still, gay rights advocates labeled it a major step forward for the civil rights of the state's 11,000 same-sex couples. But to several lawmakers and their loved ones, the measure's passage was, as Cassi Niemann explained in her blog, deeply personal.

"I feel so honored to have been a part of that moment. And proud," she wrote after posting a transcript of the remarks her father made on the floor and an audio link to the speech. "And guess what, THE BILL PASSED!"

For the past three months, members of Maryland's part-time citizen legislature dissected more than 2,600 bills -- many esoteric or banal. But in the final week of the session, the debate and eventual passage of gay rights legislation in this very public forum was, at times, almost intimate.

An opponent of the initiative, House Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), described to members how he worried about the ramifications if, say, his 18-year-old "baby girl" got swept up in a romance and there was such a registry available to her.

"Under the provisions of this bill, she may decide to designate a partner for life, because kids at that age sometimes think that their friends are going to be their friends forever," O'Donnell said. "And should a tragedy befall my little girl, my baby girl," he continued at nearly a whisper, "her mother and I . . . would no longer have any say, because the life partner would take precedence over us."

O'Donnell told members that he knew some might dismiss his fear. "But it's a real concern of a real mom and dad," he said. "And I'm sure it's shared by thousands of Marylanders who believe the same thing."

Del. Joanne S. Parrott (R-Harford) invoked her struggle to care for her terminally ill father and how it was by virtue of existing laws that he made clear his wishes. Those legal remedies are available now to anyone, she argued, questioning the need for a new law.

Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who is one of three openly gay state lawmakers, said Parrott's assessment of the measure missed the point. Her father was elderly; he was going from the hospital to a nursing home; he had already assembled needed documents.

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