Maryland's Slow Progress Toward Equal Marriage Rights

By Rich Madaleno
Sunday, August 30, 2009

In 2002, I became the first openly gay person elected to the Maryland General Assembly. It was important to me to be straightforward about who I was while not being pigeonholed as "the gay guy." I immersed myself in my role as a public servant, focused on my constituents and worked hard. As time passed, people began to see me as "the budget guy," or as an advocate for education, addiction treatment or developmental disability programs, or simply as Rich. My colleagues also came to know my husband, Mark.

Seven years have helped me to transcend being defined by my sexual orientation. But seven years, two wonderful children and a church wedding later, my husband and I are still denied the fundamental protections of civil marriage. Anyone who has ever stood up for his or her family will understand why the risk of being viewed as "the gay senator" can no longer keep me from speaking out. Achieving the freedom to marry, and removing a restriction that impedes the development of secure families, is a matter of fundamental social justice that needs vocal champions.

This year and last, with 52 of my colleagues, I introduced legislation to allow people to enter into civil marriage contracts regardless of gender. Unfortunately, this bill has yet to appear on a voting list in either chamber. This legislative inertia doesn't have to be the end of the story. But, at a personal level, it has caused me to rethink this basic aspect of my public service: Until more legislators are willing to stand with me, there is no question that I must speak on behalf of my family and the thousands like us. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Truth . . . must be clothed with flesh and blood, or it cannot tell its whole story."

It will soon be 10 years since Mark and I were set up on a fateful blind date and eight years since our wedding at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda. Do we have a marriage license? No. But marriage is more than a legal document. The foundation of ours is the commitment we made, before our families and religious community, to build a life together and to be there for one another in good times and bad. The root of our marriage isn't a license but our son and daughter, our families, our home, our memories and our dreams. But make no mistake -- a marriage license would mean vital rights and responsibilities for our family, especially during turbulent financial times, and in matters related to health care, child-rearing, social services, retirement and, though we do not relish the thought, the time when one of us leaves this life for something greater.

In Maryland, instead of allowing us to legally marry, the General Assembly has passed a few limited bills to placate us "domestic partners," as we are referred to in law. We appreciate the 10 to 15 rights of marriage now within our reach. But with 400-plus rights of marriage bestowed by the state and more than a thousand bestowed by the federal government, it is clear that no arrangement other than civil marriage will achieve equal protection under the law or erase the sting to our personhood that results from denying us the freedom to marry.

Gaining this support in the General Assembly may take time. But there is a way in which Maryland can move forward immediately.

While Maryland does not allow same-gender couples to legalize their relationships here, many such couples in our state are already legally married. Some had destination weddings in a pro-equality state such as Vermont or Massachusetts; others were married before moving to Maryland for work or family. Recently, I asked for an opinion from Attorney General Doug Gansler regarding whether Maryland should follow the District and New York and honor these legal marriages. Having reviewed our case law, I believe we have a legal obligation to do just that. In the past, Maryland has, as a legal principle, honored marriages performed elsewhere even when those marriages could not have been performed here. A government should not dissolve a validly contracted marriage without even one party requesting it.

The fact that the legislature is crippled by inaction on this issue does not end Maryland's responsibility to the law. With the stroke of a pen, Gansler and Gov. Martin O'Malley can help bring peace and security to thousands of Maryland families.

Mark and I would prefer to make it "official" in Maryland rather than traveling to New England. But until more of my colleagues in the General Assembly make it possible for gays and lesbians to legally marry here, we could at least take heart in knowing that our marriage was honored by our state. Whatever road it takes to get there, this "gay guy" looks forward to the day when his family is like any other, and when future generations have no understanding of what it was like before all Americans had the freedom to marry the person they love.

The writer, a Democrat, represents the 18th District in the Maryland Senate.

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