Montgomery County's homosexual community, never very vocal or politically active, is quietly lobbying for an amendment to county law that would protect homosexuals from discrimination in housing, employment and other public places.
By avoiding fanfare and downplaying the importance of the measure, some spokesmen for the homosexual community say they hope to avoid sending "red flags" that could trigger opposition.
The proposal, they say, would simply add homosexuals to the list of groups now legally protected from discrimination. Passage of such protection, they add, also could allow more homosexuals to shed their traditional low profile in the county.
"It won't be anything revolutionary," said Wayne Lerch, the legislative liaison officer for the Suburban Maryland Gay Alliance and one of the key lobbyists for the bill. "It's a very low-key effort. We don't want any quotas or special privileges."
The measure itself is simple: "Sexual orientation" would be added to the county's civil rights law, which now bans discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin, sex or religious background. The change was unanimously approved in March by the 15-member Human Relations Commission, which is charged with enforcing the code and hearing complaints.
Activists in the homosexual community and a spokesman for the Human Relations Commission said there is now no way to determine the extent of such discrimination in the county, since homosexuals now have no guaranteed legal protections.
Alan P. Dean, executive secretary of the commission, said, "They don't come to us because we don't have any laws to protect them." In approving the measure in March, "the commissioners felt that many of them are still in the closet and are afraid to come out," said Dean.
That sentiment was shared by the Rev. Sherre Boothman, whose Metropolitan Community Church in Rockville encourages homosexual membership. "Most of the people out here would have their jobs put in jeopardy if they came out publicly," she said.
Boothman said most anti-homosexual discrimination of which she is aware has occurred in the largely rural and developing areas north of Rockville.
Lerch said that when the county council holds public hearings on the measure, attorneys for homosexual groups will document several instances of discrimination against gays and lesbians, mostly in the area of housing.
The Suburban Maryland Gay Alliance estimates there are about 55,000 homosexuals in Montgomery, just slightly less than 10 percent of the total county population.
Still, no one expects a new flood of discrimination complaints by homosexuals should the county council vote to approve the new protections. In neighboring Howard County, the only other Maryland jurisdiction to specifically include homosexuals as a class protected from discrimination, a Human Rights Commission spokeswoman said there have been no complaints by homosexuals since the law took effect in 1975.
But this spokeswoman said the law has likely been a deterrent to discrimination in some instances. On one occasion, the spokeswoman recalled, a landlord telephoned her office to ask if it would be legal to deny tenancy to a homosexual. The caller was told that such discrimination was illegal.
Said Montgomery's Dean, "We don't expect it will have any great impact here."
The council will take up the measure after returning from its August recess. The measure wilin the council's human services committee, chaired by Rose Crenca.
Asked if the measure would likely pass t, "I have no doubts whatsoever it will pass."
Given the likelihood of success, the Suburban Maryland Gay Al turning its attention to the state capital, where a newly formed alliance will lobby for stronger state proteals. The new Maryland Coalition for Lesbian/Gay Concerns claims to have the support of about 25 legislators for some new statewide protections.
But Lerch emphasized that what homosexuals want are guaranteed protections under the law, not special rights or privileges such as quotas. He said, "We're not saying this will be anything great for gay people."