Every June, gays and lesbians across the country celebrate Pride, an event marked by festive parties, parades, and copious amounts of alcohol consumption. The current incarnation of Pride has seemingly lost much of its sense of history as a time to recognize the progress made politically by gay and lesbian people since the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969. Yes, Virginia, we have Pride to commemorate political advances and political power, not to help you get your rocks off with as many people as possible (although, thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, you can do that in private with willing adult partners without fear of arrest!). Both Maryland and Baltimore City have a rich tradition of efforts to advance the political and civil rights of lesbian and gay people and, more recently, transgender people.
In 1977 – less than ten years after the Stonewall riots in New York – a group of gay Baltimoreans founded the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore to give Baltimore-area gays a resource and a support network. Shortly after the forming of the GLCCB, the Baltimore City Council considered a measure to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, which it ultimately passed in 1988, marking the emergence of gay political power in the city. Also during the 1980s, AIDS wracked the Baltimore gay community, as it did with gay centers across the country. What is now viewed by Generation WTF as a manageable condition was a death sentence in the early days of AIDS, and gays and their allies organized to create resources against this new threat. The founding of the Baltimore Alternative in 1986 by Bill Urban, who later succumbed to complications from AIDS, resulted in timely chronicling of the crisis.
The 1990s kicked off in Baltimore City with two significant developments. The Baltimore City Circuit Court quietly began to grant second-parent adoptions for gay couples, marking the beginning of the “Gay Family” movement in the state. Perhaps more importantly, the Baltimore Justice Campaign spearheaded efforts to amend Baltimore City’s law to extend domestic partnership recognition to Baltimore City employees and their families. Baltimore Justice Campaign worked to have both then-councilman Martin O’Malley and perennial mayoral candidate Carl Stokes co-sponsor a bill that broadly covered both gay and straight unmarried couples. Expectations ran high that the bill would pass. However, church leaders eventually pressured several co-sponsors to withdraw support. Instead of admitting that he folded under this pressure, Stokes introduced legislation to limit domestic partnership to lesbians and gay men only, an effort widely seen as a cynical “divide and conquer” move. Ultimately Stokes did not vote for the bill, and it failed – to the bitter disappointment of Baltimore City’s gay community – in 1994. Some years later, city workers did secure domestic partnership benefits, but the rift forged from this defeat had a lasting impact on the Baltimore and Maryland political scene.
After the domestic partnership debacle, Baltimore gay activists played a key role in helping ensure the election of Martin O’Malley as Mayor, as the GLCCB’s ad hoc political action committee endorsed O’Malley – and not Stokes – for Mayor in 1999, in part because of O’Malley’s support of domestic partnership battle. O’Malley’s election meant that the community had enhanced access and power, which it exercised on a number of occasions, including asking O’Malley to testify in favor of the statewide law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. That effort took on renewed urgency when then-Governor Parris Glendenning appointed a number of Baltimore activists, including Ann Gordon, Shannon Avery and Carlton Smith, to a commission that held hearings throughout the state, soliciting details of the discrimination faced by gay and lesbian Marylanders. The commission issued a report that helped support the enactment of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 2001, capping off almost two decades of effort to pass a statewide anti-discrimination law. Shortly thereafter, O’Malley became the first elected official in the state to sign a law banning discrimination against transgender people, thanks in part to the efforts of Baltimore City gay activists.
Subsequent to the enactment of the Anti-Discrimination Act, the ACLU, which sued the state over its laws criminalizing gay sex in 1999, fought off an attempt by an anti-gay organization to repeal the law at the voting booth. The ACLU continued its commitment to equality for gay and lesbian Marylanders by taking the lead on marriage equality, filing suit in 2004 challenging Maryland marriage law and discriminatory as same-sex couples. Although the lawsuit came to a bitter end in 2007, the ACLU continued to work – in partnership with Equality Maryland and other organizations, to fight for marriage equality.
So, as you down kamikazes and dance to whatever summer anthem fuels your Pride party, remember that literally hundreds of people worked – and continue to work – to secure the rights non-LGBT folks take for granted.
Friday, 17 June 2011