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The Nose

The Rainbow Connection

Posted 8/1/2001

City Hall smelled like roses briefly July 23 when the 19 fearless City Council members enthusiastically passed a resolution endorsing the Anti-Discrimination Act of 2001--the bill passed into law earlier this year by the state General Assembly that protects gays and lesbians in matters of housing, employment, and public accommodations, which was subsequently petitioned to referendum by the Christian-right group (Mobtown Beat, June 27). But while council members were congratulating themselves for the nice but essentially meaningless resolution, the Nose was wondering what happened to city legislation introduced in February that would have actually given Baltimore same-sex couples a few rights now reserved for marrieds.

That bill got a lot of ink earlier this year because it was sponsored by council member Nick D'Adamo (D-1st District), who eight years ago opposed legislation to extend health and family-leave benefits to domestic partners of gay city employees. (That law was eventually enacted in '95; the city also has its own version of the state's anti-discrimination law, adopted 12 year's ago.) "I represent a Roman Catholic district with 28 churches," D'Adamo says of his East Baltimore turf. "And back [in '93] it was a hot issue, and people called me and said, 'We don't want that bill to pass.'" But more recently, D'Adamo says, gays and lesbians in his district have appealed to him for help when their attempts to visit partners in hospitals or jails were thwarted by their loved ones' family members. His response is a bill that would create a registry for homosexual couples, legitimizing--at least symbolically--same-sex unions in the city.

"My bill gives same-sex couples hospital rights, funeral rights, and prison rights," D'Adamo says. "They can go downtown and pay $50 to be registered as partners--not that that would mean anything like a marriage."

But the bill is languishing in the council's Judiciary/Policy Committee, with no action currently scheduled. The bill is stalled, D'Adamo says, because his colleagues are waiting to see what comes from the office of council member Keiffer Mitchell Jr. (D-4th), who has been talking up plans to introduce a farther-reaching measure to benefit gay couples.

Mitchell says he is indeed working on such legislation. While he is holding off on introducing it for now, he stakes a claim to being the City Hall point person on the issue, telling the Nose that he's the "only one working with the gay and lesbian community."

"D'Adamo threw his little ordinance out there without any consultation [with gay leaders]," he says. "My bill is more comprehensive. It says no discrimination based on domestic partnership instead of sexual orientation," expanding protections city law now extends to individual homosexuals to unmarried couples both gay and straight.

So is the expansion of gay rights in Baltimore City hostage to a tiff between two council members over who's leading the charge? Perhaps. But sources both in and out of City Hall say the primary reason for the lack of action is that gay and lesbian leaders want to train all available guns on the November 2002 referendum. Hence the legislatively benign but politically symbolic gesture of supporting the embattled state law. (Gay-rights advocates have also taken the considerably more concrete step of filing a lawsuit on July 30 challenging the validity of TakeBackMaryland's petition drive.)

In fact, Mitchell-- saying he is "just following the wishes of the gay and lesbian community"--is tabling his bill until after the 2002 election. "The community doesn't want the law to be proposed while they're fighting the referendum," he says. Privately, local gay activists agree with Mitchell's decision, and add that they don't think either of the council members' bills would substantially change the situation for local same-sex couples. The city would be hard-pressed to enforce anti-discrimination laws at privately owned hospitals or funeral homes, they say.

D'Adamo, for his part, says he'll try to revive his bill in the fall. And the gay community is looking for more than a mere legislative round of applause in support of the state law. "The resolution is a great step forward for Baltimore City," says David Baker, co-founder of the Baltimore Activists Coalition, a group working primarily on gay-rights issues. "But what needs to happen next are more substantive steps for this resolution not to be hollow. The question is, What is city government going to do to fight this referendum?"

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