Straddling The Fence
Politicians Try To Court The Gay Vote Without Losing Anyone Else’s
In the battle for equal rights, details matter. Consider the case of Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley vs. Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. Both gubernatorial candidates support gay rights generally. Both candidates have also stated that they believe that “marriage is between a man and a woman.” But one candidate says he opposes a state constitutional amendment that would forbid gay and lesbian couples from marrying. The other says nothing. The difference of opinion might escape the casual, straight voter, but it has made waves in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.
“Dodgin’ an’ weavin’ in Marylan’” was the headline on a May 5 column in the Washington Blade, D.C.’s gay paper, by managing editor Kevin Naff. The piece revolved around the two Democratic gubernatorial candidates’ answers to a questionnaire from statewide activist group Progressive Maryland. Duncan said he opposes the constitutional amendment. O’Malley did not answer yes or no. Given O’Malley’s consistent support of gays and lesbians, Naff wrote, “There is no reason for him to avoid denouncing the anti-gay constitutional amendment effort in Maryland, except as part of a cynical attempt to dodge and weave his way to a general election campaign against Gov. Robert Ehrlich in November.” O’Malley could not be reached for comment for this story.
Dan Furmansky, Equality Maryland’s executive director, says the point is important—his organization has endorsed Duncan for governor—but should not overwhelm the larger issue. “Anybody realizes that [either] Martin O’Malley [or] Doug Duncan is going to be worlds better for us than Bob Ehrlich,” he says. Still, he is irked by the idea that coming out in favor of gay marriage—or even simply against a constitutional ban on it—will cost a candidate votes.
“Kweisi Mfume has certainly stood up and unequivocally supported the gay community’s quest for marriage equality at the most critical time—that meant being quoted after the ruling came down in circuit court in Baltimore—saying he didn’t think the judge could have ruled any other way,” Furmansky says. “That certainly makes him stand out.”
U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, who is Mfume’s Democratic main primary opponent and considered the front-runner in the race to take over Paul Sarbanes’ U.S. Senate seat, has said that he supports civil unions but considers marriage to be “between a man and a woman.”
Political observers say candidates’ answers to questionnaires like Progressive Maryland’s often come down to a stark political calculus. “I guess the question is what percentage of the population would absolutely not vote for you as governor if you say you’re for gay marriage,” says former state senator Barbara Hoffman, now a lobbyist. “I think there’s much less overt prejudice than there was.”
Hoffman, who as a senator helped pass several measures outlawing discrimination based on sexual preference and identity, says part of the snag on the gay-marriage issue is the institution’s religious overtones—which are stronger in Maryland than in other states in part because Maryland has no justices of the peace (who perform civil weddings elsewhere) and because, according to Hoffman, “judges can marry you but they don’t like to.”
“I’ve had a perfect solution for years,” Hoffman says. “In Europe, before you get married, you first sign a register—telling the state you’ve changed your status.” That makes the institution of marriage more formally a state matter, whereas “marriage in Maryland is a religiously loaded term.”
It’s a major issue for a small percentage of voters, but in a statewide race candidates work hard to avoid offending the sometimes squeamish swing voter. Montgomery County Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. says that explains the obsessive care the would-be governors take in parsing their language about gay marriage.
“We live in such an interesting political time,” says Madaleno, a Democrat, who is running for a seat as Maryland’s first openly gay state Senate candidate. “On the federal or state level, there are so many districts that are drawn to favor one party. So you have these legislative races that are dominated by people who run to the base. Then you have the statewide elections that are clearly fought more in the middle.”
Madaleno thinks gay marriage is oversold as a political wedge issue. “The media is fascinated by this subject, [but] the general public does not care,” he says. “If asked, people will give an opinion. But 95 percent of the people of Maryland do not wake up with marriage equality first on their mind.”
Anthony McCarthy, running for the House of Delegates in Baltimore City’s District 44, agrees. “I have yet to visit a church, a neighborhood association, or a voter on the street who brings up that issue,” he says.
Madaleno takes the long view, noting the years of activism and lobbying it took to get the state’s first ban on employment discrimination against gays and lesbians passed in 2001.
“It moved from white women to African-Americans who got more engaged, African-Americans who’d say no one should be discriminated against,” Madaleno says. “Then Parris, who stood up as a straight white Christian man [and said], ‘I’m going to support this issue.’” Then-Gov. Parris Glendening’s move—ordering a state government nondiscrimination policy in 1995—included elements of political strategy and the same kind of guts it takes to face down a schoolyard bully, in Madaleno’s estimation. “Being in the legislature is a lot like being in the third grade,” he says.
Madaleno thinks the days of straight candidates being taunted or punished for supporting LGBT rights are slipping into the past—mostly because gays and lesbians are becoming as boring and “normal” as breeders, complete with minivans and manicured front lawns. “What you see is a growing number of gay and lesbian couples who live in the suburbs,” Madaleno says. “We’re sort of migrating in the same pattern as our straight peers have done,” making it harder for people to brand them as “others” who threaten society.
Madaleno, who worked as a Duncan aide, says he thinks voters are “looking for authentic voices that are speaking to them, and who aren’t just saying what they think they’re supposed to say.”
One of the candidates running to replace him in the House of Delegates has made that “authenticity” the centerpiece of her campaign. “Some people would rather vote for the bigot because he has the courage to stand up and say what he believes in,” says Dr. Dana Beyer, a political novice who until three years ago was a man named Wayne Beyer.
Beyer is much more than the state’s first transgender candidate for public office. A former eye surgeon who spent a career operating in places like Nepal, she says she grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, “so I know my Bible,” and can speak the language of religious fundamentalism. “Having come from a religious background, I know the importance of purity in religion,” she says. But “we get too fixated on purity. I think most individuals are willing to live and let live.” She thinks it’s a lesson advocates on both the left and the right should learn.
“I don’t personally like the identity politics,” Beyer says. “‘You score 100 on our questionnaire, and so we endorse you above the guy who scored 98 percent.’”
Having been born “intersex” and raised as a boy, Beyer never felt comfortable in her skin, she says, until after changing her gender. Since then, she says, she’s become willing to speak publicly and advocate for things she believes in, like universal health care and public funding of political campaigns. She says she is not altering her campaign message according to what political professionals tell her voters want to hear.
“That gets back to authenticity,” Beyer says. “If you’re willing to just stand up and make a statement, ‘This is what I believe,’ you’re going to do better.”
Beyer says it’s still important for straight candidates to make the gestures that say it’s OK to be gay and to support LGBT rights.
“I’d love to see a candidate bring up two couples—same sex and opposite sex and say, ‘These are my neighbors . . . they’re all my neighbors’—a picture like that would change everything. I really don’t think that, other than extremists on the right, that candidate would lose very much at all.”
That may be more true in Beyer’s Chevy Chase than it is in, say, Del. Don Dwyer Jr.’s hometown of Glen Burnie. Dwyer, an Anne Arundel County Republican, lists defending “traditional marriage” as his No. 1 issue; he tried to impeach Baltimore Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock for ruling in January that the state’s 1973 law defining marriage as only between a man and a woman is unconstitutional. Dwyer is running for state Senate now, using the threat of legal gay marriage to raise money from conservative Christians and other organizations.
“I hope there will be somebody in that race that is less irrationally anti-gay than he is,” says Furmansky. “We’re certainly in conversation with other organizations to see who is emerging as a strong challenger.”
Dwyer did not return calls and e-mails to his office seeking comment for this story.
Madaleno says straight candidates have often asked him how to tap into the “gay community” for fundraising. “There is no network,” he says. “It’s not like I can say, ‘Here’s the gay phone book.’”
In part to remedy that, Madaleno says that last year he helped to start a new political group called Equality Montgomery County. “Part of it is trying to use pages from the right-wing playbook,” he says. “You have to be organized so you can hopefully deliver support to candidates.”
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