ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland House of Delegates passed the gay rights bill Friday, almost assuring it will become law, sending the chamber into a round of applause and bringing tears to the eyes of one delegate.
The bill was approved 88-50 and could be signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, its highest profile backer, as soon as April 10, the day after the General Assembly session ends for the year.
“I am emotionally involved . . . I just want to thank my colleagues,” said a weeping Delegate Sheila Hixson, unable to say much more. The Montgomery County Democrat has worked to pass the bill for a dozen years.
The measure to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in the areas of public accommodations, employment, and housing, overcame a huge hurdle Tuesday by passing the Senate. Never before has the measure even made it out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee onto the Senate floor. Passage in the House was icing on the cake.
“It really is a victory,” said Glendening. “It makes Maryland a more inclusive state.”
The victory is personal for Hixson, the bill’s House sponsor.
“She’s been carrying that battle for well over a decade,” said Glendening. “I was able to raise the visibility, but I was actually standing on her shoulders.”
Two identical bills were introduced this session, both headed for Glendening’s signature. But only one needs to be signed to become law.
Sign Hixson’s bill, gay rights advocates are telling the governor.
“It would be out of gratitude to her,” said Shannon Avery of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore.
“It would be a privilege for me if I can sign her bill personally,” Glendening said, but it’s something of a race to see which bill gets to his desk first.
For Glendening, too, passage is personal, since his brother Bruce was gay and died of AIDs.
But before Glendening took up the measure as his priority two years ago, and before gay rights organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore started lobbying for the effort about five years ago, Delegate Hixson was already there.
She said she feels so strongly about the measure because “it’s an issue of human rights.”
“A lot of people are going to benefit from this,” she said, through her tears. “I thought I could get through it, but, as you can see, I couldn’t.”
This year, Hixson found support in a few delegates — Robert Flanagan, R- Howard; James Malone, D-Baltimore; Thomas Dewberry, D-Baltimore County; Robert Kittleman, R-Howard — who have opposed the bill in previous years.
“What we had this year was regret,” said Avery of the new supporters. “They told us this year they want to go back to constituents and say I voted for it.”
However, a number of strong opponents did not waver.
“This bill is going to pass and we all know it,” said Delegate Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, before the vote. “But this legislation will not change people’s hearts. If you vote against this bill it doesn’t mean you’re intolerant, it means you have a different view.”
Delegate Carmen Amedori, R-Carroll, said she opposed the measure because gay and lesbian individuals are not minorities.
“The Supreme Court has national criteria for a minority,” Amedori said. “Homosexuals do not fall in line with this group.”
As a black who has been discriminated against, Delegate Emmett Burns Jr., D-Baltimore, agreed and opposed the measure.
“I voted red and I’m proud of it,” he said. “This is not a civil rights anti-discrimination bill. This is a gay rights bill. . . .Most of your constituents do not agree with this agenda.”
“Gays and lesbians have served in this chamber many years before blacks ever served in this chamber. It’s wrong for them to claim they are a minority as I am,” Burns said.
But Delegate Salima Marriott, D-Baltimore, disagreed.
“I’ve been discriminated against because I’m black, because I’m a woman and because of the class I was born in — all are painful,” she said. “(This bill) is important so none of Maryland’s citizens can be discriminated against.”
In the end, Hixson’s victory can be attributed to the actions of legislators like Delegate Michael Dobson, D-Baltimore, who voted for the measure on behalf of the state of Maryland, instead of his own beliefs.
“My personal feelings aside,” Dobson said, “I’m voting green on this bill because it’s the right thing to do.”