ANNAPOLIS – With a series of legislative victories this session, Maryland’s gay and lesbian community is poised to gain significant civil rights advancements amid a wave of national activism for same-sex marriage rights.
Since the session began Jan. 14, two bills to invalidate same-sex marriages were defeated in committee and a third bill establishing a registry for life partnerships passed the House of Delegates with an overwhelming majority.
The Medical Decision Making Act of 2004, sponsored by Delegate John Hurson, D-Montgomery, would give registered life partners the right to visit each other in the hospital and make medical decisions for each other.
“Fundamentally what this legislation is going to do is drastically reduce the chance that anybody is going to be denied visitation” at medical facilities, said Dan Furmansky, director of Equality Maryland, a gay rights organization.
These rights would have benefited a Baltimore woman whose female partner of nine years had a cancerous brain tumor removed in emergency surgery in late February.
The woman, a patient of Baltimore psychologist David Haltiwanger, was only allowed to visit her partner during regular visiting hours the night before surgery, although she was told spouses could stay overnight with patients at the Baltimore hospital.
She was later restricted from seeing her partner in recovery until the patient’s family lied about their relationship to get her visitation privileges, Haltiwanger said.
Haltiwanger, who recounted the story in a committee hearing, said the psychological impact of denying visitation could be detrimental to patients as well as their loved ones.
“Given the connection between our moods and our health, it’s probably not doing anything good to the patient’s recovery,” Haltiwanger said. “It doesn’t help the mental health of the partner who is being deprived and sitting out in a hallway somewhere.”
The House of Delegates agreed, but decided to extend the bill to cover all couples, not just same-sex couples and heterosexual couples age 62 and older as the bill originally read.
The change was introduced by Delegate Emmett Burns, D-Baltimore County, a fierce opponent of same-sex marriage, who sponsored a bill to invalidate out-of-state same-sex marriages. Gay advocates supported the amendment.
Hate crime legislation also passed the House of Delegates. The measure would extend protections for victims of crimes based on sexual orientation, though it is a weaker version of the bill than advocates had hoped.
When the bill was brought out of the Judiciary Committee, it no longer provided protections for hate crime victims targeted because of gender identification.
“It’s very important to us that the entire community be protected,” Furmansky said, and his organization will try to convince the Senate to extend protection to the transgender community.
Despite the smaller local successes, many in the national gay rights movement are pushing for nothing less than equal protection and marriage rights, although Massachusetts is the only state that has reached that point.
Controversy in Massachusetts over civil unions, designed to extend benefits similar to marriage to same-sex couples, led to an order from the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to allow same-sex marriages.
“(Civil unions) end at the state line,” Furmansky said. “We unequivocally support marriage for same-sex couples. If the state issues a license already, all couples should be able to have access to that license . . . why in the world would the state need to fabricate another license?”
While some activists see civil unions as a poor substitute for marriage rights that might be subject to more court challenges, others see them as an intermediary step.
“Civil unions are a good step toward full marriage equality,” said Carrie Evans, a state legislative lawyer with the Human Rights Campaign. “It’s been a good year so far in Maryland.”
Both groups welcome the positive steps that are moving forward in the General Assembly but realize they have a long fight ahead.
“We don’t have any legislature in this country that is willing to go out on a limb,” Furmansky said. “I don’t believe Maryland will be that state to make that first move.”