The Fight for Equality: The Good and The Bad News

The state of relationship recognition in Maryland and Hawaii

It seems that for every step forward, there is another step back. But giving up is never an option.

First, the good news: on February 24, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie made good on a campaign pledge to sign the civil unions bill into law.

“This signing today of this measure says to all the world that they are welcome—that everyone is a brother and a sister here in paradise,” he told Hawaii News Now.

A week prior, the state senate passed the measure and cleared the last legislative hurdle towards Hawaii becoming the seventh state to legalize civil unions to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Though it bestows all of the state rights and responsibilities of marriage, a civil union offers none of the federal benefits.

Nevertheless, in the same interview with Hawaii News Now, Abercrombie said civil unions give equal rights to all. “Here in Hawaii, we do not let our diversity divide us. It indeed defines us and this bill defines us,” he said.

The law caps a 20-year struggle in the Aloha State for recognition of gay relationships. In 1997, a “reciprocal beneficiaries” law was enacted, giving gay couples some legal protections. But in 1998, Hawaii’s constitution was amended to say “the legislature shall have the power to reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples,” according to Lambda Legal. Just last year, then-Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, vetoed a civil unions bill after it had been approved by the legislature. The bill signed by Abercrombie is nearly identical to the vetoed legislation.

Now the bad news: heavily Democratic Maryland was widely expected to become the next U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage—but LGBT advocates’ hard work came to naught.

Until the 11th hour, signs pointed toward marriage equality. March 4, the House of Delegates committee voted — by a narrow (12-10) margin — in favor of the bill. As it headed to the House floor, Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D- Montgomery) was optimistic that Maryland would be the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

“It’s going to be close, but I think that a majority of the House feels that this is a civil rights issue, and it’s a matter of giving the same rights and privileges and responsibility to loving, same sex couples that married people like me have,” he told Reuters.

One week later, the bill died without a final vote. With the blessings of an overwhelmingly Republican opposition (shocker!)—and even some conservative Democrats—the bill was shelved for the rest of the year. Chief supporter Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) told AOL News that it was better to save a final vote for next year, rather than put delegates on the record with a failed vote this year.

Is there hope, then, for the bill to pass in Maryland in 2012? That depends on whom you ask.

According to The Gay People’s Chronicle blog, support for the bill had already grown shakier while it was in committee. Member Sam Arora (D-Montgomery), an original co-sponsor, said March 3 he would vote against it on the floor, and he only wanted to send it to the full House so voters could have their say in a likely referendum. The state constitution allows voters to submit new laws to a referendum if they can collect the 55,736 necessary signatures.

On a more positive note, the Washington Blade reports that the Maryland House approved a bill on March 26 banning discrimination against transgender workers, raising hopes for a positive outcome on the marriage front in 2012. Surprisingly, some delegates who voted against the marriage bill voted in favor of the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act. According to the Blade, Arora, Tiffany Alston (D-Prince George’s) and Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) split their vote between the two pieces of legislation.

“The House of Delegates showed that discrimination against transgender Marylanders is unjust and will not be tolerated in the Free State,” said Equality Maryland executive director Morgan Meneses-Sheets in a statement. “We are hopeful that this important piece of legislation—that provides vital protections on the basis of gender identity in housing, employment and credit—will move successfully through the House and onto the Senate.”

Stay tuned for ongoing developments.

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