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Panelists detail gay rights struggle

By Jessica Valdez | April 11, 2002

Representatives of gay rights groups and human rights activist groups discussed Maryland's Anti-Discrimination Act of 2001 as well as the state of gay rights legislation at 8 p.m. on Monday as part of the 2002 Awareness Days sponsored by the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance (DSAGA).

The panelists included Liz Seaton, the Deputy Field Director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC); Blake Humphreys, Director of the Maryland LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues) advocacy group Free State Justice; and Carrie Evans, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's state legislative lawyer.

In order to spread awareness of homosexual issues, panelists conducted an informal dialogue about the struggle for legislative recognition of homosexual rights and celebrated their recent success in the state of Maryland.

"Last year, Maryland became the twelfth state in the nation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the legislation banning discrimination in housing and public accommodation," said Humphreys.

It took a full 10 years to finally achieve passage of this bill, said Humphreys.

"We had the governor's support and that was crucial, but we had to work on the Senate," said Humphreys. "It took individualized people going to their legislators and telling them stories of discrimination."

To force the bill's passage through the Senate, Seaton said, "HRC partnered with Free State to work on the districts of two senators whose votes we needed: Walter Baker and Leo Green." This involved letter-to-the-editor campaigns and the encouragement of citizens to call their legislators.

Evans said Wisconsin was the first state to implement an anti-discrimination law in 1982; since then progress has been slow.

Moreover, "anti-discrimination laws are not homogeneous," said Evans. "They could potentially cover everything, like Maryland does, or only cover part of it."

Evans also cited another key difference between anti-discrimination laws: 10 of the state laws do not include the transgendered, including Maryland.

Also, there are often are exemptions from the law for religious organizations or small businesses, said Evans.

"Another difference is what the enforcement mechanisms are," added Evans. "Some are really not enforceable, while there's teeth to Maryland's law. Some are purely symbolic with no legal right of action."

According to Evans, homosexual rights activists currently hope that New York, Nebraska or Delaware will institute anti-discrimination laws in the coming year, following Maryland's footsteps.

"Anti-discrimination laws are only one component of the GLBT movement," said Evans. "All three of our organizations also work on hate crime legislation, in which only 27 states include transgender identity."

Furthermore, Evans criticized the state quality of discrimination legislation.

"Your rights are dependent on your geography," she said. "The ideal situation would be a federal law that is GLBT-inclusive, that covers all these situations. It wouldn't be dependent on where you live."

Seaton transitioned from anti-discrimination laws to the rights of homosexual families, beginning with a remembrance of Sept. 11.

"We know of 25 lesbian and gay families who one or both partners were lost by Sept. 11," said Seaton.

And yet, when the U.S. Department of Justice issued the guidelines on eligibility of families for Sept. 11 funds, gay and lesbian partners of Sept. 11 victims did not qualify for compensation funds, said Seaton.

She then cited the State of the Family Report issued by the HRC, which examined homosexual rights legislation through the country and rated each state. Virginia tied with three other states for the worst position, said Seaton.

Furthermore, Seaton said, in Florida gay and lesbian couples are precluded from adoption, and she detailed one incident where the mother was denied custody of her children after proclaiming her sexual orientation.

Seaton still hopes to institute change despite the prominent opposition.

"Rosie O'Donnell has provided an important framework for the dialogue on this issue," said Seaton. She hopes this will engender a greater sympathy and awareness among the public toward homosexual issues.

Humphreys concluded by dispelling the common claim that homosexuals actually possess legal equality if they remain subtle about their sexual orientation.

"There are so many things as gays and lesbians that we do not have," he said. "We are treated like second-class citizens.

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