Steven Senne, File, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Of America's 7,382 state legislators, only 85 are openly gay or lesbian. They are, however, playing an outsized and often impassioned role when the agenda turns to recognizing same-sex couples with civil unions or full marriage rights.
In Hawaii and Illinois, gay state representatives were lead sponsors of civil union bills signed into law earlier this year. In Maryland and Rhode Island, gay lawmakers are co-sponsoring pending bills that would legalize same-sex marriage. In New York, a gay senator, Tom Duane, is preparing to be lead sponsor of a marriage bill in his chamber later this session.
"For my colleagues, knowing that I am not allowed to marry the person that I love and want to marry, that's very powerful," said Duane, a Democrat from Manhattan. "It's more difficult for them to take for granted the right they have to marry when I don't have it."
The gay lawmakers have impact in two important ways. Their speeches, often evoking personal themes, can sometimes sway wavering colleagues, and they can forge collegial relationships even with ideological foes through day-to-day professional and social interaction.
Rep. Deborah Mell, a Chicago Democrat elected to the state House in 2008, made a point of bringing her partner to legislative functions, and a year ago announced their engagement on the House floor.
The fiance, Christin Baker, was on hand when Mell gave an emotional speech Nov. 30 during the civil union debate. One of Mell's points: Current law would bar doctors from consulting her if Baker, her partner for more than seven years, became seriously ill.
"The more visible we are, the better," Mell said in a telephone interview. "When you look someone in the eyes, it's a little harder for them to deny that we should have the same rights."
Also speaking in that debate was Greg Harris, another gay Chicago Democrat, who urged his colleagues to be "on the right side of history."
The vote was 61-52 to allow civil unions, the Senate followed suit a day later, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill into law on Jan. 31.
Harris — who is HIV-positive — said last week he felt pressure delivering that floor speech.
"What you say or don't say can win or lose a critical vote," he said. "There was a palpable sense that one way or the other, history was going to be made and everyone on the floor was going to be remembered for that vote."
In Hawaii, where a civil unions bill was signed into law last month, one of the key players was House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, a gay Democrat.
Oshiro stood up in the closing minutes of the 2010 session to force a House vote on the measure, which was approved but vetoed in July by Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. In September, Oshiro won a primary election over a former Honolulu councilman who strongly opposed civil unions, then beat a Republican in November — ensuring the bill would re-emerge this year with a supportive Democrat, Neil Abercrombie, taking over as governor.
For Oshiro, the key moment was deciding to make a personal plea to members of his Democratic caucus to overcome their doubts and agree to a vote on civil unions in April 2010.
"I was thinking I wouldn't be able to really look in the mirror, knowing I had just let it fade," he said. "Ultimately, the caucus supported bringing it to the floor, even if some of them didn't support the bill.
"That was my one 'ask,'" he said. "The governor vetoed it, but it really set the stage for this year."
Hawaii and Illinois are now among seven states that allow civil unions or their equivalent — state-level marriage rights in virtually everything but name. Five other states and Washington, D.C., let gay couples marry outright, and Maryland and Rhode Island would join that group if pending bills win approval.
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