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Gay legislators having impact in marriage debates

By David Crary

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 6 2011 5:45 p.m. MST

The Maryland marriage bill cleared the Senate by a 25-21 vote on Feb. 24. The debate included a speech by the chamber's only openly gay member, Richard Madaleno, citing his partner of 10 years and their two children.

"He is my spouse in every sense of the word, but to the law, he remains a legal stranger," Madaleno said.

Timing is uncertain for a vote in the Maryland House, which has six openly gay members. But freshman lawmaker Mary Washington, a lesbian from Baltimore, has been anticipating the chance to speak in support of the bill.

"It will be an important moment in Maryland history," she said. "I wouldn't miss the opportunity to speak up, not just for myself but for the many families in Maryland who need protection."

In Rhode Island, legislation to legalize same-sex marriage has failed in previous years, but advocates are optimistic this year because the new governor, independent Lincoln Chafee, is supportive. One of the bill's co-sponsors is Democratic House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay; he has not yet set a timetable for voting on the bill.

"He's passionate about this issue," said Kathy Kushnir, executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island. "It's not an abstract issue to him — he's talking about his life, his family."

Among the bill's leading foes is the Rhode Island branch of the National Organization for Marriage, headed by Christopher Plante.

Plante described Fox as "very pragmatic" and said he clearly has the potential to influence some colleagues during the debate on the bill. However, Plante asserted that its chances of passage remain questionable, notably in the state Senate.

In 2009, New Hampshire's legislature became the first to legalize same-sex marriage without ever facing pressure from marriage-rights lawsuits.

One of the emotional high points of that debate was a speech by Rep. David Pierce, a gay Democrat from Hanover who is raising two daughters with his partner. He described telling his oldest child, 5 at the time, that "some people don't believe we should be a family."

Afterward, Pierce said, a fellow representative came over to say that the speech prompted him to change his vote in favor of same-sex marriage.

After last November's election, the Democrats became the minority in both chambers, and Republicans proceeded to introduce bills aimed at repealing same-sex marriage.

Pierce serves on an election law committee chaired by David Bates, prime sponsor of one of the repeal bills.

"We acknowledge we fundamentally disagree on that question," Pierce said. "But it doesn't have to dissolve into being uncivil. ... We treat each other with as much respect as anybody."

He said he had only one conversation with Bates on the marriage issue last year, recalling that the Republican had told Pierce not to take the repeal effort personally.

"I said, 'Of course it's personal. You want to delegitimize my relationship with my partner of 18 years, and my two kids,'" Pierce recalled.

Bates, whose repeal bill is now scheduled for consideration next year, said he and Pierce work together well in the Legislature despite "diametrically opposed opinions on marriage."

As for the impact of Pierce's 2009 speech, Bates said, "It played upon the sympathies of individuals who don't think the matter through."

According to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which recruits and supports gay political candidates, the number of openly gay and lesbian legislators nationwide has increased from 44 in 2003, when it started counting, to 85.

Chuck Wolfe, the fund's president, said gay legislators were having an impact even in relatively conservative states where gay marriage has no short-term prospect of winning approval. He cited the example of Arkansas Rep. Kathy Webb, whose heartfelt arguments played a role in the rejection of a bill to bar gays from adopting or foster-parenting.

Gay lawmakers "are people, as opposed to issues," Wolfe said. "The impact of having one of your colleagues directly affected by the legislation on the table is very powerful."

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