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UU legislator leads marriage equality fight in Maryland

Rich Madaleno is ‘an inspiration and mentor’ in advocacy for LGBT rights.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Rich Madaleno

Rich Madaleno, the only openly gay member of the Maryland State Senate, champions marriage equality in his home state. (Courtesy office of Rich Madaleno)

Earlier this month Maryland came close to becoming the sixth state to approve same-sex marriage. In the end, the votes weren’t quite there, and Maryland will have to wait until another time.

One of the key reasons for the marriage issue’s near-passage is Maryland state senator Rich Madaleno, a member of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md. Madaleno has been working on equality issues since 2000, beginning with efforts that were successful in passing an antidiscrimination law that added sexual orientation to the state’s human relations code. He has been instrumental for many years in defeating numerous proposals, including seven in 2007, to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would have restricted marriage to being only between a man and a woman.

Since 2008, Madaleno has been focusing on marriage equality, although he is by no means a one-issue legislator. He’s also on the Senate Budget Committee and other committees. He’s disappointed the marriage bill didn’t pass this year, but he has no doubts that eventually it will. “We have a good shot next year, but whether it’s next year or not, it will happen in Maryland and in this country at some point.”

Passage of a marriage bill is personal for Madaleno, a gay man. At the same time, he’s not waiting for marriage equality to make his own life complete. He and his partner, Mark Hodge, were married at Cedar Lane 10 years ago. “It’s not that I’m waiting on a marriage bill in order to get married,” he said. “I am married. I don’t need my government to tell me what I am. I simply need my government to recognize the personal decision I’ve already made in my life. And in doing that, I feel like I’m standing up for traditional, conservative, American values.”

This year is the first time there was a real expectation that a marriage bill could pass in Maryland, he said. The 2010 election resulted in the defeat of a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage and election of others who supported it. Maryland had one of only two state senates in the country that increased its number of Democratic senators. Madaleno worked with the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland (UULM-MD), Equality Maryland, and Dan Furmansky, manager of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, in attempting to win approval of marriage equality this year.

The marriage bill passed the Maryland Senate in February. Its chances appeared good in the House*, but on the final day of debate on the bill on March 11, it became apparent to supporters that the votes in favor were not going to be sufficient, and the bill was referred back to committee. If it had come to a vote and failed, it could not be reconsidered for four years.

What happened? “We had a sizable chunk of people who said ‘I really would like to vote for this,’ but for whatever reason they could not bring themselves to do it this year,” said Madaleno. “Some of them wanted a halfway measure like civil unions. We tried to show them there really isn’t a compromise on marriage that works. And for some of those who were just elected, this was the first major issue they were confronted with, and the pressure was overwhelming.”

The Rev. Lisa Ward, head of UULM-MD’s Marriage Equality Task Force, said Madaleno “is both an inspiration and mentor in the legislative advocacy of LGBT rights. He infuses hope and helpful perspectives, not only because he is a skilled legislator, but also because he is an out, gay, family man. His humor, compassion and laudable perseverance help us all keep on keeping on.”

Madaleno jokes that he’s the only openly gay and openly Unitarian Universalist person in the Senate. But he doesn’t feel alone. “There are lots of people in the Senate, when you sit down and talk with them, who share our beliefs. They just don’t know those beliefs have a name.” This year, however, the House of Delegates has seven LGBT legislators who also spoke passionately about the need for this legislation. Madaleno was named Legislator of the Year in 2010 by the UULM-MD.

He said he gets a great deal of satisfaction out of advocating for marriage equality. “What is uncomfortable is the idea that as a gay person your life is being debated. And that people are willing to say what I would consider offensive things on the floor. To be told you don’t deserve the same rights and benefits everyone else does. Or that you need to wait longer. Or there needs to be an intermediate step.”

Madaleno is also working for passage of a bill now in the Maryland House that would prohibit employment and housing discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. The bill, HB 235, the Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Act, was debated for the first time March 9. Madaleno has been the lead sponsor of a similar measure in the Senate in previous years.

“If my colleagues could, just for a moment, read this bill, as opposed to listening to rhetoric about it, they’ll find it pretty simple,” he said. “It says you can’t be fired for just being who you are. It would be a small step to providing people with better, safer lives. I’m hopeful about it.”

He said as more and more people come to know someone who is gay or transgender, attitudes will change. “My colleagues in the legislature see me here every day. At their family reunion maybe there’s a cousin who is gay. We’re certainly out in the general society more than ever. That has an impact.”

He said he draws on his faith every day that he is in the Senate. “Our faith’s commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the independent pursuit of truth—these things are a hallmark of Unitarian Universalism and also of the movement for equality whether for LGBT people or anyone else.”

He said Unitarian Universalists have more influence on the marriage issue than their numbers would indicate. “The UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland has been very engaged, as have individual UUs and congregations. Even before there was a movement here for marriage equality, UUs were recognizing and embracing same-gender families.”

When marriage equality finally comes to Maryland, UUs will have been instrumental in making it happen, he said. “Like so many important changes, UUs will have been at the forefront, and it will not have happened without our denomination. Even though there are so many people who cannot identify who we are and what we stand for, the impact of our tiny denomination on the direction of our country has been profound.”

Correction 3.28.11: This article originally stated that the Maryland House had approved the bill but that the Senate had sent it back to committee. The Senate approved the bill; House leaders sent it back to committee to avoid a narrow defeat. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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