An evening with the Bowles family is just like a night with any other. The family’s teenage daughter is sitting in front of the TV, texting, whining at her mother for dinner. Their son darts across the house, trying to convince his mom to let him expand his knife collection. Mom rolls her eyes and sits down next to her beloved spouse, settling into another evening at home with her wife and children.
Liz and Mary Bowles have been married since gay marriage first became legal in Washington D.C. in 2010. As Maryland walks on the path towards equality, many rural Marylanders are left trudging behind, trying to desperately catch up.
Liz and Mary, a loving married couple, feel uncomfortable expressing their affection publicly in their town, Leonardtown, Md. Liz doesn’t think the attitude that rural Marylander’s have towards openly gay couples is going to change, regardless of legality. Liz admits that she’s more comfortable in big cities, but she and Mary choose to remain in Leonardtown, for the sake of their children.
“We don’t hold hands in public,” Liz said. “Not here, I would never. She (Mary) is uncomfortable with it. Like holding hands in the grocery store, or to go out walking. In the neighborhood, we only hold hands when its dark and nobody can see it. In this neighborhood alone it is frowned on, even though we have a surrounding of friends that are cool with it, there are still people that talk shit. We can never have PDA, and I’m just talking regular holding hands.”
Although Maryland previously recognized gay marriages that took place in other states, it was not legal in Maryland itself. Because of this, Liz and Mary were denied many basic rights that any married straight couple had. For Liz and Mary, life as a same-sex couple in Maryland improved when gay marriage was legalized in January 2013. Continuous gay rights legislature is imperative to achieving higher levels of equality for couples like Liz and Mary.
When Maryland lawmakers first considered Maryland’s stance on LGBT rights during the Civil Rights era, they took an antagonistic position. In 1970, Maryland was the first state to establish a law that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Today, Maryland has joined the 17 states in which gay marriage is legal.
But the LGBT rights issues extends further than achieving gay marriage. Issues surrounding adoption rights, transgender equality and improving quality of life need attention. Given this spectrum, where has Maryland been successful in achieving equality?
To start, in 2012 Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a measure legalizing gay marriage. It went into effect in January 2013. Maryland also has laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in both public and private jobs as well as laws prohibiting housing discrimination.
However, following the legalization of gay marriage, state workers in same-sex civil unions lost their family healthcare plans. Under these guidelines, same-sex couples would be forced to marry, regardless of whether they wished to do so, in order to retain their family healthcare benefits.
Civil rights and religious rights still clash. Gay men and women may not rent out a church, mosque, synagogue or any other religiously affiliated institution if the priest, rabbi, imam or other religious leader deems it to be against their religious beliefs.
Lisa Simmons-Barth, co-chair of the Towson University Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues said that during the sweep for gay rights, transgender rights were neglected.
“One of the most important issues right now is transgender equality,” Simmons-Barth said. “It is about people standing up and feeling comfortable with their identity, but it is also about fairness in housing, healthcare, not being denied basic services and being able to sustain your way of life.”
A recent bill, The Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014 was passed by the Maryland legislature on March 27 and will head to Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley for signature. It outlaws discrimination against transgender individuals in housing, employment and public settings. According to Simmons-Barth, although there has been a surge in media depicting the lives of transgender people, there are still misconceptions that delay earning full equality.
“There is a huge fear factor that creates a dialogue that has nothing to do with the real issues,” she said. “For instance, people are afraid to use the same public bathroom as someone who trans-identifies as female. They do not realize these people are humans with the same needs and wants to be members of our community.”
Yet the act will not completely solve transgender equality. Schools, religious organizations and private clubs would be exempt and could continue to discriminate based on gender identity and sexuality.
The final piece of unfinished business is the politics of adoption. Until recently, it was rare for judges in Maryland outside of Baltimore City to approve same-sex adoptions. Gay couples are not permitted to petition for dual adoption of a child, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Only one of the parents may file for adoption.
Following the passing of gay marriage in Maryland, Liz and Mary have become able to share health benefits, as well as several other basic rights.
“I couldn’t get on her healthcare, she couldn’t get on mine,” Liz said. “Because they didn’t recognize it. They didn’t recognize civil unions or domestic partnerships, but when the state passed it that’s when it got a lot better for us, because then your company had to provide it. Until the state legalized it we didn’t get the same rights.”
Before gay marriage was legalized in Maryland, the two wives had to go through a process every time one or the other was hospitalized. They had to sign documentation and authorize doctors to give medical power over to each other—a process which is a legal given for husband and wife.
“If you’re husband and wife and say your wife and you get into a car accident and your wife is put into a coma, that husband has a right to make all of her medical decisions,” Liz said. “Before we were recognized by the state my mom or her mom, our immediate family members had precedent over us.”
Even though Maryland is experiencing increasing amounts of progress in the realm of LGBT rights, many of the progressions made are not being experienced by Marylanders that reside outside of the major cities. It took Liz three months to change her last name after her wedding.
Liz says that she and Mary were dragged around because it was a same-sex marriage. After three months of calling and waiting, Liz lost her cool and threatened to come to the court every day until she was granted her wife’s surname. The following morning Liz received a phone call alerting her that her name change had been approved.
“Its harder in St. Mary’s County,” Liz said. “It still is, and I don’t care how legal it is. They had three clerks that refused to do gay marriages because it was against their religion.”
“That was at the circuit courthouse,” Mary said.
While Maryland is making progress in the legislature, LGBT rights organizations make sure laws are effective when applied to their communities. According to Keith Thirion, Director of Advocacy and Programs for Equality at Equality Maryland, the key to achieving equality in Maryland’s communities is to provide a clear path between the laws and how they can ameliorate lives.
“There is no question that one law will in no way dismantle trans-phobia or discrimination against transgender people,” Thirion said. “But it does send the message that Maryland believes that everyone has the right to earn a living, buy a house or an apartment or get served lunch at a restaurant regardless of their gender equality. The crucial tool that we have is to provide legal recourse so when a transgender person wakes up and goes to their job and ends up being fired just for being who they are, they know that they have a legal avenue to address that unfair action.”
Organizations like Equality Maryland, the GLCCB and the Human Rights Campaign work on a daily basis to provide services to the LGBT community. The GLCCB builds a community presence for LGBT people while empowering gender and sexual minorities.
Thirion’s organization, Equality Maryland, is spearheading initiatives with other coalitions to win a better quality of life for the LGBT community.
“Our first step is to work to update our anti-discrimination laws to protect transgender people and ensure that victory this year,” he said. “Equality Maryland is working hard with the Maryland Coalition for Transgender Equality and will continue working to ensure that no member of community is left behind.”
Equality Maryland ensures equality is by analyzing what jurisdictions and neighborhoods in Maryland need the most attention to reduce incidents of discrimination. Although there were only seven hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender across Maryland in 2012, acts of subtle discrimination are much harder to measure.
“We are prioritizing intersections between racial justice and LGBT equality,” Thirion said. “We know that LGBT communities of color face discrimination the worst within our community and so we will be working on an initiative that is focused on those intersections and make sure that we are all able to lead full lives across the state without the fear of discrimination.”
Progress also happens more easily in certain jurisdictions of Maryland, such as along the I-95 corridor. The final push for LGBT rights is to spread that support throughout Maryland by making LGBT community centers more accessible, Thirion said.
“Like other states there are definitely pockets where people are more aware and more progressive,” he said. “You can see for trans-Marylander’s instances where the local jurisdiction has passed local protections which includes Montgomery County, Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Howard County and the town of Hyattsville most recently. It is not just in the jurisdictions that have local anti-discrimination laws, we see a vibrant LGBT community as far as Frederick Maryland, which has an extremely active community. It is a sign for those communities that they have stepped up.”
Maryland has made many motions towards equality, but a fissure of disparities remains. Is Maryland closer to equality now than it was?
“I’ve been both sides,” said Liz. “So I can actually honestly compare the both. Yeah, it’s not fair on this side. It’s not. It’s a lot more trial and tribulations to go through than it was in a man and wife situation.”
Sam Shafer, Liz’s youngest daughter, says that people like her even more when they find out she has two moms. Sam hasn’t experienced any negativity about her mother’s sexuality since she entered high school.
“There is only one time I had a hard time with it,” said Shafer. “It as in 8th grade in my chorus class, and my whole entire class was talking about, like dissing on gays, and I was just like “my mom’s gay,” and went to the bathroom and started crying.”
Liz did not come out as gay until after she married a man and had children. Liz says that she’s seeing positive changes in the way homosexuality is handled among younger members of the community. Shafer says that many teenagers in her school are coming out in their freshman and sophomore years.
“I think that it’s better that as a community our kids are able to come out, and not be so repressed,” said Liz. “Because I know back in my day you didn’t do that. You got married, had children, and did what you were supposed to.”
Liz says that American society has come a long way, pointing out that 40 years ago people looked at a mixed race couple in a worse light than they would a same-sex couple today.
Liz says that Maryland is moving forward. She says that she doesn’t need to leave Maryland to find a more approving community, she simply has to go to a bigger city. She says that America as a whole has advanced psychologically. Gay men and women no longer have to live in fear of being committed to insane asylums, and hate crimes against gay individuals in Maryland have practically become a thing of the past.
“I think Maryland’s made a great progress,” said Liz. “But I think they’re striving for even more.”