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Passage of Question 6 'good for dignity,' gays and lesbians say

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In one sense, last week's approval of Question 6, a referendum on the Civil Marriage Protection Act, came too late for Homeland residents Lisa Polyak and Gita Deane, the lead plaintiffs in an unsuccessful lawsuit that presaged same-sex marriage in Maryland.

The couple, who have two adopted daughters now in their teens, wed in February 2011 in Washington, where same-sex marriage was already legal.

"It was really important to our kids that we get married. They didn't understand," said Polyak, 51, an environmental engineer. "And we're getting older."

Polyak had mixed feelings as voters sent a close but clear message in approving the ballot question by 52-48 percent. She said passage is "good for the dignity" of gays and lesbians, "knowing that folks in the future don't have to shimmy down the highway" to get married.

But she added, "Voters shouldn't have had to vote for something that's a fundamental right."

It came to that because of Polyak & Deane v. Conaway, a lawsuit filed in 2004 by nine couples against Baltimore City Clerk of Court Frank Conaway, who refused to issue them marriage licenses.

On appeal, the Maryland Court of Appeals held, in a 4–3 decision in 2007, that a statutory ban on same-sex marriage did not violate the state constitution.

In March 2012, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a same-sex marriage bill into law. But the Maryland Marriage Alliance, a coalition of groups that believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman, collected more than enough signatures to force the law to a referendum.

On Election Day, same sex-marriage referendums passed in Maryland, Maine and Washington state.

"For me and my kids, I can walk outside and hold my head up," Polyak said. "It's a huge psychological lift. But the last hurdle of having to take it to a referendum was really awful."

The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2013.

Strong kinship

"I'm so happy," said Gayle Hefner, a congregant of Bolton Street Synagogue on West Cold Spring Lane. Both Hefner and her husband, Crosby King, are disabled and use wheelchairs. They feel a strong kinship with same-sex couples because they too were stigmatized as a couple who shouldn't get married or have children.

"If it's a choice we have, it's a choice everybody should have," Hefner said.

Hefner and other congregants at Bolton Street participated in phone banking and canvassing in support of Question 6.

"It's exactly the right direction for society to go," said Hefner, who has an adopted daughter. "Our society needs to have stable, long-term relationships."

And she added, "I have family members who will experience this as an opportunity for them."

Hefner also sees the new law as a victory for diversity.

"We have this much diversity for a reason," she said. "If all flowers were the same color, what a loss."

Also excited is Brian Ambrose, 47, an interpreter for the deaf, who came into the Party City store on York Road two weeks before Halloween, not to buy a Halloween costume, but to get ideas for his planned wedding May 4. Ambrose and his partner, information technology specialist Alex McLin, 30, are set to be married in Annapolis next year.

They were assuming the referendum would pass, but didn't rest easy until late into election night.

"We stayed up all night waiting," Ambrose said.

They had talked about marrying in Washington, D.C., or in Vermont, where Ambrose was born and has family. But they decided, "We live here and own property here," said Ambrose, of Hamilton. "We want to get married in the state we live in."

That's also why Guilford residents Frank McNeil and Paul Fowler have waited this long to marry.

"We could have gotten married elsewhere, but it wouldn't have had the same impact," McNeil said.

McNeil, 50, a banker, and Fowler, 49, a radiation oncologist, who met in the mid-1990s at First and Franklin Presbyterian Church in downtown Baltimore, are now planning their wedding. No date is set. Coming from Oklahoma to preside at the wedding will be Fowler's father, a Baptist minister.

Following their conscience

Attorney Randy Knepper, general counsel to the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore, said he wore his Maryland pin at the Greater Homewood Community Corp.'s annual dinner Nov. 10, "because I'm so proud of Maryland."

Knepper, former president of the Greater Homewood Board of Directors, lobbied for the law and worked the polls on Election Day.

"I'm elated," Knepper said. "I think (voters) followed their conscience and not their religious leaders," many of whom opposed the law.

But the Rev. Donald Burgraff, pastor of First English Lutheran Church in Guilford, wasn't one of them.

"Our congregation took a stand that we're going to welcome everybody," Burgraff said.

Retired Social Security Administration legislative planner Glen Dehn, a congregant of First English church, and his longtime partner, Charles Blackburn, a congregant of First Unitarian Church in downtown Baltimore, are planning their own wedding at First Unitarian for early next year.

It would be the culmination of their 34-year relationship, said the Bolton Hill couple. They were among the original couples that joined Deane and Polyak in suing the city in 2004 to get married.

"We'll be respected like any other married couple," said Blackburn, 79, a former fundraiser, Unitarian minister and American Civil Liberties Union national staff member.

And he said, "We've done about as much as we can do legally without marriage."

They are still pressing for federal benefits, but for that to happen, Congress would have to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which is unlikely given the political makeup of Congress, Blackburn said.

Nonetheless, it's a major victory for same-sex couples.

"On one hand, it's just another day," Polyak said. "On the other hand, it feels like the world changed."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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