First Lady and the family dog

Maryland First Lady Katie O'Malley poses for a photograph with the family dog, Rex. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun / February 23, 2012)

Catherine Curran O'Malley grew up with a swirl of history at her doorstep. Daughter of a powerful Maryland senator, her dad's positions led white supremacists to picket her home. The neighborhood priest once denounced him from the pulpit.

Young Katie didn't always understand why her family — especially her father, J. Joseph Curran Jr. — was the target of vitriol.

"I knew there was this hatred out there," O'Malley, 49, said. "I knew whatever he was doing was the right thing."

Now in her sixth year as Maryland's first lady, Katie O'Malley credits her upbringing — watching her father grapple with some of the most difficult issues in the 1960s and 1970s — for her dedication to another cause stirring outrage from many, including the family's Catholic church: legalizing same-sex marriage.

"It is an equal-rights issue," O'Malley said, in her first extended interview on the topic. "These individuals in our community have the same rights that we all should have. It is nobody's business what their sexual orientation is."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, put his signature Thursday on a historic bill legalizing same-sex marriage after a hard-fought battle to get it through the legislature. Few believe the issue is settled. Maryland voters will likely have the chance to weigh in during a referendum in November. A robust campaign is expected.

Though the governor worked the halls of the State House to pass the bill this year, he has not always seemed passionate about the issue in his public remarks. Friends say Katie O'Malley's enthusiasm for the issue has been long-standing and unwavering.

First ladies don't tend to get involved in controversial issues like gay rights. Since Katie O'Malley is also a District Court judge, barred by the judicial code from participating in "partisan political activity," she has to pick her causes carefully.

But she says gay rights is about basic fairness — the very type of issue her father stood up for.

"I think Katie is her father's daughter," said Shannon E. Avery, a Baltimore District Court judge who worked for Curran after he became Maryland attorney general in 1987. "She has a gut instinct to do what is right. And what is fair."

Her advocacy hasn't always had the intended effects. She misstepped this year at a crucial point before House passage of the same-sex marriage bill. While speaking in January at a national gay-rights conference in Baltimore, she called delegates who last year withdrew their support from a similar bill "cowards."

Her remark came as her husband and his staff were trying to woo those very lawmakers.

The comment instantly became a rally cry for opponents, who mentioned it during House and Senate hearings, reproduced it on buttons, and printed it on placards that were waved outside the governor's mansion — the O'Malley family home — during a boisterous nighttime rally against the marriage bill.

"Standing on your principles isn't cowardice Mrs. O'Malley," wrote conservative Mark Newgent on the RedMaryland blog. "It's just another lame euphemism concocted to disparage those who disagree with you and your husband."

Both O'Malleys apologized for the remarks.

"It was a very emotional issue," Katie O'Malley said. "I'm sorry if anybody's feelings are hurt." She added: "I'm certainly not going to back away and say I don't support equal rights for all of our citizens."

She says she sees in same-sex marriage the idea of standing up for the dispossessed, the same theme that runs through the other less controversial initiatives she supports — campaigns against domestic violence, truancy and bullying.

The common thread, she says, is an attempt "to help people who, for whatever reason, are on the outside. To give them a voice."

Her older sister agrees. "She's always liked to champion causes for people who are the underdogs," said Mary Carole Curran.